What if communities were a little bit more like Batman?

I once heard someone ask a room full of aspiring “social innovators” to think about their greatest passion, then think about the social challenge they wanted to address, and then put them together and see what solutions started to present themselves. My passion, is Batman (yes Batman can be a passion), and as is evidenced through this blog, my challenge is how to strengthen individual and community resilience. And the more I’ve thought about it, the Batman universe is the perfect embodiment of the resilience thinking I’ve come across.

Not convinced? Through this post, I hope to change your mind!

“The only problem with being alone Master Bruce, is being alone” (Drawing strength from others)

These words were uttered by Batman’s faithful butler Alfred in the “Dark Victory” storyline. During this series, Batman increasingly isolates himself from his allies (Jim Gordon, Catwoman, Alfred) as he struggles with the guilt of his friend Harvey Dent being scarred for life and turning criminally insane. His rationale being that cleaning up Gotham City is his responsibility alone and deep down he doesn’t want anyone else to get hurt. This is a running theme across many Batman storylines, and it is interesting to see how in some ways Batman believes in his own stereotype – that he is a loner with no friends and that he doesn’t need anyone’s help. While I will come onto Batman’s individual resilience, I find it interesting that Batman’s success and resilience almost always comes from the wider “Bat-family”; his network of allies who have an unflinching loyalty and who bring different qualities and skills to bear on a situation.

In Dark Victory, by opening up to Alfred and building a bonding/bridging relationship with Dick Grayson (who becomes Robin), Batman rebuilds his trust with both Jim Gordon and Catwoman and soon begins to piece together the mystery he has been grappling with. In fact, Batman only just gets away with it in this story, as it is only due to Robin’s intervention that the BatCave is left undiscovered by his enemies and in truth many people die before the antagonist of the story is finally uncovered. That said, Batman ends the story stronger than he started (this is still relatively early in his crime-fighting career) and his new relationship with Robin, renewed relationships with Jim Gordon, Alfred and Catwoman set the tone for his more successful period.

Time and time again Batman finds himself in greatest peril when he is isolated. In the famous “Knightfall” story arc, Batman is defeated by Bane and has his back broken. This storyline is famous for this act and image is iconic. However, on further inspection, Bane has already defeated Batman by weakening and isolating him. As Batman struggles to keep up with a number of deadly challenges set up by Bane, he pushes his allies further and further away in an effort to protect them (in particular the new Robin Tim Drake, as he is still grappling with the emotional impact of the death of  the 2nd Robin, Jason Todd).

In a more recent story arc, “Death of the Family”, The Joker correctly identifies that to get to Batman he needs to target his wider network of allies. This story ends on quite a sombre note, as the Bat-Family comes to terms with being tested to its absolute limit and with relationships strained between all involved. There are two ways of looking at this – either that the Joker succeeded to a certain extent in getting to Batman, or that in spite of the Joker correctly identifying the source of Batman’s real strength (his network), that strength was still too great for one isolated individual to break. I’d choose the latter interpretation, particularly as it demonstrates that even if one’s network is hugely resilient, testing this resilience does come at a cost.

So for a loner, Batman has a huge amount of friends – Robin, Nightwing, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, BatGirl/Oracle, Catwoman, The Justice League, Zatanna, Lucius Fox, Dr Leslie Thomson (I could go on). And it is arguable that for all the immense individual strength he fosters, his network is the greatest source of strength he ever gets to draw upon. Or in his own words “when it all ends, the mystery won’t be ‘who killed the Batman?’ but ‘who kept him alive all this time?'”

“Where does he get all those wonderful toys” (Drawing strength from the resources around you)

It probably seems a bit facile to talk about Batman’s economic resilience. He is a billionaire, which helps. But putting that to one side, it is Batman’s resourcefulness that enables him to be prepared for almost any eventuality and to deal with situations even when his mainstream resources are unavailable. In fact, one might say that in spite of the billions he can draw upon, it is his ability to invest in preparing for unexpected eventualities and diversify his resources that allows him to continually adapt to the challenges he faces.

