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The Batman should take a cue from MCU's Spider-Man when it comes to trauma and grief

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Feb 28, 2019, 6:00 PM EST

How many times have you seen Martha and Thomas Wayne die? 10? 15? It probably depends on how many Batman films, TV shows, video games, and comic books you’ve consumed, but if you’re even a casual viewer of Batman media, you’re probably familiar with the scene where both parents die.

Though it varies from depiction to depiction, the scene generally plays out with the Waynes and their young son Bruce going to the theater. As they leave the production (sometimes because Bruce gets scared during the showing), a supposedly random mugger shoots and kills both parents in front of their doe-eyed son. The cruel murder and his role in it shape Bruce as a person, eventually resulting in him becoming the vigilante known as Batman. Of course, Bruce did nothing wrong, but he internalizes his parents’ murder as being his fault, something many who grieve can probably relate to.

It’s a tidy origin story: Rich kid grows up and vows to avenge his parents’ murder by cleaning up the crime-infested Gotham City. There isn’t really time here to get into how messed up it is that Bruce tackles petty crime instead of institutional crime: that’s an essay for another day! The basic structure of Batman's origin is familiar, compelling, and something we’ve seen enough of at this point. And, with a new Batman in the works, what better time to move away from the death of the Waynes.

Batman Begins

Credit: Warner Bros.

Writer, producer and director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, The Passage) is writing the script for the new film, currently titled The Batman, and will be directing as well. The Batman is tentatively slated to appear in summer 2021, although production has yet to begin. Ben Affleck has hung up the cowl and though there have been some fun rumors about who might play the Caped Crusader, no official casting announcements have been made. 

Reeves wants to tackle an aspect of Batman’s legacy that he feels has been missing from previous films. “He's supposed to be the world's greatest detective, and that's not necessarily been a part of what the movies have been,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. Reeves wants to show Batman in his most noir element, tracking baddies, solving crimes, and using his mad detecting skills to save the day.

His approach to the film is exciting, to say the least. Many of the adaptations we’ve seen so far are all growly-Batman or over-the-top-comical-Batman. Just the idea of getting to see the Dark Knight rendered in his full-blown noir glory might warm even the coldest of comic book lover’s hearts.

While Reeves is reasserting the style and substance of the Dark Detective onscreen, we’d like to suggest he might want to take a novel approach to Bruce’s origin story. The Waynes have died over and over and over again since their first death in 1939 in Detective Comics #33; onscreen, they have died over 12 times. It’s time to give their deaths — and their memory — a rest.

But, how, oh how, would one tell the story of Bruce Wayne, orphan turned vigilante, without showing his parents dying through gun violence? Dear reader, I am so glad you asked! Let’s visit another hero with a compelling, familiar, and tired origin story involving the shooting death of a beloved family member.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Credit: Marvel Studios

Oh hey, Peter Parker! Welcome to the grief and trauma party! We’re so glad you could make it.

Peter receives superpowers after being bit by a radioactive spider, but he truly becomes a hero after the death of his uncle. When a burglar that Peter-as-Spider-Man let go shoots and murders his uncle, Peter blames himself and his lack of action for the death of Uncle Ben. It is his uncle’s death that makes Peter decide to become a vigilante, using his Spidey powers to protect the innocent.

Again, we have a tight origin story that we all know very, very well from the films and comic books (the image of Tobey Maguire’s overwrought expression of grief will be emblazoned on my mind forever.) When Spider-Man: Homecoming brought Peter’s story to life within the MCU, many fans were surprised to see that his origin story, including the violent death of his uncle, was omitted.

Marvel executive Kevin Feige addressed the omission in an interview with CinemaBlend. “That was a very purposeful decision we made to not retread that ground. There are little things that are said here and there that people can read into.”

Those little things demonstrate that Uncle Ben has not been completely forgotten. In Homecoming, Peter wears his uncle’s clothing to homecoming and at one point, all Aunt May has “gone through” is mentioned. Viewers can infer that the death of a spouse is pretty high on that list of hard times.

Though we have only seen the teaser trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home, we already know Uncle Ben will be present with Peter on his journey, thanks to a very special Easter Egg. Peter is shown packing his bag for a trip to Europe, leaving his Spidey suit behind on purpose. When he clasps the suitcase closed, the camera cuts to the bag itself, revealing the monogrammed initials: BFP. Ben Franklin Parker. That’s right folks, our favorite web-slinger takes his uncle’s memory with him when he travels.

Not only does omitting the death itself allow Peter to evolve and change as a hero, but it also allows viewers to move on from the traumatic death. We don’t have to keep revisiting it over and over, seeing how director after director attempts to find a new angle and actor after actor tries to present a novel grief-stricken visage in response to the same horrific event.

Letting us pick up Peter’s story later after he gets started is clever both because it recognizes that viewers are savvy and have been watching superhero films for a very long time and because it feels much more genuine to the experience of grief.

When a parent or caregiver dies, it has a ripple effect across one’s life. It isn’t just the death itself, though if someone is present when a parent dies it can be incredibly traumatizing, but also the fact that one’s true north, so to speak, has been lost. Intense flashbacks are rare, but a lifelong sense of loss isn’t.

My father died when I was 26. I wasn’t a child, but his death was deeply traumatic for my sister and me as it opened old childhood wounds. Right after he died, for almost a year, his death was constantly on my mind. It wasn’t the loss that stuck with me, but the death itself, how he drew ragged breaths and how his heart was so strong, despite the rest of his body failing. I watched him slowly die over several days while reading him his favorite book. Meditating on those days still brings tears to my eyes. But as the immediacy of his death faded, the enormity of my loss came into focus.

Six years later, it is rare for me to think of my father’s death outside of important anniversaries, but his presence in my life is near constant. I wear an old sweatshirt of his. I keep his photo on my desk. His rodeo belt buckle keeps watch over me as I type these words. My father walks with me, lives through me. His memory gives me strength and reminds me not to take things so seriously.

Like Peter, I carry my father with me, but I no longer obsess over his death. Life is unkind. Fate hands out unfair deals. People die. Yes, even tragically. And those left behind heal, grow, and change. Isn’t it about time we had a Batman that did, too?

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