Three of the most well known superheroes, Batman, Spiderman and Superman are all orphans. The loss of their parents is a defining moment in the lives of each of these characters. In both literature and film, orphaned characters are very common. This type of background provides many opportunities for deep character development. It also allows the audience to be sympathetic and understanding of the flaws of these characters. As Kimball (1990) explains: Orphans are at once pitiable and noble. They are a manifestation of loneliness, but they also represent the possibility for humans to reinvent themselves. Orphans begin with a clean slate because they do not have parents to influence them either for good or for evil. They embody the hope that whatever the present situation, it can change for the better. When orphans succeed against all odds, their success ultimately becomes ours. We can look to orphans and say, You see, there is hope for all of us if even this orphan child can overcome obstacles and succeed. (p. 559) Batman, Spiderman and Superman are all considered superheroes and the loss of their parents plays a large role in their transformation from regular people to their alter egos. Bruce Wayne is an eight year-old boy when he tragically witnesses the murder of his parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne. Through flashbacks in Batman Begins (2005) we learn that the family leaves the theatre when Bruce becomes afraid of bats in the production. They are walking in an alley when they are approached by a man who tries to steal his mother’s pearl
necklace. During the struggle both his mother and father are shot to death while Bruce is watching. Bruce will forever carry the guilt of feeling that it was his fault that his parents were killed because he was the one who wanted to leave the theatre. Bruce is a millionaire who grows up and vows to take revenge against criminals and corruption. He is constantly driven by the desire to avenge the death of his parents. He traveled the world trying to find his place because he did not have parents to guide him. He needs to find himself before he can help others. Eventually he returns home and he takes on a bat-themed persona to become a superhero. Batman does not have any super powers but he uses his intellect, physical strength, detective skills, science and his wealth to fight crime. He has a deep-rooted sense of justice. Bruce Wayne’s personality is detached and he does not have many close relationships outside of Alfred, the family butler. Alfred serves as his surrogate family after the death of his parents. Of the three superheroes discussed in this paper, Batman is the most relatable superhero because he is human and has no special powers. His guilt and fear are what drive him. His sense of failure from not saving his parents is something that always follows him. With the help of Alfred, he tries to honor his parents’ values while taking justice into his own hands. Batman is extremely strong willed and set in his ways. He will never back down from a challenge and is not willing to compromise his morals. His beliefs are strong and drive him to fight for justice. He was also afraid that if he did not fight crime there would be another young boy orphaned as he was. Had Bruce Wayne not been orphaned as a child, his path in life would have been very different.
Peter Parker suffers the loss of both his parents and his uncle who raised him after the death of his parents. Growing up there was nothing about his physical or social skills that would lead you to believe he would become a superhero. He was socially awkward and physically small and uncoordinated. Peter was bullied and lonely as a child. He grew very close to his Uncle Ben as result of his lack of friends. In Spider-Man (2002) we learn that Peter was bitten by a radioactive spider while visiting a genetics lab. By the next day he transforms into a stronger, more physically fit teenager. He realizes that he has superhuman speed, he can stick to any surface and he now has the ability to sense any kind of danger. Peter starts out by using his new powers for his own benefit. His Uncle Ben warns Peter with the famously quoted line, “With great power comes great responsibility.
Shortly after that Uncle Ben is killed by a robber who Peter let escape from the promoters office. Peter changes his life to become Spider Man and vows to avenge the death of his Uncle Ben. Even though he wears a superhero costume and is thought of as a hero, he does not feel that way. Despite the costume he still has many of the same insecurities he had as a child. He feels like an outsider in almost every situation. His super powers are just one more thing that makes him different from everyone else. His activities as Spiderman benefit the world around him, but do nothing to help his daily life. He is one of the most realistic superhero characters. Peter Parker worries about many of the same things that normal people do. He has money, relationship and confidence issues.
As Spiderman, he wants to save lives and vows to never let criminals get away. He tries to relieve some of the guilt that he feels about Uncle Ben’s death. He finds his purpose in helping others and making the world a better place.
Clark Kent lands on earth after his parents send him off his home planet of Krypton and it explodes. He lands in Smallville, Kansas where he is found and adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent. The Kents give Clark a humble, but loving home life. Through flashbacks in Man of Steel (2013) we learn that Clark discovered his X-ray vision, super hearing, flying and strength as a young boy. The discovery of these powers leads to him isolate himself from other people. He feels the need to hide these powers from people outside of Jonathan and Martha. After Jonathan dies in a tornado, Clark feels more lost and troubled and goes off to travel and find himself. Despite having superpowers he was unable to save his father. He had assumed that he could save the world. He feels disconnected from his homeland, his family and everything in his life. Man of Steel (2013) shows Clark Kent as a teenager who has not yet become Superman. He is still struggling with his powers and his loss of his parents. It is through his upbringing by the Kents that he develops a strong moral code and a sense of family. After a message from his late father to become Earths greatest protector, Clark embraces his role as Superman. He chooses to search and fight for truth and justice. Superman sacrifices his happiness in order to save others. He is determined to use his powers for the greater good. The superhero genre is very successful in the film industry. It is one of the reasons that these movies continue to be made. Each of these characters has an entire franchise based on them. Different writers, directors and actors have interpreted each of these characters. Each interpretation has some variance in the characters personality, but the main themes of being an orphan, loss, loneliness, resilience and determination are consistent in each of the different movies.
All three of the superheroes share some common traits based on their being raised without their birth families. They are all superheroes on the outside but all have insecurities on the inside. They all struggled as young children and had many fears based on the circumstances that made them orphans. Even though they all had shortcomings, they chose alter egos that were strong, determined and resilient. Their own inability to help those they loved was a driving force in their desire to help others. Without these deep-rooted insecurities they may not have had the strength to go from victims to superheroes.
Each of these superheroes is an outsider and loner in their real lives. They feel disconnected from most people and keep themselves closed off emotionally. The walls they put up around themselves make it easier for them to disappear and become their superhero alter egos.
The lack of many close relationships and obligations is filled by the overwhelming sense of responsibility they feel toward helping other people.
Guilt is also an underlying theme for each of these characters. They all inadvertently played a role in the loss of their parents and loved ones. Batman believes that his fear of bats led his family to the alley where his parents were murdered. Peter Parker was orphaned and then played a role in the death of his Uncle Ben. Superman did not use his powers to save his adopted father, Jonathan Kent. Each character has devoted their life to helping others to help them deal with the guilt of not helping their loved ones when they needed them.
So, with all these flaws how are they superheroes? The same traits that drag them down also help to make them determined and resilient. They know that they need to depend on themselves and that they have an inner strength that prevails when they are in their superhero roles. They are no longer passive in the face of danger.
Despite all the shortcomings that we see in each of these characters, we truly believe in their roles as superheroes. Batman, Spiderman and Superman have amazing powers and strengths, but those strengths are offset by their emotional baggage. The viewing audience empathizes with their tragedies and failures. We want to root for their successes knowing that they were hard won. Who does not love a story of an underdog who becomes a hero? Hollywood sure does, because they continue to bank on that storyline and audiences continue to line up for these movies.
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