Freud’s Super-Ego and Nolan’s The Dark Knight

by Emily Drouillard

Sigmund Freud, the famed Austrian considered to be the father of psychoanalysis, has certainly left his mark on the world of psychology through a variety of different theories, studies, and new forms of treatment. Freud was born in 1856 and died in 1939, just four months after the character of Batman was first introduced, in Detective Comics #27, published by DC Comics. Freud had most likely never heard of Batman, but the caped crusader’s escapades and adventures can actually lead us to a deeper understanding of the concepts and ideas about the mechanisms and mannerisms of the human mind and psyche the Freud introduced to the world. More specifically, the ways in which the film The Dark Knight help us to understand Freud’s concepts of the super-ego, ego, and id will be explored. The dramatically different central characters of the film provide actualization and representation of the three codependent concepts and their various influences and effects.

    One of the most recent adaptations of Batman is Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy, which begins with Batman Begins and concludes with The Dark Knight Rises. The second film, entitled The Dark Knight, was released in 2008. It will serve as the focus of this analysis, paired with chapters eight and nine in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.

The Dark Knight retains the classic Batman origin story in its plot, and integral tale that shapes Batman more than any other event in his life: a young Bruce Wayne, of the wealthy and influential Wayne family, owners of the highly profitable Wayne Enterprises, see his parents killed in cold blood in what appeared to be a random attempt at mugging in an alleyway. In many iterations of the hero’s story it is implied or often even discovered that the killer, Joe Chill, was hired by the mob in order to bring social and community destruction upon Gotham and to reap their own financial gain from the impact the deaths would have upon the company. In Batman Begins, he is released from prison for offering testimony against mob leader Carmine Falcone and is killed by one of Falcone’s men before Wayne can step in to finish the job himself in an attempt to circumvent the legal system and avenge his parents. A love interest Rachel, notes that Bruce’s father would be disappointed in him if he had followed through with the plan. Wayne confronted Falcone, who remarks that power comes from being feared. It is also established that Bruce, upon falling into a bat-infested well as a child, has a large fear of bats.

Bruce goes off to train around the world, returning to Gotham to save it from various villains, with justice being his true goal. He notably sets up his headquarters in the bat-infested caves below Wayne Manor, marking a point of personal growth. By the beginning of The Dark Knight, Bruce is playing rich playboy for the public while secretly fighting crime as Batman at night. He attempts to put more energy into his war on criminals and injustice by aiding James Gordon, a commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department, and Harvey Dent, the new district attorney. These two characters represent the law, especially Dent who is hell-bent on cleaning up Gotham. Tension arises between Dent and Wayne when the DA begins to woo Wayne’s romantic interest, Rachel – this tension mimics internal conflict between the Freudian concepts of the ego and the super-ego.

In this film, it is clear that Dent represents the super-ego. He is focused on making Gotham not only better, but perfect. Freud remarks that the super-ego acts as a conscience (114, 1961) and that “it is precisely those people who have carried saintliness further who reproach themselves with the worst sinfulness.” (117, 1961) Lieutenant Gordon, often seen as one of the most truly ‘good’ characters in the context of the entire Batman universe, provides a foil to show that Dent is not simply good, but an expression of the super-ego. Dent is clearly attempting to accomplish good, but puts more pressure on himself that is tolerable. Gordon, with his willingness to work for so long with a dangerous vigilante and notable falls from grace in other Batman stories, such as cheating on his wife and killing a mobster on a favor for a crime lord, shows a balance between striving to be great and to better Gotham while still living realistically without stifling oneself with pressure is possible for a normal citizen of Gotham.

The Joker in this film represents the id in a performance made even more chilling by the death of actor Heath Ledger due to drug overdose before its release. The id is commanded by want, instinct, and a need for instant gratification. The Joker exemplifies all of these traits through his destructive and at times almost childish manner. In true form with the id, the joker has no end goal or true plan. Yes, he plans out his capers and is clearly quite intelligent, but he is unbridled and uncontrollable, even by the mob. Despite their criminal ways and representation as the opposite of the law, the mob’s criminal underworld thrives on rules, planning, respect, and business. The Joker ignores all of these established parts of the mob and does as he pleases, even going so far as to burn a massive pile of money just to prove that he does not care, and is not in it for the money.

