I remember being a little disappointed at the end of the first chapter of Telltale’s Batman when the game hinted that at upcoming flashbacks about Bruce Wayne’s parents’ murder. There are few events depicted as often in games, movies, and television shows than the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. I really wasn’t looking forward to spending more time in crime alley and watching Batman, once again, regress to feeling like a defenseless child while watching his parents die before resuming his vigilante duties and beating endless waves of thugs unconscious. Telltale surprised me, though, by being willing to deviate from the traditional story and be creative with the story behind how Bruce’s parents were murdered. Telltale is not afraid to play with the canon and the game is so much better for it.
Honestly, as a backstory to Batman, his parents’ murder is an explanation that makes less and less sense the more you think about it. His parents are killed by a random mugger and so he decides – forever – that he will eschew a normal life completely and devote the rest of his life to punching out bad guys. Many people lose their parents at young ages (and a striking amount of superheroes); very few feel the need to devote the rest of their lives to beating up street thugs in dark alleys. He could have become a traditional cop and chased down criminals. He could have become an attorney and worked as a district attorney to put criminals in jail or poverty lawyer to address the roots of crime. Heck, he could have become a doctor – like his dad – and worked to save the lives of the victims of violence. But instead he becomes a superhero, presumably because he feels responsible for their deaths. But he clearly wasn’t responsible for their deaths and seems very peripheral to the entire incident. How does that one moment, terrible as it was, transform him from ordinary boy to future techno-ninja detective?
Much as the logic of Bruce’s backstory becomes more tenuous the more you think about it, the Batman series generally have also seemed to falter over the last few years. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Batman’s been pretty hit-or-miss for a while. For every Dark Knight and Lego Batman 2, there’s a Dark Knight Rises and Lego Batman 3. Arkham City was followed by Arkham Origins and Arkham Knight. Then you think about Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, and the TV series Gotham, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that Batman misses more than he hits lately. The problem with Batman may be that some of the story elements are a little stale. After the terrific success of the Nolan and Burton movies and the animated series, writers have been reluctant to mess with a successful formula, and that reluctance has let the stories get a little stale. That’s where Telltale’s gamble paid off. The game is perfectly willing to give Batman a far more interesting family history than he’s ever had before. Undermining his parents’ character undermines his whole reason for being Batman and that crisis makes Bruce more interesting than he’s ever been.
I want to see Telltale take on other stories. Retell Superman’s origin story and change or expand on some of the familiar elements, or – better yet – steal one of the recent retellings that made the Man of Steel exciting again (particular the American Alien series or Red Son, not the recent movies). Create an all new Indiana Jones story and tell us something new about this childhood or young adulthood. Heck, take on James Bond, or Sherlock Holmes, or James Kirk (or Picard) and tell us a story that boldly shakes up the accepted history in order to tell a fascinating story. Telltale’s better than anybody right now at taking familiar character and making them even more interesting through creatively re-imagining them. Regardless of their next project, we can’t wait to see what they do with Batman next.