The Marvel Cinematic Universe model has become so dominant that it’s easy to forget how effectively it has dismantled a long-held superhero movie paradigm: That the hero with his (or her, but mostly his) name in the title would cede scene after scene to the starry, over-the-top antics of the movie’s villains. This dynamic was firmly established in the Tim Burton Batman movies, where Michael Keaton gracefully underplayed opposite various alumni of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and quickly gave way to the “too many villains” problem, where producers attempted to give us too much of a good-bad thing.
These standards formed in large part because of Batman’s so-called rogues’ gallery: the comics industry’s best collection of colorful, disturbed, and eye-catching bad guys, attracting the attention of A-list performers at a time when superhero movies were far from a sure thing. Now, of course, the pendulum has swung the other way; Marvel’s heroes tend to be the marquee attractions, to the point where Iron Man looms large over the proceedings despite dying several movies ago, and the “too many villains” problem has become the “underwhelming villain” problem. (Though admittedly they bow to no one in hotness.) Still, cinema has continued chipping away at Batman’s rogues’ gallery, bringing many of his most memorable foes to life. (There are some exceptions: Whither Clayface? Or Scarface? Or Baby Doll, who should really be called Dollface?) Whether going for gritty (relative) realism or cartoony craziness, the rogues’ gallery continues to provide a funhouse-mirror reflection of Batman’s own troubled psyche. With The Batman adding a new Catwoman, Penguin, and Riddler to the mix, this seems like a good time to rank the Bat-villains’ various big-screen incarnations, measuring how they stack up as movie characters, as performances, and as bad guys.
Before we get started, let’s lay out the kinds of ground rules that the villains of Gotham City would never abide by. First, the parameters here are live-action Batman and Batman-adjacent theatrically released movies released from 1989 forward. We are not including the 1966 film version of the Batman TV series because most of those villains — indelible as they are — originated on television. The same goes for Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the terrific 1993 feature spunoff from Batman: The Animated Series. And while we’re at it, let’s disqualify The Lego Batman Movie; it’s delightful, but its toybox approach to the rogues’ gallery feels like an outlier (and, let’s be real, a version of Catwoman who constantly and enthusiastically punctuates all of her dialogue with “meow, meow, meow” would be a shoo-in for No. 1).
Second, the villains in question must be based on comic-book characters — we love Max Shreck, Christopher Walken’s evil rich weirdo from Batman Returns, but he’s as much a Tim Burton–Daniel Waters creation as a Batman villain. At the same time, the villains in question do not need to have directly faced Batman in their movies. If Batman exists in their movie’s universe and the characters have consistently fought Batman in the comics, they’re in. Even with these caveats, there’s still an Arkham Asylum’s worth of contenders running around, so let’s cue up the Prince music and start this parade.
Henry Cavill in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Look, this isn’t Henry Cavill’s fault. This big, weird movie put him in a bad position. Cavill actually makes a pretty strong Superman — he’s great in those traveling-hobo sections of Man of Steel — but the whole idea of Batman and Superman engaged in an actual face-off rather than an uneasy, possibly grudging, but mostly professional ongoing relationship is pretty ridiculous (and expertly parodied via their one-sided rivalry in The Lego Batman Movie). Batman v. Superman wastes the vast majority of its running time on the idea that Batman narrows his eyes toward the sky and mutters, “Do you bleed?” to no one when Superman zips through the sky, just because Zack Snyder really, really likes Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Let’s move on, shall we?
Jared Leto in Suicide Squad
Honestly, we’d love to hot-take our way into a pro–Leto Joker argument, especially after Leto hilariously leaned into his insufferability for House of Gucci. But frankly, imbecilic Method antics aside, this performance just isn’t much good; it’s not edgelord Joker so much as it is Heath Ledger warmed over and elaborately tattooed. How did anyone not tell Leto that he was doing the voice?! Did they like that he was ripping off Ledger’s whole deal? Did they consider it a tribute and not a ghoulish appropriation? These Riddler-worthy questions are the only ones Leto’s misguided one-and-done Joker inspires.
