In any case, the latest Batman movie has come and gone. We’ll probably see another one in a few years, but for now the trilogy is over, Bale has left the building, and there’s nothing more to see. We can all return to our homes and loved ones, put those batarangs back in the closet, and turn our minds to other matters – when the Justice League movie is finally going to come out, for instance.
Here’s the thing, though – the Dark Knight saga made franchise reinvention cool. One can no longer remain complacent about the portrayals of such things – the days of ‘well, they put these characters up on the screen already, so that’s the cast-in-stone depiction of them’ are over. For better or for worse, when next the Caped Crusader graces our screens it will most likely be in the form of a whole new franchise, with an entirely new take on the setting, characters, etc.
Now, I’m not too worried about Batman himself; he’s a pretty resilient character, he’ll be fine. But what about the villains? Some of them have been through the wringer two or three times by now – what more is left to do with them? How do you get good use out of characters that have already been used?
Well, rest your heads, you lucky people, because you’ve got me around to give you the answers. I present to you my list of the Batman movie villains so far, along with what I’d do with ‘em if I got a chance to bring them to the big screen.
A few notes before I begin – these are just the movie versions I’m listing here; the ones from TV depictions do not qualify for the list. Also, these are solely main villains that come from the comics; secondary and original baddies (such as Max Shreck, for example) don’t count. Finally, while I’ll avoid spoiler territory as much as possible here, I am assuming some basic familiarity with the movies, so if you haven’t seen at least a fair chunk of ‘em yet… well, you might want to hold off on reading this until you have.
The movies: Batman, The Dark Knight
My opinion: Might as well start out with a bang, right?
The Joker, of course, is one of the all-time best supervillains ever. Pick a guy off the street who’s never read a comic in his life and ask him to name a Batman villain – or, hell, a supervillain, period – and he’ll probably come up with the Joker.
Furthermore, the character has been lucky enough to have had two wildly successful big-screen portrayals. Just about everything Jack Nicholson’s Joker said has entered pop culture in some way or other (don’t believe me? Watch that movie and pick a random Joker line that isn’t quotable), whereas the Dark Knight version was the fitting capstone to Heath Ledger’s career, and is arguably the reason why the film became the smash hit that it was.
So just how do I have the temerity to suggest that two of the most legendary villain performances in superhero history can be improved upon? Pretty simple, really – both of them got it partly right.
Allow me to explain. The essence of the Joker, to my mind, is the fact that, while he’s a homicidal maniac, he can be a funny homicidal maniac. I mean, he’s called the Joker and he looks like a clown – of course he should have funny moments. That doesn’t take away from his unsettling nature; if anything, it adds to it, because when he suddenly switches from harmless japery to I’m-gonna-kill-you-now, it is scary. Furthermore, you never know which card he’s going to play, and it’s that unpredictability that makes the character so effective.
As far as I’m concerned, neither the Nicholson nor the Ledger Joker managed to combine these two elements properly. Nicholson’s Joker came the closest, in my opinion – he had plenty of funny moments while remaining a complete maniac – but the funny was emphasized just a little too much over the scary. As for Ledger’s, I know that there are some people who consider his the definitive portrayal, but I really can’t agree. He was far, far crazier and scarier than Nicholson, but except for a few isolated moments, he wasn’t really all that funny. He made for a terrific villain, but he was the Joker in name only – he was too one-sided to be the true Clown Prince.
So what would I do differently? Well… balance out the two, basically. Combine the sheer intensity of the Ledger Joker with the clownishness of Nicholson’s. Give us a villain that makes us laugh and flinch in equal amounts, and then you’ll have a real contender for the greatest Joker ever.
(Also, I can’t be the only one who thought that the Red Triangle Circus Gang from Batman Returns would have fit him a lot better than the Penguin. Why not give him some circus minions? That’d be cool.)
The movies: Batman Returns, The Dark Knight Rises
My opinion: There are four basic constants to Catwoman’s character that have been there since the beginning. One, she’s sexy. Two, she has a sympathetic side to her, usually manifesting in some sort of romantic tension with Batman. Three, her motives are simple – she’s out for the cash. And four, she likes cats.
