To me, the most essential and defining element of the all best Batman villains is a seemingly non-threatening exterior which hides their sinister, unpredictable true nature. One character who reflects this concept better that much of Gotham City’s most wanted is Oswald Cobblepot - better known to DC readers as The Penguin.
Originally created by Batman co-creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane, the typically gentlemanly, but still quite eccentric, criminal mastermind will soon appear in Matt Reeves’ The Batman as played by Colin Farrell, who will also reprise the role in his own HBO Max exclusive spin-off. From the brief glimpses we have seen of the new Penguin, I am sure that the portrayal will follow the unspoken tradition that each iteration featured in Batman movies and TV shows is dramatically different from the last in some special way. To better explain what I mean, the following are some of the villain’s most notably unique portrayals over the years, starting with his screen debut.
Burgess Meredith (Batman, Batman: The Movie)
The first actor to ever play the Penguin in a DC Comics adaptation was Emmy-winner and two-time Oscar-nominee Burgess Meredith on the 1960’s Batman TV series and its feature-length, theatrically release spin-off. Also known from the Rocky movies and some of the best Twilight Zone episodes, the actor’s appropriately scene-chewing portrayal had a more profound effect on the character’s subsequent legacy than anyone would have anticipated.
His general appearance (top hat, monocle, beak-like nose, etc.) and mannerisms were ripped right from the comic books, but one signature characteristic that Meredith himself brought to the role was Penguin’s “quack.” He revealed in a 2007 interview with William V. Madison, the villain’s now iconic staple was actually a way to hide his frequent coughing as a result of the character’s smoking habit.
Danny DeVito (Batman Returns)
One of the most memorable characteristics of Danny DeVito’s Oswald Cobbleport in Batman Returns was also of the actor’s invention. It was the Emmy-winning future It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star’s idea to frequently cough up black saliva, as if the character design was not grotesque enough.
It is not really a hot take to say that the Penguin to Michael Keaton’s Batman in Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel is the scariest version of the character we have seen yet, and a key factor to the bizarre film’s infamous legacy (apparently McDonald’s, which had a tie-in Happy Meal deal with the movie, was not fond of the black saliva). However, if you ask me, this bleak and off-putting depiction is peak Penguin, and DeVito’s bold performance is one to aspire to. It appears that some of his successors agreed.
Paul Williams (Batman: The Animated Series)
A clear example of just how influential Danny Devito’s Penguin turned out to be is the character’s design on Batman: The Animated Series, which was created in response to the success of Tim Burton’s live-action Batman movies, initially. Despite the lack of sickly pale skin and black oral discharge, his globe-like stature and flippers for hands are a perfect match for what we see in Batman Returns.
Providing the voice of the Penguin on the Emmy-winning series, opposite Kevin Conroy as the Dark Knight, is renowned musician Paul Williams, who is also known for writing the Oscar-winning song “Evergreen” from 1976’s A Star is Born, and collaborating with now defunct electropop duo Daft Punk on their Grammy-winning 2013 album, Random Access Memories. The voice he chooses is more uniquely reserved and, frankly, human than what we tend to associate with the character, but effectively accentuates his more sophisticated approach to crime.
Tom Kenny (The Batman)
The voice is actually the biggest difference between Paul Williams’ Penguin and Tom Kenny’s Penguin, whose rough, nasally tone calls to mind The Ice King from Adventure Time (another classic role from the SpongeBob Squarepants star). Otherwise, the character design of the villain on the animated series The Batman, which premiered a year before Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, bears a pretty close resemblance to what we see on BTAS, excluding his pointier teeth.
Kenny’s impressive tenure as Oswald Cobblepot did not stop there, however, as he would reprise the role in a few video games, various LEGO DC movies, the English-language dub of Batman Ninja, and Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to name a few. The only disappointment I have over that epic 2019 crossover movie is that we never see the unusually spry Penguin transformed into an actual penguin by the mutagen that turns Arkham into a literal zoo.
Robin Lord Taylor (Gotham)
The amazing way that Fox’s Batman prequel series paid tribute to Batman Returns had barely anything to do with its general portrayal of Oswald Cobblepot. It instead came in the form of casting Paul Reubens as the criminal’s estranged father, whom the Pee-wee Herman actor also played in the 1992 film.
Outside of his bird-like waddle (the result of leg injury), appearance of the monocle (eventually), and vehement distaste for his nickname, Gotham cast member Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin is a pretty vast departure from previous iterations - particularly in his lanky physique, anxious demeanor, and unrequited romantic affection for Cory Michael Smith’s Edward Nygma (a.k.a. The Riddler). Comic book purists would normally take issue with such creative liberties, but Taylor’s brilliant devotion to the role makes it easy to accept.
Nolan North (Batman: Assault On Arkham)
The 2014 animated feature, Batman: Assault on Arkham (a Suicide Squad movie disguised as a Batman movie) indulges in more references to Danny DeVito for its Penguin, who has the same grayish complexion, insatiable appetite for raw fish, and ratty fur coat. However, for whatever reason, this Oswald Cobblepot is apparently from (or at least has spent a good portion of his life in) London, as evident by his thick cockney accent.
He is played this time by accomplished voice actor Nolan North - who is from Connecticut, if you were wondering - who has also voiced the villain in each installment of the Batman: Arkham video games series. To be clear, I am not against this unusual change to the Penguin’s dialect and, quite frankly, I am actually surprised no one else had tried it before, because if any member of Batman’s rogues gallery would make the most sense as a Brit, it is the one with a monacle.
On the other side of that coin, Wayne Knight (Newman from Seinfeld) also does a version of Penguin with a Brooklyn accent and a Jewish nephew on HBO Max’s animated Harley Quinn series, and DC Super Hero Girls de-ages him to a teenage con artist with a slightly similar dialect voiced by Alexander Polinsky. Each of these are equally fun, warmly welcome iterations of the character. The villain has become a surprisingly versatile member of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, as long as his core characteristics as a calculative, bird-like cretin are still in place.
Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.