Batman’s origin story is a familiar one. I’d wager many people who know of the character know why he put on the mask and became a hero. Young Bruce Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents, and the event crawled into his soul and left a permanent mark – as it of course would. The event led to him putting on the cowl and fighting crime in hopes of saving some lives and preventing other kids from suffering as he did.
As with any watershed moment such as that one, there are always “what if” questions. What if the Wayne family hadn’t left the house that night? What if they’d left the theater a little later? What if they’d chosen a different route home? Thinking about the possibilities is enough to drive a person crazy. One of many reasons why it’s not good to live in the past. You can’t change it… mostly.
In “To Kill a Legend” by Alan Brennert and Dick Giordano (part of the 500th anniversary celebration of Detective Comics), Batman is granted a chance from Phantom Stranger to travel to 40 years in the past to another dimension’s Earth and change the course of history for that Bruce Wayne. Batman jumps at the chance, and Robin tags along because he knows it’s not a situation in which Batman can remain objective. Well played, Robin.
The 19-page story pulls back Batman’s armor. We see his thoughts and that yes, he embraces being Batman whenever it gets too painful to be Bruce Wayne. It’s a coping mechanism. There are selfless aspects to him traveling to the other Earth and helping a different Bruce Wayne, but mostly, it’s about easing his own mind. And that’s not necessarily a bad motivation.
While Batman tries to locate his parents’ killer, Joe Chill, Dick astutely observes that the Earth they’re in doesn’t seem to have any costumed heroes. He doesn’t see Krypton in the sky, and there isn’t even any heroic mythology to motivate people. He begins to worry that if Batman is successful that this alternate Earth Bruce Wayne will never put on the mask, never be the inspiration for others to do the same, and the world will never have any superheroes – Dick doesn’t think they’re better off that way.
The events leading up to the murder of the Waynes in this world don’t follow the same exact path. The date of the murder is a different, the movie the Waynes tried to go to was sold out, and the killer is someone else. Still, the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne appears to be a fixed and unavoidable point… until Batman intervenes. Robin felt conflicted about denying this Earth Batman but ultimately decided he couldn’t let innocent people die.
What Batman and Robin don’t get to stay around to see is that the event still altered Bruce Wayne forever. Instead of being pushed forward by anger and grief, the kid takes the encounter to heart. He watched Batman save his parents and saw that death could be averted. He changed from a spoiled brat to a studious kid devouring books like Sherlock Holmes and The Psychology of Crime. He starts training physically too and already pushes himself to become stronger.
The alternate Earth Bruce Wayne will eventually put on the cowl and cape and become Batman. But as the comic says: “And when he does, it will not be a decision born of grief, or guilt, or vengeance but of awe and mystery and gratitude.” Now back to the what if game, what if the Batman we knew was like the one just described? What if he had more positive reasoning for becoming the hero he is? Does the specific motivation really matter if he’s saving the world? I think it does, and I’d like to meet the Batman inspired by gratitude instead of anguish.