Batman has been around for a long time. He is one of the oldest comic book characters in existence fighting crime in all of its forms. From petty thieves, to mob bosses and their organizations, to psychotic clowns, Batman has just about seen it all. Starting with the more recent additions and going back the beginning, here is a brief look at some of Batman’s more famous and dangerous villains.
Much has been written about this crazy comedian. He has made many appearances over the long history of the comics. His first appearance was in Batman #1 in 1940. He was the first villain Batman met and was developed as the primary adversary of Batman; a Moriarty to Sherlock Holmes. Though, he was only supposed to be in two stories and die in the end for fear of Batman appearing inept, the new editor recognized the potential the character held. The editor insisted The Joker be brought back to life. He was a serial killer that murdered many dozens of people just for the fun of it. He did it mostly using his Joker Toxin. It is a lethal laughing gas that etched a permanent smile on the victims’ faces. He is known for using many whimsical gadgets and gag props that always turn out to be lethal. He is always inventing loony and exaggerated schemes that in Batman’s words, “make sense to him alone.” He is as unpredictable as his namesake and is never playing with a full deck. He doesn’t even know his own origin story given that there have been several presented in the entire run. In his words quoting from The Killing Joke, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another…if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” He is the ultimate wild card and has been ranked as the greatest villain in comics history.
Cesar Romero was the first to bring this grinning character to life in the 1966 television show Batman. With the white face paint and the green hair he was a well painted portrait of this character. He injected a cartoonish craziness for this Clown Prince of Crime which was ideal for the time. Jack Nicholson brought this psychopathic artist to the silver screen in a smashing portrayal. His take on the character was a bit subdued, but it still retained an unhinged energy that spoke to a duality existing. He was serious and crazy at the same time and blended well with Tim Burton’s uniquely dark style. Mark Hamill portrayed this character beginning on Batman: The Animated Series and continued through to this day on various other Batman animated projects. Yes, that is correct: Luke Skywalker of Star Wars fame is The Joker! And an excellent Joker at that. Mr Hamill has given this character a distinctive voice that suggests a dark tragedy hidden under the fun-loving zaniness that this series blends so well into its stories. All of these versions of the Joker are wonderful to see, but 2008 a performance unlike any swept onto the screen. Heath Ledger burst onto the scene with a grim and gritty Joker that spoke volumes to a dark past. His Joker was highly intelligent, but was definitely not playing with a full deck. Heath Ledger pulled no punches when it came to the part, in fact he sank so far into the part it basically killed him. Still, it earned him an Academy Award given to him posthumously. Jared Leto is the next up to play this fun-loving felon. By the looks of the trailers, his take on the character will not be as dark as Ledger’s. Instead, it will be a mix of Cesar Romero’s high energy, and Jack Nicholson’s cool and slightly off-beat insanity. Time will tell how his interpretation will weather the storm of criticism.
A relatively new character, she has been around since 1992. She was introduced in Batman: the Animated Series as the girlfriend of the Joker. She was only supposed to appear in one episode, However, she proved to be very popular. So much so, she became a semi-regular character, appearing almost every time the Joker did. In the early 2000’s, she was incorporated into the monthly books and has remained a popular character since then. A psychiatrist fresh out of school, Dr. Harleen F. Quinzel was interested in studying the Joker to see if she could help bring him back from madness. She began treatment sessions only to find that she was falling in love with him.
Appearing for the first time in the live action movie Suicide Squad, it will be interesting to see how this character fits into the current DC Universe. In the animated series she was voiced by Arleen Sorkin, and later by Tara Strong in the video games. Harley Quinn is an Olympic class gymnast with a very intelligent, but distracted mind. She is madly in love with the Joker and can be considered just as crazy as he is. She could possibly be more dangerous than he since she will go out of her way to prove that her devotion to him is sincere, and will let nothing stand in way to be with him.