He represents chaos and animalistic side of human nature, many times throughout likening himself to a dog. The most relevant example of this is when Batman has the Joker in the police interrogation room and the criminal states that his attacks on Batman are like a dog chasing a car. Until this point, it seemed that the Joker wanted to ruin or kill Wayne’s alter ego, but he notes that realistically, what would a dog even do with a car if he caught it? The Joker laments the idea of going back to fighting with and between gangsters, as without the fun of playing with Batman, someone finally up to his own level of brilliance, he would be truly bored (The Dark Knight). The crimes he commits aren’t in pursuit of money, destruction of the city, or even his enemy Batman. This pivotal moment in the film brings his character into perspective, as does his stunt with the explosive boats in the river: he is the manifestation of the animal and chaos within humans, and not only is his looking to bring about meaningless destruction for personal enjoyment and release, but also to show that that capacity is retained inside of everyone, regardless of how much we try to train it away, as Freud would suggest we do through civilization and punishment (114, 1961).

Both the Joker and Dent are proven wrong in the film, showing that neither of the two extremes can function unchecked eternally. Freud would be happy with this interpretation, as he sees both as being destructive, and the super-ego as a stifling product of society and a self-imposed form of punishment even when chastisement is not being administered by an outside force (114, 1961). The punishment of criminals in Gotham was not very comprehensive or effective, so the lack of authority held by the GCPD is manifested in the mind of Dent, who places the daunting task of cleaning up the city upon him. The death of his girlfriend Rachel by an explosion at the hands of the Joker, which ultimately leaves half of his face burnt off, proves the be the breaking point for the Dent and the super-ego. He abandons his goodness and sense of humanity to become the villain Two-Face. His double-headed coin, seen as symbolic of his pursuit of good and true heroism, becomes burnt on one sign, a literal symbol of his corruption and final breaking point, now that he is confronted with the ‘bad’ side of himself that was kept stifled for too long. Without something to balance him out at his super-ego stage, he became unstable and broken. Even in possessing both the super-ego and id as Two-Face, it is shown that he is still very unstable and goes on a murderous rampage, as even those two extremes cannot balance each other out – they are simply two sides of the same coin. When attempting to enact his revenge, he yells that it’s “…not about what [he] want[s], it’s about what’s fair!” Without the ego to balance out the two, failure is imminent.

The Joker, and thus the id, is seen as failing most dramatically in the resolution of the boat scene. He relies on the dark and violent instincts we have when faced with high-pressure life-or-death situations in this scheme, hoping that the two ferry boats filled with passengers that each have detonators for the bomb on the other boat, will choose to blow up a boat in the hope of their own salvation. He announces to the two boats, one filled with criminals and one filled with civilians, that should they not choose to destroy a boat, both would be blown up at midnight. The passengers choose not to blow each other up, proving the Joker wrong and that chaos and anarchy cannot reign supreme.

The balance between these two extremes in found in the form of Batman as the ego. His tireless quest for justice is not plagued by seeking utter perfection, rather aided by his acceptance of animalistic urges within limitation. He is a hero known for attempting to never kill (which despite the death of Dent at the end of the film, is nonetheless a noble cause and proof of the control held over the id). He seeks justice and sees himself as a form of authority and responsible for dispensing it when the law has failed, but is not as strict as Dent in doing so. Wayne was also in love with Rachel but unlike Dent, did not lose himself at her death, rather used it as motivation for further justice. Batman allows himself the chance to beat up and yell at criminals, destruct within reason, and follow his own rules. By having balance, he is able to restrain intense reactions with Dent could not yet still let out his rage in a controlled way, which the Joker could not.

Batman provides the role of ego many times throughout the film. He represents it for Bruce Wayne as a balance between seeking justice and enacting revenge for his parents’ murders. He provides the balance for the Joker in giving him an opposite to chase and brawl with. And he provides it to Gotham by being the middle ground between the failing body of the law and the ridiculous chaos that it simply can’t contain.

Batman in The Dark Knight plays ego to the two extremes of id and super-ego, as represented respectively by the Joker and Dent. As Freud notes in chapters eight and nine of Civilization and its Discontents (1961), the super-ego, which is popularly seen as the conscience, is not necessarily always a good thing and that the internal authority it provides must be controlled through the ego. This film, through the rise and fall of Dent as a figure of good that turned bad under too much pressure, sheds some light on the murky and often confusing concept, especially through his coin. While it is important that we seek to be whatever our definition of good it, it must be within limit and without a requirement of perfection. The lust for good is just as dangerous as the lust for evil. Thus, the role of the ego comes to play as a way to control the two reasonably, even if it seems to be unwanted when one wants to let loose and be aggressive, or be as perfect as possible either for themselves or even a god. Batman, and thus the ego is, as Gordon remarks in the closing lines of the film, “…the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.” (The Dark Knight)


     The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan. 2008. Film.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961. Print.