They say a hero is only as good as their villains. If that’s the case, then it’s for that very reason that Batman remains as well-known and popular a superhero as he is today. Since his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 way back in 1939, Gotham City's Caped Crusader has been seen as one of the most iconic and recognizable superheroes in all of comic fandom.
Along with DC's other hallmark heroes like Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman, Batman helped cement superhero comics' place in pop culture, paving the way for hundreds of other superheroes that followed, not to mention endless film, video game and TV show adaptations based on the Dark Knight's many adventures.
While the basic idea of Batman was an entertaining one—he wasn't a super-powered alien or an Amazonian god, but rather a man who used intelligence as his superpower—a primary reason for Batman's continuing popularity is his equally iconic rogues' gallery of villains.
It was through Batman's many battles with his formidable and memorable list of adversaries that made him so well-known a villain. These villains were all unique, had interesting “gimmicks,” and proved themselves to be dangerous, unstable threats capable of matching Batman physically and mentally, putting Gotham City in grave jeopardy time and time again.
With the widely-anticipated new movie, The Batman, set to come out on March 4, we thought we'd take a look at some of Batman's most famous villains, looking at their often tragic origins, primary motivations, relationship to the Dark Knight, and the most notorious crimes they've committed in their various comic appearances.
One of Batman's earliest and most famous villains, Oswald Cobblepot brings an element of sophistication to Batman's rogues' gallery. Styling himself “the Gentleman of crime” in Gotham, he's every bit as dangerous as the city's worst villains like the Joker or Two-Face, yet remains unique for his fanciful appearance, speech, and personality.
Characterized by his famous, Victorian Era top hat, monocle, and tuxedo, the Penguin may seem silly or dated at first, but recent comics, TV shows, games, and movies featuring the character have established him more as a methodical, organized gangster than a campy comic book villain of old.
He's well-known for his bird-themed weapons and schemes, and for his infinite supply of weaponized umbrellas (including umbrella-guns, umbrella-knives, and even spinning propeller-blade umbrellas the Penguin uses for a quick getaway).
His primary motivation is personal profit or acquiring more power, and he's been known for masking his criminal activity through his nightclub, the Iceberg Lounge.
Unlike most Batman villains, the Penguin is actually a sane criminal, in full control of his actions (although prone to bouts of extreme, dangerous anger when a plan is foiled). Because of this, Penguin is able to be cool, calculated, and incredibly dangerous when it comes to his nefarious schemes, another reason he remains unique among Batman’s many enemies.
The physical embodiment of fear, Scarecrow may initially appear as another dated, campy villain from the early 1940s', but his memorable gimmick and obsession with fear has made him an enduring Batman antagonist, helping him stay relevant and gain popularity among modern comic book fans.
Prior to his life of crime, Jonathan Crane was a renowned psychologist whose interests lay in people's fears and phobias. A skilled chemist, Crane began experimenting with various gasses and toxins that triggered fear-induced hallucinations. Soon, he donned the alter ego, “Scarecrow,” using his signature fear toxin to poison people, causing them to see their worst fears.
Scarecrow may very well be among the more unstable of Batman's villains, with his criminal actions not motivated out of attempts to secure wealth, but based on his desire to cause chaos and study the effects his toxin has on people. A man able to literally scare people to death, Scarecrow takes sadistic delight in terrorizing Gotham's citizens, making Batman and his allies his human guinea pig in their various battles.
Though Batman has never fully fallen victim to Scarecrow's toxin, Scarecrow's primary motivation is to break Batman mentally, with the villain constantly trying to devise a poison strong enough to drive the Dark Knight insane.
As of yet, he hasn't succeeded but has come incredibly close several times in various comics, films, and video games.
Another villain that initially appears somewhat on the campier side, the Riddler is perhaps Batman's greatest mental threat. As his name would suggest, he is known for posing various riddles that Batman must use his wits to solve, with dangerous consequences should the detective take too long answering them.
Edward Nygma (or Eddie Nashton, depending on the comic/film/show) was an incredibly gifted child who grew up obsessed with puzzles and riddles. An egomaniacal narcissist, he believes himself to be the most intelligent man in Gotham, able to craft riddles that stump the smartest of the city's minds, save for Batman's.
Each iteration of the Riddler is known for having drastically different physical appearances. However, most fans remember his earliest comic book costumes, consisting of a domino mask and either a green unitard or green suit and bowler hat, almost always adorned by the character's signature symbol, the question mark.
In essence, the Riddler is essentially DC's version of Saw‘s Jigsaw, creating complex traps that put human lives on the line, leaving vague clues behind for Batman to solve. Though undeniably intelligent, the Riddler's megalomaniac desire to prove his mental superiority over Batman makes him an incredibly unstable and dangerous intellectual threat to the Dark Knight and his fellow DC superheroes.
Ra’s Al Ghul
Ra's al Ghul remains a unique Batman villain for a few key reasons. Unlike most villains on this list, the character is known for first appearing in Batman comics 30 years after the detective's first appearance, debuting in 1971's Batman #232, making him one of the “youngest” villains on this list.
