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Nolan’s Necessary Evil

Now that Nolan’s trilogy is up on our shelves, how do Batman’s looniest baddies stack up against each other?

Here’s the weird thing about Batman: as much as we love the guy – and we really, really do – whenever he comes to the big screen, we invariably go batshit for the villains (pun’s intended – deal with it). Don’t agree? Do you remember the name of the aliens the Avengers fought? A single memorable Hugo Weaving moment in Captain America: First Avenger? Or whatever the hell Ryan Reynolds was shooting mind-bullets at in Green Lantern? It’s likely the answer is a resounding “ohhhh yeah, I *did* see those movies, didn’t I?”

But Batman villains. Are. AWESOME. They are, by and large, non-super-powered, psychopathic archetypes that, for reasons I think we fans are still trying to figure out, speak to us. Sure, it’s obviously fun to look at a woman dressed as a cat or a dude decked out in question marks. On another level, though, Batman bad guys are so thematically focused, so psychologically hampered, so visceral, they almost work as Bruce Wayne delusions (I know, right!?).

They’re also really easy to screw up.

But now that we can adorn our shelves with all three of Nolan’s Batman films, we can celebrate. Nolan and his cast/crew brought a healthy chunk of Batman’s rogues gallery to life in a gritty, unexpected, and startlingly reverent way.

So let’s rank them. Why? Because this isn’t the Internet we need, it’s the Internet we deserve. Also: YAY LISTS!  -inspirational picture quote, cat meme-

7. TALIA AL GHUL

Aw man. This already feels unfair. Poor Talia gets last on the list for reasons that aren’t even her fault:

Hey, also: you can’t cast a name actress in an unassuming, “innocuous” role in a high profile movie (cc: JGL, and Skyfall‘s Ralph Finnes and Naomie Harris). Yeah, “Miranda.” CUT TO: Gotham hotspot, some cosmos, shoe talk, and a juicy dish on the size of Bruce’s Bat-Unit.

Despite all this, Talia works. I’ve heard complaints that the Bruce hook-up scene felt rushed, but Collitard sells it. Bruce is such a sad panda at the start of Rises, he seems vulnerable enough to fall for a secret international terrorist. Plus, the scar? The tangled backstory? The stabbing? Yeah, Talia works for sure.

We just know she will even before the film reveals her. Seventh.

6. THE JOKER

Wow, hear that? That is the sound a lot of browser tabs closing.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is brilliant. He brings a devotion and articulation to the role that I think we’ll be drawing from for a long time. I don’t think the character should be put to film again in our lifetimes. He’s that good. However…

The Dark Knight‘s Joker – intentionally, I’m sure – hovers over the world of the film. He knows too much. Acts too fast.  Always lands the Hail Mary. Have you ever sat alone in the dark with a scotch and thought about what this guy’s dry erase board mock-up had to look like for the Dent assassination to play out like it did (what, I’m the only one)? Even with major audibles going on, and a line of scrimmage packed with gibbering maniacs, this guy’s success makes Palpatine’s Star Wars prequel schemes look like a victorious bout of Connect Four.

This isn’t some nutso “ahead of the curve” view of the world. The Joker’s read the script and the rest of the characters are really living it. I think we forgive the omnipotent trickster routine because Ledger, and the film’s mach-5 pacing, is so damn good. But as the film ages in our collective cultural zeitgeist, the self-aware “anything you can do, I can do better…” take on the Joker is forging its own spot on the shelf separate from the rest of the film.

Is that bad? I don’t think so. But it still puts him at sixth.

5. RA’S AL GHUL

I’m not getting a Christmas card from the Al Ghuls this year, am I?

Truth is Liam Neeson’s Ra’s is a wonderful villain, but ultimately falls into a category we see often in films: BIZARRO DAD™. Bizarro Dad looks, sounds, and feels like Actual Dad, except this is Batman and Actual Dad isn’t exactly available. In steps Bizarro Dad, all wise-sounding and tricking our hero into thinking some strange, new path is the best path ever strolled. See: Hulk‘s Absorbing Man. Toy Story 2‘s Prospector Pete. Mad Men‘s Conrad Hilton. Apt Pupil‘s Kurt Dussander. Prometheus‘ Weyland. Spider-Man‘s Green Goblin. The Departed‘s Frank Costello. And a billion other villains from a billion other stories.

