You close your eyes and drift away from the homework and the social anxiety and the teenage sexual frustration. You open your eyes in a cartoon world, dark and vivid, with dramatic shadows popping into every frame. As you look around you are dimly aware that you are wearing a mask, and that the edges of your vision are slightly limited by the black cowl. You take a breath and send a column of steam into the chill night air. Looking down from the rooftop you can make out the dark shape of Arkham Asylum in the distance. A spark of lightning frames it dramatically against the night sky.
A grappling hook shoots out and latches itself onto a stone gargoyle, and you raise a pair of strong arms to swing yourself confidently onto the mad-house’s roof. With skill and precision you take a set of tools out of your belt and carefully pick the lock on the window. As you look down another flash of lightning streaks across the sky. It helps you make out your broad, powerful chest and the pointed yellow and black symbol you know so well. You smile to yourself as the light fades and you return to the darkness in which you are most comfortable.
In one smooth motion and a flurry of muscle and fabric, you slip soundlessly into the building. Moving quickly and quietly you prowl through the hallways, avoiding guards with practiced ease. Dimly, you begin to remember why you’re here. The villains are acting up again and you have to do something about it. Did Commissioner Gordon call you? Or perhaps Alfred saw something on the news? Maybe you were expecting this to happen? Yes, that’s right. Of course you knew, you always know.
Since you’re so well prepared, you obviously know where you need to go. Your feet carry you through the dark corridors automatically, fearlessly. You’re prepared for anything. You can do anything. You slip into the cafeteria and stalk to the middle of the room. You aren’t surprised when your whole rogues gallery appears, armed to the teeth in front of you. No, you were expecting a trap. Nothing surprises you.
You shrug your cloak away to free your arms and raise them into a fighting posture. The villains and madmen snicker and snivel interchangeably, some terrified of you, and others too insane to care. You see Catwoman cracking her whip, Killer Croc gnashing his teeth, and Scarecrow slipping his burlap mask over his face. As you turn to face the whole circle the Joker pulls out a rubber knife that he juggles back and forth between his pale hands. Next to him, Bane turns a dial on his suit and pumps himself full of venom, swelling his muscles to inhuman sizes. You really should work on the security here someday.
Your eyes pass over countless other villains with their various gimmicks, until your gaze falls on Two-Face. His white and black suit is pristine, and he flips his coin, glinting in the moonlight. He steps out of the shadows and smiles with his good side and forms a kind of broken, choppy, snarl with the disfigured half. The man who was Harvey Dent makes an attempt to smooth his slick black hairs and tame the jumbled white mess on the other side.
The coin flies up and spins in the air one more time before he plucks it up smacks it onto the back of his hand. He does not bother to look. You both know what’s going to happen. Two-Face begins to advance toward you, fists raised. You press forward, unafraid. Why should you be afraid? You are the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight. You can do anything.
You fall upon Two-Face like a force of nature. He throws a punch and you lean backwards, just out of reach. Your right fist connects powerfully with his jaw. The left follows it into his ribs and he doubles over in pain. Another right sends him reeling backward, clutching his two-tone jaw. You smile to yourself. You’re invincible. As Harvey comes up again you draw your fist back and send it careening towards your opponent. You feel it stop mid-way and look up. Two-Face holds your fist in one hand as if it’s a toy. Both sides smile.
He throws your arm aside, and you stumble backwards. You raise your fists again but he’s already advancing on you, and one fist connects with your masked face. Everything goes out of focus as you fall to your side, desperately struggling to your feet just as another punch crashes into your jaw. You hit the floor and feel a dull thud throughout your torso. One gloved hand reaches up to touch your swollen, mashed face and you are dimly aware of the figures in the room circling around you.
Dozens of grim, colorful faces look down at you hungrily. They begin to laugh, victorious, exultant. The Joker’s high-pitched squeal rises above them as a real knife joins the rubber toy. As they raise fists and weapons high the villains advance towards you, cackling as Two-Face flips his coin to decide where to strike next. He picks up his leg and brings it back, about to soccer kick you with one pointed shoe. Your breathing is fast and your eyes are wide. You curl into a ball and try to scream. It comes out as a whimper. You think, “This can’t be happening.” It’s not.
I open my eyes as light streams into my room. Every muscle is tensed, and my heart is pounding. Shrugging off the blankets off I realize that I’m lying in a pool of sweat that has soaked the mattress six inches in every direction. I sit up uncomfortably and rest my head on arms. My slim, delicate, fifteen-year old arms.
I wish I could tell you that I fell to the floor immediately and began doing push ups, or that I found my way to the closest Tae Kwon Do school and turned myself into a kicking machine. Unfortunately, I didn’t do either of these things. Knowing me, I probably went to my computer and read the Wikipedia entry for Chinese broadswords for the hundredth time. I was a… unique young man. At least that’s what my mother used to say.
(Not pictured: Me)
That being said, this dream inspired me. I realized, albeit in a roundabout way, my own weaknesses and my limitations. I saw that I was scrawny and weak, and it was clear to me how far I was from some of my idols, like Batman. Ultimately I did end up getting involved in strength and conditioning and martial arts, and I believe that this dream had a lot to do with this. When I looked at characters like Bruce Wayne, I felt inspired to strive to be something more than I was.
I know that I’m not alone in finding inspiration in the Caped Crusader, I’m fairly certain that any weight room I’ve ever been in has had at least one person in a Batman t-shirt. To be fair, most of the time this one person was me, but still. There is something incredibly powerful about this character, and it resonates with viewers and readers across the world. A part of it is surely aesthetic, and it’s hard to deny that Batman has one of the most iconic and impressive images in comics. However, I think that what really captures most people is the Dark Knight’s approach to life, however sensational it may be.
