Thomas Wayne, despite his relative lack of appearances historically, is one of the most foundational characters in comics. He and his wife Martha's deaths are the bedrock on which an entire corner of the DC Universe was built. As such, the characters and their fates were (for a long time) set in stone across stories and adaptations.
Yet, something changed in recent years. Thomas has been reexamined and tweaked into a much crueler man than he ever was before. Why do creators keep going in the direction? When did Thomas Wayne become a bad guy?
The Good Guy
For a long time, Thomas and his wife were held up as paragons of Gotham City. Their loss was so great that the city fell into even worse ruin and their son dedicated his entire existence to ensuring no one else suffered the same pain he did. Thomas was a hugely charitable figure, and typically portrayed as a good man in his own right. A classic Silver-Age story even showed him briefly becoming a precursor to Batman when he fought criminals at a masquerade ball. Although he was stern with his son, he was also loving.
This carried over to other incarnations of the character. Thomas and Bruce's relationship is featured heavily in the movie Batman Begins, which showcases Thomas teaching Bruce many of the lessons he'll continue to draw on when he becomes Batman. Thomas casts a long shadow across most of Bruce Wayne's life, even beyond inspiring Bruce to become Batman. But there's something inherently compelling about depicting Thomas differently.
The Truth Hurts
Things have taken a turn for Thomas in the last decade. In Batman: Damned, it's revealed that he cheated on Martha and potentially sired a second hidden son. In the Telltale Batman videogame series, he was revealed to be a criminal himself, a member of the Falcone Crime Syndicate. He even used his position to imprison innocent people in Arkham Asylum if they opposed him.
The most recent and high-profile version of this phenomenon happened in the film Joker. Arthur Fleck is led to believe that Thomas Wayne may be his birth father, despite the hospital files and other evidence he finds that suggests otherwise. When he finally meets Thomas, he's greeted with condemnation and a swift punch. And if Thomas isn't outright malicious, he's portrayed as uncaring and conniving towards the rest of Gotham City
The most high-profile version of Thomas was first introduced in Flashpoint. In the altered reality created by the Flash changing the past, it was Bruce who was shot and killed that night in Crime Alley. While his wife gave into madness and became the Joker of this reality, Thomas adopted the persona of the Batman. He became a lethal protector for Gotham, unhindered by Batman's typical aversion to firearms. He was even casually okay with murder when the situation called for it. He was the brutal hero of this reality.
However, the version that made the leap to the core DC Universe in Tom King's run on Batman has gone all-in on villainy. He's even allied with Bane to become the Batman of a criminal-controlled police state and has fought against his son multiple times.
The idea that Thomas Wayne may have some nefarious connections was hinted at in past stories, but it was never confirmed. In Grant Morrison's long-running Batman saga, Simon Hurt claims that he's Thomas Wayne, having faked his death and ordered the murder of Martha. But over the course of multiple series, Hurt is instead revealed to be a Thomas Wayne from the 17th century who went mad and prolonged his life via demonic rituals. It was even revealed that Bruce's father tried to help Hurt.
Likewise, the idea was teased in the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale story The Long Halloween, where Thomas was revealed to have once saved the life of Carmine Falcone. This was used to suggest the Waynes had criminal connections. But it was eventually revealed that Thomas only saved the man's life to keep his Hippocratic oath, and he accepted no payment for his act.
It's interesting that the fervor to portray Thomas as a bad guy doesn't extend to Martha. Martha is rarely shown in a negative light even in alternate realities, save for the Flashpoint world. Even Simon Hurt's lies about her and Thomas painted her as a victim. She even became so disgusted with Thomas in the Telltale series that she was in the process of exposing his crimes when Hamilton Hill ordered the murder of her and her husband.
It's also important to note that in the core DC Universe Thomas Wayne has yet to be revealed to be genuinely corrupt. Bruce still has both parents to inspire his actions, but the storytelling potential of Thomas as a villain is strong enough to explain the fascination with it.
It's a compelling idea that the man who helped inspire Batman to become a hero may not have been such a good guy himself. It makes sense that creators would want to explore it, especially when the canon Thomas Wayne is still very much seen as a good man. If his father is bad, it forces Bruce to examine why he does what he does. Is it important that he fights for the memory of his father, even if the harsh truth is standing literally in front of him?
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