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#BatmanDay 2016: Batman – Love the Science, Hate the Scientist

The world’s greatest detective is anti-intellectual.

The world of Batman celebrates technology. Batman constantly relies on ingenious gadgets, computer algorithms, and tools to scan scenes, track criminals, and solve mysteries. The presence of Bat-gadgetry is one of the more frequently lampooned aspects of the franchise. Yet, his appreciation of scientific advancement is purely applied. Characters like Oracle and Mr. Fox make improvements and refinements, but they are not scientists. Their dedication is to Batman’s cause, not to the pursuit of knowledge.

On the other hand, the researchers and intellectuals are cast as villains.

Poison Ivy, originally Dr. Lillian Rose in the Pre-Crisis universe, is a botanist Ph.D. who is tricked into assisting in the theft of an Egyptian artifact.1 She is poisoned with the contents, powerful ancient herbs, and discovers her natural immunity to plants and their toxins. Her story changes in 1989 in Neil Gaiman’s writing of her Post-Crisis world, as she becomes an undergraduate named Pamela Lillian Isley, seduced by her botanical biochemistry professor and poisoned in his experiments.2 In either case, she focuses her life on studying botanical biochemistry and is punished for it. She, in turn, punishes others for the suffering she has experienced, turning her academic studies into her source of power.

Mr. Freeze, or Dr. Victor Fries, is a scientist and researcher in every version of his backstory. He is first introduced as Mr. Zero, a bumbling scientist whose ice-gun backfires in his original appearance in 1959.3 He was given a new alias, Mr. Freeze, for the 1966 TV series and was a brilliant researcher whose work centers around saving his wife in Paul Dini’s revamping of the character for the Animated Series in 1992.4 In each instance, his focus is on cryogenics research, which makes him powerful and dangerous.

Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, becomes fascinated with the Joker and volunteers to treat him. She studies too closely the subject of her interest and gets drawn into his world. Harleen falls in love and helps him escape the asylum, becoming his lover and sidekick. As a recent character, first appearing in the Animated Series in 1992,5 Harleen’s story has had less drastic reimagining than Ivy or Freeze. In each instance, she is a psychiatrist who researches and treats the Joker; while sources of her insanity have ranged from her seeing the Joker injured by Batman,6 to the Suicide Squad’s imagining of the Joker giving her electro-shocks,7 she is always suffering as a result of her research and being too close to her subject.

The Riddler’s origins are far less dramatic, as his original story from the 1948 comics has a young Edward Nigma cheating to win a riddle-contest and being rewarded for his efforts.8 He then dedicates his life to mastering puzzles and sees Batman as a worthy adversary to challenge. His pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge drives him to extremes, and often puts him on the wrong side of the law.

Scarecrow, or Dr. Jonathan Crane, is a psychiatrist like Quinzel, but is also a professor of psychology. His introduction in 19419 and later character expansion in 198610 remain consistent: Crane is obsessed with fear, studying the effects of drugs and toxins on human fear-responses and teaching classes focused on phobias. His close focus on his subject leaves him single-minded and eventually leads to life as a career criminal.

Each of these villains, canonical and central figures in the Batman universe, are scientists, researchers and intellectuals. In each case, their fascination with their subject matter becomes both the source of their villainous power and the cause of their moral downfall. Batman’s relationship with science and advancement is a little different; he focuses on practical application. Each tool or toy has a specific purpose, and it is strongly implied that the purpose is fighting crime, with necessity rather than curiosity motivating each new invention. He always has the tools, tech, and gear to solve any problem; he can call down air-drops of his latest device in the Rocksteady game series, and his vehicles are perpetually at the cutting edge of technology.11 This is, in part, due to his team.

Mr. Lucius Fox, a brilliant inventor and businessman, first appeared in the Batman comic book series in 1979.12 His skills are business acumen and strategy, and as an entrepreneur, he shows the creativity of invention. That last element is played up in the recent Christopher Nolan films and Rocksteady games, as his creation of technological upgrades for Batman’s gear diffuses some of the technological savvy that had previously been attributed to Batman.

Oracle, or Barbara Gordon, provides the IT support. She begins her role in the Batman universe as Batgirl, the crime-fighting alter-ego of a Library Science Ph.D.13  Barbara’s focus is on the tools and methods of research, rather than the pursuit of a specific type of knowledge. She is the brilliant online investigator behind so much of Batman’s information, as she is able to hack, scan, and index any resource he needs.  Her civilian life is at the head of Gotham City public library; she works with published knowledge, adapting information for Batman’s needs, rather than being a researcher at the cutting edge of discovery, placing her in a different category than the many science-minded villains that Batman faces.

Batman himself, the world’s greatest detective, also approaches the world with a single-minded focus: the pursuit of justice. Batman’s focus is virtuous and moral, despite the means he uses to obtain it. His brutal and violent methods have resulted in him being cast as an anti-hero, but he is still inherently heroic. On the other hand, the researchers, who have all become too close to their subjects, are initially amoral. Their pursuit of knowledge, even if for altruistic reasons, results in their corruption, their turn to crime.

So, Batman and the world of Gotham is anti-intellectual. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is dangerous and results in corruption and villainy. Knowledge for the technical tools of fighting crime is fundamental to the Batman character. In the world of Batman, the scientists are a threat, but the engineers and librarians are fundamentally important. Knowledge needs reason, needs results. Otherwise, a lot of knowledge is a dangerous thing.


Alan McGreevy, Fanbase Press Guest Contributor



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