Ranking all of the Batman movie villains — Ultimate Movie Year
The latest cinematic vision of the Dark Knight Detective, “The Batman,” was just released in theaters. With a couple more antagonists ready to make Batman’s life difficult, it’s a great time to rank the best cinematic villains of Gotham City.
Fire up the Bat-Signal, chums, because we’re doing this.
But first, a few words about the process: We’re only ranking the villains of the live-action feature films. That means the characters of two great films, 1992’s “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” and 2017’s “The LEGO Batman Movie,” are not included here (sorry, Condiment King fans), nor are any live-action television series. Secondly, I’m also ranking the live-action performances of characters usually associated with Batman, even if the movie doesn’t feature Batman. So “Joker” is in, as is “Catwoman” and all the associated movies with Margot Robie’s Harley Quinn. Finally, evaluation is based on the quality of the performance and the overall presentation that combine to make a distinct impression.
Enough talk. To the Batpoles!
29. Bane, Robert Swenson, “Batman and Robin” (1997)
The machiavellian strongman was recently introduced in the comics before his movie debut, famously breaking Batman’s back in the “Knightfall” storyline. Director Joel Schumacher’s version turns Bane into an idiot, serving only as Poison Ivy’s muscle in “Batman and Robin” and barely expressing the ability to put two words together. Fortunately, better days lie ahead for Bane on the big screen.
28. Two-Face, Tommy Lee Jones, “Batman Forever” (1995)
At the peak of his career (and a year after winning an Academy Award), Jones chose to cash in and flip out when he brought Two-Face to the screen for the first time. Jones takes over-the-top to a ridiculous level in the hammiest performance of his career, sadly showing little interest in bringing any depth to the tragic and complex character. The best thing Jones did here is telling his co-star Jim Carrey, “I will not sanction your buffoonery,” but clearly did not take his own advice.
27. Catwoman, Halle Berry, “Catwoman” (2004)
At this point, the seductive villainess had transformed into enough of an anti-hero to warrant her own movie. I’ll be honest with you: “Catwoman” is one of the few superhero movies I’ve never seen, and from everything I hear, I’m not missing anything. So nothing about this is judgment about Berry’s performance, but as an official member of the Batman gallery, I have to rank this somewhere. But whatever flaws this movie has, I have to imagine Berry’s still better than Tommy Lee Jones’s Two-Face.
26. Talia, Marion Cotillard, “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
Cotillard is working with one hand tied behind her back because her true identity isn’t revealed until late in the picture. However, the character’s climactic scene is routinely mocked on the Internet as an example of bad acting. Frankly, she doesn’t offer much else in the movie to motivate me to provide any defense.
25. Antoli Knyazey, Callan Mulvery, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016)
Known as KGBeast in the comics, Mulvery’s mercenary character doesn’t make that much of an impression in the Zack Snyder movie since the focus is on the conflict between the two heroes. But without more to go on, this more or less represents the line between a lousy performance and appearances that at least have something interesting about them.
24. The Joker, Jared Leto, “Suicide Squad” (2016)
A lot has been written about how terrible Leto’s Joker is in a movie that was dunked on critically. I also know there’s a very passionate fanbase about all things connected to the Snyder-verse series of DC movies. I’m not here to pile on Leto; the tattoos this version of the Joker sports are embarrassing, but I don’t think the character is in the movie enough to form a valuable opinion one way or another. I don’t know if Leto is the worst Joker, but he’s undoubtedly the least Joker.
23. Catwoman, Lee Meriwether, “Batman” (1966)
No shade against Meriwether since she holds her own in a quartet of colorful villains, but she’s competing in a stacked role category here. In addition, this is her only appearance in the role, so she suffers from comparisons to the other movie Catwoman, but she’s also not as recognizable as Julie Newmar or Eartha Kitt. Still, if you need somebody to crush line readings as Miss Kitayna Ireyna Tatanya Kerenska Alisoff, Meriwether is your gal.