Let’s start with Batman Returns. Michelle Pfeiffer did a terrific job in the role, which she has called the most challenging of her career. She’s sexy, she’s dangerous, she definitely has a cat theme, and she’s got a major thing goin’ with Batman both in and out of costume. When people think of Catwoman, they often think of her first.
However, she’s not the best in terms of strict accuracy. She’s just a teensy bit weird. And in any case, she’s not out for the cash, she’s out for revenge. It’s a great performance and an interesting take on the character, but perhaps a tad too interesting for its own good? I don’t know.
Now we come to Anne Hathaway’s interpretation. She’s… OK. The basics of the character are certainly all there – she’s a sexy thief with a sympathetic side to her – but Christopher Nolan kind of sacrificed her on the altar of his obsession with Bat-realism.
Why? Very simple – she’s not Catwoman. She’s Selina Kyle. Sure, she’s got the little kitty-ear goggles, which are very cute and all, but she’s not called Catwoman, she doesn’t have anything to do with cats; heck, she doesn’t even wield her signature whip. She’s not Catwoman, she’s a character who happens to share the name and modus operandi of Catwoman’s secret identity.
Furthermore, there’s just not much about her that really stands out. Nothing against Anne Hathaway; she did a pretty good job, but the character as written is just… bland. Pfeiffer’s version was weird as all get out, but at least she was memorable. Hathaway’s is just kind of there, and tends to fade into the background a lot.
So basically, neither one can be considered the definitive Catwoman, so simply combining the aspects of the two won’t really work. If you want to create a better CW, you’ve got to start from scratch.
This isn’t to say you can’t learn from the two previous versions, however. Pfeiffer’s was awesome, but strayed too far from the original concept. Hathaway’s was too afraid to take chances. The solution, therefore, is to make sure not to fall into either of those traps.
Don’t be afraid of making Catwoman who and what she is because you think it might seem silly. Trying to ground fictional characters too deeply in concrete reality is a slippery slope, and one that should not be ventured down without pitons. She’s called Catwoman, and she really likes cats – that’s part of the character; deal with it. At the same time, don’t make her too silly. Use the depiction of her in the comics as a baseline, and then do your own version.
Don’t go gonzo but don’t be boring. That’s Catwoman. Moving on.
The movies: Batman Forever, The Dark Knight
My opinion: Poor ol’ Harvey Dent. He’s been in (fittingly) two films, each of which misfired when it came to him for completely different reasons.
The first was Batman Forever. Now, I actually kinda like Forever, but I’ll be the first to admit that it has more than its fair share of flaws, the main one of which is Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face.
It might actually have been an inspired casting choice – Jones certainly has the acting chops to have pulled off the role – except that he was being directed by Joel Schumacher, whose instructions evidently amounted to ‘be as loud and crazy as possible’. It’s certainly entertaining at times to watch him ham it up like an entire pig farm and prance around in the most garish (OK, half-garish) outfit known to man, but no sane person could argue that he’s doing the character justice. If he only performed that way half of the time, that might be another thing, but as it is… no.
Aaron Eckhart’s performance in Dark Knight, however, is diametrically opposite – he’s excellent in the role. He’s scary, he’s obsessed, he flips around the coin like a pro, and the effects used to simulate his burns are darn near perfect. Sure, there are a few weak spots, but overall, it’s a terrific depiction of the character.
The problem lies not in Eckhart, nor in his direction, appearance, anything – it lies in the film itself. Christopher Nolan was clearly not interested in him as Two-Face; he was interested in him as Harvey Dent. As a result, he gets masses and masses of pre-Two-Face screen time, then he’s Two-Face for what seems like a few minutes and that’s it. It was a huge letdown.
In this case, therefore, my advice on how to reinterpret Two-Face is as follows – follow Dark Knight’s lead in terms of the overall portrayal, but don’t shove him off on the sidelines and then get him out of the way. Harvey Dent is far too complex and rich a character to warrant such treatment – once you’ve turned him into the Bifurcated One, give him some freakin’ breathing room.
The movies: Batman and Robin, The Dark Knight Rises
My opinion: Bane, you poor, poor schmuck. Nobody understands you. For the main villain of one of the most legendary Bat-storylines of all time, you have had a lousy track record onscreen.
