Batman and You
I recently re-watched the Christopher Nolan Batman series: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. Don’t make the mistake of thinking these movies are purely for entertainment, and they have no practical value for your life.
Together the films grossed around $3.4 billion, so you have to wonder why they were so popular. How did they relate to so many people?
I think it’s because people experience similar events all the time. Maybe they don’t experience masked psychopaths threatening to nuke cities, but they do evolve through personal transformations similar to Batman, and they suffer the consequences if they fail to adapt.
Batman is the story of overcoming your past.
The story begins with Bruce losing his parents to a robber in a dark alley when he’s a kid. Kids are completely dependent on their parents, so the loss opens an emotional wound that stays with him long into adulthood.
When we meet Bruce, he might walk and talk like an adult, but inside he’s still a wounded child, and he’s dealing with suicidal depression. You see it when he’s riding in the car with Rachel as an early-20 year old in the first movie. He shows her a gun, meaning that he was about to murder his parents’ killer as the man was let out on parole.
Bruce doesn’t get the chance to complete his revenge killing, but he was still about to throw his life away. He’s in a state of extreme apathy, and he’d probably prefer death, but his murder/suicide attempt didn’t work.
Instead of committing suicide, he decides to make a change. He disappears to the East to learn combat, understand criminals, and learn how to become Batman.
Anyone who’s into self-help or self development will have experienced a similar transition. You hit rock bottom, and you make a choice. Either you choose death or you choose to try to make life better. You’re probably still experiencing extreme amounts of psychological pain, but focusing on external goals frees your mind. You evolve from your state of helplessness into one of empowerment.
Long story short, the transition for Bruce works. He becomes Batman, goes back to Gotham City, and Batman Begins concludes with Bruce defeating Round 1 of bad guys.
So what does the first movie mean?
Let’s say you grew up poor. Your whole life you dream of having more money and being able to buy whatever you want, but somewhere along the way you lose hope. Having more money seems impossible and out of reach. Your hopelessness fills you with depression and sadness. Your life isn’t turning out the way you wanted, and you feel powerless to change it.
Then one day you discover the business section at your local bookstore. You start devouring books. You think that maybe things aren’t so hopeless, and you can do something about your situation. You join a business MeetUp, and you make business oriented friends. You get a mentor. Before long, you own your own business and it’s giving you more money than you ever thought possible.
You’ve changed your behavior, and it’s lead to a lot of initial success, just like Bruce defeating all the bad guys.
The Dark Knight
Usually superhero movies screw things up after the first movie, but not so with the Batman series. The 2nd and 3rd movies grossed more money than the first, and they were arguably better.
The Dark Knight continues the story of Bruce’s evolution. He’s made dramatic external changes: he knows how to fight, and he understands how criminals think and how they operate. He’s highly effective at defeating the ordinary bad guys. But here’s the problem: inside he’s still the same wounded kid that lost his parents 15 years before.
Bruce has cooler toys, and he’s in better shape, but emotionally he hasn’t changed. He’s still wounded, and when he fights crime, he’s still using anger to mask that wound. In many ways, fighting the bad guys has become a distraction. When he’s engaged in combat he can feel anger, and he doesn’t have to feel helpless and abandoned.
So what happens if you only make external changes without corresponding internal ones? Usually, you manifest problems that are bigger than the originals. Your additional resources magnify the situation. This is the story of the rock star whose life is falling apart. It’s what people mean when they say that “money magnifies your problems.”
Imagine that before the rockstar became famous, he liked booze a little too much. But the alcohol was kept in check because he wasn’t getting constant social validation, and he couldn’t afford it. Once he becomes successful, he’s surrounded 24/7 by people who love him, regardless of his behavior. He can afford a 5 year bender and a mountain of drugs. He lies to himself that everything is awesome because he has thousands of adoring fans and tons of money, when deep down he’s miserable.
In Batman, this manifestation comes in the form of the Joker. The Joker is no longer an ordinary criminal playing by ordinary rules. He’s psychopathic, and his only goal is to inflict as much mayhem as possible. By the end of the 2nd movie, Bruce has lost even more than just his parents. He loses Rachel when she dies in an explosion, and the movie concludes with Bruce lying to everyone about the truth of Harvey Dent, just like the self destructive rockstar who’s living a lie.
