The Id, The Ego And The Superhero: What Makes Batman Tick?

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When you look at Batman with a coldly analytical eye — and he's hard to avoid these days, with The Dark Knight Rises set to come out Friday — a few things stand out as potential red flags: the secrecy, the lair, the attraction to danger, the blithe self-sacrifice, the ... cape.

It's unusual, all of it, you have to admit. Sure, he's handy to have around in an emergency, and you can't beat a fella who can be summoned with a giant light in the sky in the event you've got no cellphone reception.

But is he entirely ... well?

That's the question explored in What's the Matter With Batman?, a new book from Robin Rosenberg, a psychologist who makes something of a subspecialty out of applying the principles of psychology to pop culture figures in general and superheroes in particular. (She's also the editor of a collaboration called The Psychology of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Understanding Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.)

On Sunday, Rosenberg talks to NPR's David Greene on Weekend Edition about how a boy becomes a superhero and whether there's anything concerning about that. Just how dark is the Dark Knight? Is Batman depressed? Is he antisocial? Does he have post-traumatic stress disorder from seeing his parents murdered?

Perhaps surprisingly, Rosenberg argues that there's nothing really wrong with Batman — or, rather, with the man inside the suit. Her verdict? "Bruce Wayne is a really clever man who has both high intelligence and high EQ, emotional quotient." As for his decision to adopt a persona that's not fully human, that makes a certain amount of sense, too, if he's looking to be "incorruptible," as he's said, and inspiring to the rest of us. "We all respond more powerfully to the symbols of humanity — or superhumanity in this case — and so Batman transcends his humanness."

Furthermore, he's not the only one who wears a particular uniform when he takes on an official protective role. She points out, "The Batsuit is just a uniform he wears when he goes on patrol." It's not entirely unlike a military uniform in that way. "This issue of dual identities highlights what all of us experience, is that we feel like different parts of us come forward when we're in different contexts."

What Bruce Wayne is, though, is a guy with some special talents. "In essence," Rosenberg says, "superheroes are gifted people, so we can probably figure out a lot about them based on what we know from the science of giftedness."

Perhaps the problem, she suggests, doesn't lie in the gifted Bruce Wayne, but in the people who assume something has to be wrong with him in the first place. Perhaps we're just not accustomed to his kind of self-sacrifice. "People who are truly selfless," she says, "who have given so much of themselves, are confusing to most of us. And I think some of us, in cynical moments, say, 'There must be something the matter with someone who would do that.'"

She argues that our confusion at why Bruce Wayne would throw himself in the path of all manner of catastrophes misses the point that there's something in it for him, too. "I think it misses that it's about getting a whole life," she says. "He experienced something that is terrifying as a kid, but his decision to become Batman gave his life meaning and purpose. It found a silver lining in tragedy." And perhaps there's something in it for the rest of us: "The idea of superheroes that we carry around in our heads may help us to actually do good in our own lives."

So next time you see a guy perched on top of a building, wearing a cape, staring down at you, you shouldn't assume there's anything wrong with him. You should, however, get out of the way very very quickly, because something terrible is probably about to happen involving gruesome-faced supervillains who do not have such high emotional quotients.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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