Why We’re Still Obsessed With The Batman’s Origin Story
The Batman is one of a seemingly endless procession of explorations of the Dark Knight's early days. We examine what makes this story so endlessly fascinating after over 80 years.
Matt Reeves’ The Batman takes us all back to the very early days of The Caped Crusader. He’s not quite the figure he will go on to be, and neither are his rogues. While Reeves didn’t want to do another “origin” movie, given the towering cultural behemoth that is the Christopher Nolan trilogy, with Batman Begins firmly occupying that space, The Batman is still deeply fascinated by that period for the character. It’s not so much the assembling of the costumes or a training montage, as much as the raw uncertainty, the flaws, and the incomplete nature of a larger entity. It’s an origin era Batman story that isn’t locked into the obvious “origin” beats, and thus has the room to explore the strange, early days of Gotham’s gruesome underbelly.
You’d think after over 80 years and multiple high-profile retellings of Batman‘s early days that there’d be nothing left to mine in those days. And yet The Batman is just the latest example of the appeal this period continues to have.
One is reminded of Frank Miller’s words: The idea that Batman is akin to a diamond. No matter the pressure, he won’t shatter. He’s a character you can interpret in any number of ways, in any number of tones, and the character remains Batman. It’s perhaps what draws legions of creative minds to him: that room to interpret, to bend a character that at this point cannot be broken.
As Grant Morrison once put it so eloquently in their final issue of Batman Incorporated:
“Batman always comes back, bigger and better, shiny and new. Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will.”
So why the endless fascination with this time in the Dark Knight’s life? What is it about Batman’s beginnings that we all find so irresistible? Why does that period remain so creatively exciting and fertile even now, 80 years later? And how do all the various vital beginnings of Batman fare when looked at together?
THE GOLDEN AGE
Crafted by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, the first time reader’s learned about “who he is and how he came to be” was a two page story first published in Detective Comics #33, just 6 months after his debut in Detective Comics #27, it’s a succinct summary for the character. It was reprinted shortly thereafter in 1940’s Batman #1, the comic that also introduced Joker and Catwoman to the world.
As far as origin stories go, the word “functional” comes to mind here. It’s very much something to be gotten out of the way. What’s perhaps most interesting about it is how it immediately positions the gun and gun violence in opposition to Batman. Prior to this origin reveal, Batman was largely a pulpy character in the vein of the era’s much loved hero The Shadow. And much like his pulp predecessor, Batman carried guns. It was only after this origin was first laid out that Batman would begin the slow climb from the shadows of, well, The Shadow.
The other really interesting thing the origin does here is display Bruce Wayne taking an oath in his youth: a sacred vow made by a child after exceptional trauma. So much of what’s here is the foundation of what comes later.
BATMAN: YEAR ONE
Creators would over the decades expand and reveal details that added onto said foundations. From the elaboration on Joe Chill in 1948’s Batman #47 to the condensation of all the accumulated details in 1980 mini-series The Untold Legend Of The Batman, the character’s beginnings still fascinated people. When DC Comics rebooted their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986 a new “definitive” iteration of the origin was required, one that would forever be cemented in their new “canon” for a new age.
And thus emerged the most ambitious attempt to explore those classic foundations of the Batman. Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, teaming with colorist Richmond Lewis and letterer extraordinaire Todd Klein, set about re-forging Batman’s origin for a new age and a new generation. Miller had just come off a spectacular revitalization of Daredevil, imbuing it with his heart and soul as a New Yorker, making the city’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood a key part of the book. He’d also just done The Dark Knight Returns, a sort of “final” Batman story that also echoed the beginnings of Batman with vivid flashback imagery, helping redefine how people perceived his roots. Now, fittingly, Miller was set to actually do the “first” Batman story, to reintroduce the Caped Crusader as we’d never seen him.
Miller and Mazzucchelli took the classic setup and used it to weave a grimy, atmospheric noir about a city on the fringe. Informed by the anxieties and experiences of Miller living in and around ‘70s and ‘80s New York City, Gotham came alive for a modern audience. The team never shows you what happened in the 12 years Bruce Wayne was away and how he became the person he did. It isn’t interested in that. Instead, it builds to the moment of Bruce’s nigh-mystical inspiration and his totemic transformation after seeing a bat: the moment The Man transcends into The Batman. Year One is the first time you don’t just know the details of Bruce Wayne’s past, but you feel it, particularly given the way Mazzucchelli illustrates it.
And the echo of that effect is all over every iteration of the origin since. Everything from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film to the recent Gotham TV show swims in its influence. Miller’s trademark emphasis on Martha Wayne’s broken pearls first seen in The Dark Knight Returns would go on to become a key fixture of Batman origin imagery.
BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM
The legendary Batman: The Animated Series brought a theatrical spinoff film, Mask of the Phantasm, which once again brought a new perspective to the Dark Knight’s early days. But rather than tread the same noir territory as Year One, Mask of the Phantasm opted for grand soap opera and tragedy. At its beating heart is a tragic romance, with Bruce Wayne very much a doomed romantic lead in the film.