So how does this relate you as the poor kid who became a business owner?
For a couple of years things are going great for you, but you have the creeping sensation that nothing has really changed. You’re happy you can make money now, but the money hasn’t brought the happiness you thought it would. And you never feel you deserve what you have.
You find it takes more and more money to achieve the same level of happiness as when you started. Making money is like a drug, and like any drug, it takes increasing amounts to get the same feelings of joy. You have to lie to yourself that everything is fine, even though most days you feel like you’re running on a treadmill. If you stop working, you fall into depression, and so you grind and grind to chase ever increasing amounts of dough.
You begin taking huge gambles with debt. Debt is awesome because leveraging your business is the fastest way to increase your wealth. The first couple of gambles pay off, and you’re wealthier than you’ve ever been. But then boom, the bottom falls out. All of a sudden you’re over-leveraged, the economy goes into recession, and your creditors are calling.
You have to declare bankruptcy.
You attracted the bankruptcy that inside you thought you deserved. Your behaviors changed, but you never evolved from the poor kid who thought it was impossible to make money.
The Dark Knight is about the dark part of self development, where if you fail to make emotional changes in addition to external ones, you fall even lower than where you started.
The Dark Knight Rises
The third movie begins in the same vein. Bruce is still living in depression, and he allegedly hasn’t left the house in more than 5 years. He hasn’t recovered from losing Rachel, which was just a magnification of the pain he felt from losing his parents.
Again, things get worse. This time the criminal is Bane, and Bane doesn’t want to just inflict mayhem, he wants to nuke the whole city. Bruce suffers another loss when Alfred – his only father figure – leaves him. And soon after, Bruce is defeated by Bane and all the lies he told in the previous movie are uncovered.
Bruce’s internal world still has not shifted, and he hasn’t addressed the original wounds he felt as a child. As a result, the external world keeps manifesting negative events. Bruce still wants to hide in the Batman character where he gets to express his rage and he doesn’t feel so helpless.
Then, rotting in Bane’s prison, Bruce finally undergoes a transformation. The old prison doctor tells him “You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.”
In other words: this suicidal depression is not helping you, it’s weighing you down and preventing you from becoming everything you could be.
The Leap of Faith
So Bruce climbs the wall of the prison, without a rope, and makes the leap across a chasm having faith that he’ll reach the other side.
The leap is symbolic for something I’ve seen referred to by many names in psychological and spiritual circles. “Releasing the Tiller”, “Giving up Control”, and “Putting yourself in God’s Hands”, are all names for the same phenomenon.
In the end, the result is always the same: you give up control for your life, and you put your faith in a higher power. If you’re an atheist, maybe you put your faith in the universe, and if you’re spiritual, maybe you put your faith in God. You stop trying to direct the course of your life so aggressively.
Paradoxically, by taking the leap without a rope, Bruce is showing that he fears death again, and that fear is what drives him to complete the leap successfully. It’s also symbolic for overcoming depression and healing all of the trauma he experienced when he was a kid.
The 5 Stages of Grief
After climbing out of the prison, Bruce goes back to Gotham, defeats Bane, and flies the nuclear bomb out into the ocean where it won’t hurt anybody. In the process, he symbolically kills the Batman character.
When humans experience a loss, they usually follow the 5 stages of grief:
The loss can be either physical or emotional. You will grieve for childhood emotional wounds just as much as you would for the loss of a loved one.
Not everybody experiences all five stages while grieving, and not everyone will follow the stages in the same order. It’s also important to realize that if you experience a trauma, even if it’s only emotional and very early in life, you’ll still enter a grieving process, and part of your psyche will be stuck there indefinitely until you move it into acceptance.
Throughout the 3 movies, Bruce is stuck in Anger, Bargaining, and Depression.
The anger is the rage he expresses when he’s fighting bad guys, and the bargaining is the entire character of Batman. Using Batman, Bruce is trying to eliminate crime from the world. In the process, he tells himself “if only I can stop this mobster, or these 5 bank robbers, then maybe I’ll get my parents back again.” It’s not logical or rational, but dealing with your subconscious never is.