Let’s start with his role in a really legendarily lousy flick – Batman and Robin. I actually found the Jeep Swenson Bane to be one of the few bright spots in this twenty-car pile-up of a film, but that was mainly due to his over-the-top portrayal – there’s something about a huge guy in a mask running around roaring at people that just tends to add that certain je ne sais quoi to an event. I have no doubt it’d spice up a few formal dinners.
Entertainment value aside, however, there’s no denying that the B&R Bane was, like pretty much everything else in that flick, just plain wrong. Bane is not just dumb muscle, however often spin-off media tends to portray him that way – he’s a strategic genius in the body of a hulking brute. It’s that dichotomy that makes him a great character, and which so many people just do not seem to get.
Christopher Nolan, I am happy to say, does get it, and his and Tom Hardy’s portrayal of the character is one of the best so far. Unfortunately, he goes too far in the opposite direction. Dark Knight Rises is still a pretty new film as I write this, so I won’t go too far into details here; suffice it to say that this Bane is actually a bit too cerebral for my tastes. He’s more like a general commanding his troops than a bruiser who shoves people around, and that’s a problem. Bane is indeed a very smart guy, and I appreciate that Nolan understands that, but he’s also a muscular behemoth who does most of his own dirty work. There’s a roughness and athleticism to the character that is missing here. (Also, while I know I’m in the relative minority here, Tom Hardy is just not beefy enough for me to buy him as Bane. He’s a big enough guy, sure, and I appreciate that he put on some muscle for the part, but he should be huge. Say what you will about the Swenson Bane, at least he looks like someone who could tear off your arm and beat you to death with it – Hardy, to me, does not.)
So what would I do? I’d Darth Vader the dude. Cast some big, strong, weightlifter-lookin’ guy in the physical role, and then get a talented voice actor like Keith David to handle the voice. Mess around with the look if you must; I understand some people don’t like it – just keep that mix of brute and genius.
(Also, while this is just the nerd in me speaking, I’d really love to see his henchmen from Knightfall appear in some capacity. Bird, Trogg and Zombie for the win!)
The movie: Batman Returns
My opinion: Well, we’re finally down to single-film appearances, so these should start getting a bit shorter.
The Penguin is a classic villain who keeps getting a bum rap from fans. They go ‘oh, he’s just a little fat guy with trick umbrellas; what kind of a villain is that?’ Um, he’s the kind who can consistently give Batman a hard time for over seventy years now despite the fact that he is just a little fat guy with trick umbrellas; that’s what kind he is! Honestly, some people…
Anyway. Ol’ Pengers’ appearance in Batman Returns is a controversial one, and for good reason. I accept it for what it is, and I love all the bizarre stuff that DeVito’s Penguin surrounds himself with – the Duck Vehicle! Woohoo! – but there’s no denying that the reimagining of the character is just… off. Subsequent writers have managed to more-or-less smoothly incorporate the notion that he’s a mutant of some sort into the comics, so I don’t have too much of a problem with that, but a sewer-dwelling ex-circus freak who was raised by his namesake birds and eats raw fish? Uh, yeah, no.
The way I would do Penguin is simply to center on how dangerous he is despite his relative lack of a physical threat. Make him a criminal mastermind with plenty of style and a bit of a bird fetish – perhaps focus on the notion that he operates under a front of legitimacy, which has been used to some effect in both the comics and the animated series. Do not under pain of fanboy rage leave out the trick umbrellas; they are awesome, as well as semi-practical in real life – it’s a good choice for a concealed weapon. Perhaps make him an amateur inventor; that would both explain them and emphasize his brainpower. It might also make for a good showdown in his hidden lair, which could be rigged out with all kinds of booby traps he created himself.
(Oh, and keep the Duck Vehicle. I don’t care how; just do it.)
The movie: Batman and Robin
My opinion: This is another one that was gotten rather epically wrong, but in this case I don’t blame the filmmakers quite as much, since she’s a tricky character to get right in any medium.
Personally, I think that Uma Thurman might actually have been able to nail the role of Ivy if she’d been given more to work with than ‘act like Mae West if she really liked plants’. At least she was clearly enjoying herself, but there’s a reason why the aforementioned description has made her character live in nerd infamy – it doesn’t freaking work. Add to that all the bizarre gobbledygook science she was loaded with as an attempt to provide an origin and motivation for her, and it’s just generally a mess. She’s not as bad as Arnie’s Mr. Freeze – and oh, we’ll get to him; never fear – but that’s not saying much.
