“One Bad Day:” How Batman and the Joker Represent Two Sides of the Mental Health Debate

Today is the ten year anniversary of The Dark Knight, one of my favorite movies ever. In honor of this, I’ve decided to publish an essay I wrote for my research writing class on Batman and the Joker, and how important their dichotomy is. It’s pretty academic, but it’s on a subject that I find absolutely fascinating, and I hope you do too. Enjoy!

“One Bad Day:” How Batman and the Joker Represent Two Sides of the Mental Health Debate

Mental health and its stigma have been very relevant in the news lately. At the time of writing, the Parkland, Florida school shooting happened only a week ago, and as a result a case study of the shooter as a mentally ill person has been occurring. There is an argument about whether or not the shooter’s possible mental illnesses could have been the reason that he snapped. While the answer to this debate is not one that will be explored here, the automatic assumption that mental illness created a villain is imperative to our societal understanding of mental illness. The United States has seen a fair share of mass shootings within its short history, and each time media coverage has made the claim that the cause of the shootings is because of the shooters’ mental illnesses. There’s no evidence stating that mental illnesses make people violent, so where does this stigma come from? It is not unreasonable to assume that the reason society has a stigma against mental health is because of the way we villainize fictional characters with mental illnesses, as is the case with the Joker.

The Joker has been Batman’s most well-known adversary since his debut appearance in Batman #1 in 1940. Since then, he has gained a following as one of the most fascinating comic book characters of all time. One of the things that makes the Joker so intriguing is the fact that he seems so integral to who Batman is as a hero. Other villains in Batman’s infamous rogues gallery, such as Two-Face, the Penguin, Catwoman, and the Riddler, are well-known, but fail to make the same impact as the Joker. Why is this the case?

About an hour and a half into Christopher Nolan’s 2008 movie The Dark Knight the Joker says to Batman “I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you?… No, you, you complete me… To [the police] you’re just a freak, like me.” The two of them have a special relationship and the line “you complete me” is not one to be taken lightly; the Joker and Batman are two sides of the same coin, and one would not be entirely themselves without the other one. To fully understand how connected they are, we must first understand the hand that one of them has in creating the other.

Alan Moore’s 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke explores the relationship between the two characters. The novel takes place in two timelines with the past depicting the Joker’s backstory and the present showing the Joker’s attempt to drive Commissioner Jim Gordon to the point of insanity through torture. The book explores how both Batman and the Joker let a bad day dramatically change their lives, and how Batman caused the Joker to fall into the pit of chemicals that ultimately turned him into the villain that we see today.

Now that we have established that Batman and the Joker are dependent on each other, so what? Anyone with a passing knowledge of comics could have told you that they have a special relationship. What I want to prove going forward with this essay is that if Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin, that is to say that they share personality traits, then Batman and the Joker must therefore share similar, if not the same, mental illnesses as each other.

This may seem like a wild claim, but to support it we need to analyze each character individually. In their essay “‘What Do You Think I Am? Crazy?’: The Joker and Stigmatizing Representations of Mental Ill-Health,” John Goodwin and Izzat Tajjudin claim that the Joker has been (mis)diagnosed by many people as having schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder, and add in their own diagnosis of psychopathy. They come to this conclusion by saying “psychopaths… do not show any sense of morality, conscience, loyalty, or empathy” and that “this is a particularly fitting description of” the Joker (Goodwin and Tajjudin 395). The Joker has proved time and time again that he does not have any morality, whether that’s by striving to bring chaos to Gotham as seen in The Dark Knight, or by trying to drive Police Commissioner Jim Gordon to insanity by torturing him and his daughter, as seen in The Killing Joke. The Joker is a merciless character that fits into the psychopath label quite well.

But where does Batman fit into all of this?

In The Killing Joke, the Joker attributes his madness and criminal behavior with simply having a bad day. He taunts Batman with this, saying “you had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?” (Moore). Here, the Joker is making a direct comparison between the two of them, as the Joker’s bad day would be the day that he fell into a vat of chemicals, and Batman’s bad day would be the day his parents were shot and killed in front of him. If they both had a bad day that sent them spiraling, what else do they have in common? Throughout The Killing Joke, the Joker is trying to prove that one bad day is enough to send anyone into madness, but this is disproven by the fact that Commissioner Jim Gordon does not descend into insanity at the end of his bad day. This seems to be something that only affects the Joker and Batman, implying that the two of them are not only dependent on each other, but also more similar than they initially appear. This also implies that not only does the Joker suffer from mental illness, but Batman does as well. Additionally, in their essay “Could Batman Have Been the Joker?”, Sam Cowling and Chris Ragg entertain the thought that because of the similarities between the two characters, the two could potentially be the same character. This provides further evidence that Batman and the Joker most likely share mental illnesses, even if they are not the exact same mental illness.