22. The Riddler, Jim Carrey, “Batman Forever” (1995)
Wayne Industries science geek Edward Nigma goes too far with his experiments and vows revenge against Bruce Wayne after getting fired. Carrey’s version of the Prince of Puzzles holds up better than his co-star Jones, but the combination of the two suggests that the Bat-villain star craze is getting out of control. Carrey became a breakout mega comedy star the year prior with three hit movies, so his role here in “Forever” is essentially his victory lap around a pile of money. A success at the time, but Carrey’s Riddler fades pretty quickly from Batman’s list of memorable protagonists.
21. Victor Zsasz, Chris Messina, “Birds of Prey” (2020)
Gotham’s resident knife pervert had a small cameo in “Batman Begins,” but got more room to shine in the underrated Harley Quinn spin-off film. Messina, who typically plays good-hearted roles, clearly enjoys showing off his dark side as the murderous enforcer to Gotham’s latest crimelord. As the DC extended film universe transitions from the Snyder-verse to the next chapter, Messina’s mischievous but sadistic killer helped establish the new tone seen in “The Suicide Squad” and “The Peacemaker” series.
20. Poison Ivy, Uma Thurman, “Batman and Robin” (1997)
Few of us really understood what Thurman was doing in the maligned “Batman and Robin” because there are so many issues with it. In the movie, Ivy has a similar background as Catwoman in “Batman Returns.” Still, this time the mousy assistant roars to life as a femme fatale with a maximum setting. With so many superhero movies in the genre, each flick is less pressure to have the perfect adaptation for comic fans. In this context, it’s easier to go back and enjoy the scenery-chewing performances from the villains here.
19. The Penguin, Burgess Meredith, “Batman” (1966)
I’m not going to lie; lots of these qualifying hooligans from the Adam West era are highly rated not only because they were the first actors to portray these characters, but there’s a commitment to the “arch” of archvillain. Take Meredith here, who waddles around Gotham with his umbrella, top hat, and trademark “waugh, waugh, waugh” mumbling. In this particular movie, Penguin’s ridiculous attempt to disguise himself as Commodore Schmidlapp is an entertaining highlight for the Meredith run.
18. The Riddler, Paul Dano, “The Batman” (2022)
With the new movie just released, the jury is still out about Dano’s divisive performance as the film’s lead protagonist. Right now, it’s left me wanting: Fascinating ideas on paper and moments on screen. Still, in a critical confrontational scene, I don’t believe Dano was able to escape his past roles to create a Riddler who’s memorable on his own. It’s not unlike what happened to Carrey in that the star’s perception overshadows what could be possible.
17. Mr. Freeze, Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Batman and Robin” (1997)
“Batman: The Animated Series” revitalized Mr. Freeze as a top-tier rogue after giving the cold-hearted ex-scientist a tragic backstory. Director Joel Schumacher kept the exposition and dumped the disposition when Mr. Freeze made his feature film debut, which contributed to the fan discontent when “Batman and Robin” quickly became a franchise low point. But time has been favorable to Schwartznegger’s Freeze. The near-constant ice puns he drops have become enjoyable memes, and Schwartznegger seems to genuinely enjoy being in a completely ridiculous movie in a genre he’s never appeared in or has since. Out of all the Schumacher villains, the return of Freeze is the one I’d be genuinely excited about.
16. Ra’s al Ghul, Liam Nesson, “Batman Begins” (2005)
While Nesson was a few years away from beginning his “older expert action star” career run, you can see the seeds of the type of star he would become while playing Ra’s al Ghul (Nesson’s actual role is a surprise in the movie, but if you’re reading a list ranking Batman movie villains, it’s on you for not knowing the spoilers of an 18-year-old film). The star immediately personifies Ghul’s intelligence, precision, and capabilities as he becomes a mentor for a young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). If “Batman Begins” came out a few years later, Nesson’s role would have subverted his persona from movies like “Taken,” instead of being a preview of the kind of actor he would become.
