Arkham Asylum and the Temptation toward Superego

By Jack Holloway

In the opening of Batman: Arkham Asylum the video game, Batman has arrested the Joker and is escorting him into Arkham Asylum. The Joker is wheeled down the entrance hall and is checked by a doctor. Counterintuitively, he is having a good time, but it is because—as we’re about to find out—he’s got a plan to take over the asylum, and nothing that has happened is diverging from it. He let Batman arrest him, he is happy to be wheeled into Arkham Asylum, and he is glad that Batman is with him. Batman, in his mind, belongs there with him.

This scene is reversed later in the game. When Batman has a run-in with Scarecrow, he is injected with Scarecrow’s fear toxin, causing him to enter into a hallucination. In the hallucination, it is Batman who is being wheeled into Arkham Asylum, and the Joker and Harley Quinn escort him down the entrance hall. Scarecrow, in place of the doctor, inspects him, and claims that the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents “left him quite insane.”

We must remember at this point that this is happening in Bruce’s head, that his fears are being magnified and transformed into a false reality. Bruce is afraid that the Joker is right, that he really does belong in Arkham Asylum. He is afraid that his obsession with his parents’ death and his self-given responsibility as Gotham’s vengeful vigilante is sending him into madness.

This struggle is demonstrated quite well in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean. There, Batman is uptight and suppresses his affections. Surrounded as he is in Arkham by psychopaths, Batman is ever aware of human frailty and the tendency toward madness, and he is relentless with himself in resisting this tendency.

The Joker, on the other hand, is defined by his looseness. A good example of this is the way he describes himself in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Referring to the members of the established order, he says, “Their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke,” and then contrasts himself, saying, “I’m a dog chasing cars. I don’t have plans. I just do things.”

Similarly, Morrison depicts the Joker as one who plays fast and loose with a plethora of cultural standards—what is considered normal, civil, upstanding. Morrison’s Joker tries to get Batman to indulge some of his baser instincts. He even grabs Batman’s ass at one point and says, “Loosen up, Tight Ass!”

The Joker is loose. He just does things. He flows along, responding positively to his spontaneous affections and impulses. The Joker is the Id.

As explained by Freud, the Id is “a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations. … It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.”[1]

A clear connection can be made to how the Joker is commonly depicted. His “madness” is simply the eruption, magnification, and liberation of the Id. This is the madness he continually invites Batman into. The Joker wants Batman in Arkham because he knows that, deep down, Batman shares his same drive, and he wants Batman to stop suppressing it.

Batman, then, could be seen as the depiction of Superego, the parent-like instinct of suppression, restriction, and protection. The Superego resists the impulses of the Id and attempts to control through guilt and punishment. Batman, it could be said, is this kind of monster, this suppressive, self-restraining agent.

I, however, think the final portrait painted of Batman in Arkham Asylum is more consistent with the Ego, which achieves a balance between the demands of the Id and the demands of the Superego. Receiving information from and responding to what it encounters in the world, the Ego, as Freud wrote, “attempts to mediate between id and reality.”[2] The goal of the Ego is not unbridled passion, nor is it well-constrained order, but balance.

Batman achieves this balance at the end of Morrison’s Arkham Asylum. “Sometimes it’s only madness that makes us what we are,” he says, before starting his triumphant escape from the asylum. He is no longer nervously clenching his fists and his teeth while passively wandering through the asylum. Instead, he is battling villains, and using an axe to bust his way out. The Joker, witnessing this, looks at him with admiration.[3] Batman has loosened up. As Morrison says, he has conquered and “embraced the unconscious.”[4] He has “integrated his psychological demons and emerged stronger and more sane.”[5]

This is the Batman with whom we are most familiar. He is the one who acts outside the system, indifferent to the law, in the service of justice. Somewhat like the Joker, Batman just does things. He follows leads, responds to events, and even calls into question his own code. Batman can go rogue, he can play fast and loose with the rules, but he ultimately keeps himself under control, because he is bound to justice. This is the Ego, mediating between the demands of the Id and the Superego, in the greater interest of harmony and balance.

In Batman, we do see the temptation toward Superego. Morrison’s Batman, in particular, is at first nervous, on the edge, and trying as hard as he can to keep it together, to resist the “madness” of the Id. What Batman lands on, however, is a balance between Id and Superego, a mediation of impulses preferable to the Joker’s madness and the establishment’s coercion.

Jack Holloway studies Karl Barth and Marxist Theory at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is Secretary-treasurer of the International Society for Heresy Studies, and he holds a B.A. in biblical and theological studies from Regent University. He is also a musician, an avid beer-drinker, and a lover of film.


[1] Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1933), 105–106.

[2] Ibid., 110.

[3] Batman: Arkham Asylum, 25th anniversary edition, written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Dave McKean (New York: DC Comics, 2014), 64.

[4] Ibid., 62.

[5] Ibid., 66.

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