WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! Spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man lie herein.
For as long as we have had heroes, we have had heroes without parents. From Moses all the way to Harry Potter, the orphan archetype has always resonated with audiences. When superheroes are involved, this trope seems to pop up even more. In fact, the three most widely known superheroes, (Batman, Superman, and Spider-man) have all lost their parents in one way or another. This experience works to both illustrate what it takes to be a hero while simultaneously framing what it means to be a hero.
When thinking of orphaned superheroes, most people would think of Batman first. The death of Martha and Thomas Wayne is so deeply connected to the character that it’s almost impossible to have heard of Batman and not be aware that his parents are dead. This is because the death of his parents is a great source of motivation for the character. As Batman, his parents’ death pushes him to clean up the streets of Gotham. He puts a sizeable portion of the money he inherits from them into doing this, and I’m assuming bat-shaped jets don’t come cheap.
bryan_batmans_parents_deadIt’s important to note, however, that losing his parents not only motivates Batman to fight crime, it also motivates Bruce Wayne to be a father. It’s easy to write off the colourful, youthful representations of Robin as being incongruous with a dark, isolated loner (holy understatement, Batman!). But the fact that all of Bruce’s male wards are orphans themselves points to something bigger. Bruce is constantly taking in orphan boys both for the purpose of giving them a home and passing on his legacy. Christopher Nolan manages to convincingly convey this side of Bruce’s personality in his interpretation of the Batman mythos through both the character of John Blake (Nolan’s attempt at a Robin) and the orphan boys that eventually inherit Wayne Manor.
In Superman, on the other hand, we see an orphan with no real memory of his birth parents. As the planet Krypton dies, Jor-El and Lara load their baby, Kal-El, into a spaceship and send him to Earth. Raised by Midwestern Americans as Clark Kent, he has no real memory of his birth parents. Unlike Batman, Superman’s motivation comes from an internal desire to simply do good, instilled in him by his classic nuclear (although adopted) family.
For Superman then, being an orphan is more about connecting him to his inherent otherness. Jonathan and Martha bryan_jor-el_and_laraKent are clearly Clark’s parents but, being little more than Kansas farm owners, they aren’t able to offer him any sort of explanation or solace in dealing with his powers. In short, mild-mannered Clark Kent needed mild-mannered parents. Kal-El, on the other hand, required something a little more fantastical.
An argument could be made that Spider-man falls somewhere between the two. Having lost his parents, Richard and Mary Parker, at a very young age, Peter is frequently portrayed as being only barely able to remember them. Ultimately it is the death of his uncle (and closest father figure) that motivates Peter to use his powers to fight crime. In Marc Webb’s recent reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, his parents are given much more screen time and the mystery surrounding their disappearance and subsequent deaths becomes an effective plot device.
bryan_amazing_spider-manAn orphan narrative that suits Spider-man better, though, revolves around the idea of orphans as children of society. Having lost his parents, Peter is without direct roots and therefore becomes both dependent on and responsible for society in general. This can be seen though the many parental figures that he adopts including Ben and May Parker, Dr. Curt Connors, various members of the Avengers at different times, and even his cantankerous editor J. Jonah Jameson. On film, Spider-man is frequently shown as something of an idol for the people of New York, and they gladly and valiantly rush to his aid. Most notably this can be seen in the bridge scene in Spider-man, the train scene in Spider-man 2, and the crane scene in The Amazing Spider-Man.
There are, of course, as many villainous orphans as there are heroic ones. For every Harry Potter, there is a Voldemort. As far as plot devices go, losing one’s parents is made especially convenient by the fact that it tends to affect everyone differently. But as far as creating and understanding superheroes, the loss of one’s parents will continue to be a reliable way to create memorable and iconic characters.