How Tim Burton's 'Batman' Ruined Super Hero Movies

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The 1989 Batman was one of the biggest films of my childhood. Aside from my personal resonance, it launched a huge boom in comics. It also made a major change to the Batman mythos–that the Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents.

Do I really need spoiler warnings for a 26 year old film?
Do I really need spoiler warnings for a 26-year-old film?

I understand why a writer would do this, but there are a thousand reasons why I hate this. We’ll get to the main one in a second, but the most basic reason is because this suddenly became a trend in the comics themselves. Heck, it’s even been retrofitted to other Batman villains, like Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins. I’m not claiming the trope didn’t exist before (heck, one could argue it is the entire hook of Star Wars), but after Batman, it became the rule rather than the exception. Here are some (spoiler-heavy) examples.

In Spider-Man: Chapter One, numerous villains’ origins are tied to the original accident that created Peter Parker.

This makes the Clone Saga almost look good. Copyright: Marvel Comics.
This makes the Clone Saga almost look good.
Copyright: Marvel Comics.

While this book is (thankfully, for many reasons) no longer considered Spider-Man’s origin, we see this time and again with re-tellings of Spider-Man’s origin. Be it in Ultimate Spider-Man, the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, or the more recent Amazing Spider-Man movies, Peter Parker now always seems to owe his existence to Norman Osborn’s machinations. Interestingly, Osborn didn’t even appear until several years into the Spider-Man run (1964 as the Green Goblin, 1966 out of costume).

And that’s not even touching on the revelation that Peter Parker’s parents were super-spies and killed by The Red Skull (not the Nazi one, the Communist one. Don’t ask). That pre-dates Batman, though, and has never really been used in other media, so we’ll give it a pass.

The Flash
 I’m not a huge fan of the death of Barry Allen’s mother. Corrina nails many of the reasons why, but it’s not those. It’s because until 2009, The Flash didn’t even need a dead parent as a motivator. Flash’s mother was killed in the comics by The Reverse Flash to make Flash a “better hero.” In reality, it was to establish Zoom as the Flash archfoe. The others are still there, but he’s the real deal.

Season finales should feel like a punch to the head. Source: CW.
I just can’t stop picking on this show. Source: CW.

Oh, and the original Reverse Flash is revealed to be a descendant of Barry’s never-before-heard-of twin brother, who is the villain Cobalt Blue. You don’t get more intertwined than that. Because even Mark Waid can write the occasional stinker.

The Kingpin is such an integral part of Daredevil that I don’t think many people even remember he was once a Spider-Man foe. The 2003 Daredevil film (watch the Directors Cut, you guys – actually watchable) had the Kingpin actually be the person who killed Jack Murdock. He’s also been inserted into Matt Murdock’s early days in such comics as The Man Without Fear (aka Year One, But Daredevil This Time).

But love this art. Copyright: Marvel Comics.
Seriously though, good comic. Go buy the trade.
Copyright: Marvel Comics.

Thankfully, the Netflix series discards this, and we get a Daredevil who does not meet the Kingpin until the latter is well established.

Captain America
Fun fact: The Red Skull is originally a random bellhop whom Hitler picked to prove that he can make any German the superior of Captain America.

Proof via Copyright: Marvel Comics.
Proof via
Copyright: Marvel Comics.

Now, the MCU has it so that instead of the Skull being a reaction to Cap, it’s the other way around. The Red Skull now came first, and Cap would not exist if not for him.

Zod was a great addition to the Superman mythos. An evil Kryptonian with a mad-on for revenge on the son of Jor-El? Great. Tying the actual destruction of Kypton to Zod’s uprising, as has been done in some media, or having Jor-El (Superman’s dad, you guys) and Zod be former besties always seems like too much. And as much as I loved Superman: The Animated Series, they’re absolutely guilty of tying the origin of the hero with that of the villain in the way they revealed Brainiac to have originally been the super-computer that ran Kyrpton, and lied that it was going to be destroyed. Which, come to think of it, makes him responsible for both Superman and Supergirl.

Superman, though, brings to mind an interesting point; the Batman movie wasn’t the first time a character and his arch-foe were ret-conned to have pivotal importance. At some point in the murky depths of time, Lex Luthor went from being a random villain to being a childhood friend of Superboy’s, who hated the Boy of Steel for making him lose his hair.

Lex is one bitter kitten. Source: DC Comics.
Lex is one bitter kitten.
Copyright: DC Comics.

The difference here is that it’s the bad guy’s origin that depends on the hero. That works, just like Doctor Doom’s overblown hatred of Reed Richards works. The FF are another good example of this, by the way: both Doctor Doom and the Mole Man were tied to the Fantastic Four’s origin in Ultimate Fantastic Four, the Heroes Reborn origin tied their cosmic ray storm to Galactus, and they keep tying Doom and the team’s origins in the movies.

Why does this work for me when it’s a bad guy? Because “you ruined my life” is the motivation of an antagonist, not a hero. It’s the start of a mad quest for revenge.

