“Holy cobbled together story, Batman! What’s going on here?” Across the Dark Knight’s decades of work, we have seen the great and the good of writers and artists take a pencil to the grubby backdrop of Gotham City. However, with multiple Earths, Infinite Crises, New 52s, and Rebirths, readers can’t be blamed for getting a little confused sometimes. With each new era of Batman came a cull of not only storylines, but sometimes characters or even whole universes.
DC loves a good bit of retroactive continuity. Whether it be Superboy-Prime punching things into reality or a Flashpoint Paradox, a retcon can be the perfect reset button for writers stuck in a rut, or could just leave the audience scratching their heads. Sure, balancing a world of multiple Robins and confusing origins isn’t easy, and while a streamlined Batman now flies across the city skyline, here are The 15 Worst Retcons In Batman History.
Everyone from Superman to Spider-Man has been involved in a death storyline, so it was to be expected that even Batman would find himself in a "Death of" storyline at some point. Ironically, Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P wasn’t when the Caped Crusader fell, which was a pretty lame pay-off for those who had been promised the death of the legend. It was in Morrison’s crossover Final Crisis that Bruce Wayne “officially died.” Being vaporized by Darkseid’s Omega Sanction, and with Superman holding the charred corpse of Wayne, it looked pretty certain that Batman was dead. The story continued in the Batman and Robin series, where a flashback revealed that Darkseid had, in fact, killed a “perfect” clone of Bruce and that the real Batman was now stuck in the past.
Morrison’s Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne charted Bruce’s “Bat to the Future” adventure to the present day, while loyal readers were pretty miffed at the whole saga. Even Morrison brushed off Bruce’s demise, while an all-too-quick return of Wayne was just another part of comic books: "We’re not really entertaining the notion that Bruce won’t be back at some time...this is an ongoing story, another chapter in the life of Batman, so I think even people who are fans of Bruce and who think no one else can be Batman will be entertained by this."
Well, we didn't have too long to wait to see Bruce back in his cave!
Sure, there may have been many different Robins chirping to Batman’s tune, but as the original, Dick Grayson will always be the people’s Robin. Grayson’s transition to the baton-twirling Nightwing is not only one of the most frequently retconned stories, but one of the most inconsistent. From mutual agreements to Batman bust-ups, and even late-night shootouts, DC should decide on a Nightwing origin and stick to it. Coming from the original story told in Batman #368, the first Nightwing retcon is (almost) unanimously seen as the worst.
The original Nightwing story had Dick and Bruce part ways civilly, with the Robin mantle being handed to Jason Todd. However a Post-Crisis version had Grayson sacked from his role of Robin in Batman #408 after being shot on duty. The whole thing felt a little forced - Robin was constantly in dangerous situations, so having him fired over something as trivial as a gunshot wound didn’t sit right with fans of the series. Most of all, there was no need; the original Nightwing origin was a little sketchy, but served its purpose.
Aside from Bruce Wayne and the various Robins, Selina Kyle is one of Gotham’s most famous residents, so surely she deserves a proper origin - right? Frank Miller’s uber-gritty Batman: Year One fleshed out Selina Kyle’s backstory into a more tragic, but rounded history. With a life on the streets and being forced into prostitution, Year One was lorded as a near-perfect Catwoman analysis. Unfortunately, Catwoman #0 dismissed Miller’s work and set to carve its own history for the feline foe. 1992’s Batman Returns saw Kyle as a lowly secretary, pushed to her death and reborn as the spunky PVC-wearing Catwoman, so, Ann Nocenti decided that Catwoman #0 would be a lazy rip-off of Tim Burton’s film imagination.
The New 52 promised a more realistic origin for our heroes, but Catwoman seemed to get the short straw on that one. Possibly the worst change, the New 52 Selina Kyle was represented as a weak and amateur thief who was transformed by her accident. Batman Returns is praised for its portrayal of Kyle, so you can see why Nocenti might want to capture some of Michelle Pfeiffer's essence, but where being licked to life by cats worked for Tim Burton’s film, it didn’t translate as well on the page.
Seriously, these guys need to chill out. Whatever Batman the Animated Series did for Mr. Freeze was slowly chipped away at by Joel Schumacher’s diabolical Batman & Robin, then completely steamrolled by Scott Snyder’s contribution to Batman Annual #1. Whereas some of Batman’s rogues are seen as out-and-out bad guys, Freeze’s quest to save his wife Nora made him somewhat of an anti-hero, while his brilliance and tragic accident made him all the more likable.
