Why Has Batman’s Origin Remained So Iconic?
Batman may be one of the greatest superheroes of all time. Not only is he accepted in the ranks of heroes far more powerful than him, but he has also stayed more or less the same since his debut in 1939. While other characters throughout comics and the rest of fiction have undergone too many reboots, retcons, and updates to keep track, Batman has retained the majority of his basic features, not the least of which is his origin story.
In case readers somehow don’t know the story or need a refresher, Batman’s origin goes like this. Young Bruce Wayne (eight to ten years old) and his parents, Thomas and Martha, are walking through an alley in Gotham City at night. A man with a gun approaches them, demanding valuables. In the ensuing altercation, both Thomas and Martha are shot and killed as Bruce watches. The trauma haunts him for years, eventually motivating him to become a vigilante crime fighter. His ultimate goal is to prevent the tragedy of his childhood from happening to anyone else in Gotham.
Almost 80 years of Batman comics, television shows, films, and animated movies have used this same origin story. Of all superheroes, why has this character’s backstory stayed the same over the years? What makes it timeless enough to survive the generations?
Who Killed Batman’s Parents?
Before diving in to why this origin has remained mostly the same, it is worth acknowledging how it has changed. One thing that does not remain constant is the identity of the Waynes’ murderer.
The first and most common character in the role was Joe Chill. In Batman #47 (June-July 1948), Batman finds Chill, who has become a small-time crime boss in the years since killing the Waynes. Batman no doubt struggles with the question of taking final vengeance on his parents’ killer, despite his usual aversion to killing. However, when Chill’s henchmen learn their boss created the superhero striking fear in the hearts of Gotham’s criminal underworld, albeit unwittingly, they kill him. The comic book writers spare Batman from the choice and the guilt of either breaking his most important rule or leaving Chill alive.
In the 1989 film Batman, the Waynes’ murderer is changed to Jack Napier, a sociopathic mobster who later becomes the Joker (a character just as long-lived, well-known, celebrated, and frequently analyzed as Batman). At the end of the movie, Batman realizes the Joker, the criminal terrorizing the city, is his parents’ killer. Most likely motivated by this fact, Batman forces the Joker to fall out of a helicopter to his death.
Another version of the murderer’s identity provides a third version of Batman’s response. In the TV show Gotham, the Waynes’ killer is a man called Matches Malone. The show’s version of Bruce Wayne, still a child, finds Malone and, like other incarnations of Batman before him, considers killing the murderer of his parents. However, in an important moment of character development, Bruce chooses to use Malone for long-term strategy rather than exacting immediate vengeance.
Over the years, this aspect of Batman’s origin has been updated in parts of the canon, if not outright changed. In the movie Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul takes credit for the economic pressures in Gotham that led to the murder of Bruce’s parents. This may be why Batman lets Ra’s die in a train crash.
Many Batman stories include a secret society called the Court of Owls that controls many rich and powerful people in Gotham. When Thomas and Martha Wayne interfered with the Court’s affairs, so the story goes, they were killed at the Court’s behest. The Court of Owls then became another enemy of Batman.
Updates like these mainly add another character (or shadowy entity) for Batman to target and another opportunity for him to make a difficult decision. Indeed, the reason this detail of his origin is flexible is to provide multiple opportunities for character development. Sparing (technically) a small-time crime boss is one thing. But the realization that the Joker killed the Waynes, in addition to everyone else he had murdered and would murder with absolutely no remorse, was the straw that broke the 1989 film’s Batman’s morals, in that case. This poses the question to everyone in Batman’s audience: what would it take to make you break your own moral boundaries?
An Infinite Multiverse of Dead Parents
Even stories set in alternate universes often give Batman an origin story similar to the “Earth-1” canon. The versions that are different lead to an intentionally altered Batman. Writers usually envision a new Batman first and then give him an origin that explains how he became different from the canon. One example is the child-like comedic parody whose parents were merely shoved by a bully, not killed.
Another example makes an appearance in Superman: Red Son. A Russian known as Batmankoff was orphaned by the KGB and grew up to be an anarchist challenging the Soviet government, including a communist Superman.
A similar situation began the story of Owlman. This alternate Earth doppelgänger was made to be Batman’s evil opposite. Owlman’s family was killed not by a mugger but by the police, causing him to declare war on the law rather than the criminal underworld.
In “To Kill a Legend!”, Batman from the original canon travels to another universe where another version of the Wayne family is about to face the same tragedy he went through. When Batman appears in the alley and saves the Waynes, young Bruce is inspired and later takes up the mantle of Batman out of gratitude instead of vengeance. This alteration to the origin makes a much happier version of the character.
In the universe of The Flashpoint Paradox, a mugger shot young Bruce instead of his parents. Thomas Wayne killed the criminal immediately and went on to murder many more, even using guns, as a much darker version of Batman.