The most famous resource that Batman has is no doubt his utility belt. This allows Batman to store numerous gadgets that can help him in his fight against crime, almost (oh go on then more than almost) to the point of parody (skip to 1m 20).

And there are of course, some rather funny/ridiculous examples of Batman’s preparedness when it comes to gadgets (Shark Repellent Bat Spray anyone?)

Targeting Batman’s utility belt is recurring tactic of many an enemy. But even then, Batman is a great example of someone who thinks about how to use the resources around him in a creative way. In the Batman The Animated Series episode “Almost Got’im”, Two-Face has taken Batman’s belt and tied him to a giant penny which will be launched in the air, either squashing him flat or breaking every bone in his body. In this situation he steals Two-Face’s lucky coin and uses it to cut his bonds and free himself from his predicament. This to me is a classic case of assets-based thinking – being creative with resources that are not necessarily yours or even look that useful, but quickly turning them to your advantage.

“Gotham City. From up here it almost looks clean. I should have come in by train” (Drawing strength from one’s surroundings)

Is Gotham City a resilient place? One could argue that the fact that it is still standing given the litany of catastrophes that regularly befall the city shows it has some degree of resilience, but the truth is that its lack resilience is usually the root cause for the many of the bad things that happen, even the creation of the Batman. The city infrastructure is depicted as riddled with corruption, something that Captain James Gordon is immediately faced with on his arrival in Gotham City in the storyline “Batman: Year One” where both his partner and the then commissioner Gil Loeb are in cahoots with the mob. This runs right through to the later years of Batman’s life in The Dark Knight Returns story-line where there are examples of the Mayor of Gotham more interested in political points, an inability to co-ordinate responses to rampant criminal gangs and a non-existent governmental response to the fallout from a nuclear explosion.

In the film The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham is quickly cut off and left to fend for itself against Bane’s takeover plot but the US Government, a scenario echoed in the story arc No Man’s Land where Gotham is almost destroyed by an earthquake and declared a quarantine zone. In all the situations above, while there are isolated examples of the city adapting to a crisis and retaining its ability to function, for the most part chaos is takes hold, society breaks down and criminality thrives. The importance of Batman and his allies tends to come to the fore in these situations, not only because of the resources that they can draw upon, but interestingly because of how Batman invests in his local environment to enable him to respond to crises. Sometimes this can be very simple. In The Dark Knight Returns, Wayne Manor is able to function after an electro-magnetic pulse is set of because of its backup generator. In the No Man’s Land story arc, Barbara Gordon (once BatGirl, now Oracle) is able to operate out of the Clocktower because it was one of the few buildings in Gotham that was designed to withstand significant shocks.

In other situations, Batman actively invests in his surroundings to ensure he is better able to draw upon resources in a crisis. While the Batcaver is his main base of operations, there are numerous examples of him creating alternative bases of operation for situations where he cannot access the main cave, such as a bespoke cave built on Arkham Island which come in handy during the story of the game Arkham Asylum, access to his suit and other gadgets in his penthouse as well as a dockyard base of operations in the film The Dark Knight.

As Bruce Wayne, there is also his investment in the infrastructure of the city, either through philanthropic work to try and address the gross inequality in the city, or through major infrastructure works. After foiling the Joker’s plan to poison Gotham’s reservoir in The Man Who Laughs, Bruce Wayne invests heavily in restoring the city’s water supply which no doubt avoids a different type of chaos that might have affected the city. A different type of example is highlighted in the film Batman Begins, where Bruce’s father invests in a low cost transit system to better connect the city. Sadly, many of the infrastructural  investments that Bruce Wayne makes have limited impact due to the wider corruption in the city, hence Batman is required to invest in a shadow infrastructure to mitigate this.