But in Snyder’s retconned origin, Victor Fries had never met Nora (splitting up yet another DC relationship), instead becoming obsessed with her after she had been cryogenically frozen. While working for Wayne Industries, Fries was fired by Bruce due to his increasingly odd behavior, but the Doc wasn’t impressed, so he hurled a chair at Wayne, then missed. In one of the most ridiculous villain formations ever, it was the rogue chair that turned Fries into his icy alter-ego when it smashed a tube and he was sprayed by cryogenic fluid.
Despite Arnie’s ham-fisted approach to the live-action Freeze, even Batman & Robin represented him as a sympathetic victim, while Snyder stripped him back to pure villain status and made him some sort of manic stalker. For fans of the superb Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (heralded as one of the best Batman animations), it was a big middle finger. Worse still, the Freeze origin story was used as a segue into a Court of Owls plot where they needed his cryogenic-thaw formula.
While you may know a lot about the Justice League, you may not know that Batman was "briefly" not one of its founding members - here comes that pesky Crisis on Infinite Earths again. As DC attempted to streamline its universe, it also managed to mess with a lot of origins. When you look at the Justice League, you would assume that its founding members were the likes of Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman; however, if you were reading comics in the late ‘80s, you'd be wrong. Keith Giffen and Peter David’s Secret Origins #32 threw a spanner into the JL’s founding works, removing the big three and replacing them with the likes of Black Canary and making Barry Allen’s Flash the unofficial leader.
Since then, Batman has struggled with his allegiance to the League while writers have tried to isolate him into his own stories. They've tried everything from Batman refusing to be involved the JL to his joining shortly after its origin and receiving founding member status. It completely depends on who you want to pay attention to, but Secret Origins #32 was ultimately a turning point in the history of the League, and by trying to make things simpler, it made things a whole lot more confusing.
Fox’s Gotham does two things right: It manages to make non-brats out of its child stars and it focuses on the more interesting aspect of Gotham - its villains. Currently winning over early critics, Gotham has slowly woven the origins of everyone from the Riddler to Joker into the story as Ben McKenzie’s junior Gordon punches their lights out. Sadly, one character clearly wasn’t “blooming” with the execs; Clare Foley’s Ivy Pepper was the grubby street urchin who jarred against the dynamic duo of David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova as Bruce and Selina. Where a younger (but still adult) Penguin flourished, and the introduction of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney wowed, it seemed that having three main child actors just didn’t work.
It was in the season 3 premiere that Ivy was conveniently grabbed by a gang of thugs who speed up the aging process and then dropped her into a water system for a watery farewell. While Ivy took a very brief dirt nap, she returned the very next episode having undergone a sexualized change. Foley was recast with Maggie Geha, who not only had the body of a young woman but also showed signs of harnessing Poison Ivy’s comic book powers. It was a creepy case of not knowing what to do with the character, but also wanting to open up Ivy to her more adult comic book history, which would have been pretty hard to do with the 15-year-old Foley.
If you thought Nightwing got the short end of the straw with his convoluted origins, he has nothing on Jason Todd. While Todd never really struck a chord with fans of Batman, his tenure as the Boy Wonder was later swapped out for the superb Death in the Family storyline and followed up by Under the Hood. A modern-day Todd may have a lot more to do, but when you look at the character’s first steps as Robin, the whole story is a mess!
Todd was first introduced in Batman #357 in 1983 as a tousle-haired orphan created in the image of Dick Grayson; a product of the circus and orphaned by Killer Croc's murderous actions. Max Allan Collins basically decided he wasn’t a fan of Todd and gave him a new origin in Batman: Second Chances, meeting Bruce when he tried to steal the tires off the Batmobile. Collins effectively put Todd on a collision course to one of DC’s most maligned characters and his death at the hands of the Joker.
The New 52 took it one step further and changed Todd from tire-stealer to rebellious punk who attempted to steal drugs from Dr. Leslie Thompson. More foolish still, the scene, narrated by Joker, revealed that he had been responsible for every aspect of Todd’s life like a puppetmaster. 2016’s Rebirth then went and retconned all of this back to the Collins era, but kept Todd's New 52 resurrection by the Lazarus Pit. Make up your mind guys!
Just like the death of Bruce Wayne, a faceless Joker was never going to be a permanent affair. The story had the promise of being one of DC’s most ambitious storylines; sadly, Batman: Detective Comics #1 was a lackluster way to introduce and even more lackluster villain, the Dollmaker. Sure, the final panel of a faceless Joker was shocking and grotesque, but did it really add anything to the story?