To this day, Bane’s true identity remains unknown. He is a mercenary with a genius level intellect and body honed to the peak of physical perfection. With the added benefit of the steroid-like compound called Venom he is physically enhanced. He is endowed with super strength, endurance, and speed/ reflexes. He heals faster, as well. He is the one who has “broken the bat” in the story called Knightfall. This classic tale was partially adapted into the The Dark Knight Rises in which Bane fights Batman and over-powers him. Once defeated, Bane picks up Batman and like a piece of wood, brings him down on his knee; breaking the Batman’s back and his spirit.
Jeep Swenson brought him to life on the big screen in Batman and Robin. Though, it could be argued it was just barely alive. The thug-ish, zombie-like portrayal of this awesome character was a disappointment and detraction for this movie. It was the exact opposite of how this character was portrayed in the comics. This was another reason this movie failed. In the animated series, Bane made several appearances. There, the character was portrayed correctly. Granted, the violence associated with this character had to tone down. Bane made another appearance on the silver screen in The Dark Knight Rises. This time, he was portrayed correctly. Tom Hardy stepped into the role and captured the essence of the character. Both written well and acted superbly, this is what Bane should have been in the first place.
Ra’s al Ghul
He is an Eco-terrorist and a mad visionary. He sees people ruining the Earth. He wants to correct that. He has a vision of the world in as a paradise-like state and wants the world to be like that, because he believes people will be happier. Unfortunately, he believes the only way to do this is to eliminate roughly 75% of the Earth’s population. He, also, believes humans are a disease and are cause more harm to the Earth than good. He has founded the League of Assassins for this purpose and with his daughter, Talia, at his side sets out to accomplish his goal. He is not averse to using weapons of mass destruction, such as genetically altered viruses, potent chemical weapons, tainting natural resources, or even nuclear weapons. He can do this slowly over time, since time is on his side. With the aid of the Lazarus Pits, he has lived for several centuries. The pits restore life to a dead being, but they can only be used so many times. There is a half-life on the effects, wherein each restoration only lasts half as long as the previous life. Introduced in 1971 in Detective Comics #232, he is one of the few characters to know Batman’s secret Identity, deducing it by studying the financial records of the world’s richest people. He has a high respect for Batman, usually addressing him as Detective because of his keen intellect. In fact, he regards him so highly that he extended Batman a prestigious offer: to be his successor with Talia at his side.
One of the better villains Batman has encountered over his years, Ra’s al Ghul is a very formidable foe for sure. He is different in one way; in that he does not reside in Gotham City. Instead, he lives almost halfway around the world. This brought a larger scope to the Dark Knight’s crusade against crime. In Batman: The Animated Series, Ra’s al Ghul was brought to life by David Warner. Known for playing villains for most of his career, he has a pleasant English accent, but with a bit of a sneer behind it. He was a perfect choice to give this grandiose character the voice it needed. A pompous attitude masked by a calm demeanor gave audiences the first taste of the potential devastation this character can inflict. This character was brought to life on the silver screen in the movie Batman Begins. This time he was played by the excellent talents of Liam Neeson. He brought a calm and powerful demeanor and also a sense of purpose. There was a kindness to him that gave him a more of a three dimensional feel.
Dr. Victor Freis is the man encased in the cryo-suit. Another tragic tale told beautifully in the classic Batman: The Animated Series. This character is a scientist in cryogenics. When his wife fell ill, he froze her in order to find a cure to save her. While searching for the answer to the disease, his work was shut down and the chamber which his wife occupied was turned off. During the kerfuffle, he fell victim to an accident that lowered his body temperature to sub-zero levels. Only able to exist in a cryo-suit, and believing he has lost everything, including his humanity, he sets out to take his revenge on the one responsible for his predicament. A very well told story and one of the episodes to win an Emmy. The voice of Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze is delightfully chilling. It is cold and ruthless and, yet it has a humanness hidden under all of that ice. Arnold Schwarzenegger played this chilling foe in the movie, Batman and Robin. Like the rest of the movie, it was a disaster. He appeared as if he was trying to get the character right, the lines kept getting in the way. From him spitting out ice puns to him smiling and even laughing at one point, it was like watching the horrid 60’s television show all over again. The one time he came remotely close was when he was speaking to his frozen wife. That was not his best performance by any means, nor was it the most ideal portrayal of this character. Of the five actors who have played Mr. Freeze, including the ones on the 60’s television series none have come close to the interpretation of Batman: The Animated Series.
