How to Overcome Loss With Only Your Fists, a Butler, and Billions of Dollars: The Bruce Wayne Story

April 28th, 2015

Meet Bruce Wayne: industrialist, billionaire owner of Wayne Enterprises, philanthropist, Gotham’s favorite son, playboy, orphan. His success is a heartwarming example of American enterprise and ingenuity. It’s the stuff of folklore, really—a life we can all look to and feel inspired.

Bruce Wayne
Image Courtesy of Comic Vine

This is what I imagine most people picture when they think of Bruce Wayne. I mean, just look at how handsome and charming he is. He’s someone who overcomes a traumatic childhood and forgoes his own social advantages to fix the problems he sees in his own city. Surely, this character should be inspiring, right?

Maybe not.

Maybe there’s parts of the Bruce Wayne story that we tend to ignore because we’re so enthralled with how badass Batman is. Is he really the hero we all see him as? For all of the reasons we think of Bruce Wayne this way, maybe we need to remind ourselves that parts of him are really not that awesome.

Traumatize a Child, Save Gotham

The details of Batman’s origin story has been altered, edited, and tweaked so many times over the years between comic books, TV, and movies, that it is almost impossible to keep track of what’s canon anymore. One constant, though, has been the murder of his parents, Martha and Thomas Wayne, while young Bruce watched helplessly. This event traumatizes Bruce, and eventually leads to the creation of the Batman persona. While there are plenty of people who might channel this pain into a hobby of some kind, I think very few would choose one that involves sneaking around and punching criminals. This is supposed to be a heroic example of self-sacrifice.
Why, though? Why is this an acceptable response?

I know that the real answer to this question is that it’s a comic book character, and we should therefore expect comic book logic (this is a character who recently came back to life through time travel, after all). However, a huge part of what makes Batman such a compelling superhero is because he is substantially more rooted in reality than most. There are no cosmic forces, radiation, or experiments gone wrong. He doesn’t have a single, measly super power, not even a lame one.

The story of Batman attempts to answer what a superhero would look like in the real world, and presents us with one who uses science, technology, and intellect to more efficiently break ribs. So, if Batman is supposed to be our realistic superhero, it seems strange that his origin story glorifies dealing with pain in such an unhealthy way.

Public perception of mental health issues has greatly improved since Batman’s origin story originally appeared in Detective Comics No. 33.  According to an article from Wake Forest University, “In the past, the diagnosis and care of mental illness took a back seat to that of physical health for a number of reasons. Stigma and fear of discrimination often prevented sufferers and their families from admitting the problems they were facing and seeking help.” The multitude of retcons and retellings of this origin story over the years have presented plenty of opportunity for the shift away from this mindset to be addressed, but instead, writers have seemed content in pushing forth the idea that Bruce Wayne’s ongoing trauma is justified by the eventual creation of Batman.

Not only is Bruce Wayne’s emotional pain glorified in this way, but his physical pain, as well. As Batman, he spends his nights in fist fights and jumping around rooftops. This kind of lifestyle would surely lead to frequent injury and pain (definitely more than could be explained by Bruce Wayne hitting up Gotham’s hottest clubs every night). Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman films addressed this idea by showing Wayne covered in bruises, stitching up his own cuts, and experiencing crippling pain after a few years of living as Batman, but none of these could begin to show the grand scale of the toll his body would take. Regardless of his top-notch physical condition, his body would be in ceaseless pain, and treating it would open him up to other long-lasting effects. The continuous use of pain medication needed in order to sustain his body would almost certainly exceed the FDA’s recommendation of no more than 4,000 mg per day, and would wreak havoc on his body to the point where he would certainly need a liver transplant. For some reason, though, the image of Batman grabbing Tylenol out of candy dishes strewn about Wayne Manor isn’t a very fun one to think about.

pain
Image Courtesy of University of Florida

Great Victory through Immense Privilege

The most contradictory aspect of the relationship between Bruce Wayne’s public image and the Batman persona comes from the balance of his immensely privileged status as a billionaire, with the complete disregard for these same advantages when taking to the streets to fight crime. It would be the ultimate American dream that those with money and power will shrug off personal benefit and pleasure in the name of greater good for all of us poor folk. It’s the kind of effort that we’re used to see from those working directly with the marginalized, not billionaires.

So what’s wrong with creating a character like this? I mean, Wayne, like many of his real-world equivalents, definitely does not ignore the power for good that his wealth has. He does not only use his money as a cover for his secret identity. The Wayne Foundation works for a wide variety of charitable causes, as well as advancements in medicine, arts, and social justice. While this is admirable, for sure, it seems to equally run in conflict with the ways in which Wayne’s public image is used to conceal his existence as Batman. As stated by Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), in the final moments of Batman Begins, in many ways, Batman is the real identity, with Bruce Wayne being the cover. If that is true, then the motivation behind anything done publicly as Bruce Wayne is called into question. Of these philanthropic efforts, which are legitimate, and which are only done in order to serve Batman’s purposes? Even if they are done as a cover, it still raises questions over whether the good done justifies the deception. Also, the insane budget required for Batman, and all of his fancy gadgets and toys, would be enough to fund countless charitable efforts. His helmet budget alone could feed a family of six in Africa for over 1,000 years.

