The Origins of Dexter Morgan and Bruce Wayne
“Every good superhero saga includes an origin story,” Randall M. Jensen comments in his essay “Batman’s Promise” from Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul (John Wiley and Sons, 2008). “Such stories are memorable and powerful, coming close to real mythmaking. Origin stories are typically driven by incredible and fantastic events—genetic mutations, strange laboratory accidents, alien encounters, dealings with the devil, and so on. But Batman’s beginnings are different. The crucial catalyst, an alleyway mugging gone bad, is all too tragically ordinary. And the rest of the Batman genesis is built upon a boy’s extravagant and seemingly foolish promise to his murdered parents that he’ll cleanse Gotham City of crime.”
The story of Batman was created in the late 1930s and has been told many times in comic books, graphic novels, television and films during the decades that followed. As Randall Jensen alludes to above, a young Bruce Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents and swore justice afterwards, not only on their behalf but for all victims of crime within Gotham City. Wayne is not equipped with supernatural powers like Superman or Spider-Man but he did inherent a substantial fortune and dedicated his life to learning combat techniques, fine-tuning his mind to outmaneuver opponents and using his financial resources to build a high-tech Batcave to assist with his criminal investigations.
While witnessing the death of one’s parents at the hands of a murderous mugger in a dark alley is indeed tragic, it pales in comparison to the childhood tragedy of Dexter Morgan. Dexter’s mother was an informant for the police and when the drug dealer she was keeping tabs on realized her duplicity, he had her eliminated. Revenge on the mean streets of Miami is exponentially more brutal than Gotham City, however, and a three-year-old Dexter witnessed his mother’s dismemberment by chainsaw before being stranded in a pool of blood inside a storage unit for days afterwards. With that kind of trauma, it is no wonder that Dexter Morgan developed an infatuation for both blood and body parts, or that he was left emotionally empty with homicidal tendencies eventually emerging to fill the void.
Dexter was adopted by Harry Morgan, the police officer who rescued him, and it was Harry who realized the damage that the experience caused Dexter’s psyche. “What happened changed something inside you,” he tells his adopted son. “It got into you too early. I’m afraid your urge to kill is only going to get stronger. We can’t stop this but maybe we can do something to channel it, use it for good. Son, there are people out there who do really bad things. Terrible people. And the police can’t catch them all. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“You’re saying they deserve it,” Dexter replies.
“That’s right,” Harry continues. “But of course you have to learn how to spot them. How to cover your tracks. But I can teach you. You can’t help what happened to you, but you can make the best of it.”
Randall Jensen argues in “Batman’s Promise” that it was more than simply witnessing the murder of his parents that transformed Bruce Wayne into the future Batman. Although a tragedy, the sad reality is that Bruce Wayne was neither the first nor the last child to suffer severe emotional trauma at a young age—and none of them resorted to dressing up as a giant bat once they grew older. It wasn’t his parent’s deaths per say that turned Bruce Wayne into Batman but the promise he made to his dying father that he would revenge their deaths. More importantly, the older Wayne was a humanitarian who donated to numerous worthy causes in Gotham City and a physician that dedicated his life to helping people. Bruce was thus also intent on upholding his father’s legacy as much as anything else.
“In Haunted Knight,” Jensen points out, “Batman remembers his father being called out of bed in the middle of the night to respond to some medical emergency, and he asks himself, while crouching on a rooftop like a gargoyle, ‘Is that why I’m here?’” Although Dexter’s later discoveries regarding the now-deceased Harry Morgan have tainted the memories of his foster father, the character likewise remains true to the “code” that Harry imparted to him. He even gained employment with the same Miami Police Department after graduating college, serving in the forensics division. In this sense, Dexter Morgan made a promise to his “father” in much the same way that Bruce Wayne did with his, and both of them struggle in adulthood to uphold the lessons learned at the hands of their parents and keep their memories alive.
While not blessed with the financial resources of Bruce Wayne, Dexter Morgan still followed in the future Batman’s footsteps when it came to preparation for his future adult incarnation. “I know you’re too careful,” police sergeant James Doakes, who suspects that something is not quite right in regards to Dexter, tells him in season two. “You keep your assets in cash, you don’t belong to any organizations or alumni groups. You were top at your class in med school but you traded it for blood spatter. I know you studied martial arts in college but I don’t know what a lab geek needs with advanced jujitsu.” Wayne is the same type of conundrum—a rich bachelor with a genius-level intellect who is considered by the outside world to be nothing more than an eccentric recluse.
There is of course one major difference between Dexter Morgan and Bruce Wayne—Dexter is a killer while Batman is not. “Perhaps the most significant aspect of Dexter’s divergence from the typical masked hero is that Dexter, unlike the Lone Ranger and Batman or even the cynical private detective, takes an unholy glee in the gory mechanics of his efforts to redress the imbalance of the justice system,” Stan Beeler observes in Investigating Cutting Edge Television. Dexter’s blood brother Brian Moser tells him as much at the end of the show’s first season when he remarks, “You can’t be a killer and a hero. It doesn’t work that way.”
The many similarities between himself and comic book characters like Batman do not escape Dexter Morgan. In the episode “The Dark Defender,” for instance, he discovers that a murdered store owner was developing a graphic novel based on Morgan’s actions as the anonymous Bay Harbor Butcher, a revelation that intrigues Dexter. “I never really got the whole superhero thing, but lately it does seem we have a lot in common,” he remarks to himself. “Tragic beginnings. Secret identities. Part human, part mutant.”
In the end, however, Dexter Morgan rules out the possibility of becoming an actual superhero. “Nah,” he muses. “Miami’s too hot for all that leather.”