Otherwise known as Pamela Lilian Isley, she made her first appearance in the 60’s. Aside from being a very attractive woman, she is a skilled botanist and chemist and has designed a powerful compound to attract men to her. At least, that is one version of her character. In the latest version, she is part plant and emits that aroma along with various toxins at will: hence the moniker Poison Ivy. She was featured in the animated series, vexing Batman with killer vines and pod people. In the movie, Batman and Robin Uma Thurman portrays this vixen of the vines.
She was visually stunning and for the most part fit the character. The lines that she had to spit out were atrocious. Her delivery of them needed work. Whether she researched the character or not and understood where the character was coming from, remains to be seen. If she did her due diligence, then it did not show through to the final edit. This movie was a mess with little direction as far as over-all understanding of the Batman mythos and concepts therein. Hopefully, the next time Poison Ivy is on the silver screen she will be portrayed correctly.
This tragic character, like many of Batman’s foes, is an emotional one. Harvey Dent is the newest district attorney and is quickly making a difference in Gotham City’s underworld of crime and corruption. He manages to wrangle in one of the crime bosses, Salvatore Maroni, by working with Commissioner Gordon and Batman. During the trial, Maroni threw acid in Dent’s face causing scaring, both physical and mental. The balance of his stressed and over-worked schizophrenic mind fractured and he became Two-face. Obsessed with duality, he would base every thing on the number two. His lucky coin he carried was defaced on one side by him and it now represents the two sides of his personality. He is at constant conflict with himself and uses it to make just about every decision in his life. Making his first appearance in August of 1942, he was never considered as a character outside of the comics. It was only until Batman: The Animated Series that the character made an appearance outside the comics. His story was changed only slightly in that it wasn’t acid that deformed his face but an explosion. Otherwise, it was a powerful episode and one that brought this character to the forefront as one of Batman’s main enemies. Billy Dee Williams did play Harvey Dent in the 1989 movie Batman, but never changed into Two-face. Tommy Lee Jones was Two-face in Batman Forever and for the most part phoned in his performance, choosing to clone Jim Carrey’s performance instead of researching the character and adjusting it for the movie. The Dark Knight came along later and while the Joker took most of the spotlight, Two-Face still managed to shine. This time played by Aaron Eckhart, Harvey Dent was alive and a crusader for justice. Eckhart infused a vivacious energy in this tragic tale. Although Two-face makes an appearance later in the movie, it seems too brief. However, Mister Eckhart manages to deliver an emotional and powerful statement during that time.
Dr. Jonathan Crane, A.K.A. Scarecrow, made his debut in the September 1941 issue of World’s Finest Comics #3. Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger he made only a few appearances in the early issues, but in the silver age he gained quite a bit of exposure. After the reboot in 1986 with the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Scarecrow’s origin was changed a bit to include his fear of bats. This lanky lad was always teased in school and he became fearful and nervous. This motivated him to study the effects of fear. He became a psychiatrist at The Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane conducting experiments on his patients involving fear and exploiting phobias when he could. Through this research, he developed a fear gas which causes a person to experience their worst fears as a hallucination. The experience is not just a visual one. The gas affects all the senses causing a complete and total immersion. It has never been fully explained when his break from reality happened, but messing around with that gas certainly did not help. He is one of the more dangerous of Batman’s adversaries. He is mentally unstable and could give The Joker a run for his money. Though he is not as theatrical as The Joker, he has killed without remorse and with the use of the fear toxin to exploit and manipulate people, he has gained power and a terrifying reputation. Another weapon he carries sometimes is an old fashioned scythe to help complete the frightening image of his chosen persona. Throughout the history, he has been known to work alone or with others; he has no preference. As long as he can induce fear, he is happy. Such partners he has worked with are Riddler, Bane, Penguin, and Joker, to name a few. More often than not, he lends out his fear toxin to them to use as they please. Batman: The Animated Series handled this character with a surprising amount of class. This character’s origin story was portrayed very close to the comics. As far as the character himself, the producers managed to show Jonathan Crane was crazy and terrifying for being a show aimed at the younger audiences. The actors who voiced this character (Henry Polic II, Jeffery Combs) managed to inject an intelligence with a cooled craziness that is bordering on the irrational. Cillian Murphy, who was the first actor to portray this character on the silver screen, went a different route with this role. He had a subdued calamity of reason to a calming demeanor as he breezed onto the scene of Batman Begins and hung there in the background like his namesake in a field of corn throughout the series. An excellent job to these actors for two of the most defining takes on this character in the Batman story.