The background and origin story of Bruce Wayne has been told so many times that it is unnecessary to recount it again. (Looking at you Zack Snyder/Ben Affleck/Whoever is going to direct The Batman) But fundamentally, it is a story about transformation. Bruce Wayne begins his life in privilege and comfort and has his first experience with fear and danger. He is shown that life is difficult, and that there are challenges that cannot be resolved using money and power. The random, fickle hand of fate intervenes and marks him with tragedy, as it eventually does to us all. Bruce is scarred by this incident and finds himself with a choice.
There is a similar story in Greek mythology that bears mentioning, and sucker that I am for classical references, I can’t help but discuss it. The story comes to us through Xenophon, a historian/philosopher/mercenary soldier who wrote extensively during his time. Quoting his teacher Socrates, Xenophon writes in The Memorabilia that as a young man, the hero Hercules found himself at a crisis and went to the wilderness to meditate. As you do in a proverb, apparently.
While there, he found himself approached by two beautiful goddesses, Pleasure and Virtue. Pleasure promised him all of the luxury of wealth and the comfort of living the fine life. He would never want for anything, and be able to pursue all of the pleasures in life. Virtue however, had a different proposition for him. She promised that if he chose her path he would be constantly dissatisfied, and have to strive and fight for everything that he earned. If he succeeded in this path he could have an immortal reputation and earn greater pleasures through hard work. She notes:
“In short, if you would be eminent in war or peace, you must become master of all the qualifications that can make you so. These are the only terms and conditions upon which I can propose happiness”
As you can imagine, Hercules chose the path of Virtue, and so did Bruce Wayne. He was confronted with danger and fear, and when he had every reason or excuse to insulate himself and hide from the world, he chose not to do so. People often note that Batman’s greatest power is his money, and they’re not incorrect. But they ignore the fact that he had every opportunity to coast on his family’s wealth. Instead, he decided to take the path of honor, and to dedicate himself so that he could be prepared to face the world with the confidence and skills he needed. Bruce chose to transform himself, through will and determination, into the kind of man that he knew that he wanted to be.
The transformation from a small, terrified child into a man who has conquered his own fear is one of the reasons that the character stands out so much to audiences, but for me it is Batman’s ethos that always inspired me. Like any good stoic, Bruce Wayne prizes logic and reason, and focuses upon his duty to his mission and the greater good. He is disciplined and focused, always in complete control of his emotions and desires. His confidence, and his ability to persevere and endure through the most stressful of challenges, is something that I personally admire. As someone who can stress and worry, I try to use some of my hero’s nature to keep calm and focus on what can be done rather than what worrying about what might be.
Batman’s ability to persevere in the face of hardship is what I admire most about him, and nothing captures this better than his arc in DC’s wonderful Final Crisis. In this series, Bruce Wayne is kidnapped and locked away by Darkseid, whose scientists attempt to use Batman to create a race of super soldiers. He is forced to live through each of his personal tragedies again and again. Running parallel to this is a narration by his butler Alfred Pennyworth, who reflects upon the trials that his master has endured, expressing his admiration:
“When I watched how he surrendered himself to an ideal… How he used each ordeal, each heartache and failure, to become a better man in the service of others… What could I do but stand in humble awe? And keep his wounds clean and his uniform tidy, and send him safely on his way…”
This is a man who stands with the giants of the DC Universe and is universally respected by all. With no powers or abilities, Bruce Wayne forged himself into the most implacable of opponents simply by deciding to do so. His will is indomitable, and he always finds a way, no matter the odds. As Alfred continued in Final Crisis:
“I can see him now. In the grip of implacable forces, innumerable foes. Somewhere without hope. In a place where all seems lost. And I know this… The enemy will look away, for just a moment, underestimating him for that single fraction of a second too long. And no matter how dark the night… There will be no hiding place for evil.”
I am hardly the first, or the last, to ruminate on the importance of Batman as a character and how important it has been to them. My two favorite examples of this are the highly laudable Dark Night: A True Batman Story by Paul Dini and the heartbreaking Something Terrible by Dean Trippe. They are both brilliant and I encourage you all to go read them, as they are remarkable pieces of art. Both discuss the importance of Batman as a symbol of hope and inspiration. When addressing the character in an interview, Dini remarked that he viewed Batman as something of a drill sergeant, inspiring him to persevere and be strong even in the face of hardship. This determination is Batman’s greatest strength, and it is what allows him to endure regardless of the pain and devastation that is constantly doled out to him.
To this day, I continue to use Batman as a source of inspiration and strength when I find myself wanting. I remind myself of my favorite scene from Cartoon Network’s Justice League series. A villain is mentally torturing Batman and remarks that he could let him go. After all, he doesn’t have any powers. To this our hero replies, “Oh I have one Johnny. I never give up.” Perhaps it’s ridiculous for a grown man to find inspiration in a comic book character dressed as a bat punching evil in the teeth. That being said, I don’t particularly care.
I think that heroes, exemplars of virtue and strength, serve a vital role in our lives. The average person cannot have the kind of mental fortitude that Bruce Wayne has, but his example can inspire us to push a little harder and hold on a little bit longer. He can help us to overcome our own flaws and iniquities and lend us the strength to be the best version of ourselves. Batman has helped me to become a better person and inspired me to persevere, no matter how dark the night.