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