Diagnosing Batman

The two illnesses that Batman seems to fall into the molds for are depression and PTSD.  When it comes to depression, Batman does not fit the criteria exactly, but he does show many signs of it. One of the most telling signs of depression, according to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is “markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities.” Batman displays this in his everyday life, as he only ever wants to fight crime and becomes almost obsessed with it. When he is Bruce Wayne, he acts as though he is fine by going about his daily life, but he has no interest in doing any of it. This is most notable in the animated movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. The movie takes place in the same universe as Batman: The Animated Series, and follows Bruce Wayne’s dilemma between reuniting with his former love interest or continuing to fight crime in Gotham, all while someone mysteriously keeps killing mob bosses. Bruce does not allow himself to have any positive interest towards his former love due to the fact that he feels as though being happy would be disrespectful to his late parents, whom he had sworn to avenge. He experiences survivor’s guilt about his parents death, and this sends him into a depressed spiral.

Another sign of depression in the DSM-5 is “depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.” Batman fits this mark as it is incredibly rare to see him happy. In almost every iteration of him, whether that be Christian Bale’s performance in The Dark Knight, the comic books, or even the animated series, he very rarely has a smile on his face, or any other sign of positive emotion. He sometimes breaks this when he is performing as Bruce Wayne, but the audience gets a sense that he is not being authentic, rather that he is putting on an act to keep the Batman moniker a secret.

The illness that Batman fits perfectly is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The first piece of criteria is “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). When Batman was young, he witnessed his parents get shot and killed by a robber right in front of him, and in some iterations it is implied that the gun was then turned on Bruce himself. This falls directly under the “witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others” subsection of the first criteria (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

The second criteria is called “intrusion symptoms,” which includes nightmares about the incident. On multiple occasions, Batman has been jarred awake by nightmares about his parents death. The most notable of these occurs in the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Two-Face (Part 2)” when Bruce, feeling guilty about not being able to save his friend Harvey Dent from becoming the villainous Two-Face, has a dream where both Harvey and his parents ask him “why couldn’t you save me?” Despite it being decades since the murder, it still intrudes into his memories.

These are the main two criteria for PTSD, but also included are avoiding stimuli that reminds him of the event, negative emotional alterations after the traumatic event, and angry outbursts, all of which Batman has at some point or another shown to have. Another criteria is that all of these symptoms occur for over a month. In Bruce’s case, the symptoms last several decades and affect his life as an adult, even though the event happened as a child. Based on all of this Bruce Wayne/Batman is the textbook definition of somebody that suffers from PTSD.

Other, non-official mental disorders that could be attributed to Batman are abandonment syndrome, as evidenced with Bruce struggling to maintain relationships after his parents died, and survivor’s guilt. The death of his parents could be perceived psychologically as abandonment, even though his parents did not leave by choice. When it comes to survivor’s guilt, Batman was present when the murder took place and made it out of the situation mentally wounded but physically unscathed, so it is possible that he feels guilty for surviving. Despite the fact that these are important things to note, as of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, both abandonment syndrome and survivor’s guilt are no longer considered recognized mental disorders, though survivor’s guilt is considered a notable symptom of PTSD.

So What?

In John Goodwin and Izzat Tajjudin’s essay, they make the argument that by constantly misdiagnosing the Joker with schizophrenia, PTSD, and DID, we are creating a negative stigma around people with these mental illnesses; by assuming that a villain has these illnesses, we villainize the illness. However, if our heroes possess these illnesses, our view of these illnesses is impacted. While we certainly don’t heroicize mental illness, we do begin to accept it more.

By diagnosing Batman with depression and PTSD, we shed some positive light onto these illnesses. The diagnosis with PTSD is particularly important, as it is one of the illnesses that people think the Joker has, so we are creating a direct comparison between the two of them; PTSD can manifest itself negatively with the Joker, but it manifests itself positively with Batman. This makes the illness not so black-and-white.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 6.7% of adults in the United States had some sort of major depression in 2016. That comes out to around 16.2 million people. That’s 16.2 million people who can relate to the way that Batman feels, and they can gain inspiration from the fact that everybody’s favorite caped crusader is able to get up and fight crime day in and day out despite the fact that all they want to do is crawl back into bed. As someone who is a part of that 16.2 million, I can attest that it is relieving to see a positive portrayal as someone with the same illness. It makes it feel possible to be “super” even when one does not feel like so.

By having Batman suffer from depression and PTSD, a new connection to the Joker is formed. Now, not only do the two share similar instances of having “one bad day,” but they represent two separate sides to the mental illness “debate” that occurs throughout the media. Sure, criminals like the Joker can have mental illnesses, and that supplies evidence towards the side of the media that argues that mental illness create criminals, but if a hero like Batman can be mentally ill as well, this paves the way to create an argument for heroicizing mental illnesses. If we as a society continue to create complex, mentally ill heroes, then we move further away from the stigma that every mentally ill person is violent and further away from diagnosing every mass shooter as “troubled.”

When it comes to the Batman universe and mental illness, there is still an incredibly long way to go before mental illness is completely neutral. Famous villains, like Two-Face, have blatantly diagnosed mental illness, and, in Two-Face’s case, the mental illness has a direct correlation to the villainous actions. Just because Batman shows signs of mental illness does not mean that society has miraculously begun to see mental illness as a neutral thing. However, this is a step in the right direction, and it will be fascinating to see where DC goes next with Batman’s mental health.

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