Playing a villain in a superhero movie can be a tough job sometimes-- you strap on a spandex suit, you scream at the hero and cackle about how evil you are, and you get killed in some lame way, maybe as part of a punchline. But Batman's rogue gallery has always been different, and in the last 25 years of Batman movies some of our greatest actors have stepped up to the plate to torment the Dark Knight. Whether over the top and theatrical or terrifyingly real (and in at least one case, both), the Batman villains of the movies have often been the best parts of their own films, the sly and amoral antagonists who really make our hero work for his victories.
But how can we really know how to consider these baddies unless we line them up and rank them? OK, we're only half-serious about that, but when trying to figure out how to talk about Batman's best foes, we got together and gave them all a score between 1 and 10. We present the top 10 to you below, representing both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan's Batman universes (sorry, Joel Schumacher) and a huge range of interpretations of what it means to be a Batman villain. Check out our choices and our reasons, and join us in the comments for your own picks of the best characters to ever take on the Bat.
#10 Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson)
One of the greatest bits about Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is that it’s not just the supervillains who are put in the spotlight, but the leaders of Gotham’s crime underworld as well. And as solid as Eric Roberts and Ben Mendelsohn were as Sal Maroni and John Daggett, respectively, the real gangster king of the franchise is definitely Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone from Batman Begins.
While he doesn’t have fear gas, a criminally deranged mind driven by chaos or near-superhuman strength, part of what makes Falcone such a great character is just how ridiculously arrogant he is, believing that there isn’t a single person in all of Gotham can touch him. This is eventually proven wrong when Batman knocks him out and ties him to a floodlight and the Scarecrow drives him insane, but boy is it amazing while it lasts. Wilkinson’s monologue in the first act of Batman Begins is the best-written one in all three of Nolan’s movies, equal parts astonishing and terrifying. By the end of the scene, Falcone is telling Bruce about how Thomas Wayne begged for his life like a dog, and you practically want Bruce to just give in.
#9 The Penguin (Danny DeVito)
So few of Batman's villains can be taken seriously when lifted off the comic book page. They lose their menace, and quickly look silly. The Penguin wouldn't work in real life (Chris Nolan wisely avoided him), but he's an ideal fit into Tim Burton's odd gothic imagining of Gotham City, where an orphan banished to the sewers easily could be plotting his next move against the society that banned him. Perfect casting in Danny DeVito only solidified Penguin as one of the Caped Crusader's memorable cinematic opponents.
The actor, short in stature, carries a chip on his shoulder that gave him an edge in comedies like Romancing the Stone and Ruthless People. But Burton also tapped into the touching pathos DeVito's capable of infusing into a scene, lacing the Penguin's tragic storyline with a compassion we don't always expect out of a Batman movie. Plus, DeVito kind of looks like a penguin, which helps.
#8 Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)
The Dark Knight Rises
Anne Hathaway’s rendition of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises lacks the psychotic fierceness of Michelle Pfeiffer’s earlier portrayal in Batman Returns. While Hathaway may lose in the batshit crazy department, her demeanor is effortlessly collected and her motivations are smartly designed. Christopher Nolan created a Catwoman who looks less like a sensual sideshow and speaks more like a hardened, thoughtful, motivated thief who means to reach her endgame as soon as possible.
The biggest reason Hathaway’s number is so high on this list comes from the moments she stealthily switches Catwoman on and off, pretending to be an innocent bystander as she screams her head off in terror before slipping from the police or putting on a smile as she lingers on the arm of her newest patron. Forget the costume. It may not be fabulous to watch Hathaway slither in and out of the shadows in that skintight number, but beneath the mask, it is great to see a strong female super villain who hides any inner regret or brokenness and decides to prevail despite the giant pile of cards stacked against her. She’s my kind of woman, and she should be yours, too.
#7 Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer)
Just as she did in our head to head comparison, Batman Returns' Michelle Pfeiffer squeaked out a win over of Anne Hathaway as the slightly more satisfying Catwoman. Though insane and slathered in the pounds of Tim Burton-brand white makeup that looks campy in retrospect, Pfeiffer's Catwoman was a villainess who reveled in the freedom her mask brought. She proudly proclaimed, "I am Catwoman, hear me roar!" And she took on the men of Gotham at their own game with a feline ferocity, plenty of backflips and quips.
But it wasn't all fun and games. The coarse white stitches on her costume reflected her inner struggles to keep it together in her vengeance-fueled quest against the men who literally brought her down. Pfeiffer managed an incredible balancing act making her Catwoman someone delightfully deranged, yet weirdly sympathetic. When she and Batman unmask in the film's shocking final moments, we're torn between our hope to see her get a happy ending and our desire to watch her destroy Max Shreck. It's this duality in nature that makes her such a compelling and unforgettable Batman baddie.
#6 The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy)
Cillian Murphy is slight and more beautiful than handsome, and in Batman Begins he's well-coiffed and cocksure, with the perfect confidence of a skilled shithead who's gained power through bullying. He's outmatched in his villainy, of course, by the more powerful Ra's al Ghul, but the Scarecrow always acts as if he isn't, carrying on his campaign of fear against Gotham while Jonathan Crane, without the mask, acts as if he's the only sane person left.
