There’s a new Batman film in theaters next week, but in a shocking twist, it doesn’t show the death of his parents. That Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed in cold blood is, of course, a key component to the character, so it’s mentioned—but for the first time in a while, we don’t actually see it happen.
It was a conscious decision by director Matt Reeves to be the first Batman director in some time not to dramatize the violent act, which is precisely why he did it. We’ve seen it happen many times before. And while most people probably assume the scenes are all the same, that’s incorrect. When you actually break down the Wayne murders as directed by Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, and Todd Phillips, each makes very different, very interesting decisions. Decisions that, since you won’t get a Wayne murder on screen this year, we decided to rank. A task that’s a bit more difficult than we expected.
Note: Batman’s full cinematic story can’t be told without The Lego Batman Movie or Batman: The Movie. But, like the new film, The Lego Batman Movie only has a brief scene discussing his parents, and the 1966 film doesn’t deal with it at all. So without a full dramatization, they aren’t included here.
We’d almost forgotten that Todd Phillips’ Oscar-winning 2019 hit Joker does have the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne in it, witnessed by their son Bruce. It’s an interesting retelling of the story, and one of the most brutal—but right off the bat (pun intended), the simple fact that it doesn’t take place within a Batman movie puts it at the bottom of the list.
The scene takes place at the very end of the film, almost as a final reveal. The Joker’s antics have ignited the city, and a man in a Joker mask sees Thomas (Brett Cullen), Martha (Carrie Louise Putrello), and Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson) leaving the movies (where they were likely seeing the comedy Zorro the Gay Blade). Earlier, Phillips’ film spends a chunk of time on Thomas Wayne’s importance and Arthur’s (Joaquin Phoenix) potential link to him. So when the murderer calls him out by name, there’s a direct intent that’s not in the other versions of this scene. We feel the fact this man killed the Waynes because they were Waynes, and not just random people leaving a theater, undercuts its importance to Bruce a bit. At least for now.
That could change. We’re likely to get a Joker sequel at some point, so whether or not that movie will have Bruce Wayne in it—and what Arthur’s indirect role in Bruce’s parents’ death will mean for the future Batman—could give this scene a bump in the future.
3. Batman Begins
Of all the cinematic murders of the Wayne family, Christopher Nolan makes the boldest decision. Ten minutes into 2005's Batman Begins, we see Bruce (Gus Lewis) and his parents (Linus Roache and Sara Stewart) go into the city for an opera. An opera that, because of the flying creatures, scares Bruce so much he wants to leave. That idea sets Nolan’s scene apart because it, in a way, lays the blame for his parents’ murder onto Bruce. Sure, Joe Chill (Richard Brake) pulled the trigger, but Bruce put the Wayne family in his crosshairs. If he hadn’t been scared, they wouldn’t have left the theater. It’s a dark thought, but a welcome one, and the beginning of something much larger.
More so than the other films, Begins is almost wholly about Batman’s origin. So this scene, complex as it may be in comparison, becomes the first step in a longer process. One that we don’t see in the other films and, as a result, makes this rank a teeny tiny bit lower than its competition.
It was difficult choosing between this murder and the one in Batman Begins. However, I give the slight edge to Tim Burton because of who does the killing. Usually, Bruce and Martha’s murderer is someone meaningless or anonymous. Here, Burton uses the origin as a late second-act reveal to show that it was the Joker himself, Jack Napier (played as a young man by Hugo Blick), that killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. It gives the whole event a much deeper link to the overall story, and almost makes it a Joker origin too.
Oh, and the other thing? Bruce’s parents (who aren’t named in the film) are played by actors Liza Ross and Garrick Hagon, who are married in real life. That’s cool, right? Also, Hagon just happened to appear in a film called Star Wars: A New Hope as Biggs Starlighter. Yes. It’s true. Luke’s best friend is Batman’s dad. Crime Alley is Beggar’s Canyon, etc.
And while the look on young Bruce’s face (Charles Roskilly) as he gleefully chomps away at popcorn he took away from the theater is a little annoying, this scene’s Star Wars connection, and deep roots into the film as a whole, rank it here.
1. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
It’s close but, by a narrow margin, we think the way Zack Snyder killed the Waynes is the best we’ve seen on screen. For starters, it opens the movie. Bam. Just hits you over the head with it. Nothing like starting a two-plus hour mega-blockbuster by murdering some parents. And yet, that decision to put it front and center gives it a weight the other films don’t have.
Like the other movies, the Waynes are seen leaving a theater, but here, we think, they’re seeing the coolest movie/show of the bunch in Excalibur. That ups the ranking. Thomas and Martha are played by reluctant Walking Dead allies Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan, who are by far the best-known actors to play these roles. Another bonus. Then, when the murderer robs them, Thomas aggressively tries to stop it, which gets him killed. Martha then attacks the killer, only to get shot herself. You get the sense that if neither had been so protective, they may have lived. This pair is the strongest Bruce and Martha to date.
But that’s not all. Snyder intercuts this scene, which plays out almost entirely in slow motion, with their funeral, where a young Bruce (Brandom Spink) runs off, falls into a cave, and is then somehow lifted in the air by bats almost like a biblical character. All of these things make this by far the most elaborate Wayne murder and despite a few minor gripes (they get killed on the main street, not an alley, for example), that’s why it’s the best.
Joker, Batman v Superman, and Batman Begins are all on HBO Max. Batman is on Hulu. The Batman arrives in theaters March 4.
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