We’re back! And just in time to lead up to a certain major blockbuster, we bring you the next installment of Jeremiah Lawson’s epic treatment of the moral, philosophical and theological underpinnings of the Batman mythos, in particular as they play out in what many consider to be the most authentic and inspired incarnation of the Caped Crusader in the past 20 odd years–seriously–Batman: The Animated Series. To start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the show:

AT NIGHT ALL CATS ARE GRAY: Tarnished Heroes and Lovable Rogues in Gotham

PART 1: CARTOONS AND THE MYTH OF PURE EVIL

In his 1999 book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty psychologist Roy Baumeister summed up years of psychological and historical research on the subject, explaining at the outset his intention of avoiding all reference to fiction, theology, cinema, or television. These sources, he wrote, had defined the popular imagination of evil in ways that amounted to a myth. Baumeister called this “the myth of pure evil.”

What was this myth of pure evil? We actually already know it: bad people knowingly do bad things for the sheer fun of being bad. We could insert The Dark Side of the Force, Emperor Palpatine, The Evil Empire, and go from there. Yet in the real world perpetrators of great evil almost invariably think they are actually doing the right thing–for themselves, if not for the world. However unpleasant the acts may be, the people doing them somehow see them as necessary. Baumeister grimly observed that the world is full of people who mutually escalate violence and aggression; both victims and perpetrators have incentive to omit and even deceive to make themselves look better; and the temptation to commit violence is both universal and easily understood.

The “myth of evil” we find in the annals of fiction, on the other hand, portrays cruelty as irrational, unmotivated and inexplicable. For Baumeister nothing summed up the myth of pure evil more purely than Saturday morning cartoons and comic books (though for fans of Optimus Prime the preferred term may be “Cold War moral clarity”). Baumeister surveyed research done on 1980s cartoons and noted that the villains were almost invariably rich, despotic, impulsive, short-tempered foreigners who had mountains of money and power and yet, for some reason, just wanted to be cruel. This irresistible impulse toward evil can’t be expressed any better than by Cobra Commander’s saying, “Let’s reach out and crush someone!” Let’s go ruin someone’s life… and any old someone will do.

Ironically, by the time Baumeister’s book appeared in the late 1990s, Batman: The Animated Series had been on the air for several years, overturning many of his assumptions. As we have seen, in Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Gotham City the villains had plausible motives. Not only that, they even possessed some of the precise motives that Baumeister discussed in his book. Catwoman was driven by greed. Mad Hatter and Firefly were spurred on by lust. The Penguin’s ambition was for prestige. Mr. Freeze was avenging the loss of his wife. The Riddler was motivated by his inflated yet wounded ego. Eco-terrorists such as Poison Ivy and Ra’s al Ghul sought to curb human corruption of the environment. None of them were cruel just for the fun of it.

Roy Baumeister concluded that true sadism, which he defined as inflicting harm on others for the pleasure it brings, is an unusual and acquired mindset, one that the myth of pure evil conveniently co-opts. That is, despite the attempt of writers and filmmakers to glamorize (or simply depict) it, true sadism is historically and sociologically very rare. Yet even Baumeister concedes at the end that, however rare they may be, genuine sadists do exist.

In the parlance of our series, you might say that there are a lot of criminals in Gotham, but only one Joker. And even the Joker may not see himself as truly evil. Heath Ledger’s Joker famously quipped, “Oh, I’m not a monster. I’m just a man who’s ahead of the curve.” And of his longest running role (voicing the Clown Prince of Crime for BTAS), Mark Hamill–yes, that Mark Hamill–said he never played the Joker as someone who actually considered himself to be evil. “The Joker doesn’t think of himself as evil. He sees himself as an underappreciated comic genius.” If even the Joker didn’t see himself as evil, then we were looking at a cartoon that had upended the  moralism of 1980s before Baumeister had even labeled it as such. Dini and Timm’s Gotham City was, of course, still a cartoon city; there were still good guys and bad guys–it’s just that the bad guys were not all bad and, just as important, the good guys were not all good.

It has always been axiomatic that Gotham needs Batman because even the best of its heroes aren’t good enough to stem the tide of crime within the city. Yet Batman: The Animated Series paints a slightly different (and dare I say more biblical) picture. The Gotham police force we find in BTAS is openly conflicted about whether Batman is fighting crime the right way or even making the city a safer place. In fact, one of the Dark Knight’s most persistent and insightful critics is a cop, and it is to that cop we shall turn next.

Next Up: The Knight With The Rusted Armor!