The film’s most memorable moment is one that tackles young Bruce’s “vow.” It’s something we don’t really see in Year One, which opens on an adult Bruce Wayne. But here we see the reframing and recontextualization of that vow, the sheer nature of it, its possessive power over Bruce as he scribbles in his journals, thinking about his lost parents. It’s the first screen version to paint Bruce as a man bound to the promise he made as a boy. Mask of the Phantasm takes the intensity and haunting power of that vow, Bruce’s relationship to it, and mines it for emotional revelation. It’s perhaps best illustrated when adult Bruce Wayne stands before his parents grave and confesses that he never planned on being happy.
It’s a heartbreaking tribute to the price and pain of being Batman. It’s something that Robert Pattinson’s iteration echoes, as the path of his vow has led him to shocking circumstances he never could’ve imagined as a child.
After the widely mocked spectacle of Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, Batman needed another cultural revival. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer’s cultural revitalization of Batman took elements from much that came before (including Year One and Batman: The Long Halloween) and reforged Batman as a potent action hero for a new generation.
Batman Begins introduces a firmly a post-9/11 Batman, sporting more militaristic gear, a Batmobile akin to a tank, and who feels more like a trained soldier off to fight a war than ever before, a super-soldier by training, rather than serum. Every element is made sense of here, explainable as practical and realistic in some way, laying the groundwork for everything from the MCU and later DC movies from Man of Steel to Reeves’ The Batman.
Nolan’s love of the little details brought on the thrill of seeing every piece of the Batman legend assembled piece by piece, from the logo to the cape. There was also a delight in gadgetry, an aspect of the character long present but heightened and highlighted under the director who grew up adoring James Bond flicks. This was a Bruce Wayne who could always flash a charming grin and get out of any social situation (a markedly different approach from Matt Reeves’ eventual socially awkward goth weirdo, to be sure).
In 2013, DC Comics was ready to attempt a new iteration for a new age. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo had the task of reforging the beginning of Batman for a new era. It was a prospect that left Snyder anxious and it was in one of those moments of doubt that Grant Morrison, Snyder’s predecessor on the title, would give Snyder some advice, advice that Snyder would then pass from one Batman writer to the next. Namely, that you ought to give your Batman a birth and a death, a beginning and ending, treating him like your own the character. And thus Zero Year was born.
If Miller and Mazzucchelli created a defining ‘80s text of crime and noir, the creative team of Snyder and Capullo go totally the other way. Zero Year is the anti-Year One. The darker hues of a noir world are replaced by bright, almost pop-art colors. Instead of murky crime fiction, you have a post-apocalyptic disaster story. It’s not minimalism, it’s maximalism.
Rather than a story about the fears and anxieties around urban crime in the 1980s, it’s a sci-fi spectacle for the 2010s, preoccupied with the terror of climate change, overpopulation, and the nagging certainty that the apocalypse isn’t some distant possibility, but we’re already living through and must find a way past to rebuild.
Yet Zero Year still synthesizes everything from Miller to Nolan, creating an outrageous action hero in an absurd city. Batman is a dirt-bike riding, lion-punching Mad Max Batman taking on the Riddler. It’s here that we get Edward Nygma as a key early antagonist for the very first time, a choice echoed in Reeves’ The Batman.
Ultimately, The Batman is a film built on all this history. It’s a film that captures the grimy, noir atmosphere is rarely seen outside Year One and Batman: The Animated Series. It exists because of the much-respected and prestigious work that Nolan did. It even takes from Zero Year’s disaster story and runs with its choice of Riddler as the chief threat.
When you view all these stories in totality, for all their differences and divergences, they all fit together. They share a great deal, and it’s evident as to why the beginnings of the Batman are so compelling. He’s a typically silent, subdued character, and on the whole, once defined, doesn’t change much. He’s a force of nature. He’s The World’s Greatest Detective. He’s The Batman. So going back to when he’s not quite that, when he messes up, when he doesn’t know everything, but is on the path to becoming that force, there’s still room for an arc there. There’s an undeniable appeal in the irony of a man known for being in control not being in control (just witness the wild, almost feral vigilante he is at the start of The Batman, for example).
Most crucially, the beginning is where the character has the most room to grow, evolve, and change. It is when he is most emotionally raw, open, and humane. And even if you know the person he is eventually going to be, there’s a genuine thrill to the emotional journey of it. But there’s something else lurking beneath all of that.
Perhaps more than any other superhero, Batman’s story is one of a clash between the ideals of youth and the harsher realities of adulthood. It’s the boy’s vow and eternal fantasy, and we see it strike against reality most clearly in those early days. That’s when the sparks fly, where the most meaningful and rich clashes occur, as we see him heave and hope and struggle in ways that are more rare afterwards. It’s why that Mask of the Phantasm moment feels so potent, as we see a boy’s promise starkly at odds with a man’s reality.
Those early days best embody the core clash that makes him so appealing. It’s when you get to see the construction of “identity” most clearly, which is also such a core part of Batman. Whether it’s the “Bruce Wayne” of it all, or what Reeves calls “the Jungian shadow-self” of The Batman, there’s an unblemished purity to the character in the beginning, and that almost coming-of-age early period will never get tiring for those reasons. Not so long as it’s handled well and with distinct approaches by talented creators.
Each of these origin tales are ultimately about a man realizing the limitations of his own conceptions as a boy, and having to re-adjust his ideality to actual reality. They’re stories where a lonely boy learns to be less alone, and finds kin and companions who share his dreams. They’re stories of faith; faith in oneself, faith in others, and faith in a dream bigger than all of us. And stories like that will never go out of fashion.