Jeep Swenson and Michael Reid Mackay in Batman & Robin
It’s a perfect storm of ‘90s-comics excess meeting ’90s-superhero-movies sloppiness: A villain introduced as an impossibly strong, ruthless, and cunning ultimate foe for Batman — one who succeeds in breaking his back and sending Bruce Wayne into an extended, albeit temporary, retirement during a megacrossover event — is carelessly reborn as a monosyllabic cartoon stooge. This in turn reduces an overblown yearslong story arc to an undercard fight where Bane is handily defeated by Robin and Batgirl. The next live-action incarnation of Bane would also tinker with his origins, even nixing his addiction to the fictional steroid-style drug Venom, but here, he’s just a forgettable henchman — a poor man’s Jaws, best used as a sight gag. (It is hilarious to see him don a fedora and trenchcoat.)
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Batman & Robin
Speaking of simultaneously inflating and reducing a character who became popular in the early ’90s: Mr. Freeze was almost certainly written into Batman & Robin due to the newfound popularity he gained on Batman: The Animated Series, which revised his origins to give them more tragic dimension. That backstory, where Freeze turns to crime as means of financing research for his terminally ill and cryogenically frozen wife, is intact in Batman & Robin — but like everything else in the movie, it’s given a plasticky, elaborately cheap makeover. Schwarzenegger, top-billed for a role heavily fan-cast as Patrick Stewart, goes into mugging pun overdrive, paying the merest of lip service to Freeze’s sad origins and motivations. Like the other Schumacher-era bad guys, his evil schemes are bizarre abstractions of jewel-thieving and destructo-plans. Twenty-five years on, an older Arnold feels like he might be able to summon the regretful gravitas of classic Mr. Freeze stories; back in 1997, any human dimension was kept on ice.
Tim Booth in Batman Begins
Okay, this is barely more than an Easter egg: Mr. Zsasz, yet another decidedly ’90s Bat-villain who would have a more substantial part in a different Bat-film, has a cameo in Batman Begins, and he’s played by Tim Booth, the talented lead singer of the formidable British rock band James (best known for “Laid,” but their whole best-of record is nonstop greatness). Neat! His Zsasz doesn’t really do much but provide generic menace in two short scenes — and sometimes that’s preferable to an avalanche of snow puns.
Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever
Tommy Lee Jones famously disliked Jim Carrey during the making of Batman Forever, at one point informing the comedian that he could “not sanction buffoonery.” It’s an odd position to take because the Oscar-winning actor’s performance opposite Carrey in Batman Forever seems intent on matching, not undercutting, his co-star’s over-the-top zaniness. An incessantly cackling Jones plays Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, the Gotham DA and friend of Bruce Wayne whose face is scarred with acid chucked by a mobster, driving him mad and turning him to a life of duality-obsessed crime.
Billy Dee Williams already played a non-villainous Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman, which Forever nominally sequels; given that Michael Gough’s Alfred and Pat Hingle’s commissioner Gordon were retained despite a director switch, there’s a hint of whitewashing to the recasting of Dent for his turn in the spotlight. (That Jones had recently given a star-making performance in The Fugitive probably further hurt Williams’s chances of returning.) Still, Jones could have been terrific casting. It’s equally easy to imagine Jones playing Dent as a smart but bloviating grandstander gone bad and Williams playing him as a smoother, more charismatic figure who undergoes a tragic transformation. Either would have worked! Instead, we got one hammy, unhinged, buffoonish performance for the price of two.
Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni
Tom Wilkinson in Batman Begins; John Turturro in The Batman and Dennis Paladino in Batman Forever; Eric Roberts in The Dark Knight
Most members of Batman’s rogues’ gallery can stand on their own, even if they have some stylistic overlap that makes some of them look like a poor man’s Joker. But Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni are different; technically, they’re not in the rogues’ gallery at all because they lack the psychosis, outlandish costumes, or bizarre gimmicks associated with that group. They’re simply the most-often-depicted mobsters in Gotham City, which is why they share an entry here despite being different characters. You’d be forgiven for mixing them up because they never have simultaneous onscreen roles in live-action Batman pictures. For example, Maroni is much-mentioned in The Batman, but he stays offscreen, as the movie ultimately chooses to focus on Falcone (John Turturro). In the Dark Knight trilogy, Falcone appears in the first movie (played by Tom Wilkinson), while Maroni is the obligatory mobster in the second (played by Eric Roberts). They’re different guys with more or less the same function: standing in for “normal” crime and corruption in Gotham.
In Batman comics lore, they’re a bit more important, especially in the companion stories The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, from which multiple movie adaptations have cribbed. Simply put and canonically speaking, Maroni is the mobster who throws the acid that creates Two-Face, while Falcone is a mobster with closer ties to Bruce Wayne’s parents. In the movies, their inclusion tends to be on the perfunctory side, driven more by backstory than memorable characters. This isn’t a slight to the multiple actors who have attempted to breathe some life into these old Italian stereotypes over the years; they’re often fun to watch, embodied by the likes of Turturro or Wilkinson. But ultimately, Batman movies aren’t where you go when you’re looking for a nuanced, credible mob story, and designating one or the other as “better” doesn’t seem fair. All slightly cartoony mobsters are welcome here!
Talia al Ghul
Marion Cotillard in The Dark Knight Rises
Marion Cotillard was the prototypical Christopher Nolan movie wife in Inception, so she was a natural fit for the final movie in his Bat-trilogy. She’s also good casting as Talia al Ghul, the ambitious, Bruce Wayne–enamored daughter of the imperious (and, in the comics, immortal) villain Ra’s al Ghul. Unfortunately, Cotillard is hamstrung a bit by having to conceal her true identity through much of the movie, masquerading as Wayne Enterprises board member (and Wayne romantic-interest generator) Miranda Tate and only revealed as Talia in the final stretch. It’s a neat connection to Batman Begins, but it doesn’t give Talia much to actually do in character or onscreen. This was Nolan’s final collaboration with Cotillard to date, and it feels appropriate that it ends with Talia just kinda slumping over.
Paul Dano in The Batman
In his traditional guise, the Riddler has sometimes seemed more like a nuisance than a threatening villain, so it makes sense to remake him as a Seven-style creepy loner; isn’t every movie serial killer who leaves weirdo clues scrawled in childlike handwriting just ripping off the Riddler to begin with? (Well, maybe not the handwriting; the Riddler in the comics seems like he’d have great penmanship.) Yet it’s hard not to look at Paul Dano’s masked DIY puzzle-maker in The Batman without seeing a Jokerfied version of a formerly colorful character. The movie eventually makes some interesting decisions regarding the character, but in the meantime, the diet Zodiac ciphers and whisper-to-bellow vocal tones aren’t quite as chilling as they’re supposed to be.
Will Smith in Suicide Squad
Will Smith anchors Suicide Squad with his standard charisma — by which we mean it’s taken for granted, as had become standard at the time. In fact, the lingering question of how the first Suicide Squad movie avoided completely cratering at the box office after its trailer-driven opening weekend can probably be answered by the performances of Smith and Margot Robbie therein. Smith’s version of the ruthless assassin who wants to protect his daughter is such a generic character type that Deadshot was replaced by Bloodsport, a whole separate character with basically the exact same deal, for the Squad sequel. Yet there’s an undeniable kick to seeing Smith apply his megawattage professionalism to a guy who’s also willing to shoot Batman in the face.
