As a child, Batman was my favorite superhero. What drew me to him was not just his toughness, his stoicism, and his resolve not to kill anyone, but specifically the mask he wore. This was somewhat clear in Tim Burton’s films, but more so in Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series.
In Batman: TAS, Batman is the real person. Bruce Wayne is the mask he wears. I noticed that immediately, and it resonated because I understood what Batman was doing. You cannot suffer through that much pain and remain unchanged. However, you also cannot walk around wearing that pain. People just cannot accept it, so you learn to wear a mask.
This plays a major role in Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
Fair warning: the following contains spoilers from The Dark Knight Rises.
In The Dark Knight Rises, the character John Blake reveals to Bruce Wayne that he knows Bruce is Batman. Blake explains that when he was a kid his mother died, but he could not remember it well. However, he did remember his father’s murder, and the anger of that stayed with him. He says to Bruce that people say they understand, but they do not know. They try to understand, and for a time they do, but eventually they expect you to move on, to let go of the anger and pain, and that is something you cannot do. So then they send you to therapy, put you in foster care or in group homes. Blake explains that it took him a while to learn that he had to wear a mask to hide his anger so that people would accept him.
When Bruce visited the boys’ home that Blake lived at years ago, Blake immediately saw through Bruce’s mask and realized that Bruce had to be Batman. (Oddly enough, when Blake finishes, Bruce does not even deny being Batman.) He knew because he learned to wear the same mask.
I share Blake’s experience. It took me a while to realize that I needed to hide what I actually feel because people could not handle it. I learned to hide my fears and anger as a child, not only so that I would not get it worse at home, but also so that no one at school would find out what was happening. Yet I never learned not to wear the pain. By the time I was in college, it was obvious to anyone who spent any time with me that I was damaged in some way. This made them treat me with kid gloves, try to fix me, or try to talk me into moving on.
Yet I could no more move on than Blake or Batman could. The experiences I went through shaped the person I became. They are a part of me as much as, if not more than, anything else. I need my pain, guilt, and anger. That does not mean I cannot overcome them or that I will let them rule me, but I cannot simply pretend nothing happened.
I learned to wear a mask. I learned to act more sociable. I learned to chitchat, to smile, to blend in. The person that my former co-workers and classmates know is not the real me; it is the facade I created to fit in.
Once a co-worker caught me dropping the mask. A friend who knows about my past called while I was at work, and because I was so used to talking to him normally, I slipped back into my usual self. One of my co-workers overheard the conversation, and afterward asked if something was wrong because I sounded cold.
My mask lets me fit in, but it does not fix anything. The pain and guilt are still under the surface, and they often taint my relationships with other people because I do not want people to get close. As is evident in the Batman comics and films, you can only fake it for so long. Eventually someone will catch on. This happens several times in TDKR. Several people see through Bruce’s playboy persona. Others want that persona to become real.
In the film, Alfred makes a point about wanting Bruce to have stayed away from Gotham back in Batman Begins. He had hoped that he would be abroad one day, drinking at a cafe, look up, and see Bruce sitting at a table with a wife and maybe kids. They would see each other, but say nothing, and then Alfred would leave. Alfred essentially wanted Bruce to move on. He wants this out of love (indeed, Michael Caine’s performance is worthy of an Oscar nod because you truly believe he cares about Bruce Wayne), but he does not realize how deeply hurt Bruce is.
Eventually Alfred does get his wish, but not before Bruce goes through his own journey. I think many people misunderstand the purpose of the mask. They think people who use them are hiding from the truth when in reality the masks are part of the healing process. As I said, the suffering people experience will never leave them, but we can learn to cope with it by using masks. We can learn ways to navigate the world until we can get to a place where we either do not need the masks anymore or that they become such a part of us that they are less a mask than a tattoo.
The people in my life, especially my godson, youngest brother, and youngest cousin, are helping me make that transformation. I still wear the mask, but it is slowly becoming my tattoo. The warmer, open personality I faked for so long is now something I genuinely do.
These things take time, and Christopher Nolan shows it perfectly in his trilogy. While Bruce may never be “Bruce Wayne”, he also does not have to be “the Batman”. This is not just because he physically gives up the mantle, but also because he realizes that “Batman” is also a symbol for something bigger than one person. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that Bruce will always be Batman, but he does not always have to be the Batman. He can be the man without being the symbol.
That Blake takes up the Batman mantle shows this. Bruce has learned to cope with his anger, guilt, and pain. He takes on aspects of the Bruce Wayne mask he wore as true parts of himself because of his emotional growth. However, Robin John Blake is not there yet. He still needs his “John Blake” mask, and he will keep that mask and become the symbol of “the Batman” until he, and Gotham, no loner needs them.