Appearing before the Joker or Catwoman, this character was featured in the February 1940 issue of Detective Comics. He has an odd fixation with Batman. He wants to study him much like a lab rat. He wants to know what makes a person want to dress up at night and fight crime. By doing this he has the distinction of being the first character to deduce Batman’s true identity. He began in the early comics as a mad scientist experimenting in growth techniques; creating massive zombie-like creatures. It was only in the early 80’s, after a long absence, that he became the psychiatrist that he is today. Taking the position of head of psychiatry at Arkham Asylum, he studied his patients closely. He put them through tests that any civil person would consider cruel and unusual. This is all done in the name of finding out who Batman is. He has worked with many of the other adversaries like Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, and Two Face. There have been a couple of appearances of this character in the many animated series. Of note, Frank Gorshin voiced him in The Batman. He gave him a very spooky, sing-song characteristic that was unique and worked well for that series. B.D. Wong, an actor famous for his portrayal of a forensic psychologist for the FBI in the Law and Order titles, will bring this character to the life in the series Gotham this season. With his long history of psychology and playing a friendly person who so easily gains one’s confidence, it will be interesting to see how this skilled actor turns it around to present Hugo Strange to audiences.
She is a sometimes love interest of Batman and rival. A burglar and thief by trade, Selena Kyle uses her incredible athletic prowess to get into the tightest places and escape traps. She is one of Batman’s oldest characters premiering in the same issue as the Joker in 1940. She has gone through a great transformation over the years, perhaps the greatest of all of the characters. From a burglar in a blue dress to a full cat outfit with tail and large ears, she has run the gamut. Her debut on the silver screen was a culmination and combination of all the forms before. Michelle Pfeiffer embodied the character like never before. Owning the character and bringing the powerful sensuality and fiery independence that makes Catwoman one of Batman’s more popular and enduring characters. She walks the line between adversary and ally by keeping to her own code of ethics and killing only when a crime has been committed against her or someone she cares for and it is so heinous that jail is way too soft a punishment.
Julie Newmar is perhaps the best known of the 1960’s era. She had the grace and sex appeal that the character embodied. Dressed in the black body suit revealing her long shapely legs, she was stately and rebellious. Anne Hathaway channeled that essence into her portrayal of Catwoman in the The Dark Knight Rises. The comparison ends with her appearance. She has no cowl, or tail, or cat ears on her head. She does does wear a form-fitting leather suit. In the heart of the character, she is a modern woman with a fighting spirit. Embodying the spirit of the comics with an edge of realism, Hathaway cuts a mean and gritty character. Much like, Hathaway, Michelle Pfeiffer injects traits from the comics, but unlike Hathaway, she ramps it up by infusing a bit of goofiness that all of Tim Burton’s movies have. Though it is a dark portrayal, she throws in a subtle purr and growl in her voice. this harkens back to the silver age wackiness of the comics. This combined with a latex suit and cat-like cowl make her the quintessential Catwoman.
