The Batman movie series has propelled the once obscure superhero into pop culture phenomenon. With each new movie, the character grows in popularity, leading to a 2017 box office record set with over $1 billion in global ticket sales.
The Dark Knight, starring Christian Bale as Batman, solidified the caped crusader’s place in pop culture. Audiences watched in awe as the actor convincingly portrayed a man plagued by mental illness, demonstrating a dramatic ability that would later serve him well in portraying real-life heroes like Dick Cheney and Harvey Weinstein.
Bale’s performance also launched a thousand memes. Fans recreated shots from the movie series, starring the actor as Batman. Memes featuring other famous actors followed, including Ryan Gosling as the Joker and Johnny Depp as the Penguin.
While the film series proved wildly popular, many wondered whether Batman’s status as a comic book character translates into real-world usefulness. Do fans really behave like the fictional billionaire when faced with mental illness or other hardships? Does Batman encourage good qualities in those around him?
Comic books have long been associated with the adolescent culture of the ’90s. Tales of superpowered individuals battling sinister forces captured the imaginations of millennials, fueling an unprecedented wave of nostalgia and interest in older generations.
The caped crusader has transcended his roots in popular culture, becoming a real-life inspiration for those seeking to better themselves. Several entrepreneurs and businesspeople cite Batman as a role model, while others have even named their companies after the character.
Batman has not only influenced popular culture, but he has also influenced how others behave. Consider the work of Adam Eckhardt, Ph.D. Eckhardt is the CEO of The Eckhardt Group and The Eckhardt Therapy Institute, a therapy firm specializing in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). When he began his practice, over 90% of his patients were dealing with some form of mental illness. He noticed a distinct pattern, as many patients would come to him at the end of their treatment regimens and note that “Batman was my inspiration.”
While psychiatrists have long studied clinical cases in an effort to learn more about mental illness and its treatment, modern-day psychologists have started to look at the superhero as a possible subject for research. Interest in studying Batman has mainly focused on the character’s ability to inspire good behavior in others, particularly those who are mentally ill. One study, for example, examined whether or not watching the Batman movies decreased participants’ psychological titration (a term used when someone experiences extreme emotional or psychological changes during times of stress or anxiety).
The results of the study found that those who watched the Batman movies “reported less titration and fewer symptoms of anxiety during the experiment than the control group.” The study’s authors concluded that “these findings indicate that individuals with psychosis, particularly those who idolize Batman, might benefit from exposure to this media content.”
Why Is Batman Good for You?
The caped crusader has inspired people across the world, from mental health professionals and academics to artists and activists. Many cited Batman as their inspiration for good, demonstrating that the character has transcended mere entertainment and become a vehicle for change.
What is behind Batman’s incredible status as an icon of good? Let’s take a look. First, let’s consider the psychological benefits of identifying with Batman. Second, let’s examine how Batman encourages people to be better.
Health experts around the world are looking for ways to combat the spread of COVID-19, the deadly pandemic that originated in China and has since been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). What began as a public health crisis has now become a worldwide issue, as individuals are taking the initiative to protect themselves from the pandemic by creating COVID-19 preparedness kits, stocking up on essentials like hand sanitizer and masks, and educating themselves about the developments surrounding the outbreak.
Research has shown that participating in “self-identification as a ‘warrior’ against an evil enemy, ‘playing a hero’ role,” can help people better cope with stressful situations. The research specifically focused on trauma survivors, but the results can be applied to anyone who identifies with the Dark Knight.
In a study published in “Aggressive Behavior,” researchers examined the connection between trauma, mental illness, and social justice issues, particularly as they relate to Batman.
The study’s authors, Drs. Michael Thompkins and Jennifer Segal, state, “[t]o our knowledge, this is the first study to examine how people with a mental illness experience and respond to Batman,” adding that previous studies have “only examined how people without a mental illness experience and respond to Batman.”
The researchers went on to explore how individuals with mental illness identify with and relate to Batman. Their findings suggest that, although the caped crusader does not directly address trauma or mental illness, his status as a fictional character provides a symbolic connection to these issues that has tremendous positive impact on those who identify with him.
A participant in the study said, “I think it’s a great equalizer. Whether you have a mental illness or not, you can still feel empathy for the person the ‘Batman’ is representing.” Another added, “I feel like ‘Batman’ is a bit like ‘Robin Hood’ in that he protects the weak and helps those who can’t fight for themselves.”
The same study examined how participants without mental illness related to Batman and found that many identified with the Dark Knight because he is intelligent, logical, and determined, and because he stands for peace, law, order, and justice. One participant said, “He is a symbol of vigilance, standing against corruption and promoting honesty. He is the symbol of the justice system.”
Other research has shown that identifying with a marginalized group can help members of that group better understand themselves and lead to increased self-esteem. Consider the impact of watching popular culture, such as the Batman movies, which feature a number of marginalized characters, including gays, lesbians, and people of color. One study found that participants had an increased tolerance for LGBT people after watching the movie “Batman Returns.” The same study found that participants showed an increase in empathy and perspective taking after viewing the film, demonstrating an increased awareness of the needs of others.
The Dark Knight may not always seem like a role model. The actor’s intense bodybuilding regimen and “unflinching honesty” regarding his method of preparing for the part led to a lot of unwanted attention and scrutiny. He was even arrested for heroin possession in October 1996, before “Batman Forever” was released. While this may not seem like the most positive portrayal of a role model, many cite his example as a symbol of strength and integrity.
Consider, for example, how “Batman Forever” director Richard Donner “used Christian Bale’s ‘Batman’ persona to create a symbol of courage that we could all look up to,” according to Dr. Laurence Klett, a psychiatrist at New York Medical College.
Bale’s arrest and subsequent three-month stint in prison for drug possession inspired a Change.org petition that garnered over 200,000 signatures and a “Free Christian Bale” T-shirt sold at “Buy Nothing Day,” an annual anti-consumerism protest that takes place every year on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. The petition called for the immediate release of Bale, who has since distanced himself from the role of Batman, saying, “I have never used heroin, and I never will. People assume that I am similar to the ‘Batman’ character, but I am not. I have a weakness for strong women.”
“Bale’s experience has provided him with a platform to talk about his experiences as an addict and how he has successfully turned his life around. Many people who have suffered from drug addiction or who have close friends or family members who have struggled with substance abuse disorders consider Batman a role model,” Klett said, adding that the connection between the two is not a “coincidence.”