Ra's al Ghul is also one of the few Batman villains who is actually sane, and is known for his mystical background. Sometimes, he acts as an antagonist to Batman, and at other points, appears as a crucial ally and even a mentor to the Caped Crusader.
Ra's al Ghul's (Arabic for “Chief Demon” or “Head of the Demon”) exact origin is unknown, with each writer tweaking his story a bit to provide multiple backstories for the character.
What is known for certain about the character is that he is hundreds of years old, relying on his Lazarus Pit (magical springs that restore the dead and dying to peak physical condition) to essentially make him immortal.
The leader of the League of Assassins—a secret society composed of the world's deadliest assassins and mercenaries—Ra's views Batman as his ideal successor, someone who is intelligent, brave, and strong enough to lead his group in the future, as well as being the most promising suitor for his daughter, Talia.
The only problem, of course, is Batman's strong moral code against killing—which Ra's believes is paramount in order to return the world to peace and balance (Ra's’s main goal).
One of the few villains to have deduced Batman's secret identity as Bruce Wayne, Ra's holds nothing but respect for Batman, keeping his alter ego a secret and referring to him as “Detective” as a sign of said respect for Batman's intelligence.
Another villain that came along somewhat late in Batman's universe (having made her debut in 1966), Poison Ivy is also one of the most popular and recognizable of Batman's many villains. One of the Dark Knight's rare female supervillains, Ivy is just as deadly and formidable an antagonist as any of her male contemporaries, known for her ruthless personality, cynical worldview, and memorable physical appearance.
Like many characters on this list, Poison Ivy's exact origins have changed from decade to decade, with the basic premise behind her character remaining more or less the same. Before her transformation into the Poison Ivy, Dr. Pamela Isley was a brilliant young botanist who underwent a physical metamorphosis into her villainous alter ego, Poison Ivy, gaining the ability to control all plant life.
If that weren't enough, Poison Ivy is also famous for her role as a temptress, able to use her pheromones and physical presence to manipulate virtually everyone she comes into contact with.
As part of her seductress-style gimmick, she's known for her physical beauty, and for her basic outfit consisting of a green singlet covered with leaves and vines. Her skin tone and hair color have changed over the years depending on the artist and writer, but her hair is normally shown to be red with her skin appearing anywhere from a shade of light pink to green.
No matter her physical appearance, Poison Ivy is almost always motivated by her singular desire to protect nature at all costs, as well as her misanthropic view of mankind. Though her views are extreme in nature, her mostly noble cause sometimes casts Poison Ivy in a more anti-heroine role, sometimes aligning with Batman, Harley Quinn, or other nature-related DC heroes, such as Swamp Thing.
Mr. Freeze is an interesting addition to Batman's list of adversaries for so many reasons. For one, he's not insane. Additionally, his motivations are extremely tragic yet noble in nature, although the exact way Mr. Freeze goes about achieving his end goals almost always puts him at odds with Gotham’s Caped Crusader.
Mr. Freeze's origins have changed drastically over the years, but the backstory featured in Batman: The Animated Series remains the character's more widely accepted origin story. Born Dr. Victor Fries (pronounced “freeze”), Freeze was a gifted scientist who specialized in cryogenic preservation, primarily trying to work out a way to freeze his wife, Nora, who has been diagnosed with cancer, in the hopes of finding a cure once she's on ice.
After a laboratory mishap causes Freeze's body temperature to drop to subzero conditions, he begins wearing a cryogenic suit to maintain a stable temperature to continue searching for a cure. It's Freeze's devotion to Nora that makes him such a dangerous villain. In the past, he's been shown to prioritize his wife over everything else, especially when it's other human lives (including his own).
Known for his sci-fi-esque suit and various weapons that freeze people in place, Freeze's tragic canonical backstory has made him one of the more popular villains among Batman's rogues gallery, with Batman sometimes working with Freeze as an ally and research assistant trying to find a cure for Nora.
Another unique entry on this list, Two-Face's role in Batman comics is one of the most distinct and tragic in all of the superhero's history.
Originally, Harvey Dent was Gotham's knight in shining armor, a district attorney who played by the books to combat the city's rampant criminal underworld, relying on Batman and Commissioner Gordon as his closest allies.
Eventually, Dent's hard stance against organized crime led mob boss Sal Maroni to seek retribution, throwing acid at Dent during the middle of a trial, horrifically scarring the left side of Dent’s face.
The incident would essentially drive Dent mad, leading him to adopt a second, more malevolent personality, and becoming two men trapped in one body. As Two-Face, Dent is obsessed by the idea of duality and good versus evil, using a double-sided coin (one side of which, like Dent's face, is scarred) to dictate most of his actions, leaving many of his decisions up to “fate” in the form of a coin flip.
