The Many Deaths of Batman's Parents, Ranked
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice may be the first time fans have seen the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel go head-to-head on the big screen, but it’s certainly not the only time they’ve watched Bruce Wayne’s parents die. Batman’s origin story — his parents were shot by a mugger when he was a boy so he dedicates his life to fighting crime, grows up and follows through — is now national mythology. And yet for some reason, every new adaptation insists on depicting that brutal murder all over again. See them all, ahead.
Gotham’s version of the Wayne deaths is pretty straightforward: young Bruce Wayne and his parents walk down an alley, only to be stopped by a mugger emerging from the darkness. Its only addition is a young Selina Kyle (Catwoman), watching from an overhead fire escape. But like the rest of the series’ treatment of Batman mythology, it feels like an unnecessary add-on. Plus, if the whole idea was to depict life in Gotham City before Batman, the shoehorning in of young Bruce (and an origin story anyone watching the show would already be familiar with) only served to dilute that premise.
Super Friends (1984)
Kudos to the Hanna-Barbera cartoon for keeping its version of the Wayne deaths kid-friendly. There’s no blood or corpses here; just the mugger’s hand reaching desperately, a flash of deadly lightning, and the look on young Bruce’s face. As superhero adaptations like Batman v Superman become increasingly unfit for young viewers, it’s refreshing to revisit a story that kept its audience in mind. The workaround is good, too; it just lacks some of the symbolic power of other adaptations.
Batman: Year One (2011)
It’s a nice change of pace to see Batman’s origin told so quickly, quietly, and subtly. After all, the specifics of the crime aren’t necessarily important; it’s a mythic event that affected young Bruce Wayne on a profoundly psychological and spiritual level. This animated version represents it as nightmarish, all colors and symbols and effect.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
That Scarecrow gas – it’ll get you every time. Every Batman game in the Arkham series includes at least a cursory reference to the Wayne murder, often a side quest that involves heading over to Crime Alley and paying respects to the family chalk outline. In the first game, Arkham Asylum, the experience is much more interactive. A fear gas-infected Batman hears his parents’ final dialogue as he walks down the alley, finally arriving not at a chalk outline but to a vision of his parents’ actual corpses. Trippy and haunting, this version even plays into the plot of the game.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Yes, for those who haven’t seen it: Batman v Superman does indeed open with yet another flashback to the Wayne murder. In some ways, it’s actually some of the strongest filmmaking in the movie, as the very human tragedy that inspired Batman is juxtaposed against the entirely alien confrontation between Superman and Zod. Bruce Wayne even finds a newly orphaned girl in the Metropolis wreckage, but can only watch helplessly as Superman unintentionally recreates the Wayne tragedy on a macro scale. This powerfully sets up their later confrontation, but the premise is squandered when the whole conflict turns on a connection no one even bothered to point out previously. The deluge of onscreen Wayne deaths has also made it significantly harder to pull any emotional power from the event.
Justice League Unlimited (2004)
The long-running series of cartoons helmed by Bruce Timm stands as one of the most definitive versions of the DC universe. Yet even though the Timmverse started and ended with Batman, it often demurred from depicting the crime that formed him. When it finally did, in an episode of Justice League Unlimited, it added an interesting twist: An adaptation of the iconic comic book story “For the Man Who Has Everything,” the episode featured Batman ensnared by a telepathic alien plant, giving him a vision of a world in which his father successfully disarmed the mugger. Batman never smiles, so the look of joy on his face as he sits entranced by this dream world is both alarming and heartbreaking.
“Tell me kid, you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” The Joker’s version of the Samuel L. Jackson Pulp Fiction speech, delivered to a frightened and newly-orphaned Bruce Wayne, is the characteristically Tim Burton twist that distinguishes his Wayne murder. That, and the fact that the Joker is the involved at all. The man who created Batman is sometimes identified as “Joe Chill,” but more often he’s simply depicted as an anonymous mugger who slides in and out of the night, a stand-in for Crime and Evil as a whole. The Joker, too, is typically vague about his origin story (“you wanna know how I got these scars?”). Burton answered both mysteries, which in turn diminished their power.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2010)
The Brave and the Bold was typically one of the more light-hearted Batman adaptations, ready for fun and unafraid of camp. But it could still get serious, as in “Chill of the Night.” Written by Paul Dini (one of the masterminds beyond the original Batman: The Animated Series), the episode featured Batman finally facing down the man who killed his parents. Its retelling of the origin is balanced between seriousness and fun (this Thomas Wayne, for instance, is fittingly voiced by former TV Batman Adam West). There’s also the indelible visual later in the episode of an elder Joe Chill getting beaten by a cadre of Batman’s iconic villains (“So it’s your fault Batman’s always on our backs?”).
Batman Begins (2005)
One reason all these recent onscreen Wayne deaths feel a little silly is because the Batman Begins version already seemed so definitive. Christopher Nolan added a dash of Peter Parker-type guilt to Batman’s origin, making it Bruce who wanted to leave the opera early, and Bruce who begged his mother to wear the pearls that caught Joe Chill’s eye (the scene change from movie theater to opera parallels Nolan’s desire to elevate Batman from comic book fun to artistic seriousness). Another plus: the rest of the movie features Batman coming to grips with the reality of this incident and how it affected him. It’s not gratuitous, but central to the story.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2012)
Batman v Superman mirrored a lot of lines and visuals from Frank Miller’s iconic graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, but fans interested in an adaptation of the story would probably do better just to watch the two-part animated movie from a few years back. Director Jay Oliva faithfully recreates Miller’s version of the origin, as a deeply repressed trauma that bubbles up to torture an elder Bruce Wayne watching Gotham fall apart. This Bruce tried to retire the Batman persona, but the entire family wine cellar can’t repress the formative darkness still simmering at the heart of his soul. It requires only the merest trigger (like a late-night showing of The Mask of Zorro, or a news story about a young boy killed by crime) to come roaring back, setting Bruce on track for what is still, perhaps, the greatest Batman story ever told.