I don’t mean to marginalize – as far as Bizarro Dads go, Ra’s is way above average. And considering “dead parents” is probably the first bullet point in the Batman syllabus, he’s way overdue, too. Writer David Goyer and Nolan find compelling new avenues for the concept – like playing “catch” with your “son” on a frozen-over lake about to give – but at the end of the day Ra’s is the familiar father-figure trying to strong-arm a son into committing to some bananapants nonsense… and threatening violent death if they not willing to take up the throne.

Bruce… I am sorta, but not really, your father. Fifth.

4. BANE

Hey, remember even everyone thought Riddler was a shoe-in for Rises and then the studio announced that Bane, the mountainous, steroid-addled Hispanic in a luchador mask would be played by the short British dude from Inception? Oh. Okay. …So you’re saying Benedict Cumberbatch *wasn’t* available for Killer Croc?

But, as it turned out, Tom Hardy’s Bane is a hard character to take your eyes off. The grill. The eyes. The imposing size. And the voice! How baller is it that Hardy looked at the role that clearly calls for a “Clint Eastwood via rotating fan” and was like “I’m thinking more a jaunty Ian McKellan through a memory foam pillow?” WHAT!? Where do I sign? I savored every syllable.

More than that, Bane unnerved me in a way that other Nolan villains didn’t. I don’t know DC’s Knightfall, but Bane’s first encounter with Batman is pure nightmare fuel. Topped with a satisfying human moment where we realize Bane might be stuck in Talia’s friend-zone, and I think we got a winner here.

You must break me, Bane? You must have meant my heart. </3

3. CATWOMAN

Let me first make a shout out to the most important gadget in the series: high-tech heist goggles that, lenses up, look like cat ears. Hollywood costume designers finding motivated ways to emulate silly comic book things – you’re doing it right.

Anyway, the global sigh of relief was audible following the premiere of Rises: Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman kicked major ass. Michelle Pfeiffer’s turn in Batman Returns is arguably one of the best things to come out of Burton’s run, but modern Batman comic fans have embraced a new, anti-hero take on the character, one that flirts with both Bruce’s heart and her own liberation from the seedy and cynical trade as a cat burglar preying on Gotham’s elite. That’s exactly what we got – and I do mean exactly. There were several nerd boner moments from Summer 2012 that felt ripped from directly from the comics – but Catwoman and Batman jumping together, rooftop to rooftop, cooperatively escaping gunfire tops them all (Hey Peter/Doc Connors sewer scuffle from Amazing Spider-Man, here’s your silver medal).

Beyond the comic reverence Nolan’s Catwoman gets, there’s quite a bit more to her, even more than being Bruce’s “way out” of being Batman. Like Dent, Hathaway’s Selina toes the line between hero and villain and comes out safe on the other side. She’s her own protagonist, independent from any extremist ideologies or babbling psychosis. She’s savvy, strong, vulnerable, uncertain; has triumphs, fears, mistakes, and regrets. Her return to save Batman is the series’ Millennium Falcon/Death Star trench moment and is the definition of satisfying. Rises answers the burning question that has haunted mankind for decades: If I had fake my own death and abscond to Italy with a hot female version of Han Solo… could I do it? I think we know now.

There’s all this talk of JGL taking up the Bat-mantle for subsequent movies – but why isn’t Warner Bros. lobbying hard to Hathaway to– oh yeah, nevermind. Still – top three.

2. TWO-FACE

Since DC’s Long Halloween, Two-Face has been a Batman essential and the Nolan/Goyer/Eckhart slow burn descent of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight is perhaps their greatest work: the realization of a tragic character that pulls wide on the duality concept and drives a relatable and corrupted force directly into the vulnerable heart of Batman’s crusade. Aw. So ends the promising Bats/Gordon/Dent three-way bromance.

As a former crime fighter who chooses zero tolerance, Two-Face is not just Batman’s greatest villain – he’s become a post-modern impasse. The Nolan team distilled this atom of comicdom legitimacy and transformed it into a telling totem of our #FirstWorldProblems dilemma. I know that sounds weighty, but the script is awash with the idea: “We tried to be decent men… in an indecent time!” In that chilling moment, the comic pulp melts away and we’re prompted to examine more than guys in capes punching each other on rooftops. This is big. This is a character we admired, who strove for justice during extraordinary circumstances – and now thinks a gun to a child’s head is the right thing to do. Yikes.

If the film’s fight song heralds a world capable of turning law abiding, taxpaying idealists into delusional psychotics driven to unspeakable deeds, then Two-Face is its mascot. How much of this descent is mirrored in ourselves? Probably more than we’d like to know. Admittedly, Mr. Nolan, when the time comes, I have the wardrobe for it.