Ostensibly a hacker and thief, Eddie Nashton, AKA the Riddler, is an older villain created in 1948 by Bill Finger and Dick Sprang. The Riddler is obsessed with riddles, puzzles, games and word challenges. He loves to throw hints at the police and the Batman taunting them as he commits crimes, or ransoms information for other crimes happening. He does this in the form of riddles, word games, or puzzles in which these, when solved will point them in the direction of his next clue or possibly his next crime. He believes he has the superior intellect and likes to flaunt it. He began as a trickster-type character, but over the years he has become a darker foe. In more recent stories it has been shown that the obsessive-compulsive disorder he suffers from is controlling him; even haunting him. A few times Batman has commented that, if not for the clues he leaves the Riddler could get away with the perfect crime. That is what compels him to leave the clues. As the stories have progressed, he has become darker still. In Dark Knight Dark City, he has murdered people because they could not figure out the clue in time. Several people have brought this character to life including Frank Gorshin, John Astin and Jim Carrey. Frank Gorshin and John Astin portrayed this character in the 1966 television show. John Astin of The Addams Family fame being in only two of the 14 episodes, did a fair job at the part. He wasn’t as energetic as Mr. Gorshin, but still enjoyable. Gorshin was like a whirlwind on the set. He seemed to have drunk one too many cups of coffee and was like a devious and maniacal imp in the character. His performance is classic and he made the show worth watching. Jim Carrey brought the character to life on the silver screen in 1995. Though Batman Forever was not quite the movie it should have been, Carrey’s performance almost redeems the movie. Borrowing a page from Gorshin and even amping it up a notch, Jim Carrey was a ball of energy in the production. He gave it his all and it resulted in quite the performance. The best Riddler so far has been in the Arkham games where he is a dark but fun character. He is by no means a fighter. He chooses to match wits with Batman. In the games he is displayed as a mixture of the 60’s and the 90’s and even tempered down to a calmer more rational sort of figure. Of all the villains in the gallery, he is probably one of the most evolved villains.
Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot or better known as The Penguin is one of Batman’s older foes first appearing in the December 1941 issue of Detective Comics. He is one of smaller stature and usually dresses in a tuxedo, or well tailored suit. He is the go-to person for fencing stolen merchandise. He does this through his legitimate business The Iceberg Lounge where good food along with live music and dancing is served up in a cool and classy way. After the Falcone and Maroni families fell from power leaving a power vacuum, The Penguin swooped in and snatched it up. Two people of note have brought this bird to life; Burgess Meredith and Danny Devito. In the 1960’s show Burgess Meredith played this fowl egg with panache. Always squawking about the set and smoking a cigarette in a long holder, he resembled the Monopoly Man gone bad. Which for the kind of show it was seemed very silly and appropriate: a memorable performance by a good actor. Danny Devito became The Penguin in the 1992 film Batman Returns. This time the character was changed into a portly mutant with deformed hands that resembled flippers. Mr. Devito infused more energy that Mr. Meredith into the role. This gave the character a bit of instability in a goofy premise. It was possibly one of the best renditions of this character, yet.
As was mentioned before, these are the villains that have challenged the Batman and made him evolve in one way or an other. There are other villains out there, such as Mad Hatter, Killer Croc, Deadshot, Firefly, and the eight Clayfaces. They are interesting characters and present their own unique challenges to Batman, but not in the same way as those listed above. Samuel L. Jackson has said of DC Comics characters that, Marvel has great heroes and all DC has are interesting bad guys.
Paraphrasing the Magic Mirror in a Disney special about villains, what makes a hero truly heroic? If not for the villain acting nasty and evil, what would the hero do? The “hero” would be boring and uninteresting since there would be nothing to act upon or against. There would be nothing for the hero to do if there was no villain. The more villainous the character, the more heroic the protagonist looks.
There are many reasons why Batman has been around for so long and one of them is his array of “interesting bad guys” making him look that much more heroic.