National Edition

Batman's true mission: The search for familial stability

Published: Wednesday, July 23 2014 3:45 p.m. MDT

A masked woman carries a child in a Batman costume during the Boitata block party, a pre-Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014.

Leo Correa, Associated Press

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The strange thing about Batman's enduring success is that there technically isn't anything special about him. Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter ego exist in a world where the innocent are largely protected by fantastical aliens or superhuman men and women who run at preposterous speeds and can talk to fish.

Batman, one of the most beloved — and timeless — characters in the history of comic books, has no special powers. He was not struck with radiation in a freak accident or born with the ability to walk through walls. When he runs too fast, he gets tired. When he falls, he gets hurt. He's just like you and me.

So how has he managed to keep people's interest for 75 years?

There are many possible answers to this question. But among them lies an area of Batman's mythology seldom explored that can help explain why so many for so long have found themselves caught up in his stories.

For those unfamiliar with the mythology, Batman's origins were born out of tragedy, like many superheroes before and after him. There is nothing particularly unique about his back story; the loss of his parents in a random robbery gone awry served as the inspiration for him fighting for justice and order. Superman, the first real "superhero," emerged from similar circumstances: He narrowly escaped the destruction of his home planet while he was still a baby, leaving behind his biological parents, orphaned on Earth. One of the many incarnations of The Flash, Barry Allen, came to be because his mother was murdered while he was young and his father was sent to jail. Tragedy, and particularly familial tragedy, have more often than not played an important role in the foundation of many a superhero.

But unlike Superman or The Flash, Batman's tragedy left him isolated in his own fallible humanity. At a young age — and with some help from his loving adoptive parents — Superman learned that he had superhuman powers. The Flash also benefitted from the company of an astonishing gift because of a freak accident involving a bolt of lightning and some very hokey science.

Because of this, Batman — whose inspiration draws more from pulp crime novels than science fiction and fantasy stories — quickly became a vehicle for exploring the frustrations of urban decay instead of dwelling on the fantastical (of course, that didn't last forever). Unlike Metropolis or even Spider-Man's New York City, Gotham has consistently been portrayed as a city run by corruption. The streets are dirty, the people are lonely and the police do little to help anyone but themselves.

A key factor in this display of inner-city tragedy has been the broken or struggling family. Though Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman's creators, may have intended his tragic backstory as a largely benign element (some have even suggested it was used only as a way to give Batman a reason not to use a gun, thus appeasing the Comics Code Authority), his lack of any superhuman ability has allowed the stories over the years to focus heavily, sometimes exclusively, on how that tragic moment impacted his life. The death of his parents, in Batman's eyes, was a crime of social justice. To grow up in a stable home is a right that should be awarded to all. Hammering in the point further, Bruce Wayne is depicted as an inheritor of great wealth who has little love and even disdain for his money. His parents' fortune can do nothing to right the wrong of his loss. Nothing, except helping him stop it from happening to anyone else.

One poignant scene in Christian Bale's first depiction of the character, "Batman Begins," shows Batman about his duties in the slums of Gotham. As he hangs from the side of a house, stressing to spy inside, he hears faint arguing in the background. When he looks to his side, he sees a young boy who has wandered outside his home into the rain, away from where his parents are yelling at each other.

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