And as the only villain who appears in all three of Nolan's Batman films, the Scarecrow takes on a huge role in the development of Gotham, a pesky gnat the Dark Knight can never quite get rid of, an opportunist eager to cause trouble whenever the bars at Arkham get a little loose. In a trilogy defined by the unhinged Joker and the brutish Bane, Murphy seems to have the most fun playing his villain, and while Scarecrow might not be the scariest in this rogues gallery, he's got to be the most charismatic.
#5 Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson)
The big bad in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins may not be as exciting as some of the other villains in the Dark Knight Trilogy, and the Joker is, well, the Joker, but Ra’s al Ghul manages to be almost as threatening without a mask, facial burns or make-up covered scars. He’s the one preaching how theatricality and deception are powerful agents--maybe if he took some of his own advice, he might come in higher than fifth. Oh well, at least he beat his own lackey, the Scarecrow.
The leader of The League of Shadows was not only key in setting the now famous gritty and realistic tone for the Batman series but mercenary is also a perfect foil for Bruce Wayne and his influence is felt throughout the entire trilogy. The mentor turned nemesis, always exciting in an antagonist, is both a physical as well as intellectual match for our hero, and Liam Neeson was perfectly cast providing the imposing figure and air of sophistication needed to bring Ra’s al Ghul to life.
#4 The Joker (Jack Nicholson)
Jack Nicholson was a nine-time Oscar nominee with two wins to his credit when he signed on to play Batman's ultimate nemesis in Tim Burton's vibrant 1989 adventure. And while Nolan has favored presenting his movie antagonists as fully formed villains, Burton stepped us through the transformation from smug thug Jack Napier to Joker, a clown with a deadly sense of humor. With two distinct personas to play, Nicholson brought all his casual yet smoldering machismo to the role of Napier, then pulled his performance to a harrowing and heightened style that deftly painted the Joker's wild and cruel nature.
"Wait till they get a load of me, " he laughed with manic glee, capturing the hearts of movie audiences worldwide. Burton's design team extended Nicholson's sly smile beyond its normal borders making a gruesome grin that became iconic along with his horrifying rebirth scene. 'How do you beat the menace exuded by Nicholson's Joker?' Batman fans wondered when word hit that former teen heartthrob Heath Ledger would play the part in The Dark Knight. Ultimately, Ledger did take the character to new levels of terror and insanity, but it's worth remembering how impossible that seemed for so long.
#3 Bane (Tom Hardy)
The Dark Knight Rises
Batman’s rogues gallery is best known for its long line of brilliant, psychological villains rather than its physically imposing ones, but in the latter category Bane is certainly one of the best. And nobody could have brought him to life quite like Tom Hardy did in The Dark Knight Rises. While the character earned a bum cinematic rep thanks to Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (while ranking these characters entire Cinema Blend team gave B&R’s Bane the lowest marks), Nolan and Hardy bring him back brilliantly in the latest film.
What’s great about the interpretation of the character is that the director and writers understand that Bane is more than just a pile of muscle, but also a true leader and brilliant strategist. Hardy plays with this perfectly, and in the scenes he shares with Batman he not only displays physical dominance, but complete mental dominance as well (the way he toys with the hero in their first fight scene is stunning). While some have mocked the voice that Hardy used, it actually gives him an alien-type quality that makes him more intimidating-- it sounds as though he’s from another world, making him all the more imposing. Nolan brought Bane back to the big screen so that even the audience would feel intimidated, and we certainly did.
#2 Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart)
The Dark Knight
With dashing good looks, a smooth competence and an almost unimpeachable integrity, Aaron Eckhart makes us believe in Harvey Dent. He lets Batman dream of a time when he’s not needed and exposes Gotham’s seedy underbelly to the light. He is the White Knight, the symbol a superhero can never be. He is the one true ticket to salvation, and his eventual corruption is the single bleakest ace in the hole Nolan has. There will always be Joker’s and Penguin’s and Bane’s for Batman to fight, but men like Dent are once in a lifetime.
In any other hands, he likely would have been a depraved cartoon, but in The Dark Knight, he’s played like a real human being who starts his journey as the man we all wish we could be and ends his journey as the monster we all hope never to become. I still believe in Harvey Dent. I believe in what he stood for. I believe in his reckless aggression, and I believe, while he may not have been as flashy as The Joker, he’s every bit as important.
#1 The Joker (Heath Ledger)
The Dark Knight
The Joker cuts through The Dark Knight like a card flicked from the middle of the deck, like a warning shot, like a curl of flame on its way to full explosion. He is a force of nature, a man without country or name or a back story that doesn't reveal itself as a lie; even when he removes his makeup to pose as a cop, he never quite fits in. More than any other character in Nolan's Batman films The Joker dances across that line between realism and fantasy, presenting a character so anarchic and theatrical he could never be real-- but as played by Heath Ledger, he feels terrifyingly so.
Though he's ostensibly defeated at the end of the movie, The Joker's calculated chaos, his love of spectacle and his nihilistic urges, define The Dark Knight. He is the most indelible character any Batman movie has ever produced, a bogeyman you can't look away from, a walking nightmare of violence who cuts right to the core of what we fear and uses that fear to control us. It's not the accolades or the Oscar nomination that makes Ledger's Joker the best-- it's the disquieting way that this character captured us, and has refused to let us go.
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