If you’re a film buff, chances are you’ll have seen The Batman – on the surface yet another rehash of a cinematic franchise, but in reality, one of the darkest and most disturbing films you’ll see on the big screen this year.

In the 1960s world of Adam West’s Batman, Bruce Wayne’s caped crusader alter ego was, inevitably, the matinee idol stereotype of the good guy (albeit with a somewhat camp style and corny gag portfolio) roaring to the rescue in the Batmobile from a cave almost certainly borrowed from the Thunderbirds set.

Yet, right from the outset the original DC Comics back story to Wayne’s metamorphosis into so-called superhero was unremittingly dark: after witnessing his parents’ murder on the streets of Gotham City as a young boy, he uses his vast wealth to fight crime.

Except he is driven to cleanse Gotham City of its diabolical criminal fraternity not by any sense of moral duty, but by the insatiable pursuit of vengeance that is rooted in his own post-traumatic stress.

This story arc of an emotionally broken avenger is the backbone of the Batman stories in the comics in which he was brought to life, where his relentless pursuit of justice ultimately puts the safety of Gotham’s innocent citizens in danger, and himself the wrong side of the law.

And it is this journey that becomes a point of focus for the latest movie, which stars Robert Pattinson in the title role.

No spoilers here – everything relating to the movie in this article was well publicised long before it hit cinemas – but initial audience research shows that the main talking point for those who have seen it is not the action sequences, the gadgets, or the villains, but the emotional collapse of the main character.

The DC universe has form for making their heroes’ and villains’ mental health a key plot component.

The previous two occasions on which the Joker has featured in big screen releases – played in movie-stealing style by the late Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight (shortly before the actor himself succumbed to the effects of poor mental health by taking his own life), and then by Joaquin Phoenix in Joker in 2019 – both hinged on the character’s mental freefall.

Both men won Oscars for their performances – Phoenix for Best Actor and Ledger, posthumously, for Best Supporting Actor. Both films opened debates about the scale and impact of mental health in our global society.

They weren’t the first. Hollywood’s past is crammed with movies that seek to begin or continue conversations about how people struggle to make sense of themselves and the place they occupy in the word.

In 1947’s It’s A Wonderful Life the desperate and broken George Bailey is saved from suicide by guardian angel Clarence, who shows him how much worse the plight of others whose lives he touched might then be were he to succeed in his attempt.

Three years earlier Gaslight explored the mental decline of a woman whose husband creates a series of constructs designed to convince her she is losing her mind. 80 years later, the film’s title would become the byword for the 21st Century version of that emotional manipulation.

The list, though, is endless and far too long to repeat here. Psycho, Vertigo, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Midnight Express, A Beautiful Mind, Little Miss Sunshine, and dozens more besides would feature on it.

Each, in its own way, has helped to engage audiences in a debate about mental health and to foster greater understanding of – and education around – how it influences and affects all of us in our daily lives.

Art has always been a great educator – whether it’s literary, musical or visual – because it pulls off the trick that escapes almost all of us in real life by creating stories around themes that are often difficult to confront.

Too often, attempts to educate us on important but challenging subjects can take on the finger-wagging hectoring of enforced lecture.

And it is precisely because these themes and issues are important that they become difficult to debate and discuss. Passion teeters into confrontation, which triggers defensiveness and a rush toward justification, creating a reluctance for those on both sides to really hear what is being said.

Being able to relate them back to fictitious narratives allows us to depersonalise them. We can discuss and challenge the concepts, themes and impacts of mental health, or race, or sexuality, or anything else, in a context that is less likely to be interpreted as a direct judgment on someone’s real lived experience.

You shouldn’t have to be a qualified mental health practitioner to be allowed to have a view on the state of mental health or the effectiveness of the social care system. But you do need to be open to becoming educated about it.

Ditto race, sexuality, religion and pretty much any other point of human difference.

If we can find different ways to tell each other stories that help us to better understand the world around us and the people who live in it, we have a chance to encourage the conversations that will help us all to change things for the better.

And if we give mental health the Hollywood treatment, we may also have a chance of achieving small but positive change in the script for those who struggle with their emotional wellness.

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About Zoë Clews

Zoë Clews is the founder of Zoë Clews & Associates and is one of the most successful and sought-after hypnotherapists working in the UK today. She has spent the last 17 years providing exclusive, highly-effective hypnotherapy treatment to a clientele that includes figures in the public eye, high net worth individuals and professionals at the top of their careers. An expert in all forms of hypnotherapy treatment, Zoë is a specialist in issues relating to anxiety, trauma, self-esteem and confidence. She works with nine Associates who are experts in their own fields and handpicked for their experience and track records of success, providing treatment for an extensive range of conditions that include addiction, weight loss, eating disorders, relationships, love and sex, children’s issues, fertility problems, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and sleep issues.  She takes inspiration from her own emotional journey and works with both individuals and blue-chip corporates who want to provide mindfulness support for their people either on a regular or occasional basis, or as part of an employee benefit scheme.