Shreds of Dent's old, more reasonable self remain in Two-Face's body, but more often than not, it's Dent's more unhinged, “evil” half that is primarily in control, making him akin to Batman's version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Dent's personal and professional ship with Batman, Bruce Wayne, and Jim Gordon make him an unusual enemy for the Bat family. More modern stories featuring his character have portrayed him as a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne's, a close personal friend of Jim Gordon, and someone who's constant abuse from his alcoholic father as a child led to his severe dissociative personality disorder as an adult.
Though Two-Face doesn't know Batman's secret identity, the emotional inner conflict Batman feels fighting someone he was so close to for most of his life gives his relationship with Two-Face far greater nuance and complexity.
Batman's long list of antagonists are more regularly characterized by their mental prowess, posing intellectual threats against Batman, testing his intelligence (the Riddler), the psychological limits of his sanity (Scarecrow), or his more emotional side (his past friendship with Two-Face, for instance). Though these villains would fight Batman by the end of a comic issue, few villains posed much of a physical threat to the Dark Knight.
That would all change with the introduction of the mysterious masked villain, Bane, in 1993's Knightfall storyline.
Born on the South American island of Santa Prisca, Bane was sentenced as a young boy to serve out his revolutionary father’s life sentence in Peña Duro, the most dangerous prison that his country had. Hardened from a young age in this prison setting, Bane spent his formative years reading every book in the prison’s library, teaching himself various languages (English, Portuguese, Persian, and Latin among them), bodybuilding, and learning how to fight.
Grow up to become the toughest and most feared prisoner of Peña Duro, Bane was involuntarily subjected to human experiments involving an unstable drug known only as Venom when he was an adult.
After being administered the drug, Bane gained vastly increased physical strength, using it to escape Peña Duro, though he soon developed a physical and mental dependency on it, requiring regular dosage every 12 hours to avoid excruciating withdrawal symptoms. Perhaps Bane’s most notable and famous achievement was breaking Batman's back, nearly putting the Dark Knight out of action for good.
Of course, Batman—as he is wont to do—eventually bested the masked supervillain after a prolonged recovery, but his near-defeat at Bane’s hands established Bane as a physically and mentally imposing new villain, someone who came incredibly close to killing the Bat once and for all.
Similar to Two-Face, Catwoman's role in Batman comics is one that has changed a few times over the character's history.
Introduced in Batman #1, Catwoman is one of Batman's oldest villains. An expert cat burglar known for her one-piece black suit and bullwhip, Selina Kyle has been both a fierce enemy to Batman, a close ally, and a regular romantic interest to the Dark Knight.
Catwoman's role as an antagonist and ally to Batman has caused her to gain significant traction and popularity among comic book fans. Her flirtatious relationship with Batman has led to her being seen more as an anti-heroine than a simple villain along the same lines as Joker or Bane, for example.
In more recent comics, she's portrayed as a thief with a heart of gold hiding behind her villainous guise and cynical dog-eat-dog personality. In an ideal world, Catwoman would likely be Batman's greatest ally. However, her own self-interest and desire to steal Gotham's most prized treasures often put her at odds with Batman.
Despite how antagonistic their relationship can sometimes be, the two still remain mutually respectful and flirtatious towards one another, demonstrating that they care for each other, even when their two goals don't necessarily align.
Was there ever any question who'd be number one?
An antagonist as iconic as Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector, or the Wicked Witch of the West (fittingly, he feels like a combination of all three), when people hear the word “villain,” there's a reason they automatically begin conjuring up images of Batman's archenemy, the Joker.
Easily the most famous villain not only in Batman comics, but in all of pop culture, Gotham's “Clown Prince of Crime” made his debut back in 1940's Batman #1, making him the Dark Knight's oldest and most credible enemy in the character's continuity.
Given his 80-year-long history, the Joker has made a definitive name for himself as the most dangerous and unhinged criminal in the entire DC universe. Possessing a genius-level intellect, the Joker takes a sadistic delight in pointlessly killing hundreds of people just for the fun of it, making himself a regular thorn in Batman's side since his first introduction.
The Joker lacks any definitive backstory that might explain his origins, though the most popular explanation came with Alan Moore's fan-favorite The Killing Joke, which imagined a young Joker as a struggling young comedian who reluctantly turns to crime to support his pregnant wife.
While out on his first job disguised as the Red Hood, Joker is pursued by Batman and accidentally slips into a vat of chemicals, turning his skin chalk white, his hair permanently green, and his lips bright red.
Seeing himself in such a state and having suffered a number of personal tragedies one after another (including his wife’s death), he goes instantly mad, rebirthing himself as the Joker, donning a purple suit and taking on a joker playing card as his symbolic calling card.
The complete opposite of Batman in every way, the Joker is one of the most psychopathic criminals in Gotham, regularly wreaking mass havoc on its citizens and pushing Batman to the edge time and time again. Some of his most notorious deeds include killing Jason Todd (Batman's second Robin) and paralyzing Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) for life.
The most iconic supervillain in all of comic fandom, the Joker has since been recognized as one of the greatest fictional villains there is. The character's popularity has resulted in him featured in virtually every Batman adaptation there is, including Oscar-winning performances by Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Warner Bros.