Unfortunately, freeing the world from crime is not realistic. Bruce eventually realizes that that mission is going to consume and destroy him. He loses Alfred, Rachel, his parents, and he comes close to losing his own life.
So after hitting rock bottom, he finally moves into the 5th stage of grief: Acceptance. He passes the role of Batman to somebody else because he accepts that there will always be criminals, and so someone needs to fight them. He accepts that he can’t change the past or what happened to him. He doesn’t have to like what happened, but he also doesn’t have to keep fighting it, and he can finally move on with his life. It’s no longer his job to fix the world, and he’s not so deeply emotionally affected by the world’s problems anymore.
Bruce had to lose his life in Bane’s prison in order to find it.
Batman is the story of how psychological pain can screw up your life.
You experience a tragedy, and you spend the rest of your life reacting to it. You never grow and evolve.
Let’s say you lose something that’s unbelievably important to you, or maybe you never got what you needed from someone you loved.
Metaphorically, life has thrown you into a sewer. If you have a strong will, maybe you evolve new tools to do battle in the sewer. You spend all your time fighting the monsters that live down there. You say “this thing isn’t going to beat me. I’m going to fight to clear the sewer of all the rats.”
In the meantime, you miss the ladder sitting right over your head that could lead you to freedom and a new life.
In Bruce Wayne’s case, he spends all 3 movies doing battle in the sewer. He eventually realizes that clearing the sewer of rats is impossible, and he has to accept the world as it is. Accepting the world means that he has to accept what happened to him when he was a kid and not react to it anymore.
At that point, he sees the ladder and grabs it and climbs to a new life.
Most people never even realize they’re sitting in the sewer. They’re living in denial. Other people realize it, but then spend their time battling the sewer monsters.
Imagine spraining your ankle. Normally you hobble around for a few weeks until you heal, and you can walk normally again. But imagine if 5 years later, you were still limping, even if your ankle was perfectly healthy. You think you can’t walk because of the pain you experienced 5 years before. Imagine how badly that would affect your life. Think of how limited you’d be.
It’s much easier to see the pattern when it has physical manifestations, but people do the same thing emotionally all the time. They spend their lives reacting to some tragedy that happened to them as children, and they don’t realize they’re doing it. Their emotional ‘limp’ has become normal to them, and over time they stop questioning it.
Batman is telling us that the ‘archetypically correct’ behavior is to realize what is going on. Instead of fighting endlessly to try to change your past, try to accept what happened and climb up and out.
Back to you as the poor kid who became the business owner. The “right” way forward is for you to make peace with your past.
You have to accept that you didn’t get what you wanted when you were a kid. You were poor, and some days you didn’t have enough to eat. Other days you were cold because your house wasn’t heated. You never saw your mom or your dad because they were always working dead end jobs that barely paid them anything. Maybe your mom or dad wasn’t around at all. The whole thing was incredibly traumatic for you.
So when you were running on the treadmill to make more and more money, you were bargaining. You told yourself, “If only this one more deal goes through, then I’ll be okay.” But in reality, you were just trying to compensate for your past. Each dollar earned gave you less and less pleasure because any success in the present wouldn’t make your past go away. It wouldn’t heal what happened to you.
But the bankruptcy is a huge opportunity for growth.
You can look at your life and admit you’re depressed and admit that you feel exactly the same as when you started. You can dive into the beliefs that lead you to where you are and replace them with better ones, and maybe you can finally get healing for what happened to you. Maybe you can accept that you weren’t poor because you were somehow defective. Sometimes people are born into bad situations where they don’t get what they need. It’s not your fault.
Then you can start a new life with the skills you already learned starting your first business. This time you’ll be doing it for different reasons, and you won’t have the need to push it so far. Maybe you make less money, but you don’t need as much anymore. You’re no longer trying to pour water into a leaky bucket that won’t ever fill.
You won’t be depressed anymore, and you’ll have a perpetual contentment that would have baffled you in the past.
In and out, you’re a new person, and you’ve finally moved on.