I know a few things about comic books. I’m not a huge, huge fan of the medium anymore, and I’ve not followed any titles for going on 20 years now . . . but I view superheroes as, for the most part, our modern folklore and am fascinated by them and their stories and their origins, both real and fictional. Since I also have a mind wired for trivia, I manage to pick things up like a magnet whether I want to or not when it comes to this subject area. There’s lots of great fields to explore within the world of comic book superheroes, lots of different ways to rank them and compare them. A great area of discussion is the various rogues galleries, or groups of villains, that belong to a particular hero character. As we’ll see, some almost overshadow the hero themselves, and some are pathetically weak, especially considering to whom they belong. This is going to be the first of several posts over the next few months (they won’t all be in a row, though), and we’re going to start at the top of the list.
BEST ROGUE GALLERY:
This is an easy choice. If it wasn’t for the brilliance of 2005’s Batman Begins, I would say that nearly all of his villains overshadow him. I now don’t think that at all–I think he still dominates. I think Batman would be just as great without such an awesome rogue gallery BECAUSE he’s so good on his own. But, in the end that’s a moot point, because his villains rock. Let’s look at the some of strongest ones vs. some of the weakest ones to have a sense of how even the weak ones are great.
The Joker. The Joker not only gets best Batman villain, but he’s a contender for the best villain of all time, period. I’d say he’s taking on Darth Vader, Sephiroth, and Ben Linus for that spot (I’d throw Kefka in there, too, but they’re so similar). He’s beyond dark, completely psychotic, completely hilarious, and, in Heath Ledger’s masterful portrayal, a seething anarchist. He’s in an endless dance with the Caped Crusader, only seeking to create chaos among the order that the other seeks to establish. They’re yin and yang, if I may use the imagery. No hero and villain go together better, I would say. I know that early on, Chris Nolan didn’t want to do the Joker for the second of his movies, and that the ending to Begins was only a nod . . . but he realized you can’t do Batman and not do the Joker. It’s like Superman without Lex or He-Man without Skeletor, except more so.
Two-Face. On the subject of the Nolan movies again, I have such high praise for how Two-Face was done in The Dark Knight, but also such a gripe that he’s not coming back . . . because if any Batman baddie can rival the Joker, it is Two-Face. Where the Joker works great with Batman because of how well they contrast, Two-Face works so well because of the personal connection the characters have. I’ve recently read the graphic novels The Long Halloween and Dark Victory (which both very obviously influenced the story of The Dark Knight) and they deal in large part with the story of Harvey Dent becoming Two-Face and, by connection, Batman’s inner turmoil of seeing his friend lose all the good that was in him and become one of his greatest enemies. Two-Face easily takes command of the other Arkham Asylum freaks when he has the need because, being a former D.A., he has a greater understanding of them than some crime boss or any Joe off the street. Plus his motivation is so well defined, and his confusion and turmoil is so obvious. He’s a completely engaging character on his own, and when he gets pitted against another interesting one like Batman, it’s spectacular.
Catwoman. Four months ago I would not have picked Catwoman for a best Batman villain. My familiarity with the character was based out of TV and movie portrayals of her, where she’s a bit player, shows up when it’s convenient for the plot like any other villain, or all the focus gets placed on the outfit. (Good grief, people, Batman Returns is nearly 20 years old now and it wasn’t even that good to begin with. Can we let the Michelle Pfeiffer thing go? Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I say that all of Catwoman’s various comic book outfits are ridiculous, too.) But, as I’ve said, I’ve read a few graphic novels lately and all of them continue a thread with her that I’ve been fully unaware of–she and Batman have a very interesting “thing” going on. Oh sure, I knew that Batman/Catwoman and Bruce Wayne/Selina Kyle were something of an item here and there, but in the handful of graphic novels I’ve read, they’re not A thing, but they are THE thing. Like almost to the intensity of Superman and Lois Lane, but MUCH more interesting. She is a cat burglar (yes, really) that doesn’t see such a clear line between right and wrong as Batman sees it. She’s not an evil despicable person, but she IS out for herself primarily. At the same time though, she cares about and likes Batman, and has a very intriguing hot-and-cold relationship with him. All of that goes on at the same time as Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne develop a thing separately. Most of the time, from what I’ve read, they do not know who the other is. Sometimes I get the impression that he knows, but Selina almost NEVER knows that Bruce is Batman. When this is just an issue or two (or a TV episode, or a single, lack-luster movie), it’s not that interesting. But when you begin to understand that she is a seriously significant person to Batman on a long-term scale, it makes their relationship a very strong pillar around which to build a larger story. And knowing that actually gets me excited that Catwoman will be in the next movie, whereas when I first heard it my heart sank a little. Chris Nolan gets Batman, and if you’ve read some of the major Batman graphic novels, you know he adheres to their themes very closely, so I’m very excited to see how she gets played out on screen.
Even Batman’s not flawless, and for all the great baddies he’s got, there are a few that just baffle me. Yet with that said, I was unable to find a single Batman villain that was completely worthless and stupid (excepting for some of the ones who existed only for the 60’s TV series, like Bookworm or King Tut), so it is not the characters alone that baffle me, but instead what surrounds them and brings them to this fictional universe . . .
The Mad Hatter. I think what gets me the most about the Mad Hatter is that he’s not that clever of a character. His usage has been great many times–he shows up often in the graphic novels I’ve read, and I enjoyed his episodes in the old animated series–but c’mon. The Mad Hatter? The first time I heard of him, in the aforementioned animated series, my thought was, “Seriously? Who’s the villain tomorrow? The Ghost of Christmas Past? Or maybe the Wicked Witch of the West?” The problem, as I see it, is that there’s no real twist on the source material. He’s just lifted right out of Alice in Wonderland and given a Gotham City identity. And that’s boring. It’s even more confusing when you consider his “trick” is mind control. . . . why? What does Lewis Carroll’s “Hatter” who waxes crazy with the March Hare and drinks tea all day have to do with mind control? It’s very arbitrary in my opinion.
Jason Todd. I love, LOVE the drama added to the Batman mythology surrounding the death of Robin #2, Jason Todd. There’s a gritty realism and an undeniable darkness to it that is what Batman is all about. And then they brought him back to life. As a villain. That, in and of itself, is one of the things that makes comic book story lines completely worthless over the long haul–dead characters should stay dead. It negates not only the added depth to Batman, but–as with every other comics title guilty of this–it also removes the significance of any other character death in the story. After Jason comes back to life (and let us not forget all the images of Batman carrying his crushed, bloody, lifeless body), we should honestly all expect Thomas and Martha Wayne to be alive somehow, too. I mean, why not?
Clayface. Like the Mad Hatter, there have been a number of great ways to use Clayface for a storyline, but one of the things that has always made me uneasy about him is how he is 100% impossible in reality. One thing I’ve always liked about Batman, and which has become a cornerstone in the spectacular Nolan films, is that everyone and everything seems like they could be the result of, at the most, an exaggerated folk tale. Killer Croc could have been a psycho with a horrible skin disease and a taste for body modification. Poison Ivy could have been a crazy botanist with some slight-of-hand skills making it seem like she could control plants. The acid-scarred Two-Face (as opposed to the burned version in The Dark Knight) is completely probable. Everything is easy to find some grounding in reality. Clayface is a walking heap of mud that can transform into anything he wants. Sure, there’s interesting stories with him, but his essence betrays the faux-real-worldism of all the Batman mythology.
But maybe that’s just me. I invite arguments and debates in the comments.