Why Does Batman's Dad Keep Coming Back?

Alec Baldwin - Getty - H 2018
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Alec Baldwin is set to be the latest actor to play Thomas Wayne, who died in the Dark Knight's first comic book appearance in 1939.

For a character killed in his first comic book appearance — 1939’s Detective Comics No. 33, if you were wondering, just six issues after Batman’s debut — Thomas Wayne can’t help but keep showing up in Batman-related stories. With the news that he will make an appearance in the upcoming Joker movie (played by Alec Baldwin as “a cheesy and tanned businessman who is more in the mold of a 1980s Donald Trump,” apparently), it’s worth reconsidering the shadow the elder Wayne has left over his superhero son.

Baldwin’s Thomas Wayne will be far from the first time the character has appeared on the big screen. He's shown up in 1989’s Batman, 1995’s Batman Forever, 2005’s Batman Begins and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, as well as his dramatic turn in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, meaning that audiences have had more opportunities to see a live-action Thomas Wayne in movies than they have Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern or any other Justice League member other than Batman and Superman. (Thomas has appeared more times than his wife Martha; she didn’t show up in The Dark Knight Rises, although her jewels provided the entry point for Catwoman to enter the movie.)

On television, Thomas has appeared in Gotham and, in animated form, he could be seen in episodes of Super Powers, Batman: The Animated Series, The Batman, Beware the Batman and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, as well as a number of direct-to-DVD animated movies including Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Son of Batman, Batman vs. Robin and more.

Of course, the comic book version of the character has turned up in countless flashbacks and prologues to the central Batman mythology — including scenes that revealed that he was the first Batman, because he wore a bat costume to a masquerade ball and helped fight crime in the process — but those aren’t the only places readers have found him. He was a central character in alternate universe stories like Batman: Holy Terror, Batman: Dark Knight Dynasty and JLA: Earth 2, and actually was Batman himself in both the 2012 series Earth 2 and 2011 event comic Flashpoint.

Indeed, the Flashpoint Thomas Wayne — who became the Batman after his son, Bruce, was killed by a mugger in front of him — ended up crossing over into the primary Batman comic book series through methods unknown. He met “our” Batman in a parallel timeline and told him to stop being the Dark Knight: “Find happiness. Please,” Thomas pleads. "Be a father to your son in a way I never could be for you. Let the Batman die with me." Then the alternate Thomas Wayne mysteriously showed up in the bowels of Arkham Asylum at the end of this year’s Batman No. 50, standing alongside the other villains at the heart of writer Tom King’s narrative. His story, it seems, is far from over.

That’s part of the problem, though; Thomas Wayne’s story should be over. It’s a story that has to end to start the story of Batman, yet he keeps coming back, over and over again, as writers work out their own issues with their dads using one of the most famous fathers of all. (It should be pointed out that Superman’s dad has similarly been resurrected a number of times, so it’s not just a Bat-thing, sadly.)

Short of the knowing nod of pre-recognition — we know how this story will end — it’s not necessarily clear what is gained by digging up Thomas Wayne to repurpose him in the new Joker movie. Is there no other wannabe tycoon that could be inserted instead? Perhaps even an alternate Bruce Wayne, to show what could have happened had he not dedicated his life to justice after suffering the ultimate injustice. But, no — instead, we’ll get to see Thomas Wayne once again, the surgeon who has proven time and time again that, when it comes to fathers of iconic superheroes, there is such a thing as life after death.