Hey there, Bat-Fans! We interrupt our regularly scheduled blogging to bring you the next installment of Jeremiah Lawson’s expert look at Batman mythology. As the last entry indicated, these next few posts will look at the (utterly fascinating) psycho-spiritual motivations of the Dark Knight’s various villains.
PART FOUR: THE WOUNDS OF DISCOVERY
2. Idols of the Heart
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9
It’s not uncommon for a person to start down the path of wrong-doing through an obsession with a certain kind of relationship. We all know why restraining orders exist and we all know what custody battles are. In the pantheon of Batman villains no one is more defined by obsession with a single relationship than Mr. Freeze. He is driven by the loss of his beloved wife Nora. But Mr. Freeze isn’t the only man in Gotham desperate to be with someone he believes will complete him.
If Mr. Freeze is defined by loss, Jervis Tetch is defined by desire and envy. Tetch becomes the Mad Hatter out of desire for his secretary Alice Pleasance. Even though both he and Alice work as employees for Wayne Enterprises, and have the personal support of Bruce Wayne, Jervis Tetch lives within the confines of school-day grievances. Tetch is an omega male pining for the pretty blonde cheerleader who’s dating the tall, dark handsome football star (Alice, who is engaged to her boyfriend Billy). While the episode “Mad As A Hatter” does not play out this motif at its most literal level, the character designs telegraph what we need to know.
Under the auspices of developing technology to enhance the human mind, Tetch uses Wayne’s funding to invent microchips that allow him to control the minds of other living things. Before long he succumbs to temptation and uses his invention on Alice, and others, which gets the attention of Batman. When confronted about using innocent people to get what he wants, the Mad Hatter is remorseless, even self-pitying, blaming Batman for forcing him to control Alice. Tetch tells Batman, “I’ve waited my whole lonely life for her.”
Batman replies, “Then all you’ve waited for is a puppet, a soulless little doll.” Like Mr. Freeze, the Mad Hatter is by besotted with an idealized woman rather than a flesh and blood one. But where Victor Fries actually knew the flesh and blood Nora, Jervis Tetch sees Alice more as a trophy in his omega male revenge fantasy. Tetch may have the power to make people do what he wants, but he cannot concede that what he ultimately wants cannot be given.
So the Mad Hatter plots his revenge against Batman and eventually turns the tables. Instead of trying to impose his will on others, he decides to trap Batman in a dream machine that will feed the Dark Knight a dream-world made of his own deepest longings. Which is precisely what happens in the episode “Perchance to Dream.” Bruce Wayne is given everything he’s always wanted: his parents are alive, he is engaged to Selina Kyle, and someone else is Batman. But that last part troubles Bruce; he knows that this life he is suddenly living is too good to be true. As if that weren’t enough, he discovers that he cannot read. It may be perfect on the surface, but this dream world is a world in which one cannot learn.
Realizing that he is still Batman, Bruce goes out to confront the Batman imposter, who, it turns out, is actually the Mad Hatter, a dream version invented in case Batman ever caught on to the trap. There is no escape, Tetch explains, and since this world is everything Bruce wanted, why would he want to escape? In classic Batman fashion, Bruce is forced to re-discover that, as the Dark Knight, his strength comes from remembering his wounds and remembering the truth, despite its pain. No dream world will bring his parents back from the grave. “I won’t live a lie, no matter how attractive you make it.” He realizes that the only way to escape the Hatter’s trap is to kill himself. Once he dies to any possibility of his deepest desires being realized can Bruce return to waking life and defeat the Mad Hatter.
“Perchance to Dream” is typical of early Batman: The Animated Series, presenting us with some delicious dramatic irony. In his first encounter with the Mad Hatter, Batman confronts Tetch about the impossibility of his fondest longing – in their second encounter, Hatter uses Batman’s deepest longings as a weapon against him. It is only by admitting that these longings are illusive that Batman is able to defeat Mad Hatter’s dream machine. Paradoxically, it was the promise Bruce Wayne made to his parents’ memory that motivated him to become Batman.
Hatter’s megalomaniacal desire to prove himself as a force to be reckoned with continually fails. Even as a criminal he goes from being a geniune threat to the Dark Knight to a relative “third stringer,” at least when compared to villains like the Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, or even Harley Quinn. But to Tetch’s perverse way of thinking he has gained what he wanted, the ability to make the people who used to laugh at him cower in fear. Like Mr. Freeze, Hatter’s obsession with correcting the disorder in his self-contained emotional world prevents him from seeing that what is actually wrong in his life is he himself. Blame has consumed his heart and blinded him to any possibility of repentance. Sound familiar?
Other Batman villains, as we will see, take the obsessions even further, wanting not only to get what they want out of life but to exert mastery over others as well. That is, if Freeze and Hatter are obsessed with matters of the heart, other villains want to solve every riddle and win every fight.
Next time: The Life and Death of the Mind!