Let’s face it: nobody really gives a damn about Batman.
Sure, he’s a great superhero. He’s got a cool costume, a good origin, and is the epitome of the badass normal vigilante. But he’s not the reason people read his comics. The reason people read Batman comics is because he has the best villains. Bar none.
Outside of Spider-Man and Dick Tracy, nobody in the history of comics has the sheer quantity of recurring rogues that Batman has. Spider-Man’s rogues gallery is vast, but there are a lot of them that are just plain duds. Dick Tracy has an array of enemies spanning back decades, but most of them wind up dead after their first appearance. Batman’s rogues, on the other hand, have been developed and fleshed out over the course of 70 years. You love to hate them. And, on occasion, you feel genuine pity for them.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the villains that showed up in the Dark Knight Trilogy and how they connect to their comic counterparts.
For the sake of brevity, I’m throwing aside the mobsters like Carmine Falcone and focusing only on those folks who have a degree of supervillainy to them. By those guidelines, Victor Zsasz is the first of Batman’s rogues to be introduced in the trilogy. He’s a fairly minor character in the comics, first introduced in the 1990s and having only a few appearances to his name. He’s also pretty minor in the movie, really just there as a shout-out to fans in Batman Begins. Zsasz is a serial killer who murders only women and who marks each new kill with a scar on his body. He’s a very one-note villain and for that reason doesn’t get used very often. The highlight of his appearances in the comics is during the Knightfall storyline, when he gets into a hostage situation that Batman has to defuse. Zsasz gets into Batman’s head by talking about how the only difference between the serial killer and the vigilante is that Batman has his code against killing. This ironically causes Batman to snap and nearly kill Zsasz, with one of the women who served as a potential victim stopping Bats from beating the guy to death with his bare hands. We get none of that in the movie, but it’s not a huge loss. Zsasz is a one-note baddie, and while it’s nice to see the shout out (and the detail that he has self-inflicted scars on his body, presumably counting up his victims), there’s no loss in not giving him more screen time.
(Incidentally, Zsasz should not be confused with Charles Victor Szasz, aka Vic Sage, aka the Question, whose name similarity is apparently nothing more than coincidence.)
The Scarecrow is a villain who has been all over the map, ranging from goofy to grim. In all incarnations, he’s been an Ichabod Crane-style character who has an obsession with fear. In his original appearance, he scared his victims the old-fashioned way: he shot them. Later on, he developed fear gas, which has become his schtick ever since.
Most writers have had a hard time nailing down the Scarecrow’s motivations. Sometimes he’s a guy with a tortured past, other times he’s just some nut obsessed with fear – or, as recently as the Blackest Night crossover, with the need to feel afraid. Fittingly, the Scarecrow of the Dark Knight Trilogy has also been all over the map. In Batman Begins, he’s a menacing villain, and his presence plays very well into the theme of fear that dominates the film. In The Dark Knight, he’s an easily-defeated mook who gets taken out in the opening. And in The Dark Knight Rises, he’s an utter lunatic who fills the role of dark comic relief as the judge in Bane’s insane court. For a character who has never been all that consistent in the comics, it makes sense that such a characterization would carry over to the films.
Henri Ducard and Ra’s al Ghul
No, these two are not the same character in the comics. This is one case where Christopher Nolan used comic continuity as a way to throw fans off the scent of his mystery. Henri Ducard was one of Bruce Wayne’s mentors. He basically taught Bruce his detective skills, but turned out to be quite amoral. He figured out that Batman and Bruce were one and the same, but decided that having Batman around was useful because he avenged small crimes, allowing Ducard to focus on big ones.
By contrast, Ra’s al Ghul was a villain introduced about 18 years before Ducard. In the comics, he is truly immortal, kept alive by mystical pools known as Lazarus Pits. Ra’s was one of the first villains to figure out who Batman really was, and he did so through sheer logic. He looked at the funds that the Batman would need to support his war on crime, then at the troubled billionaires who could afford such devices. Bruce Wayne was at the top of that list. The Ra’s of the comics has the main goal of “healing” the world, largely by killing almost all of the humans who are polluting it. Naturally, this brings him into conflict with Batman quite often, but he also has a great deal of respect for the detective, at one point offering to make Bruce his heir.
Ra’s of the movies has similar motives to his comics counterpart, although because of the grittier take on the setting he’s forced to target one city at a time, this time settling on Gotham. Many folks probably guessed that Ra’s was not really played by Ken Watanabe and was instead played by Liam Neeson, who was introduced as Ducard. This is a case of Nolan being a bit too comprehensive with his comics references – even many comics fans don’t know anything about Ducard, when actually having him serve as Bruce’s mentor made perfect sense. Ah well. The important thing is that Ra’s is still awesome – not quite as awesome as his incarnation in Batman: the Animated Series, where his voice is provided by the great David Warner, but Liam Neeson is pretty awesome in his own right.
The Joker is Batman’s most iconic villain. After all, bats and clowns have always been natural enemies…right?
Originally, the Joker was based on the design of The Man Who Laughs, a 1928 silent film. He began as just a straight murderer, with his face being nothing more than a gimmick. During the Silver Age of comics, he got goofier as most villains did, and then in the Bronze Age he became an amalgamation of the two types – a ruthless killer who was nutty as a fruitcake and thought that death and suffering were funny.