Uma Thurman in Batman & Robin
Joel Schumacher’s approach to the Batman saga, heavily influenced by the ’60s TV series, is not inherently incorrect, but the balance between spectacle and winking silliness tumbles over noisily in Batman & Robin, burying most of the formidable cast in chintzy-looking detritus. The one performer who seems to truly understand her assignment and strut through it unscathed is Uma Thurman, playing mutated botanist Pamela Isley. Is this a particularly smart, scary, or sympathetic evocation of Poison Ivy, who can be a winning combination of environmentalist, femme fatale, and Harley Quinn partner? Absolutely not. But Ivy is one of the more outlandish, supernaturally tinged Bat-foes (see No. 16; see also Man-Bat, conspicuously not appearing on this list because no movie has dared try), and Thurman embraces her impossibly stylized look and attitude. It’s hard not to give it up for a supervillain who makes her grand debut by paying homage to Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus — maybe Schumacher’s finest Bat-moment.
Chris Messina in Birds of Prey
As mentioned, the first appearance of Mr. Zsasz in a movie was minor; the second was more memorable and also further away from the character’s origins. In the comics, he’s basically the Gotham City version of Hannibal Lecter — or, more accurately, one of the dozens of brilliant-but-crazed killers that knocked off Lecter following Silence of the Lambs. (At least give him some credit for getting in early: His first appearance, in Shadow of the Bat No. 1, trailed Lambs by just a year and change, and the story is pervasively and impressively creepy.) Birds of Prey keeps the character’s signature scars — he tallies himself with a knife for every murder victim — and vaguely adapts a comics story where Zsasz is employed by the crime lord Black Mask, but otherwise, Messina doesn’t bear much resemblance to the wiry, unflappable killer from the comics. In the process, he becomes a looser, almost parodic Lecter knockoff; Messina, amusingly, plays him as dim, a bit hapless, but still a nasty piece of work.
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in Suicide Squad
In the comics and cartoons, Killer Croc is a fearsome sewer-dwelling man-beast who menaces Gotham City and provides a formidable physical challenge to Batman. In the movies, he’s a one-time second-tier member of the Suicide Squad who gets fewer lines than the fire guy. However, he does wear a hoodie, which I think we can all agree is absolutely darling and beautiful. Also, in the extended cut of Suicide Squad that you have absolutely no reason to watch, Harley Quinn tries to figure out whether he would like to eat her. Even his relative lack of onscreen action is kind of endearing; he’s a croco-man who seems fine with sulking in the margins.
Jack Nicholson in Batman
At the time, Nicholson’s first-billed presence in the first Tim Burton–directed Batman movie was considered a major casting coup and a milestone in the simultaneous theft and chewing of scenery. Time has been less kind to Nicholson’s work — which is a delight but often scans more Jack than Joker. (The movie even gives the Joker his actor’s first name and lets him spend a stretch of the movie in normal-skin “makeup.”) Both Jack and the Joker are, it turns out, an odd fit for Burton; they’ve got the scary-clown freakiness without the hesitation or insecurity underneath. Still, Nicholson swanning through a cartoon villain role results in plenty of highlight-reel line readings.
Jesse Eisenberg in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Yes, Lex Luthor is known principally for his antagonism toward Batman’s old enemy Superman. But in Batman v. Superman as well as several comics stories (including several set during Luthor’s presidential administration!), Batman and Luthor clash, so why not take the opportunity to shout out the best and least-heralded aspect of Zack Snyder’s misbegotten epic? Taking his Social Network nerd-smarm to rococo extremes, Jesse Eisenberg performs twitchiness as high opera; he’s one of the only performers who can make a nourishing meal out of overblown Zack Snyder–approved dialogue. We’ll say it: It’s a shame he never had a chance to menace Batman, or anyone else, in another movie. #ReleaseTheLuthorCut!
