There’s an old comic-book adage that goes, “Every comic is someone’s first comic.” By that same token, every Wayne murder is someone’s first Wayne murder. Well, great news, then, for anyone living in a place without access to the Internet, books, or television — Dawn of Justice, the currently-in-production Batman-Superman tentpole from director Zack Snyder, will, for some reason, feature Thomas and Martha Wayne getting blown away in full Imax. The muzzle flash from Joe Chill’s revolver blooming luridly in slow motion, young Bruce’s terrified, uncomprehending face, Martha’s pearls spilling onto the pavement, the whole grim tableau of Crime Alley. So, in celebration, here are the definitive Wayne murder power rankings in descending order of superfluousness.
13. Batman Forever (1995)
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Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever took the dark, carnival-sideshow tone of Tim Burton’s two previous films, scoured it with bleach, and wrenched the franchise toward glossy camp with its aggressively bulbous, French-bread-shaped codpieces and, eventually, Bat-nipples. Val Kilmer would later describe the Christopher Nolan Batman films as “doing what I hoped that we would do but didn’t do.”
12. Gotham (2014)
The latest iteration of the Wayne murders. Whenever viewing Thomas and Martha and young Bruce skipping gaily toward the shadowy maw of Crime Alley, there’s always that inescapable question hanging in the air: What the hell are you guys thinking? And by “you guys,” I mostly mean Thomas, who, in many tellings, overrides any objection Martha raises about his choice of route back to the family car. Is this victim-blaming? Yes, yes, it is. But still, walking into a darkened alley in the most violent urban environment in the fictional DC universe is 100 percent idiotic and, if Gotham achieves anything with its depiction of the murders, it’s showing just how brazenly idiotic and un-streetwise the Waynes actually were. I would argue that a better choice for the show would have been to have the murders happen offscreen, as a newscast describes the scene or a voice crackling over police radio calls units to a double homicide in the theater district. But then we’d lose the retcon of young Catwoman being a witness to the crime. Which, of course, you need for some reason we haven’t yet discovered.
11. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)
In this animated adaptation of the DC Comics crossover Flashpoint, the Flash finds himself in an alternate dimension where Joe Chill shot Bruce instead of Thomas and Martha. This results in Martha losing her mind and becoming the Joker (which, OK …) and Thomas, of course, becoming Batman. Basically every reality of the DC multiverse has the Waynes’ deaths resulting in vigilantism, including the version where jackbooted storm-trooper Nazis kill the Waynes.
10. Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
The Arkham series of video games is a joy. I cannot tell you how many hours I burned playing Arkham Asylum’s Batman-versus-criminals mini game (and that of its excellent sequel, Arkham Origins). In this scene, Batman, under the influence of Scarecrow’s fear hallucinogen,1 relives the moment when it all went so very wrong. Extra points for Thomas Wayne mansplaining away Martha’s well-founded concerns about strolling down a fucking darkened alley with their young son while looking like blasé rich people.
9. Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Season 2, Episode 11: “Chill of the Night!” (2010)
Batman tripping balls on fear gas and seeing his parents die is a well-worn DC trope. Lesson: Never do fear gas without a friend and when you’re not in a safe, welcoming environment with lots of pillows and access to good music.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Gotham City, it’s that it has no chill whatsoever. Considered one of the best (if not the best) installments of Cartoon Network’s The Brave and the Bold animated series, this episode features Thomas Wayne (voiced by Adam West) at his most idiotic, waltzing the family unit into Crime Alley, then putting up a fight over Martha’s necklace and getting his fool ass killed. It’s a great way to teach kids about the concept of murder and the importance of being aware of one’s surroundings.
8. The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, Season 9, Episode 4: “The Fear”
The Super Powers Team, better known as Super Friends, was a Hanna-Barbera DC-themed animated show that aired on Saturday mornings, the traditional place for viewing cartoons in the pre-Internet era. Season 9 was the final run of Super Friends, and the Wayne murder from “The Fear” is perhaps the creepiest of them all, with shades of Children of the Corn when Batman finds Robin tied up as if crucified in a spooky wheat field in the middle of the night. The worst part of this episode? That Wonder Woman, who can throw cars like footballs but somehow can’t escape a rough post stuck in the ground, is reduced to needing to be rescued by Batman, who had just finished crying like a punk.
7. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 (2012)
This is from the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s iconic tale of an over-the-hill Bruce Wayne, coaxed out of retirement by a world even more fucked-up than normal. If you’re looking to get into one of the classic Batman tales, The Dark Knight Returns, Parts 1 and 2, are a great option; rent them or buy them or Netflix them or do whatever you do, because there are things about the animated incarnation that are improvements over the graphic novel. Bruce Wayne is essentially a troubled, borderline mentally ill character, and the animated Dark Knight Returns brings out his underlying sadomasochism, something that’s more subtext in the print version. There’s a scene in which Wayne, in full rich-guy suit and tie, strolls down the street at night, lost in thought. When, inevitably, he’s accosted by gang members under a lone streetlight, it’s obvious that this is what he wanted to happen. “He’s into it, man,” says one of the gang members. The scene appears in the graphic novel, but something about seeing it in motion makes it even more disturbing. This Bruce Wayne gets off on crime and on punishing criminals.2 The Joker’s murderous gallivanting through a carnival Tunnel of Love from Part 2 is the scariest version of the character ever put on video, Heath Ledger included. Still, flashing back to the Wayne murder feels slightly unnecessary here. I mean, anyone who bought the graphic novel knows how Batman became Batman.
6. Batman (1989)
He’s also reminiscent of the protagonist in the ’70s revenge flick Rolling Thunder, who survived eight years in a Vietnamese prison camp by, on some level, learning to enjoy the torture.
Tim Burton’s first Batman film, which he likened to “a duel of the freaks,” reinvigorated popular interest in Batman and was a box office and critical success. It also set the character on his path toward Schumacher’s Bat-nippled camp. Like Christopher Nolan after him, Burton ameliorates Thomas Wayne’s culpability by having young Joker and his accomplice trail the Waynes as soon as they leave the theater.
5. Justice League Unlimited, Season 1, Episode 2: “For the Man Who Has Everything” (2004)
In this adaptation of a story by the legendary creative team of Alan Moore and David Gibbons (Watchmen), Batman is once again hallucinating, this time because of a really gross-looking, tentacled plant parasite named the “Black Mercy,” which feeds realistic illusions into its victims based on their most deeply held desires. Thus Batman finds himself back in Crime Alley, but this time Thomas Wayne’s hero play actually works.
4. Batman: Year One (2011)
This is the second animated adaptation of a classic Frank Miller tale on this list, and it’s also well worth your time if you want to consume a classic Bat-story. Miller’s Batman: Year One — with gorgeous, pulpy art by the masterful David Mazzucchelli — is probably the most influential Batman story ever. Without it, there would be no Nolan Bat-trilogy, no Gotham, no Dawn of Justice. Heck, I suspect Year One, with its depiction of a newbie detective with a pregnant wife in a crime-ridden city, even influenced Se7en.
3. Batman: The Animated Series, Season 1, Episode 31, “Dreams in Darkness” (1992)
Watch it here. Skip to 11:30.
It’s the Scarecrow again! And Batman high on drugs! Here, Bruce is held prisoner in Arkham Asylum by the Scarecrow and GUESS WHAT HAPPENS. Still, this is perhaps the most creative retelling of the Wayne murders in TV or film in its use of dream imagery and metaphors in place of obvious violence. I wish more people would try this.
2. Batman: Arkham Origins trailer (2013)
This trailer, by Academy Award–nominated visual effects house Blur Studio, allows Bruce Wayne’s journey from victim to vigilante to play out almost entirely across his computer-generated face. Pitch-perfect and sad, it is Batman distilled to his essence.
1. Batman Begins (2005)
Nolan does something very wise here. There are, as we’ve seen, countless iterations of the Wayne murders in comics, television, and film. In pretty much all of them, Thomas Wayne is a jackass who marches his family into obvious danger, exacerbating the mistake when he struggles with a gun-toting mugger over his wife’s necklace — and all of this so he can shave a couple minutes off his commute back to Gotham Estates or wherever. Nolan retcons the most problematic parts of the Wayne murders and in the process gives us the most sentimental and ideally dadlike version of Thomas Wayne yet. In this telling, the Waynes are at the opera (Die Fledermaus?), not the movies, and it’s Bruce getting freaked out by the batlike production design, and Thomas’s understanding of his son’s distress, that causes the Waynes to leave the theater in something of a rush, through a side door that leads — dun dun DUNNN! — right into Crime Alley. When the mugger appears, Thomas (played with wonderful subtlety by Linus Roache) is submissive; he gives over his wallet immediately and tries to ratchet down the mugger’s obvious nervousness. There’s a moment, a very brief one, when you almost feel like it’s possible the Waynes could walk out of there unharmed, making the inevitable that much more powerful. Nolan’s version turns Thomas from a head-in-the-clouds 1 Percenter who’s naive to all danger into a proper father figure. And in making Bruce the reason the family was in the alley, he finally gives Batman an appropriately guilt-ridden origin story.