In this case, we can see a counterpoint between Gotham City and Batman – Gotham has weak resilience because it doesn’t invest in preparing for the worst or better connecting the city, however Batman has greater resilience because he is constantly investing in his surroundings so that he can draw upon them in a crisis.

“You are a unique specimen” (Drawing strength from health and wellbeing)

Health and wellbeing is an interesting one for Batman. Largely because, whether he likes to admit it or not, he clearly suffers from mental distress. As Bruce Wayne himself notes in the film Batman Begins “I guy who dresses up as a bat clearly has issues”. Batman’s general mental wellbeing is something that is continually challenged, maybe never more so that in the wider Black Glove story arc culminating in the “Batman RIP” story line. As noted earlier in the blog, the Joker had some level of success when he attacked Batman’s network as a source of strength. In the RIP storyline, The Black Glove, led by Dr Hurt attacked Batman’s mental resilience by working on his own doubts about whether his role actually helps Gotham, his love and guilt over his parents death (going so far as to set up his parents as drug addled degenerates) and also playing on his clear desire for a loving relationship (“What can I say, chicks are my Kryptonite”). The Black Glove sets up hypnotic triggers that cause Batman to lose his mind, and mentally give up the Batman persona, and wander the streets of Gotham coming down from heroin injections.

There are plenty of studies on whether Batman is himself unhinged and as dangerous as the adversaries he battles against, but I pick out the Batman RIP series because it has a number of key moments that show Batman’s immense mental resilience. First off, in the attack upon his persona, it is revealed that Batman has programmed a back up personality, “the Batman of Zur-en-Ah”, to kick in should his mind come under attack. This is really interesting in terms of the resilience principle of diversifying roles – the ability to call upon different identities under pressure to unlock different strengths is key, and Batman clearly demonstrates this in this instance.

There is another really telling passage in this series. A flashback to a period when Batman subjects himself to a ritual called “Thogal” where death is simulated and he confronts the last vestiges of any fear within himself. This is a key moment in the storyline, and sums up for me mental resilience because it is clear that Batman has identified a weakness in his wellbeing (Batman strikes fear into his enemies because he himself carries fear), knowing himself to be under attack, and prepares himself mentally to undergo any onslaught and respond to it.

In terms of physicality Batman is without doubt formidable, and while it might seem appropriate to talk about his recovery from the many serious injuries he has incurred (Bane breaking his back, a severe neck injury during the Hush storyline), I am going to stick with Batman RIP for one of the most articulate descriptions of Batman’s physical resilience, namely his utter self-awareness. While buried alive by The Black Glove, there is a narration of how he has escaped countless booby traps, and memorised the finite ways that one can be hurt or killed. His assertion that bench pressing 100s if pounds of soil while it is filling his lungs is “difficult, but far from impossible” feels like a rallying call for any form of physical or mental disability (and I use the word disability in its fullest sense). It is not just about how strong one’s health and wellbeing is, but also about what limits one sets for oneself. To quote Batman in The Dark Knight “Batman has no limits”.

I could go on and on and quote numerous storylines and examples, but in exploring this subject I’ve been coming back to my original question “what if communities were a little bit more like Batman?” and I’ve realised a sad truth. That while Batman is a great role model for individual resilience, he is in fact a very poor model for investing in community resilience. As I’ve eluded to in this post, Gotham throughout its fictional history remains a very weak community and Batman is a counterpoint to this weakness.

In the film The Dark Knight Rises, Alfred chides Bruce Wayne that the police could do a lot more if he shared his knowledge and resources as Bruce Wayne rather than using them as Batman and he has a really valid point. I wonder if this is the danger of talking about resilience in public services. Do we end up creating interventions that are super-resilient and heroic at the expense of creating the conditions where anyone and everyone can step up to a crisis? This is the real opportunity for me and comes back to the little game at the start of this post. If my passion is Batman, and the challenge is more resilient communities, then in answer to the question “what if communities were a little bit more like Batman?” the answer is, there’d be no need for a Batman. Does that rationale extend to more traditional real world public services?

Now that is a question!

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