Quite appropriately, Two-Face gets a number two spot.

1. THE SCARECROW

Let’s all take a weaponized hallucinogenic trip back to 2005: while everyone was going bonkers for the Revenge of Sith, some budinski named Christopher Nolan was making another Batman movie. Apparently Mr. Nolan didn’t get the memo that we Bat-fans had all pretty much given up the idea of the dark knight on film. “Scarecrow” in the IMDB cast roster wasn’t exactly blowing anyone’s mind, either. “You mean the scrawny guy who– I CAN’T EVEN REMEMBER WHAT HE DOES.” And then we all bought a ticket anyway. Thank God.

It’s easy to get what Nolan was trying to do (and did) with Begins: Pull it away from the nipple-suits and one-liners, set it in a believable world, and find an emotional core. One where Batman primarily fights ninjas, gangsters, and emotional baggage. But let’s be honest: Batman needs his rogues gallery. We need the weirdos. The freaks. The costumes.

Enter: Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow. The chilly demeanor. The academic douchebaggery. The self-referential Jungian monologue. The conservative costume design. The non-physical threat. The theme of fear. And the greatest, fist-pumping gimmick reversal in recent movie memory.

If you think about all the things that Nolan and his team had to crush in this Batman reboot, a costumed villain is either one or two on the list. Seriously. If you can’t sell a dude in a burlap mask as a threat in this gritty/noir treatment, then Batman as a fresh concept is over. Begins‘ Scarecrow is the gateway to the rest of the franchise. Without the careful execution of the role, I don’t think we get Two-Face or Bane or Catwoman. I don’t think we get Joker. They had to figure out how to do this guy first.

How happy am I that they did? So happy I could scre– AHHHHHH! Jesus, I always forget bats fly out of his face like that.

All right, bat-people: how would you rank them? Why was Catwoman unnecessary? Why should Ledger hit the top spot? Why should have I included Carmine Falcone? Leave your own lists in the bat-comments below.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.hudecek.1 Jeff Hudecek

    While I admire your courage in ranking Scarecrow so highly (and largely agree that he’s one of the best villains on screen), I just can’t agree with all of your numbers.

    Here’s mine:

    7. Talia
    6. Bane
    5. Catwoman
    4. Ra’s
    3. Scarecrow
    2. The Joker
    1. Two Face
    Bane and Catwoman are basically tied for me. While Hathaway’s performance is great her character is treated a little too non-sensically (particularly by Batman) for me to rank her higher than, say, the Joker.
    At the end of the day, though, a lot of the margins are pretty slim. Ranking Talia at the bottom doesn’t mean she’s a bad villain or was handled poorly (her backstory with Bane was awesome). It’s just a comparison game.

    • http://twitter.com/HeroesAreBoring Rob Pilkington

      Jeff, you’re just a Rises hater! Admitting it is the first step.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marcus-Wallace/634410636 Marcus Wallace

    Ew, Two Face I thought was the worst of the whole bunch, I’m glad he was in so few scenes.

  • Jon

    Okay, okay. Rob you make some great points and I can’t say I disagree with any of them however:

    7. Selina/Catwoman

    6. Talia

    5.Bane

    4. Scarecrow

    3. Two-Face

    2. Ra’s

    1. Joker

    No disrespect to the ladies but I feel like Talia’s motivations were a bit weak, and as great as Catwoman was handled, how high can you rank the villain who quits cat-burglering to run away with Batman?

    As for the Joker in the #1 spot, kind of accidental. My top 4 are almost too close to call. I hate to be that guy, but when I think of all around package, the way the character was adapted, written, performed, etc the Joker squeaks out a very narrow victory.

    • http://twitter.com/HeroesAreBoring Rob Pilkington

      Your top three are legit. If this had be solely based on performance, Ledger’s Joker gets the top spot.

      I think Catwoman gets high points for feeling like a real human being, probably more so than any other baddie on the list.

    • http://www.facebook.com/giovanni.grigio John Bowrey

      Actually in the comics Selina is often portrayed as infatuated with batman, seriously theres a comic pane with an extremely detailed wedding scene that she fantasized.

  • Jon

    Props also have to go to Crane for being the only villain to manage to stick around long enough to appear in all three films.

    • http://twitter.com/Doctor_Bryan Bryan Cole

      When I saw Crane in TDKR, I couldn’t help but imagine how much fun the Joker would have had in an anarchic Gotham.

      • http://twitter.com/HeroesAreBoring Rob Pilkington

        Crane as the judge in Rises was great, but could have really used the mask. Because that would have been awesome.

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