The thing is, I can see why they made Ivy part of an ensemble cast of villains (besides the fact that that’s just how the movies were rolling at that point) – her character works best in short installments, and doesn’t really have enough thematic depth or complexity to hold up a film on her own. That’s fine, though; more than one villain in a movie can work out great, so long as you don’t overdo it – match her up with the right one, and it could result in beautiful music being made together. The main reason her team-up with Freeze backfired so spectacularly is that there was little-to-no reason for the two to have anything to do with each other.
So who would I pick? I’d pair her up with Ra’s al Ghul. That not only makes thematic sense (they’re both ecoterrorists of a sort), it would be a handy explanation of her often-confusing origin – her poison/plant powers could be as the result of experiments sponsored by the League of Shadows. There was a storyline in the comics where she claims Gotham’s Robinson Park as her own and turns it into a miniature jungle where she reigns supreme – I like the idea of her as a sort of extremist Mother Nature figure, so I would take that and run with it. She could be looking to expand her grasp into the city proper while Bats is off somewhere else fighting Ra’s, making it all the more urgent for him to finish up and get back home…
The movie: Batman Forever
My opinion: Here we have another case of a character portrayal that you can’t really say was the wrong one; it just wasn’t really the right one, at least so far as obsessive folks like me are concerned.
See, here’s the thing – when your average member of the Great Unwashed thinks of the Riddler, they’re probably thinking of the version from the Adam West TV show. As far as evoking that goes, Jim Carrey does quite a creditable job (or so I’m told; I’m not as familiar with that show as I might be), and if that’s what you’re looking for in your Riddler, then yeah, mission accomplished.
The thing is, though, while Jim Carrey being all manic and bouncing around may have been fun to watch, the Riddler from the comics is a lot more than that. He has a bit of a bad reputation as a guy who sabotages his own schemes by intentionally leaving around clues, but that’s a shallow interpretation. The Riddler, at his best, is a guy with an intellect on par with the Dark Knight’s, and his leaving behind riddles is an effort to prove that he’s better than Batman, an eternal struggle to outwit his nemesis and prove that his is the superior brain – and in his best stories, he’s come pretty close to doing so.
Tackling him on film, therefore, is not merely a question of finding a guy who can giggle in the right way and twirl a cane around – you’ve got to portray him as someone who may actually be able to beat the World’s Greatest Detective at his own game. This is a tricky proposition, since you’ve got to make the riddles hard, yet not so hard that Batman’s ultimate solving of them seems to come out of nowhere. A good Riddler should be someone who makes our hero look good, since he’s got to be good in order to figure out something this fiendish – and, of course, someone who can believably act that smart, along with retaining the theatricality that would lead someone to go around in a bright green question mark-covered suit. In short, you need a really good actor, and while I’m not going to pretend that I know who said actor would be, I will say that I was kind of excited when I heard the rumors that Johnny Depp might be cast in the role. They were wrong, of course, but it would have been awesome.
The movie: Batman and Robin
My opinion: Oh, Batman and Robin – what evil hast thou wrought?
The thing about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Freeze is that, while it’s undeniably one of the most painfully unfunny, misguided portrayals of any comic book character ever, I can kinda-sorta see where it might have worked under different circumstances. After all, they were clearly drawing on Michael Ansara’s performance in the animated series, and if you were casting for that, you could actually do worse. Ansara’s version of Freeze was notable for two things – one, his deadpan, almost inflectionless delivery, and two, his accent. Does anyone else think that sounds a bit like the Terminator? With the right direction, a Schwarzenegger Freeze might actually have worked – it would never have been perfect casting, but it could have at least been OK.
Unfortunately, he got saddled with a terrible script and worse direction, and the rest is history. No comic book nerd worth their salt needs me to tell them about Arnie-Freeze’s pun-laden monstrosity of a performance, so I’ll simply state the obvious by saying that it misfired badly.
So how to reclaim the diamond from the dunghill? Not too difficult, actually. The iconic Freeze is, of course, the animated series one, so go back to that and play it straight. No puns, no mugging, no hamming it up, no partnership with a crazy plant-woman who has nothing to do with him – just take the character seriously, play him for drama rather than laughs, and you’ve got a solid villain with a tragic backstory.