A bandaged Joker could've become synonymous with that era of Batman, but then the writers went and brought him back a year later for Death in the Family. Joker's bloody return was a must, but did we really need to see his fly-infested face just for the shock value?
Joker having his face sliced off also raised a whole host of questions on why he would let Dollmaker do it. Some think it was purely to set up the scene of Deadshot wearing Mr. J’s face and kissing Harley to amp the pair’s ambiguous sexual history. Joker’s rotting visage soon became a bit of a sticking point, with even his “daughter” Duela Dent wearing it for a while. The Joker’s face was in a tug of war, before being eventually restored. After laying on ice for over a year, it is all-too-convenient that the Joker’s return involved him stealing back his face and strapping it on for horror effect.
One of the strangest Bat-family retcons was cramming 20 years of Robin history into just five or six. The space between Robins has been partially explained by Damian Wayne's artificial origins, but that story doesn't actually exist. Damian was originally introduced in Batman: Son of the Demon, but that whole story was ditched out of canon for his real introduction in 2006’s Batman and Son and it was revealed that Bruce’s son was artificially grown in a womb. Writer Grant Morrison used many elements of Son of the Demon, and conveniently due to Superboy-Prime punching reality, Damian’s origins came into canon.
The New 52 then went and screwed everything up in the worst way imaginable, seeing both Damian and DC retconned into a corner. If the Infinite Crisis and Superboy’s punch never happened, then Damian Wayne was never brought into existence. With no proper origin, Batman’s son literally just appeared from nowhere in New 52 as Robin, while Bruce became the only Batman, and Dick Grayson returned to being Nightwing. You could argue that the New 52 was a complete reset, but it became a pick ‘n’ mix of which elements of the old Batman universe survived. And we still don't have a "new" Damian origin.
The name "Joe Chill" is synonymous with "the man who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne"... isn’t it? Tim Burton already blundered/improved (depending who you are) this by casting Nicholson’s Joker as the Waynes' killer in 1989’s film, but comic books took it one step further with the mid-'90s Zero Hour. Here, Chill claimed he had been in bed that fateful night in Crime Alley and the story took him out of the frame, sending Batman back on the case of the Wayne killer, while simultaneously rendering the Year Two storyline non-canon.
Fans were rightly annoyed and it was left ambiguous for years whether Chill actually was or wasn’t responsible. It wasn’t only during Infinite Crisis #6 in 2006 that Chill was again confirmed as the man behind the Wayne deaths.
The problem of retconning Joe Chill’s actions is that you mess with exactly what makes Bruce turn to Batman. For example, Burton's story of the Joker being to blame was more about a revenge plot than actually saving the city. The best representation of how to handle Chill was his portrayal in Batman Begins: an impoverished Gothamite driven to crime but assassinated before Bruce can get his revenge. The helpless version of Bruce, who can never get full closure on his parent’s death, forces him to become Batman out of a sense of duty. Just like Spider-Man messing with Uncle Ben’s killer, some things should just be left as they are - Joe Chill as the Wayne killer is one of those things.
As the wheelchair-bound Oracle, Barbara Gordon became one of DC’s most diverse and helpful characters. Then, when the New 52 came around and it announced that she would be returning to her lycra-clad days of swinging across the Gotham skyline, opinions were rightly mixed. 23 years after Babs found herself confined to a wheelchair, the New 52 continuity established that she would walk again. The events of The Killing Joke had indeed happened some three years earlier (thank God), but Barbara had regained her mobility thanks to experimental surgery in South Africa.
Writer Gail Simone tried to justify her actions by saying that she had often lobbied to keep Barbara disabled, but that the time was right to give her mobility back. The story was also defended as plausible due to cases of extreme rehabilitation in paraplegics. For those who worried that Barbara might lose some of her spark by waving goodbye to Oracle, Simone also tried to shoehorn in the fact that Barbara’s PTSD would affect her - everything felt a bit forced and for tech-savvy kids.
Despite Batgirl remaining one of DC’s most popular series, it couldn’t make up for the desecration of so much history, which had become even more popular since The Killing Joke. With Gordon arguably at her most interesting as Oracle, it is hardly surprising that the likes of Rocksteady’s Arkham games keep Babs in the chair.
Batman’s War Games may be a forgotten story, but don’t forget that it also included the demise of Robin No. 4, Stephanie Brown, when her plan to “prove herself” badly backfired. After taking quite the beating from Black Mask, Stephanie sweetly slipped away in the care of Dr. Leslie Thompkins... except she didn’t. In the sequel, War Crimes, Thompkins revealed that she had purposefully withheld medical treatment and watched Brown die to teach Bruce a lesson about dragging kids into his war. Thompkins was one of Gotham’s increasingly few “good eggs,” so having her nature change so drastically was a big deal and applauded as a bold move.
