I've spent much of the past three weeks playing on X-Box 360 Batman: Arkham City, and it's occurred to me: is there any hero, super or otherwise, who has a better cast of villains than Batman? Of comic book protagonists, I think only Spider-Man comes close. Superman has Lex Luthor, a personal favorite of mine, but it's hard to invest much tension when the hero has near-invincibility (or as my friend Charley worded it, "Oh no, how is God going to get out of this jam?").
Batman, because he's human, because he's vulnerable, and because the world he lives in is so dark, has a host of great adversaries. What makes them so compelling, I believe, is how they reflect a twisted psychological aspect of Batman, making us appreciate them on their own terms while bettering our understanding of our hero and what makes him tick. Plus, because the villains themselves are a diverse and eclectic bunch, Batman must fight them in a variety of ways, whether hand-to-hand combat, detective work, science, entrapment, or other means.
Joker is the perfect arch-nemesis, a psychotic prankster and perfect opposite to Batman; Batman is serious, a believer in order and justice while Joker is a clown who believes chaos and destruction. His schemes usually involve challenging Batman's moral code and beliefs. Two-Face is another great villain, a tragic figure who once believed good triumphs over evil but now places his faith in the hands of chance (as decided by a flip of a coin); contrarily, Batman - is he Batman or Bruce Wayne, a hero or vigilante, crime-fighter or do his actions escalate crime - believes his actions can make a difference. Mr. Freeze, like Bruce Wayne suffered tragedy, but instead of marshaling his talents to protect others, he was pulled toward vengeance and insanity, his emotions frozen dead inside him. Batman, by virtue of his emotions - his refusal to take a life, his belief in justice, the loss he feels for his parents - elevate him to hero instead of simplifying him a vigilante. I could go on, but the point is Batman's villains - the Riddler, Catwoman, Bane, the Penguin, Ra's Al Ghul, Clayface, etc. - work in their own ways.
The cinematic treatment of Batman and his rogues gallery has been all over the map, some excellent, others not so good. Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson made for very good Jokers with different interpretations. Danny Devito, somewhat overshadowed by the grotesque makeup, made for a sympathetic and nasty Penguin. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, the less said the better.
Director Christopher Nolan is currently concluding his Batman trilogy, which began with 2005's Batman Begins, continued with 2008's The Dark Knight, and will finish with 2012's The Dark Knight Rises. The villains have included Liam Neeson as Ra's Al Ghul, Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow, Ledger as the Joker, and Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face. I liked all four but agree when people say Ledger was the standout with a truly disturbing and warped portrayal. The series will end with Tom Hardy as Bane and Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. I'm optimistic about Hardy (his breakout role in Bronson shows he can play a muscleman prisoner), but I'm cautious about Hatheway (never much of a fan), but overall, I'm excited.
Although Nolan and Batman star Christian Bale said the upcoming film would be their last in the series, we can be certain this won't be the end of the Caped Crusader on the big screen. There's so much potential, and what I'd like to do is offer my own list of the five villains I'd like to see in a Batman movie. What I tried to do pick some of the lesser known characters, the ones we haven't seen on film yet. Joker is great, but as I said, there's so much more to tap into.
1. Black Mask aka Roman Sionis: A sadistic crime boss with a black mask (carved from his father's coffin) burned into his face, Black Mask is obsessed with Bruce Wayne and Batman. Black Mask grew up the son of wealthy industrialists (whose company he inherited after their mysterious deaths in a fire) and resented the social, metaphorical masks they wore in high society to charm people they secretly despised. He bankrupted the family company until it was bought out by Bruce Wayne, whom Black Mask came to hate. While apt with a handgun and hand-to-hand fighting, he's really good at torture and intimidation.
Chances of being in a film: Considering the strong anti-Wall Street sentiment in the country today, high.
2. Killer Croc aka Waylon Jones: An alligator wrestler-turned-criminal, Killer Croc is a massive, incredibly strong brute with a skin condition that resembles the scales of a crocodile, and he has the ability to hold his breath for a long time underwater. He started out as mob enforcer. As time goes on, he becomes more and more animal-like, living in the sewers, sniffing out his enemies, and eating some of them.
Chances of being in a film: Given that doing this character right would endanger any film's PG13 rating and the series is currently more grounded in realism, low.
3. Dr. Hugo Strange: I'll admit it, playing Arkham City has made a fan of Strange. As depicted in the game, he is a ruthless, cunning, Machiavellian manipulator and one of the few villains to discover Batman's secret identity. An insane psychologist who develops a serum that usurps human will, Strange is one of Batman's oldest foes. He's a classic doctor who is crazier than his patients.
Chances of being in a film: He's one of the main villains in one of the biggest video games of recent years, but this type of character has been done elsewhere outside of the Batman franchise, medium.
4. Mr. Freeze aka Victor Fries: I know he was used in Batman and Robin, but let's forget about that abomination. Mr. Freeze is hard to pull off effectively, but when done right, he's one of the most involving characters in comics. A cryogenic scientist who freezes his terminally wife to find a cure, he is mutated by an accident that renders him unable survive outside of subzero temperatures. Driven insane by the transformation and the apparent loss of his wife Nora, he bases his crimes on cold against those he believes responsible. He has a certain degree of Shakespearean tragedy, and Batman feels a certain degree of pity toward him.
Chances of being in a film: The backlash of Arnold's portrayal and the difficulty pulling him off are too much, low.
5. Clayface aka Basil Karlo: There have been a number of Clayfaces over the years, but I prefer Karlo, a horror film actor driven mad when one of his classics is remade with another actor. He has the power to shape shift into any person, but in his standard form, he is a giant, oozing monster. His first appearance was in 1940, predating the horror movie remake craze by 60-some years. He can be the subtle, hidden foe or the rampaging monster.
Chances of being in a film: Again, the concept has been done elsewhere and is not particularly realistic, but it is very versatile, medium.