In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman faces an incredibly brutal villain named Bane, a behemoth well known to readers of the graphic novel. “He’s a big dude who’s incredibly clinical, in the fact that he has a result-based and -oriented fighting style,” actor Tom Hardy said of Bane, the character he plays, in Empire. “It’s not about fighting. It’s about carnage. The style is heavy-handed, heavy-footed; it’s nasty. Anything from small-joint manipulation to crushing skulls, crushing rib cages, stamping on shins and knees and necks and collarbones and snapping heads off and tearing his fists through chests, ripping out spinal columns. He is a terrorist in mentality as well as brutal action.”
We’re so there. But all this talk of bone-crunching got me to wondering about Batman’s enemies. Some, quite frankly, are ridiculous (Riddler?), unbecoming of the world’s greatest detective. Almost all of Batman’s villains from that campy 60s TV show – Egghead, King Tut – were jokes. But as the times have gone darker, so has Batman. Batman in the 21st century, within the context of our “War on Terror” is far darker than he has ever been, even in the gritty 70s. His enemies, clearly, have also shifted towards the darker end of the spectrum. Here are five of Batman’s greatest villains:
Gotham is an impossibly creepy urban zone, the dark mirror of any glistening metropolis. So the fictional “Gotham City” needs a Batman to patrol the night, mediating the Darwinian chaos. The Bat, who rules the night in Gotham, seems to attract a larger than average share of the planet’s psychopaths, each one creepier than the last. Serial killer Victor Zsasz is definitely one of the creepiest of Batman’s enemies.
Zsasz, who keeps a running tally of all of his victims in the form of self-inflicted knife scars all over his body, has a theory about the Batman. Being something of a connoisseur of all-things-predatory himself, Zsasz believes that Batman is a super-predator, a predator that preys only on other predators a la Dexter. Zsasz believes that there is only a thin line that separates Batman from criminals like himself, namely the sanction of the police and, of course, the choice of one’s “victims.” Bradley Cooper, with those reptilian eyes, would make an excellent “Zsasz (it is not too late!).”
4. Killer Croc
The luckless Waylon Jones has a taste for supple human flesh. He is one of the many cannibals inhabiting Gotham City. A skin mutation has left Waylon, a former gator wrestler, with a reptilian appearance as well as superhuman strength and a near bulletproof hide. Jones went mad early in life (can you blame him?), turning to criminal pursuits and the art of serial killing with a ferocious zeal. It is unfortunate that we will never see what Christopher Nolan makes of Killer Croc, who would work perfectly in a tentpole feature as a nocturnal sewer inhabiting man-reptile.
3. The Joker
Joker’s fictional body count is easily in the high five figures. Batman’s arch-enemy, the Clown Prince of Crime, has taken a terrible personal toll on Batman, killing – or so we thought, at least — the second Robin, Jason Todd, and crippling Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, in front of her father, Commissioner Gordon.
Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was as close to the comic book character as has ever been done. Heath represented anarchy, mindless violence, cruelty for the sake of cruelty, a real force in today’s world. It was once posited that the Joker might be some sort of biological mutation, a Darwinian glimpse into a possible future of mankind should he manage to thrive. Let’s hope not.
2. Ra’s Al Ghul
If the Joker represents mindless anarchy, Ra’s Al Ghul is cold, calculating efficiency. Because he is an immortal who has lived for thousands of generations with the alchemy of his Lazarus Pit, Ra’s Al Ghul – the Demon’s head – plans his capers years, sometimes decades, in advance. His plans usually involve mega deaths, the thinning of the world’s population in order to achieve some sort of self-perceived ecological balance. Ra’s is something of an eco-terrorist, a radical leftist zealot who has killed probably tens of thousands in pursuit of what he thinks is right. He is a rare treat for Batman readers, coming out from under the rocks every few years or so with another apocalyptic plan – only to be thwarted by the Bat. Al-Ghul is also internationally based, a global threat from outside of Gotham. It takes Batman and his allies all their skills to defeat al Ghul – and always only with the slimmest of margins.
Who else could be Batman’s top enemy? A single-minded superhuman military strategist weighing over 300 pounds – most of it in his neck and arms — Bane is one of the ferocious comic book villains of all time. Joel Schumacher’s mindless, semi-campy Bane was such a profound disappointment to batfans. Christopher Nolan, it would appear from the trailers, knows precisely what to do with Bane, portraying him as something of a military strategist on par with the Duke of Wellington and Alexander the Great. Bane is the only supervillain who defeated Batman cleanly, in Wayne Manor, breaking him – quite literally – over his knee during the Knightfall story arc. After wearing him out by freeing all of his twisted psychopathic enemies out of the dark Arkham Asylum, Bane stalked Batman, ultimately fighting a man at the end of his rope. Cracking Bruce Wayne’s back, Bane then took control of Gotham City.