If anything, it gave the forgotten Gothamite something to do and cemented Thompkins as a more interesting character, willing to fight for the greater good, even if it cost lives. Everything was fine(ish): Thompkins was exiled to Africa, Brown was never particularly memorable as Robin, and the whole DC universe carried on.
Sadly, nearly three years later in Robin #174, it was revealed that Thompkins had actually saved Stephanie’s life and switched her body with an overdose victim - the pair had been living in their African exile since. It wasn’t the result of a Prime-punch and it wasn’t a clone; it was the real Stephanie Brown, back for no particular reason. The backpedaling not only brought back a character that we didn’t need, it also returned Thompkins to just another one-dimensional comic book character.
Why Grant Morrison revived a long forgotten (and unnamed) character is unclear, but basing Doctor Hurt on a scientist from Robin Dies at Dawn in 1963 isn’t exactly a sound basis for a villain. And things only went downhill from there. Morrison altered Hurt's origin to introduce him as a foe for Bruce Wayne in 2008.
Whereas most DC stories are retconned some time later, Doctor Hurt underwent his very own change during current events. Claiming to be everyone from Thomas Wayne to the Devil incarnate, Hurt even went on to say that he was a long-lost Wayne from the 17th Century who gained near-immortality and was taken in by Thomas and Martha.
Again retconning a piece of Batman’s history, Hurt was (apparently) Thomas Wayne Jr., Bruce’s deranged half-brother who had been mentioned in pre-Crisis events. The audience never really got to the bottom of who he really was or what purpose he served, while Morrison used his usual flashback/hallucination tactic to string out the mystery for far too long, giving the impression that even he didn’t know who Hurt was supposed to be. Morrison told Wicked Magazine: “The minute I say who he is...it will stop people talking...There are clues, there are places in fact, where they actually state who's he up against in the story. But people don't want to accept the supernatural explanation. But yes: This is the story of how Batman cheats The Devil."
Well, that’s one way to justify a retcon!
Though everyone knows the unbreakable bond of Alfred and Batman, history originally had a young Master Bruce with some very different guardians. One of the most tragic retcons of the post-Crisis era was the loss of Bruce’s uncle, Philip Wayne-- yet another tie to the Wayne lineage. Alfred wasn’t actually introduced until Batman #16, but it was eventually revealed that Bruce had been under the care of Uncle Philip and a woman called Mrs. Chilton - the mother of Joe and Max Chill. The guardian and housekeeper were heavily featured in the 1980 history of Batman, titled The Untold Legend of the Batman, but the collapse of the Multiverse took both characters with it.
A world without Alfred may be incomprehensible, but the loss of Chilton and Philip also took a whole host of possible stories. Although Chilton knew what Joe had done to the Wayne family, she never revealed the truth to Bruce and remained his carer until her retconning. Bruce being in the care of the mother of his parent’s killer is just screaming for a gritty modernized interpretation, but it looks like, apart from alternate realities, both characters are relics of a bygone era, just like Great Uncle Silas Wayne.
A modern day Bruce Wayne may be defined by his “no-kill” rule, but Batman wasn’t always such a pacifist to those who wished him harm. You have to remember that Batman’s origin in the Detective Comics represented a different time, but it is true - 1939 Batman carried a gun. Batman’s very first appearance saw the Caped Crusader punch a goon into a vat of acid, while the Original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes describes Batman’s formative years as having a “grim brutality,” where “easily a score of criminals die by his hand.”
However, long before the Comics Code or the campy ‘60s series, a killer Batman was a distant memory. Bill Finger attempted to flesh out the character with a controversial retcon of the original Batman. As early as Batman #6 in 1940, Bruce reminded Robin “we never kill with weapons of any kind.” Teaching the lesson of words rather than violence has become part of Batman’s core since then, but there have been various interpretations over the years and more than a few deaths.
The issue came back to the forefront of thanks to 2016’s Batman V Superman, with every Tom, Dick Grayson, and Harry pointing out Batffleck’s increasing kill count. Sure, Batman did originally kill, but he certainly isn’t supposed to now. It may separate him from the other heroes, but it couldn’t realistically work all the time and has cost Bruce more than a few allies.
It is expected that Batman will return for his next solo film in October 2018, but it's possible that could be retconned too. We will keep you up to date with developments on The Batman as they happen.