Batman is the Closest Thing America Has to its Own Hamlet

It always seems like there is a new Batman story coming out. Only a few years ago, Ben Affleck took the cowl from Christian Bale, and already Robert Pattinson is set to play Bruce Wayne in Matt Reeves’s The Batman. Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar this year for playing Batman’s most infamous nemesis, the Joker (and Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for the same role). Our culture is simply saturated with Batman-related films, shows, animated series, and iconography. And with good reason. Batman is the closest thing Hollywood has come to creating its own Hamlet.

Okay, hear me out. For centuries, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been seen as the great test for actors. Every actor’s take on the Danish prince’s poetic trek into darkness is inherently different to boot. What remains the same? The text, which is simultaneously a glorious meditation on mental health, morality, and mortality, and a really bleak tale of gross incompetence. Rather than directly wrestle power from his uncle, Hamlet dons a mask of insanity and pulls the court of Elsinore into a state of paranoia, culminating in almost everyone’s demise.

Between the status an actor gets from playing in the Batman sandbox and the comic book character’s bleak mythology, Batman is straight up the 21st century Hamlet. But while Elizabethan audiences were fascinated by courtly power plays and what happens after death, modern folks are more interested in the responsibility of the ruling class, a corrupt justice system, and anxiety over mental illness.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was actually an adaptation of an existing work that has since been lost to time that scholars call the “urHamlet.” The basic gist of the story is that Danish prince Hamlet has been stricken with depression following the untimely death of his father, the king. His father’s ghost visits Hamlet and reveals that the prince’s uncle Claudius, who has both usurped the throne and married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, murdered him. Hamlet pretends to be mentally unhinged in order to observe the people of the court. Of course, this kind of backfires and leads to a series of deaths, suicides, and eventually, Hamlet’s own death.

So what does that have to do with Batman? Well, much like Hamlet, Bruce Wayne is a prince who deals with personal tragedy by donning a mask and indulging in schemes. Bruce Wayne isn’t literally a prince, true. But he is ostensibly the prince of Gotham City thanks to his parents’ roles as politically important tycoons. When he finally comes of age, he could use his money and power to spur real changes to a city besieged by crime. However, Bruce decides to become Batman. He pursues vigilante justice and gets caught up in a variety of complex schemes that play on his own psychology.

If Hamlet was full of fascinated broken courtiers, all of whom reflected and refracted their prince’s mental state back to him, Batman has his rogue gallery of villains. Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, Riddler, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy… all of Gotham City’s criminals are idiosyncratic to say the least. They either represent a toxic concern gnawing away at modern life — for the Joker, the thin line between civility and chaos, for Catwoman, the intersection of female sexuality and trustworthiness, etc. These characters bounce back Bruce’s own concern back to him while trying to punch him literally in the face.

Of course, Hamlet is a literal tragedy and Batman’s a comic book character. They’re not the same exact thing. Case in point: while Hamlet ends in utter sorrow, Batman stories typically let the good guy win. Sure, Batman tales go darker than your average Avengers fare, but at the end of the day, Bruce Wayne is able to conquer his foes. Or at the very least, see them locked up in Arkham Asylum. (It has always been fascinating to me that the criminal element of Gotham City traditionally winds up in a psychiatric institution instead of an actual jail. Apprehending them isn’t about justice as much as it is sweeping an avatar of mental illness back under the rug for a little while longer.)

What truly connects Batman and Hamlet the most, though, is both characters’ strong associations with psychological trauma. It’s the reason why both characters have remained popular. They give us a place to hunt our own fears, guilts, and concerns that’s safe. Moreover, it’s why actors are obsessed with putting their own spin on the characters. Batman and Hamlet aren’t just icons; they are human men who get a wildly unrealistic opportunity to grapple with their inner demons, emotionally and literally.

So don’t expect a lull in Batman content anytime soon…

The post Batman is the Closest Thing America Has to its Own Hamlet appeared first on Decider.

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