The most likely reason the Batman of the Flashpoint universe was so different from the original is the tragedy struck in his adult life. He did not devote decades to training like Bruce did, but also, the trauma affected his grown mind differently.
As clinical psychologist Dr. Ali Mattu explains it, “trauma happens when a fundamental belief you have has been challenged in some way.” Young Bruce Wayne, like many children, likely saw his parents as constant and untouchable presences. Seeing them die like that challenged this fundamental belief, with lasting consequences such as an aversion to guns and killing. As Jeff Parker, one of the artists who worked on Batman, said in a PBS interview, “his origin is focused on his parents’ murder, and opposing fatal action like that is core to who he is.” Flashpoint’s Thomas Wayne, on the other hand, had different beliefs and so experienced different trauma and handled it in different ways.
The traumatic aspect of Batman’s origin may be the key to its long-lasting influence. According to an article in the Atlantic, Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, experienced a traumatic event in his own childhood. He got into a fight with a gang of bullies, fancying himself a younger version of Zorro, his favorite movie hero. Not only did he lose the fight, but he lost two other important things: his violin and, briefly, use of his drawing hand. This event stayed with Kane for years and apparently influenced the character he would go on to create.
Another effect of Batman’s childhood trauma is anger toward thugs and common criminals. He is convinced that muggers in dark alleys are the scum of Gotham that need stopping.
Compare to Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen, especially the one portrayed on the CW’s Arrow. His father died in front of him as well, but it was due to the acts of corrupt businessmen. Thus, Green Arrow focuses on corruption in his city. He targets the heart of the disease, as it were, while Batman seems to mostly focus on symptoms.
Green Arrow is based on Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, while Batman is based around striking fear in the hearts of cowardly and superstitious criminals. The differences in their origins reflect this difference in their characters.
The importance and impact of Batman’s origin story have contributed to its timelessness. In fact, its influence extends into the past and future, even outside comics.
The Dead Parents Trope
Batman being an orphan was by no means an original idea. It doesn’t take much study of storytelling to realize dead parents is a trope so common it’s sometimes considered cliche, especially in superhero stories.
YouTuber Ben Carlin once explored the Orphan Trope (or at least the One Dead Parent Trope) in Disney films and the rest of fiction, including Batman. He gave this reason for so many storytellers using it: “Perfect isn’t interesting… But the [story] about the kid who works after school to help support a single mother and then goes home and stays up late eating a dinner they cooked for themselves… is interesting because we are watching our hero make a decision. We are watching them make the right decision, despite having a perfectly acceptable excuse not to. And we all want to be that person, or at some point in our lives have wanted to be that person… These stories allow you to live vicariously through a precarious situation.”
Although those of us with parents do not envy Bruce Wayne’s situation, many of us would like to be someone as capable as Batman. We understand that normal people do not become Batman, and it takes a significant event to motivate someone to turn themselves into Batman. We admire Bruce Wayne even more for choosing to be Batman when he could have handled his trauma in worse ways. Even if we can’t relate to Batman’s specific tragedy, we can take his actions as encouragement to turn our own hardships into motivation to help people.
This trope carries through even Batman’s own story. Dick Grayson lost both of his parents at once in an origin story similar to Bruce Wayne’s. Bruce took Grayson in and trained him to become Robin, Batman’s sidekick. He helped Grayson use his childhood trauma in a very similar way to how Batman uses his own.
On the cartoon Batman Beyond, an old and retired Bruce Wayne trains Terry McGinnis to be a new Batman. Terry is motivated by the murder of his father, again reusing the tragic trope of the original Batman. Terry even gets opportunities to challenge his father’s killer, like his predecessor before him.
The Dead Parents Trope does not feel especially repetitive with Dick Grayson or Terry McGinnis because it is a time-honored and well-executed trope.
Bruce Timm, one of the artists who worked on Batman, put it this way: “All those different versions of Batman, they’re all equally valid. That’s the weird thing about it. You can play Batman as the happy-go-lucky father figure… and then you can take it really, really dark because of the… very, very dark origin story.” Every time Batman is rebooted or re-imagined – whether it is to fit a new era or to appeal to a new audience or just to answer, “What would happen if…?” – the fact that his origin story still fits the character is a testament to the power and timelessness of that story, which further justifies the continued use of the story in the next iteration of Batman.
In the end, Batman’s origin story stresses his humanity. The cape-and-cowl-wearing persona was born the night Bruce Wayne’s parents died. But unlike Clark Kent’s secret identity or Peter Parker’s masked persona, Batman is just as human as Bruce – “no superpowers, no alien origins, and no foster parents who inspired him to use his powers for good,” as PBS Newshour said.
And just as with all the examples of the Dead Parent Trope, Batman’s humanity makes him very relatable. Batman artist Robert Greenberger explains the story taught us, “you didn’t need to come from another planet. You didn’t need a power ring from another galaxy. You just needed to be the very best human being you possibly could be.”
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