They say the world measures a hero by his villains. No wonder 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 countless films, video games, 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, just a guy who used his vast intelligence, financial resources, and uncanny detective skills as his primary weapon – an important reason for Batman's continuing popularity is his equally iconic rogues' gallery of villains.
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.
From giggling psychopaths to tragically flawed anti-villains, here are the greatest antagonists in Batman’s comic book history, ranked from best to worst.
1 . The Joker
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 supervillain 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, he 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 complete opposite of Batman in every way, the Joker is without the doubt the most unstable criminal in Gotham, regularly wreaking mass havoc on its citizens and pushing Batman to the mental and physical 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 being featured in virtually every Batman adaptation there is, including Oscar-winning performances from Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix.
Like many Batman foes, Catwoman's role in Batman comics is one that has changed a few times over the character's history. An expert cat burglar known for her one-piece black suit and signature bullwhip, Selina Kyle has been both a fierce enemy of Batman’s and a regular romantic interest to the Dark Knight for over 80 years.
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.
In more recent comics, she's been portrayed as a thief with a heart of gold hiding behind her villainous guise and cynical dog-eat-dog personality. Despite how antagonistic their relationship can sometimes be, Catwoman and Batman still manage to display genuine warmth towards one another, making for a fascinating chemistry between the Cat and the Bat.
Batman's long list of antagonists are more regularly characterized by their mental prowess, 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 routinely 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 and raised in a nightmarish South American prison, Bane spent his formative years reading every book he could get his hands on, teaching himself various languages (English, Portuguese, Persian, and Latin among them), bodybuilding, and learning how to fight, all the while being subjected to human experiments involving the unstable muscle-enhancing drug, Venom.
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 adversary 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.
The physical embodiment of fear, Scarecrow may initially appear as a dated, campy villain from the early 1940s, but his memorable gimmick has made him an endearing Batman antagonist from decade to decade.
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 that triggered fear-induced hallucinations, observing how they altered the human mind. Before, 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, his criminal actions not motivated out of attempts to secure wealth, but based on his personal 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, 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.
Making her debut in 1966, Poison Ivy came along relatively late in Batman's publication history although she quickly became one of the most popular and easily recognizable villains in Batman’s lineup of enemies.
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 known for her role as a temptress, using her pheromones and physical presence to manipulate virtually everyone she comes into contact with.
With each of her appearances in comics, film, or TV, 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-heroic role, occasionally causing her to align with Batman, Harley Quinn, or other nature-related DC heroes, like Swamp Thing.
Since she was introduced in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn quickly became a breakout character in her own right, her popularity matching age-old Batman villains like Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and even her primary love interest, the Joker.
The Joker’s loyal sidekick and on-again, off-again girlfriend, Harley was originally a dedicated psychiatrist named Harleen Quinzel, who went on to treat the Joker after he was locked up in Arkham Asylum. With some deft manipulation on the Joker’s part, Quinzel ended up falling in love with the Clown Prince of Crime, prompting her to break him out of Arkham and adopt the alter ego, Harley Quinn.
Over the years, Harley’s grown into taking on a variety of roles, serving as the Joker’s sidekick, forming a partnership with Poison Ivy and Catwoman, and eventually becoming a key member of the infamous Suicide Squad. Whether she’s in a group or her own, she always makes for a delightful villain/sporadic anti-hero.
Mr. Freeze is an interesting addition to Batman's list of adversaries for so many reasons. Most obviously, his motivations are 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.
Born Dr. Victor Fries (pronounced “freeze”), Freeze was a gifted scientist who specialized in cryogenic preservation, freezing his terminally ill wife, Nora, 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, helping him continue to search 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 other human lives (including his own) are on the line.
Known for his sci-fi-esque suit and various ice-based 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 in his quest to save Nora.
Another interesting entry on this list, Two-Face's role in Batman comics is one of the most heartbreaking in 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. Ultimately, Dent's hard stance against organized crime antagonized notorious mob boss Sal Maroni, leading the gangster to horrifically injure the left side of Dent’s face. The incident would essentially drive Dent mad, triggering the creation of a second, more malevolent personality that seized control of Dent’s psyche.
As Two-Face, Dent is obsessed by the idea of duality, 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 “chance” in the form of a coin flip.
Dent's personal and professional relationship 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.
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 – despite being centuries old thanks to his trusty Lazarus Pit.
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 harmony (Ra'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 occasionally acting both as an ally and mentor to the Caped Crusader.
Another villain who 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 devise, with dangerous consequences should the detective take too long answering them.
An egomaniacal narcissist, he believes himself to be the most intelligent man in Gotham, able to craft puzzles 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 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 threat to the Dark Knight.
One of Batman's earliest and most famous enemies, Oswald Cobblepot brings an element of sophistication to Batman's rogues' gallery. Styling himself “the Gentleman of Crime,” he's every bit as dangerous as the city's worst villains like the Joker or Two-Face, yet remains unique for his elegant appearance, speech, and personality.
Characterized by his Victorian Era top hat, monocle, and tuxedo, the Penguin may seem silly or dated at first, but recent comics, TV shows, games, and movies have redefined him more as a methodical gangster than a campy comic book villain.
Unlike most Batman villains, the Penguin is actually a sane criminal, in full control of his actions (although prone to unrestrained, almost homicidal outbursts). Because of this, Penguin is able to be cool and calculated in his plans, and incredibly dangerous when it comes to his nefarious schemes.
The Red Hood
Even when compared to Two-Face or Catwoman, no villain has as emotional connection to Batman as the Red Hood. The second sidekick to bear the name Robin, Jason Todd acted as Nightwing’s successor, transforming himself into Batman’s trusty number two from 1983 until 1988.
Known for his rage and recklessness throughout his run as Robin, Jason was ultimately killed by the Joker in the famous “Death in the Family” storyline, his demise serving as Batman’s greatest failure. Twenty years later, he eventually returned under the moniker, the Red Hood, resurrecting himself in Ra's al Ghul’s Lazarus Pit – albeit turning into a darker, twisted version of his former self.
Arriving in Gotham City to settle some old scores, the Red Hood is just as much an anti-hero as he is a villain, his hardened stance on crime and vigilante activities regularly clashing with Batman’s moral principles. He’s one of the most underrated characters in DC, as well someone who blurs the line between hero and villain.
Another wholly misunderstood character whose transformation into villainy is a result of mere circumstance, Killer Croc is incidentally one of Batman’s most terrifying recurring foes. Originally a circus performer named Waylon Jones, Croc was born with a rare genetic disorder that caused him to have reptilian skin and superhuman strength.
Bullied and ostracized from a very early age, he came to resent the human world around him. As his physical condition continued to degrade, he lost more and more of his humanity, his instincts becoming more raw and animalistic, leading him to become the carnivorous, sewer-dwelling supervillain we know today.
As with most entries on this list, Croc’s appearances in DC comics has alternated between an obvious villain and a morally gray anti-hero (thanks in large part to his membership in the Suicide Squad). Whatever his role is, though, he makes for a compelling antagonist for Batman to face, whether in the pages of a comic book or in a video game like the hit Arkham series.
Image Credit: Warner Bros.