The movie: Batman Begins (and a brief cameo in Dark Knight Rises, but for plot-related reasons, it doesn’t really count.)
My opinion: Now here’s a tricky one. Ra’s is one of Batman’s greatest and most significant foes – if he’s portrayed correctly.
Liam Neeson tackled the role in Begins, and he did a pretty good job. The trouble was that the details of his character were in the hands of Christopher Nolan, who has a little bit of a problem with that whole ‘suspension of disbelief’ thing. Without giving anything away, he handled Ra’s, as per usual, in a very realistic manner – and that is precisely the reason why no one was coming out of the movie theater going ‘wow, Ra’s was awesome!’
Here’s the thing – Ra’s is openly and manifestly a larger-than-life character. He is not realistic; he is a pulp-style villain in the same vein as Fu Manchu. He has lived for hundreds of years and commands an international cult – it is an outright waste to depict him in any other fashion than gloriously pulpy.
Furthermore, he is one of the few Batman villains who is not specifically tied to Gotham City; in fact, he rarely even visits the place. To tie his attentions to it, as was the case in Begins, may have made sense in terms of Batman’s motivations, but little in terms of Ra’s’. Ra’s al Ghul thinks big – his plans are almost always on a global scale. They do occasionally involve Gotham, but usually only as a means to rattle ol’ Batsy’s cage while he proceeds towards the next step of wiping out all but the Chosen Few.
Now, here’s how I’d handle him. You recall me suggesting that him and Poison Ivy might make a good pairing? Well, here’s a sample plot involving that – Bats faces Ivy early on in the movie, has an initial confrontation with her, puts her in Arkham, and follows the trail of clues overseas to Ra’s. While he’s off having James Bond-style adventures in India or somewheres, however, she’s broken out of the nuthouse and is up to her old tricks again. It’s all part of a plot by Mr. al Ghul to distract the Dark Knight’s attention, making him choose between returning to save Gotham or staying to stop him. Naturally, our hero finds a third option, and it’s all very intense. There ya go; that’s yer movie.
Movies: The Dark Knight trilogy – main appearance in Batman Begins, cameos in the other two.
My opinion: I know, I know – technically this guy has been in more movies than all the others, so he should go first, but honestly, he only had any kind of significant role at all in Begins, so while numerically he may be a three-movier, functionally he’s only a one.
Jonathan Crane has always been a slightly problematic villain for me. While I recognize that he’s a classic character who’s had some good stories, I always felt that there was more that could be done with him than just ‘creepy wimpy guy with fear gas’. There was more to him than that when he first came out – read his introductory story sometime; it’s crazy. He takes on Batman and Robin – as in physically – and kicks their posteriors! And he doesn’t even use fear gas at that stage in his career – he scares purely through psychology.
Anyway. In BB, Cillian Murphy is a creepy wimpy guy with fear gas, and he’s really very good, and I can’t gripe about ‘why didn’t they do more’ because it was based on the comics and that’s how he is in the comics. There were only two things about the depiction that got on my nerves a bit. One, I didn’t like that his costume was just a mask – I mean, why go to the trouble of creating such an elaborate scarecrow mask if you’re not going to accessorize? Yeah, it was functional, but still. Two, as with Two-Face and Catwoman, Nolan shoved him off to the sidelines when the action got hot. Don’t do that! If you can’t figure out a way to tell the story without sidelining one of the villains, then just make it a one-villain movie! We’re not talking rocket science here, people – even Batman and Robin got that right. This should not be something that a talented director like Nolan gets wrong.
So what would I do with Scarecrow? I’d make him a ninja. OK, not a literal ninja, but a stealthy assassin – that’s how he started out, after all. He muscled people into complying with his employers’ whims through fear, and if they wouldn’t, then he flat-out killed ‘em. Make him a sort of boogeyman for the underworld, someone to terrify and wipe out their enemies, until finally he gets tired of being a lackey and decides to bust out the fear gas on the city at large unless they do as he says. It makes sense; grand-scale intimidation tactics like that work a lot better if you’ve already got a fearsome reputation through your actions.
And there you have it, my take on Bat-villains in movies. Here’s looking forward to the next generation of them – with any luck, in a few years I may be able to do a Part 2!