A Long Halloween, Deadshirt’s series of essays celebrating the characters of the Batman universe, begins where Batman does: with a man with a gun.
In nearly every incarnation of the story, Bruce Wayne became Batman when, as a young boy, his parents were shot and killed by a mugger.
“Joe Chill” is often his name, but it really doesn’t matter.
Joe Chill is something of an oddity in that he becomes less interesting the more writers try and flesh him out.
There have been dozens of different takes on Joe Chill. Sometimes he goes on to become an aging crime boss, sometimes he’s simply a hired gun sent to kill the Waynes by shadowy conspiratorial masters. In the 1989 Batman film, the Joe Chill role is filled by a young, pre-accident Joker (an odd storytelling move that doesn’t appear to actually affect the movie’s plot one way or the other). Batman and Chill even team-up in the widely reviled Batman: Year Two.
None of this stuff really works for me. I think Batman’s origin loses something when you place the man who created him on such a high pedestal. Joe Chill, to work, has to just be “some guy”.
The incarnation of Batman that does this best is the Joe Chill portrayed by Richard Brake in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. When this version of Chill confronts the Wayne family in that dark alley, he appears to be going through withdrawal. He’s shaking. He looks afraid. When we see him again at his parole hearing years later, he seems genuinely remorseful over the crimes he committed. A college-age Bruce, still angry after all these years, prepares to shoot him but Chill is suddenly gunned down by one of mob boss Carmine Falcone’s hired hands. Chill dies the victim of the very violence that he has inflicted on others, the violence that ruined his life.
Joe Chill works best as a face in the crowd, a brief flicker of a man, because he is a symptom more than anything. Batman doesn’t simply stop being Batman because he arrests the specific person who caused him so much anguish and agony as a child, Batman exists to stop (and maybe help) the Joe Chills of the world from hurting others. If Batman is a product of random street violence, rather than some clandestine plot, then his mission is feels purer somehow.
Whether he’s “Joe Chill”, “Jack Napier” or just “the man with the gun”, the character exists for a singular purpose: to open Bruce Wayne’s eyes to the cruelty and violence of the world he lives in. To light the fire inside Bruce that pushes him to become Batman.
It doesn’t matter who Joe Chill is, crime chose to take away Bruce Wayne’s parents and he’s simply the messenger.