Zoë Kravitz in The Batman
Catwoman is often morally ambiguous in Batman comics, a clear (if non-psychotic) member of his rogue’s gallery, but she tends to skew good-guy in the movies — probably because the movies’ female characters are so scant that various Catwomen are forced to play as many roles as possible. The newest incarnation is pretty straightforward, a lady-vigilante flipside to Batman who’s more upfront about being out for herself. But Zoë Kravitz brings this stock part to life, radiating toughness with glimmers of vulnerability and hurt. And if she’s more Team Justice than crafty villainess, she does square off with Batman as they challenge each other’s dogmatic worldviews, creating crucial romantic sparks in a rainy, chilly-looking Gotham.
Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises
There’s little that Christopher Nolan loves more than obscuring his actors’ faces with cumbersome masks — especially if the actor in question is Tom Hardy, who affects one of his trademark what-the-hell accents for Bane’s muffled yet melodious voice. In a Batman trilogy that often eschews fancy villain costumes, Bane’s fuzz-lined jacket, military vest, and elaborate face mask make for an instantly recognizable and iconic look, and Hardy’s commitment to a potentially ridiculous role is better served here than in those dumb Venom movies. Dark Knight Rises alters Bane’s origins in ways that might be considered problematic, jettisoning his Caribbean origins in favor of an unspecified “ancient” part of the world. But Nolan’s love for Bond movies emerges through this character who’s like a henchman beefed up with extra menace and pathos.
Colin Farrell in The Batman
Even without a monocle, beak, or signature cigar, Colin Farrell has an obvious blast playing Oswald Cobblepot, also known as Oz, also known as the Penguin — we daresay he’s having more fun than anyone else in The Batman, whether he’s being chased through the film’s most impressive action set piece or roasting the Batman’s mysteriously vaunted detective skills. Farrell brought similarly mischievous energy to his portrayal of Daredevil’s enemy Bullseye, but here he has a bit more to work with as the type of character who might have been played by Joe Pantoliano in the kind of ’90s serial-killer pictures The Batman vaguely recalls. If there’s any limiting factor, it’s the fact that this Penguin, despite his “grounded” gangster roots and eschewing the character’s more foppish tendencies, never feels especially scary. Maybe they’re saving that for the sequel, or the HBO Max series, or the online role-playing game.
Ra’s al Ghul
Liam Neeson in Batman Begins
Before Liam Neeson was a nonstop ass-kicker often soaked in parental guilt or alcoholic regret, he had a standing gig as a mentor figure to scrappy young upstarts. He subverts that routine in Batman Begins, where it turns out that “Ducard,” the guy who supervises young Bruce Wayne’s ninja education, turns out to be Ra’s al Ghul, leader of a cult called the League of Shadows that has the usual plans to destroy the beyond-help Gotham City. Neeson delivers the obligatory training lessons and villain-motivation monologues with his usual sonorous flair but, as with his daughter Talia, his ideological dedication to subterfuge means limiting his villainous screen time. Still, Neeson is the perfect accomplice for Nolan’s mission to bring some more fantastical Batman concepts (like Ra’s al Ghul’s immortality) back down to earth — and a perfectly dapper, elegant man to preach the virtues of theatricality.
Jim Carrey in Batman Forever
In a Gotham City, where nearly everything and everyone feels like it exists within cartoon quote marks, Jim Carrey is king, and he’s perhaps the only actor who doesn’t need to strain to outshine the scenery. Rather than trying to make one of Batman’s sillier enemies darker and more intense, Carrey and Batman Forever lean way, way into the silliness — sometimes literally, as Carrey bends and contorts his body with his usual flexibility. Posing childlike riddles in service of a nefarious brainwave-manipulation plot that the movie never really bothers to explain, changing costume and hairstyle at will, this Riddler is constantly conducting a roadshow tribute to his own genius (more so than displaying evidence of said genius). It’s not even that Carrey is riotously funny in the role; his laugh lines are mostly just warmed-over Ace Ventura-isms. It’s just a blast to see him go to town physicalizing the outsize nuttiness of the standard scene-stealing villain and then — in case you don’t get the joke — literally ask Batman if his performance was over-the-top.
Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises
As in The Batman, Hathaway’s Catwoman must play love interest, pragmatic realist, and righteous avenger, making her villainy fairly secondary if not tertiary — but hey, she’s introduced brazenly stealing from a hobbled Bruce Wayne, then kicking him while he’s down, so there’s still a little bit of bad-cat energy coming from Hathaway’s delightful take on Selina Kyle. The Cat is also a great match for Hathaway’s maximum-effort image: Even without a full-on cat costume, dressing up in a skintight costume and goggles, doing flips outside mansion windows, and teaming up with Batman for a round of rooftop baddie-punching is all bit extra, isn’t it? (We mean that as a compliment.)
Ewan McGregor in Birds of Prey
Now, this is a real Batman-worthy gangster. Roman Sionis, also known as Black Mask, is a Gotham crime lord who’s also into masks and torture, the wayward son of a rich and powerful family who, like so many other Bat-villains, can be used as a cracked-mirror image of one Bruce Wayne. That context is missing from Birds of Prey because both Wayne and Batman are only mentioned in passing; instead, Black Mask takes on the venerable Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and her makeshift superteam. Occasional song-and-dance man Ewan McGregor imbues Roman with a singsong musicality, his criminal self-regard not just informing his decisions but actively keeping him going. He also receives — spoiler alert? — the most hilariously ignominious demise of any major Bat-villain, a punchier, Harley Quinnier variation on the tired old falling-death model.
Cillian Murphy in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises
In a movie world where big-name villains were routinely tossed off of high structures to provide narrative resolution, let’s show some respect for the resilience of the Scarecrow, a prominent Batman Begins bad guy who just wouldn’t quit, turning up for droll cameos in The Dark Knight (in which he is apprehended by a triumphant Batman) and The Dark Knight Rises (in which, following the collapse of society, he presides over a makeshift kangaroo court on a tower of desks). Christopher Nolan’s muse Cillian Murphy plays Dr. Jonathan Crane with the right mix of otherworldly charisma and learned-doctor smugness, and Nolan’s use of this character signifies his deceptively packed approach to the material. Though this was supposedly a more grounded take on the caped crusader, Nolan’s trilogy managed to populate Gotham with Scarecrow, Joker, Catwoman, Two-Face, Bane, Falcone, Zsasz, and multiple Al Ghuls without ever succumbing to the old excess-villainy problem.
Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight
The normal-guy-to-supervillain pipeline is tricky to navigate. Go nuts too early, and you risk losing real-world pathos; take too long, and the transformation feels like an afterthought. The Dark Knight’s treatment of Harvey “Two-Face” Dent flirts with the latter, but Aaron Eckhart makes such a picture-perfect crusading district attorney that his final-stretch transformation into a gruesomely disfigured instrument of vengeance has real weight and pulls off the switch in a way that feels both earned and inevitable. He’s obviously not as delightful as the demented clown who gives him a nudge over the edge, but that’s part of The Dark Knight’s ingenious design, giving Bruce Wayne a frenemy who hurts Batman, just as how the Joker inadvertently hurts Bruce Wayne. Classic Two-Face duality, without the (very fun) gimmicks of the comics version. Eckhart perfectly delivers and embodies Nolan’s best Batman line: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”
Danny DeVito in Batman Returns
Danny DeVito’s version of the Penguin doesn’t just mount a nefarious mayoral campaign and plot to kill the first-born sons of Gotham City; he also single-handedly cost the Batman his Happy Meal toys. Parents were so revolted and disturbed by the fast-food chain’s promotion of a film in which the bad guy bites off a handler’s nose and spits up black bile that the next movie stuck to promotional cups, rather than kids’ toys. But it wouldn’t be accurate to describe the Penguin as an adults-only bad guy; there’s something about his pettiness, animal insistence, and grandstanding temper that recalls the darker, messier aspects of childhood, reflecting his status as an abandoned little kid. Smaller children might find him frightening, but his circus-ringleader antics are also a more distinctive interpretation of the Penguin than mildly odd-looking crime boss. In DeVito’s hands, the most grotesque aspects of Oswald Cobblepot’s personality are also the most hilariously human—despite his reverse–Elephant Man cries of “I am not a human being! I am an animal!”
Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey, and The Suicide Squad
Maybe this will feel like cheating — putting Margot Robbie’s live-action version of Harley Quinn so high on a list of Batman villains — given that she spends approximately five minutes of screen time interacting with Batman in a flashback scene of Suicide Squad, the weakest of her three movies, no less. But that’s also appropriate to the sneaky, mischievous, rule-breaking character; major Batman villains aren’t supposed to be turned into comic canon off the success of an animated series, either, but Harley accomplished that as a breakout supporting character from Batman: The Animated Series. Like Catwoman, she skews good in her film appearances — more self-interested than truly evil. She also benefits mightily from the work of Margot Robbie, believably straddling the line between outlandish gestures (the accent, the fashion-forward outré-fits) and emotional realism. Harley Quinn is impulsive, violent, sometimes downright murderous — and, in Robbie’s hands, endlessly likable, even soulful. In a group of bad guys that, intentionally or not, does their part to stigmatize mental illness, it’s refreshing to find someone whose unbalanced nature becomes her unexpected superpower. During a time when the onscreen future of Batman seemed to be in flux, she nimbly kept DCEU continuity alive — and frankly, her solo movie Birds of Prey beats the hell out of Joker.
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
The instant-icon status of Heath Ledger’s Joker is inextricably linked with real-life tragedy: After completing the film but before its release, Ledger died from an accidental medication overdose, lending a ghoulish sense of anticipation to his final completed performance. He went on to win a posthumous Oscar and become a supervillain gold standard. Years later, other Jokers continue to rip him off, whether in performance (Jared Leto makes off with the nasal voice) or imagery (Joaquin Phoenix stares at Gotham from a police car, inverting Ledger sticking his head out the window to savor his freedom). All of this can distract from just how wonderfully original Ledger is as the Clown Prince of Crime. He’s frightening, charismatic, and genuinely funny (recall his steady, unbothered “yeah” when rhetorically asked, “You think you can steal from us and just walk away?”), fully worthy of the never-ending sparring with Batman he promises. In particular, Ledger’s physical gestures — his twitchy tongue, endlessly fiddling with his own facial scars; a walk that seamlessly combines stalking and mincing — are a brilliant, actor-size substitute for the broader poses of a memorable comic-book drawing. That this performance inspired more Jokers, rather than convincing filmmakers to give up on recapturing the magic, is both understandable and majestically foolhardy — a great Joker trick.
Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns
As worthy as Kravitz and Hathaway have been as Selina Kyle, there’s also a sense that their Catwoman characters must skew a little more traditional because Pfeiffer shone so immediately and brilliantly in the role 30 years ago in Batman Returns, the second and best Tim Burton Batman movie (and maybe the best Batman movie, full stop). This Catwoman, brought back to life by alley cats after being murdered by her boss (Christopher Walken), renounces her former meekness in favor of criminal mischief — including a bad-guy team up with the Penguin, giving her a sharper edge on her successors. The rest of the Cat’s advantage comes from Pfeiffer doing career-best work as a woman who declares war on the world — and on her former self. The latter condition is most acutely observed when she stumbles home post-revival and reenacts a zombified version of her old working-girl routine before unleashing cathartic, transformational destruction on her shabby apartment and finally sewing together a costumed-villain rebirth. The shiny latex costume was hell for Pfeiffer to wear, and yet another tribute to her phenomenal performance that she wears it like a second skin. Whether making a neurotic match with Bruce Wayne, whipping heads off of mannequins, or scratching muggers all to hell, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is a true wild card — more so, really, than any of her more self-consciously erratic competition in the cinematic Bat-villain field. It’s the kind of multifaceted performance that makes yet another visit to Gotham City movie sound enticing rather than numbing.