Monday, October 5, 2015

Top 5 Favorite Batman Villains

I could write for pages about pretty much every single Batman villain, because they are quite simply the best. Without thinking too hard about it, I jotted down the first five villains I could think of when I thought of "favorite characters." And then, again without thinking too hard, I put them in the order least to most. It's definitely a crowded list. Certainly at least the top tier, all warrant a spot on the best-of. But these five are characters I find particularly fascinating, and in some ways I identify with. And that's not so disturbing to say when you remember that the most successful and "coolest" of Batman's villains are those that may (and often do) operate as extensions of Batman's own psyche. They represent the darkest incarnations of his own personality. Where Batman represents order and restraint, Joker represents his release and need for chaos; Riddler is Bruce's obsession with riddles and his intellect; the Penguin, and even Hush, came from families of wealth and influence, but had no grounding in reality and morality; Bane is bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter, all things that Bruce prides himself on being superior in to his foes.

So, here it is. For better or worse, my Top 5 Favorite Batman Villains.

5.) Harley Quinn
Real Name: Dr. Harleen Quinzel
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - Variations of Joker's clown/jester persona though she has branched off into her own aesthetic since her debut. She's a proficient combatant, and favors heavy melee weapons, like her trademark baseball bat and giant hammer. Harley's madness has mostly been expressed through her wardrobe, which has changed extensively with each progressive incarnation. Some have been viewed as overly (and needlessly) sexual but I think those are beside the point. Again, I view them solely as an expression of her madness, and some of that is wrapped up in her own sexual identity.

I love Harley, and I definitely love that she's managed to grow into her own persona apart from The Joker. That all certainly still informs her character, but it no longer defines her solely. I think in many ways they've managed to do things with the character that they may be hesitant to do with The Joker because of his status as an icon. Harley's got a bit more chameleon qualities to her. And that's true for her character too. Like I said, the external expression of herself is part of her finding an identity amidst an already very-colorful world.

The best interpretations of Harley also preserve her abilities as a doctor, as a psychologist. The concept of a character who has slipped into psychopathy despite knowing all the signs and dangers is way more interesting to me than someone who has always been crazy. Certainly, she's likely always had that potential pre-Harley, but to have that unlocked and then to watch her journey and progression into darkness while again, being someone trained to see those warning signs and red flags is beautifully tragic. Like all the best dysfunctional relationships, I feel terrible for Harley who loves a man that will never truly love her back, but I also just want Harley to be loved if that's what she wants. There's also something quietly disturbing about Harley, who is more dangerous to other people because she is not solely focused on the Batman like The Joker is.

Pictured here, I like the Harley costume from Arkham Knight. Another good one is the Injustice Regime version. And of course, you can't go wrong with the old-school, Animated Series jester version. Her recent run in Suicide Squad and her own solo books are proving the character's growing popularity.

4.) The Joker
Real Name: ???
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - The Joker ostensibly has no powers, but his deep insanity and psychopathy often seems to push his system into withstanding unspeakable amounts of punishment and he has occasionally shown feats of strength and durability and has gone toe-to-toe with Batman several times. Though he seems to be all chaos and bedlam, some find him to be extremely cunning and clever. I also have a personal theory that Joker's real superpower is timing (like, impeccable comic timing).

Even if you don't love The Joker, he's like The Beatles. You have to respect him. He's Batman's most popular villain, one of his most enduring, and at various points throughout his tenure has been both the most entertaining and the most frightening.

People hate clowns, it's just a fact of life. And regardless of how ridiculous an incarnation of the Joker can be, it still manages to frighten you deep down. There's something delightfully insane about Cesar Romero not shaving his mustache underneath the white make-up. It makes the character just a hint more disturbing. I grew up on Mark Hamill's Joker which will always be the best for me, but we've been gifted with awesome interpretations many times over. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger both added menace and nuance to a role so disturbing it warrants consideration that it's best to leave this character up to the limitless expanses of comic book imagination, rather than burdening a real person to portray the embodiment of true psychopathy.

At his best, Joker is the worst. Throughout his long history it's been interpreted as mindless mayhem or extremely calculated ruthlessness hazed by a fog of idiocy. Is he so insane he's a genius, or is he masking genius intellect by feigning insanity? Either way works for me. What I love at the end of it all is the "locked in immortal combat" aspect of his and Batman's relationship. Why does one not simply kill the other? Because it completes the journey for both of them. Batman removing the Joker removes his purpose, Joker killing Batman removes his.

It's hard to un-seat some of the enduringly popular stories focusing on the Joker, like The Killing Joke, but most recently, the New 52's slow-burn of his re-introduction (at the launch, Joker escaped Arkham not before having his face cut off and left nailed to a wall) where he returned to reclaim his face (and wore the disgusting, decomposing thing strapped to his scarry, scarry facial remains) and set up the fantastic Death of the Family storyline. It was well worth the wait, and that along with Endgame, has made Joker the scariest he's been in years. And of course, you can't go wrong with the Arkham games, where he is once again voiced by Mark Hamill.

My favorite alternate Joker voices though, (Troy Baker kind of doesn't count since he's doing a straight send-up of Hamill's, although it is flawless) would be John DiMaggio's turn in Under the Red Hood, Kevin Michael Richardson's Joker from The Batman, and for a more subdued, creepy take, I like both Brent Spiner's from Young Justice, and Michael Emerson's from The Dark Knight Returns.