While, again, these questions might seem insignificant when discussing a comic book character, it raises huge questions about the elite of our world. Richard Branson is one of the most fitting real-world comparisons to Bruce Wayne. His company, Virgin Group, is widely diversified in a very similar way to Wayne Enterprises. He is known as a thrill seeker, whose athleticism, though not even remotely close to Bruce Wayne’s, is still outside the norm for someone with a net worth of $5.1 Billion (Wayne’s has been estimated between $6.9 and $11.6 Billion). Branson has given substantially to charitable efforts over the years, yet has still drawn concern over the way he has organized his businesses, which could possibly be in order to avoid taxes. If we call these real people into question, why shouldn’t we do the same of our superhero characters? Is Batman’s need for a new bat-themed vehicle really more important than utilizing this money for actual change, or is it a reminder that really, he’s still a spoiled billionaire, who was born filthy rich through no work of his own?

Occasionally, people seem to remember this aspect of Bruce Wayne and try to make him more accessible. A recent example was in The Dark Knight Rises, where Bane pulls off an assault of Gotham’s stock market, hacks in and sets Wayne up to lose his fortune through bad trades on the futures market. However, it’s really difficult to feel sorry for Wayne as his Lamborghini is repossessed, and a cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gives him a ride back to his mansion. All this image really does, is remind you that, despite his nighttime activities, Bruce Wayne is another white male, born into privilege, misusing his money.

batmanvsbane
Image Courtesy of The Movie Network

In The Dark Knight, Wayne is insistent about his wish to bring about change in Gotham through politics instead of violence, and appoints Harvey Dent as the city’s savior. When this plan unravels at the hands of The Joker, however, Wayne shows incredible weakness when trying to take up this mantle for himself. At the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, we see a changed Gotham, eight years after the previous film. The Dent Act, inspired by Harvey Dent’s efforts to rid the city of organized crime, has been an effective tool for the city’s police force. Wayne has become an eccentric shut in, refusing to leave his mansion.

We come to learn that he worked on various projects to improve the city, the cornerstone being a fusion reactor, which he fabricates failed test results, and shuts down when he learns that it could potentially be weaponized. Wayne, a man whose company is on the forefront of military technology, would rather take away the potential for clean, efficient energy for an entire city, then take the steps to protect the reactor from sabotage. Really, all the defense he would need can be summed up in two words: attack bats.

He loses touch with Wayne Enterprises, and doesn’t realize that he had crippled the company financially, and therefore taken away its ability to fund its philanthropic efforts, by shutting down his generator project. Similar companies have flourished in this time, because of the economic boost that Wayne Enterprises has brought to the city, but this has made it a more difficult environment for the company to survive. Bruce Wayne is not only less effective in his public life than he is as Batman, but is actually harmful. If nothing else, the public image of Bruce Wayne needs to be one of political leadership, but he fails at what George Washington University identifies as the five major tenets of someone in this position.

The most egregious aspect of Bruce Wayne is not this failure to step up as a public leader, however. It is the way in which he escalates crime in Gotham through his sheer existence, and refuses to take the necessary step to fix it until the situation has ballooned immensely. The Batman persona might have been an effective tool to deal with organized crime, but Gotham was still left with a culture that had no concept of preventing or rehabilitating criminal behavior. He takes a city plagued by organized crime and invites insanity to it. Citizens of Gotham were saved from the dangers of mob controlled streets, and introduced to the possibility of a nuclear weapon going off in their city. I don’t know about you, but this seems like a rough trade.

With all this in mind, is it still reasonable to still love Batman? Yes. Absolutely, yes. While it is always important to dissect the stories and characters that we enjoy, it is equally important to remember that fiction and entertainment will always have issues like this. The reasons I have always found myself drawn to Batman still exist despite his failures. It’s still fun to watch a man dressed like a bat fly around, serving out justice. The longer a character exists, and stories are told about them, the more likely it is that these issues will present themselves. That is why we can all be thankful that Christopher Nolan knew when to leave the character and finish the story he wanted to tell in his movies.

In my personal opinion though, I would feel a bit safer under the wing of Batgirl, instead.

batgirl-comic-book-image
Image Courtesy of Buy Costumes

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About Lydia Mondy

  • Lots of think about in this post. I think it’s important to consider Bruce Wayne’s mental state, as you did. I think you’d have to be in a bit of an unhealthy mental state to become a superhero.

  • Zachary Evans

    I totally agree with you, @fangirltwirl:disqus! Tons to think about. I’ve always been a huge fan of Batman, but I think it says a whole lot that we almost never think about his origin story as being an example of a child who should have had better mental health intervention.