Thomas Wayne, Hero or Villain?

Batman’s father, wealthy Gotham City doctor and philanthropist Thomas Wayne, was killed off in his very first appearance in 1939. And yet, if you could consider anybody to be the Main Character of DC Comics right now, he would be a strong contender. As a focal point of Infinite Frontier, Justice League Incarnate, and now Flashpoint Beyond, the alternate universe Thomas Wayne who survived that encounter in Crime Alley only to become Batman himself has stood at the forefront of many of our biggest events. He’s a man who, in most timelines, inspired Bruce Wayne to become Gotham’s greatest hero. But as we continue to see, he’s also a man whose legacy, history and very nature is as complex as Gotham itself.

In fact, the many interpretations of the man we’ve seen have us reconsidering if he’s the philanthropist Gotham believed him to be, or whether he always served himself first. Was he the solution to the city’s systemic corruption, or was he just another plunderer? Was he a healer at heart, or was he a killer? These are the questions which our own Batman has had to reconcile many times over, as the mystery of just who Thomas Wayne really was in life continues to unfold. And these are the answers…that we know so far.

Hero

Practically every story told about Thomas Wayne through the 20th century would have you believe that Batman’s father was a saint. In fact, the very first story to explore Thomas Wayne’s life, in Detective Comics #235, suggests Bruce Wayne actually got the idea for Batman from his dad. One of Bruce’s earliest memories is of his father going out to a costume party, dressed as a bat. But what Bruce wouldn’t learn until long after was that his father had been kidnapped at the party by the henchmen of Gotham crime boss Lew Moxon, who forced him to remove a bullet from the crime lord. Once Thomas had performed his medical duty, however, he took it upon himself to fight Moxon’s men and bring the city’s most notorious criminal to justice. It was that event, at least according to this story, which led Moxon to hire button man Joe Chill to gun Thomas Wayne down in Crime Alley.

It wouldn’t have been the first act of bravery in Thomas Wayne’s life, either. Batman #120 shows us that Thomas originally received his medical training while serving with the US military. Thomas’s government connections are very much at the core of his character as seen in HBO Max’s Pennyworth, where he crosses paths with his future butler and closest confidante as a CIA agent.

Later stories would show us more of Bruce’s memories of his father as an austere, somewhat emotionally distant man, but one thoroughly committed to his ideals—not at all the Bruce Wayne we know today. This more elusive father figure is present in such essential stories as Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween, forming the surface image of the character we know today.

Villain

In the 20th century postwar, the popular depiction of millionaires as heroic, self-made men in a system that rewarded hard work and ingenuity with monetary gain was an easy and comfortable idea to swallow as the ultimate progression of the American dream. But when the global economy plummeted into an unprecedented recession in 2007, the popular view of the wealthy elite began to change. Those who were once seen as capitalist daredevils were exposed as predators who plundered and exploited our own futures against us. With that change in ideals, our stories have changed accordingly. Awareness of the implications of the Wayne Family’s massive wealth has grown towards a more ominous notion: anyone with as much money, power and influence as Thomas Wayne must have cheated somebody to get there.

The more we’ve explored Batman’s family since then, the more skeletons we’ve seen emerge in Thomas Wayne’s closet. In Batman RIP, Grant Morrison proposed the figure of a heartless and hedonistic Thomas Wayne through the figure of “Dr. Hurt,” who arranged the murder of his own family, and secretly cavorted with a clandestine cabal of the city’s ruling class. This version of Thomas Wayne was eventually exposed as a fake, but the seeds of doubt in his character would remain. In the 2019 film Joker, Thomas Wayne is depicted as a callous figure of political ambition willing to cast aside whoever gets in his way, and whose death is the result of just deserts.

But by far the most damning vision of Thomas has been in the interactive Batman: The Telltale Series, where we learn Thomas would use his criminal and political connections to have his enemies committed to Arkham Asylum. It was a horrifying revelation which shattered Bruce Wayne’s world, forcing him to rethink his entire mission as Batman. Ultimately, this Bruce would rebuild the ideals of the Bat in his own image, beyond the reach of his father’s dark shadow. But with that story out in the multiverse, there would never again be any limit to just what Thomas Wayne might be capable of.

A Complicated Man

In the 20th century, Thomas Wayne was never anything but a hero—well, except for that one time he and Martha dabbled in necromancy in The Brave and the Bold #99. Or the time they covered up the existence of Bruce Wayne’s mentally ill older brother, Thomas Wayne Junior, who would go on to become the serial “Boomerang Killer” in World’s Finest #223.

Even the current trend of villainizing Thomas Wayne is one which carries with it maybes, exceptions and possible redemptions. Based heavily on the Batman: Earth One graphic novels, the newly released film The Batman presents us with a Thomas Wayne somewhere in between Lex Moxon’s nemesis and the corrupt political soundrel of Joker—a man with good intentions who makes a grievous mistake to protect his family.

The Thomas Wayne of flashpoint, That man who became Batman when it was young Bruce who was killed in Crime Alley, is perhaps the most complicated version of Thomas to date. Once a brutal slayer of Gotham’s villains who augmented his wealth by investing in Gotham’s depravity as a casino magnate, Thomas Wayne rededicated himself in the 2011 Flashpoint event to erasing his own corrupted reality and giving his son another chance at life—only to find his world had survived, and that his son had embraced the same rage and despair which the mission of the Bat confers. Thomas then interfered directly with his son’s destiny in Tom King’s epic Batman run, all but destroying Batman’s world with the intention of forcing him into a life outside of the desperate, eternal trap of the cowl. It’s only in his most recent multiverse-spanning escapades, with his revelation of just how essential the idea of ​​Batman is to the multiverse, and how whole Bruce himself is made by the family he’s built, that Thomas has come to accept his son for who he is…and forge a path forward for himself in his own world inspired by that son, just as Bruce Wayne’s own mission was kindled by his memory of his father.

Actually, Thomas Wayne’s true legacy might really just be comics and other stories getting real weird with Batman’s past. Whether it’s dressing up in a bat costume to beat up criminals, or fiendishly and unjustly committing innocent men and women to a mental institution, the only true consistency in Thomas Wayne’s character is that he is not the man who Bruce Wayne thinks he is.

But couldn’t we say the same of all our parents? After all, one of the most appealing qualities of Batman is that factor of relatability, that we can all see a part of ourselves within his cowl. And honestly, there are few more universal human experiences than reconciling the ideal of your parents with the mere humans they actually were. Perhaps Batman’s path forward, then, the one which the Flashpoint Thomas Wayne conspired so deeply to forge for his lost son, is the discovery of his father’s own flaws. Through the recognition of the faults in our heroes, we gain the opportunity to accept the flaws within ourselves. Even Batman.

Flashpoint Beyond #1 by Geoff Johns, Jeremy Adams, Tim Sheridan, Xermánico and Romulo Fajardo Jr. is now available in print and as a digital comic book.

Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly “Ask the Question” column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.

NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.

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