Which brings us back to Batman. Batman is motivated by his parent’s death. If his parents are murdered by Ra’s, the Joker, or Metallo (yes, that was an actual story line), then Bruce Wayne spends his life training to fight Ra’s, the Joker, or Metallo (or some guy who used to bully him in school). Once they are gone, there’s essentially no reason for him to continue–he’s won (suddenly the ending to The Dark Knight Rises makes more sense, eh?). But when the Waynes are killed by a nameless mugger (Joe Chill wasn’t named for almost a decade), then Batman is the enemy of all criminals.

The same logic extends to some of the above heroes. If Daredevil lost his dad to a corrupt city, he wants to save his city; but if he’s hunting the Kingpin, then he’s done. If Spider-Man’s uncle was shot by a mugger he didn’t stop earlier, then he learns the lesson of With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility; if it was the Sandman, then once he stops the Sandman he’s done his part… and it goes on.

I get that tying a hero and villain’s origins together creates emotional drama, and I understand that origins are hard. The whole reason the X-Men exist is essentially because Stan Lee got tired of thinking of snazzy way to give people powers. But heroes should have origins that create… heroes. People who want to save the world, not just get revenge on the person who hurt them.

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6 thoughts on “How Tim Burton's 'Batman' Ruined Super Hero Movies

  1. Great! It seems that the Greek style of hero has been replace with the pulp style. No longer is the hero story a setup for the ultimate defeat due to their tragic flaw. Now they rise up to meet the challenge of the injustice. I wonder if this is because the Tragic hero story has to end to be realized or if the audience in general doesn’t want the “fly in the pudding”.

  2. I see the whole ‘Joker Killed The Waynes’ thing as an extension of studios’ fears of overwhelming the audience.
    For ages, there was this feeling that audiences would only accept ‘one weird thing’. So okay, Superman’s an alien crimefighter, but no Metallo, no Brainiac, no Terra-Man, Parasite or Mister Mxyzptlk. We can have this one thing (alien superman) but we can’t have cyborgs, space robots, high-tech cowboys, weird freaks of nature or interdimensional pixies.
    Luthor’s fine, because he’s just an evil rich guy (but even then, Donner made him an opportunistic huckster on the make rather than a high-tech supercriminal), and the Phantom Zone criminals were fine because they’re drawing from the same pool of oddness as Superman.

    Basically, they wanted to treat Superheroes like horror films where “sure, there’s an Incredible Shrinking Man or a Guy with the head of a fly, or vampires or whatever… but they certainly don’t co-exist. We don’t live in a world of this sort of thing. There’s just this one weird thing and everything else is the world outside your window.”
    That’s why George Reeves’ Superman, for the most part, fought mobsters, as did Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Nicholas Hammond’s Spider-Man, Tom Tyler’s Captain Marvel, Lee Majors’ Bionic Man. The only real exception was Adam West’s Batman, but he so blatantly lived in an absurd, cartoon universe where the audience can more readily suspend their disbelief.

    And so, to Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’, it’s the first in a new series, so he tried to play it safe. He had two weird elements – a masked crimefighter and a homicidal clown. There had to be some pressure to tie them together, just as Superman and the Phantom Zone Criminals of ‘Superman II’ were.
    Of course, with ‘Batman Returns’, he actually felt comfortable enough to introduce a weird sewer mutant in the Penguin and a vengeful supernatural revenant in Catwoman, but, of course, he was also increasingly turning Gotham City into a mad fantasyland – a Burtonesque take on the 60’s Gotham City.

    There were a couple of attempts to buck this trend – The Hulk meeting Daredevil and Thor, for instance, or The Flash having a predecessor in 50’s Pulp Hero, Nightshade, in the 90’s TV Series, but these were short-form exercises in building a larger superhero world.

    It wasn’t until Nick Fury appeared in the post-credits sequence of ‘Iron Man’ that Marvel managed to break that trend.

  3. Oh God.
    The Flash part was so wrong about everything…

    First of, Professor Zoom killed Nora, not Zoom.
    Then, its Thawne not Thawn and The revelation that Thawne killed Nora came in 2010 with Flash Rebirth.

    Also, on the series, Eddie isn’t Cobalt Blue, and his real name (Cobalt) is Malcolm Thawne.

    1. Thank you for catching the error with the spelling. I’ll fix that now.

      I’m aware that it came in 2010. My point isn’t that the comic changed for the show – it’s that the comic changed to be more like Batman ’89.

      And I didn’t say Eddie was Cobalt. I said ” the original Reverse Flash is revealed to be a descendant of Barry’s never-before-heard-of twin brother, who is the villain Cobalt Blue.”

      Not the same thing.

      Oh, and you’re right about Zoom. Not sure why i recalled it being Zolomon.

  4. Shyamalan used the whole hero/villain connection for Unbreakable which ended up confusing the heck out of many non-comics audience members at first. And in spite of the fact that it is not only hinted at in the opening, but Sam Jackson’s character explains it when the hero realizes who created the disasters.

    I don’t mind some of the “quid pro quo” hero & villain creations. But I have no need for every single one to have such.

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