Art credit to: Sherwood-Art
3.) Talia Al Ghul
Alias: Leviathan
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - An incredibly accomplished assassin and hand-to-hand combatant, who is not afraid to use lethal force. She has on and off been head of the League of Assassins and has headed Leviathan for a while. Talia has also been romantically involved with Bruce Wayne/Batman over the years, to the point that she is the mother of the fourth Robin, Damian Wayne.

There's something so intriguing to me about Talia being one of the only women Bruce has ever loved. Selina often fills that role but there never feels like there's any pay-off with that relationship, it just feels like it goes on forever. Talia and Bruce however, are both manipulated by her father at various times (see: Arkham City for my favorite encapsulation of that relationship) and Damian adds an extra element of complexity to their relationship. Talia is what Batman could be if he adjusted his morality somewhat. If he one day decided that he knew exactly what was best for everyone, he could rule a network (like Batman Inc.) and the world with his moral code and ensure everyone's safety. But at the end of the day, Bruce has a heart, Talia does not.

Which is what fascinates me about Talia, in that she is lacking that moral compass, but still believes in her own cause. She believes more in the importance of vengeance, of control, of superiority of mind and body. It doesn't make her all that different from Bruce, but her morality is what drives them apart. Damian even says it himself: though he has his mother's upbringing and training, he now has his father as his partner, and that has made all the difference to the fourth Robin.

I love Talia, and I honestly think she was done a disservice with the movie Dark Knight Rises. From the beginning, she should have been a clear threat and not a last-minute swerve for the audience, most of whom already saw it coming anyway. It also did a disservice to Bane's character, but that's a different story. It was a complicated, thorough plan to be sure, highlighting her deception skills, but we never see her skills as a combatant, and that's where the deadly combination is: that she has her father's abilities of deception as well as the League's deadly assassin technique. I do hope a better version of the character comes along, but for now, Batman Inc. brings her story arc to completion.

2.) The Riddler
Real Name: Edward Nigma
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - The early villains tend to suffer from being extremely gimmick-heavy, and Riddler may be one of the longer-suffering. At best, he is creator of complex mind-games and puzzles leading into Jigsaw-level death traps (like in the Arkham games), at worst he is a flop-sweaty knock-off of the Joker, whose obsessive compulsive disorder drives him to leave complex riddles at scenes of the crimes that Batman solves and lead to his eventual undoing (like in the Adam West-era Batman). But Riddler is a genius-level intellect, and he mirrors Batman in a lot of ways, one being that he is constantly his own worst enemy, whether it be his crippling need for perfection or his crippling need to constantly prove himself.

I think it's become intrinsic to the character that he inevitably fails, and it is also self-inflicted. Riddler's more grounded psychopathy and descent into madness has always made him distinct for me from the Joker and I'm glad that more modern interpretations have treated them as such. Being thought of as a knock-off though has allowed for some fascinating interpretations of the character, like a handicapped arms dealer, a Gothic, more lethal version, and my favorite, the Arkham series' complicated puzzle-maker, obsessed with proving his intellectual superiority to Batman. He's also one of the villains that works as an ally, even reforming entirely from a life of crime for a period. He proves extremely helpful because of intelligence and intuition of the human mind.

Like I said, Wally Wingert's voice acting of the character is what really brought it to life. From Arkham Asylum to the end in Knight, he brought out more layered aspects of the character and made me love him. I just wanted to see him get it in the end, because he was such a pain in the ass. Riddler's struggle to rise from second best is something everyone can relate to, and that's what has made the character stand the test of time.

1.) Mr. Freeze
Real Name: Victor Fries
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - Like the Riddler, many of Freeze's early crimes revolved around "cold" and "ice" themed capers, but over the years his suit has also granted him enhanced strength and durability as well as the ability to withstand extreme cold temperatures, putting those who would challenge him on his own turf at a distinct disadvantage. Freeze, like Batman, is driven by the "death" of a loved one, in this case his wife Nora, who is preserved forever in a block of ice until a cure for her terminal disease can be found. Freeze is incapable of letting her go, and many of his crimes are driven by the injustice he has felt by a system that neglects him and her. All of Freeze's weapons remain ice-themed, but with decidedly more deadly consequences and implications than they once did.

It really speaks to the specific generation of Batman you grew up in when you analyze one's favorite villains. Talia being the exception that was used a bit more sparingly, my first 5 were all exceptionally done in the Batman animated series from WB. Freeze was an especially tragic character and given real dramatic weight by his voice portrayal by Michael Ansara.

We were also the perfect generation for the Arkham series of games, again where all five of these villains have great portrayals and great voice actors. Maurice LaMarche outdoes himself on a truly great Freeze and of course, Freeze has the best boss battle of the entire series, where Batman is forced to change his plan of attack on every single offensive strike. It's really in the upper echelon of boss battles, and I highly recommend it for video game players who've missed out on it previously.

Freeze stands as one of my most favorite villains because he has one of the more realistic downfalls. It's not so hard to believe that love drove an individual mad, because we've seen the lengths people in love go to for the one they hold most dear. As the Joker is fond of saying, everyone's just one bad day away from insanity. Freeze has taken a lifetime there.

There you have it. Who are your favorites in the Rogues Gallery? Anybody on the lower tiers you are particularly fond of? I'm a huge fan of The Ventriloquist and Calendar Man.