The Joker of The Dark Knight is more of the straight killer from his early appearances, but his motivations are similar to the classic Alan Moore story The Killing Joke – he wants to prove that anybody can be driven insane. Ably played by Heath Ledger (in a role that arguably cost him his life down the road), the Joker’s appearance in The Dark Knight has actually done some harm to his comic counterpart, as DC has largely copied the character’s penchant for gag-less murders. The problem in the comics is that writers lack the panache and charisma that Ledger had, leaving the character incredibly dull and very monotonous.
Supposedly, Nolan considered bringing the Joker into The Dark Knight Rises by using computer imagery and deleted footage of Ledger’s portrayal but decided it was in bad taste. That’s fine by me. Personally, I like to think the Joker was executed for his crimes. After all, he deserves that in the comics but always avoids such a fate because nobody in the industry understands how an insanity plea actually works.
If the goal of The Dark Knight was to be true to the comics, then Two-Face is a miss. Fortunately, I maintain that the goal of the movie is to tell a good story using the movie’s continuity, not the comic’s. Two-Face in the comics is a deeply scarred man who is driven insane when his physical face is damaged in a way that exposes those mental scars. Two-Face was originally Harvey Kent, but his name was changed later on to avoid confusion with Clark Kent. In his original appearance, him flipping the coin wasn’t just a matter of whether he’s do something bad or not – if the coin came good side up, he’d donate the money he had just stolen to charity.
The reason I say that Two-Face is different from his comics counterpart is that we don’t see much of Harvey Dent’s tortured soul in the movie. Don’t get me wrong – Dent is done really well, and he definitely has a dark side. But the Dent of the comics is more of a truly messed up individual with a split personality. The Dent of the movie is a guy who has done a good job of hiding his dark side, but who snaps once the Joker brings it out of him. While the Dent of the comics is a sad case, the Dent of the movie is more of a bad guy whose true nature was revealed by the Joker. That’s not very true to the comics, but it is very fitting in a movie about symbolism, duality, and the nature of the human spirit in a crisis.
Again, the goal of these movies is not to be accurate to the comics but rather to use the broad concepts to tell a good story. However, Catwoman is probably the most accurate representation of any of Batman’s villains on the screen. Well, I guess she’s not a villain anymore, but she is an antagonist. Catwoman was never the complete psycho that most of Batman’s baddies are, instead focused on burglaries and cat-themes crimes. In the Golden Age, she was actually an amnesiac flight attendant who became a thief. In the modern era, she is a former prostitute who grew up on the streets and has become more refined since, combining toughness and street smarts with style and class. In all incarnations, Catwoman has been a thief who lusts after Batman. In recent years, she became less of a criminal and more a part of the Bat-family, learning Batman’s secret identity and even coming close to marrying him.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is awesome. She’s tough, she’s smart, and she’s probably the best encapsulation of any of the characters in the comics on the screen – including Batman himself. Christopher Nolan isn’t well-known for having strong female characters in his movies (at least ones that aren’t manipulative villains), so Catwoman’s terrific appearance here was a pleasant surprise. And I still think that the scene where she out-Batmans Batman is one of the funniest moments in the whole trilogy.
Talia al Ghul
Talia is the surprise villain of The Dark Knight Rises, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet you should probably go back in time and stop yourself from reading this. In the comics, she’s been inconsistently displayed, alternating between an innocent victim of bad parenting and an outright villain. The daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, she loves Bruce Wayne and usually finds herself torn between the hero she loves and the extremist ways of her father. Her whole personality and history changed when Grant Morrison started writing Batman, and he turned her into a true bitch of a villain. Morrison also took the consensual sex she and Bruce had which produced their child Damian and retconned things so she drugged up Batman and raped him. Yes folks, anybody can be raped – even Batman.
It’s maybe a bit unfortunate that Talia’s appearance in The Dark Knight Rises takes so much from Morrison’s rendition of her, but considering how crowded the movie is, there probably wasn’t room to give her the true treatment she deserved. In the end, she gets a couple of nice moments and serves the story well, which is what counts.
My god, I love Bane. My introduction to Batman comics in the 1990s was largely through the Knightfall storyline, where I was blown away by a guy who was both strong enough to out-fight Batman and smart enough to out-think him. His plan was elegant in its simplicity: blow up Arkham Asylum and make Batman fight all his bad guys at once. Looking back, Knightfall has its rough spots, but it’s still a fun story overall.
Until The Dark Knight Rises, Bane had never really gotten a good treatment in adaptations. In Batman & Robin, he was a mute thug. In most animated adaptations, his super steroids have been his entire gimmick. Even in Batman: the Animated Series, he got the shaft, never showing his true cunning and getting beaten once somebody messed with his venom. I’ve heard that Young Justice does him well, but I’ve also heard that he gets taken out like a chump once his venom line gets cut, which is irritating.
Bane of the movie does not have venom to pump him up, which is probably for the best. His traditional drug reliance is played with by giving him a constant flow of painkillers instead. Aside from that, though, he is just great in this film. Brutal in a fight, cunning with his plans, and possessing enough of a human side to endure absolute hell in order to ensure that Talia is okay in the prison they both grow up in, Bane is the best part about the third film. Tom Hardy rocks acting-wise, managing to steal scenes without having his full face shown at all in the movie. I don’t care if he doesn’t have his luchador mask or if he doesn’t have super steroids – this Bane is my villain of choice.
The villains in these three movies are only scratching the surface of the long list of rogues Batman has in the comics. As I said, folks don’t read Batman stories just for Batman.