15. Black Mask, Ewan McGregor, “Birds of Prey” (2020)
Otherwise known as Roman Sionis, the Black Mask is the most obscure villain on this list. The dude barely shows up in the Batman every other decade, and I’m pretty sure Kite Man (hell yeah!) is more recognizable. The good news is that it gives McGregor a mile of room to play and define Sionis as he sees fit without dealing with preconceptions. The actor has a ball in “Birds of Prey,” taking perverse joy in being a sleazy crime boss who’s not as smart as he thinks he is.
14. Bane, Tom Hardy, “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
One of two Batman villains who were done dirty in their first live action roles, Hardy firmly established Bane as a top-tier antagonist. This version of Bane led a mercenary operation to take over Gotham City while proving a physical and mental equal to Batman. Hardy’s Bane voice is a distinctive choice that became the subject of a lot of jokes, but there’s no doubt the actor delivered presence and gravitas in “The Dark Knight Rises.”
13. Two-Face, Aaron Eckhart, “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Following the folly of “Batman Forever,” Harvey Dent received a much more engaging portrayal in “The Dark Knight,” mainly because it’s primarily about the young and confident district attorney, not the scarred criminal mastermind he would turn into. Eckhart’s performance embodies Harvey as a good man with a temper. This quality attracts Bruce Wayne and his masked alter-ego as they collaborate to eliminate corruption in Gotham. It’s an essential aspect of Two-Face because we need to deeply feel how tragic Harvey’s downfall will become. Eckhart’s time as Two-Face may be short, but it was memorable.
12. The Joker, Cesar Romero, “Batman” (1966)
As the first live-action Joker, Romero holds up surprisingly well. He has a colorful, distinctive look (thanks in part to the mustache he refused to shave off) and often finds inventive ways to flummox and terrorize the Dynamic Duo in this movie and the Adam West series. And let’s be honest, after several decades of watching Jokers become increasingly psychotic, there’s such a refreshing, enjoyable quality to seeing the bad guy simply motivated to have a good time while committing crimes.
11. Catwoman, Anne Hathaway, “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
Talk about having a great 2012: Hathaway won her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Les Miserables,” and she delivered an excellent performance as Selina Kyle is one of the biggest movies of the year. The point is, she was feeling it. Hathaway’s character focuses more on cat-burgling than feeding strays as she struggles to clear the way to a better life. Despite Catwoman’s long publication history and varied interpretations in other media, Hathaway manages to carve out a distinctive portrayal that holds her own with the best of the Nolan trilogy.
10. The Penguin, Colin Farrell, “The Batman” (2022)
In the run-up to the latest movie, Farrell’s casting was divisive when it was learned the good-looking actor would don a fat suit and makeup to play Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot. Farrell took all the complaints, put them in a potato gun, and fired it at the moon. His Penguin might be a scummy nightclub owner, but he’s no dummy and is fearless in deflating Batman’s aura with good old-fashioned ball-busting. This Penguin steals every scene he’s in and leaves us wanting more.
9. The Joker, Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker” (2019)
It goes to show how stacked this list can get when an Academy Award-winning performance only cracks the top ten, but it also speaks to how much the Joker has become one of the most sought after roles in the modern industry. Phoenix fully commits to exploring the dark origins of the Joker in his life as the lonely and disturbed Arthur Fleck. As one of the premier actors of his generation, Phoenix weaves a physical performance between empathy and terror, but what knocks his role here down the list is the fact that he’s only the Joker for a small part of the movie, and there’s no Batman around to stop him.
8. The Scarecrow, Cillian Murphy, Dark Knight Trilogy (2005–2012)
Few comic book movies take advantage of one of the fun tropes of the superhero genre: The B-list (or lower) bad guy or gal who randomly floats in and out of custody to occasionally give the hero grief. Fortunately, Nolan made Murphy’s Dr. Jonathan Crane a recurring foil in his Dark Knight trilogy. His first film appearance in “Batman Begins” is the best for him as a character, using his fear gas to create frightening hallucinations for his victims and the audience. While Crane was defeated, the surprise of Scarecrow randomly popping up to vex the citizens of Gotham in subsequent films was a delight.
7. The Penguin, Danny DeVito, “Batman Returns” (1992)
Let us bend the knee to director Tim Burton’s vision and DeVito’s performance. This version of the Penguin is a grotesque freak, unleashing a lifetime of bitterness over being cast out of the privileged society he was born into. DeVito’s character was genuinely shocking in 1992, to the point that Warner Bros. soft rebooted the franchise to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Still, thirty years later, you can’t help but admire how aggressively weird and monstrous the character is. DeVito delivers the most compelling Penguin we’ve seen yet.
6. The Joker, Jack Nicholson, “Batman” (1989)
It’s hard to underestimate the seismic cultural impact that director Burton’s original film had during the last summer of the 80s. The iconic bat symbol was everywhere, from shirts and hats to posters and magazines. Still, one of the biggest reasons people showed up was to see Nicholson’s scene-stealing performance as the Clown Prince of Crime. Nicholson channeled his considerable star charisma into creating an entertaining and menacing Joker. Over 30 years later, the Nicholson Joker still remains one of the gold standards in the genre.
5. Harley Quinn, Margot Robie, Suicide Squad films and “Birds of Prey” (2016–2021)
While the DC cinematic universe has had mixed results, few would argue that one of the highlights has been Robie’s manic pixie bad girl. Following her debut in the maligned “Suicide Squad,” Robie took ownership of her character in subsequent appearances. First came Robie’s lead role in the spin-off film “Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” that saw the actress explore the character’s independence and mindset. By the time Harley returned for “The Suicide Squad” sequel, Robie confirmed for all that we were watching one of the great comic character runs.
4. Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer, “Batman Returns” (1992)
Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle and perr-fect alter ego may not have been as seismic as Nicholson’s Joker three years earlier, she still played a significant role in redefining how a star can turn a villainous role into a career highlight. This version of Catwoman was motivated by revenge, not cat burglary, and Selina’s self-actualization not only empowers her but becomes the first feminist icon in the cinematic superhero genre. As if that wasn’t enough, the sexual chemistry of Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is palatable whenever they enter each other’s orbit. There’s a reason why they tried to spin off Pfeiffer’s Catwoman into her own franchise for years afterward.
3. The Riddler, Rank Gorshin, “Batman” (1966)
If one were to humanize a ball of insecure, intellectual energy, you’d have Gorshin’s Riddler. A wide-eyed self-impressed mastermind one minute, a giggling maniac the next, Gorshin made a tremendous impression in the Adam West colorful universe. His performance solidified the Riddler’s spot as one of Batman’s most iconic villains in the comics and left such a high bar that no other actor has been able to surpass it more than 50 years later.
2. Catwoman, Zoe Kravitz, “The Batman” (2022)
Perhaps it’s recency bias, but Kravitz successfully takes a familiar role into the next level in the latest movie. Like Pfeiffer and Hathaway, Kravitz smoothly integrates Selina Kyle into the new, lived-in world created by their respective filmmakers, but here’s what separates her in “The Batman.” You can hear the previous Catwomen turn on their seductive charms when they need to; Kravitz makes sure Selina is just like that all of the time. In addition, she has fantastic chemistry with her Batman, played by Robert Patterson, and that’s another essential to nail an iconic portrayal. Pfeiffer established a high bar, but Kravitz has cleared it to reimagine Catwoman for the modern era.
1. The Joker, Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight” (2008)
We’ve talked a couple of times about groundbreaking performances that change the industry landscape already, but this one is the biggest. Ledger was the first actor after Nicholson’s iconic performance to portray the character, and he offered a blueprint on how to reinvent a comic character. He manifested a version of the Joker that had never been seen before in film or in the comics, a twitchy and violent agent of chaos who was ready to convert anybody to madness with whatever philosophy sprang to mind at the moment. Ledger, who passed away before the movie opening, became the first Oscar winner to portray a comic book character. The performance also created a modern-day version of Hamlet when some of the industry’s most talented and acclaimed actors vie to be the Joker to distinguish themselves.
Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on March 8, 2022.