Ever since the first Micheal Keaton film it’s become a parlor game of sorts to pick and choose favorite actors to play favorite Batman bad guys. And with the success of The Dark Knight and the rather inventive handling of the franchise by Christopher Nolan this game is more fun than ever.
Add to that the near-definite sequel in the works and I had to write down some thoughts on this myself. Below are three of my picks for villains and the actors who should play them.
Some words of warning, though. My Batman background is all over the place, consisting of a fair amount of the animated cartoon from my childhood, way too much of the campy Adam West vehicle, all the movies and a good bit of research done on my cell phone to settle moronic arguments while out at the bar with friends. There’s also very little regard to matching up an actor’s look with the look of the villain here and a lot more of me fleshing out what each bad guy means to me and why a certain actor could knock the role out of the park.
So be it. Here we go.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis as The Penguin
I know. The Penguin is short and hunched over while Daniel Day-Lewis is roughly seventeen feet tall. But hear me out.
I have considered the Penguin, for much of my life, to be the single most boring Batman bad guy going. I used to hate him. He doesn’t do anything, he’s just a villain who dresses funny. He has no core, no premise. His umbrellas are stupid. I never found it entertaining.
Upon revisiting him recently, though, it occurred to me that his normalcy is his premise. So that if you play it right, the fun thing about the Penguin is that he has no idea he’s the Penguin. What the Danny DeVito incarnation got wrong was that Mr. Devito made him in-your-face disgusting. I can remember him eating a raw fish or something and snarling at the camera.
But the Penguin doesn’t think he’s a monster. He thinks he’s normal, and that is a wonderful trait for his external self, while a bit of a problem for his internal self.
As for the outside of him, well the Penguin doesn’t think he’s deformed. In fact he possesses a rather admirable self-esteem. He carries himself well, dresses properly, grooms impeccably. He doesn’t think of himself as a monster, he think he looks like George Clooney playing James Bond. The man believes he’s suave as all hell and, frankly, carries this off so well he winds up with a perfectly composed aura about him.
On the other hand he’s monstrous inside, a sociopath who never flinches at killing or crime because it doesn’t occur to him to flinch at such things. This is the part I used to find boring. He was always just sort of there but never had any real reasoning behind his criminal nature. You don’t get the relish for killing that some of his compatriots have. But, as I mentioned, if used in the right way this lack of motivation becomes fascinating because it shows basically no emotional connection to the outside world. And, just like his bent exterior, he doesn’t have the first clue that this isn’t normal. For him it’s all perfectly run of the mill. You or I get up, drink coffee, go to work and that is normal. He gets up, drinks coffee, stabs someone who gets in his way and for him that is normal. The Joker? The Scarecrow? The Riddler? You get the idea that maybe they know that something ain’t right in their heads. But the Penguin always seems mystified that he has to hang out with idiot criminals in order to find people with similar goals in life. He doesn’t quite get that he’s a criminal, he thinks he’s perfectly fine but that this Batman creep insists on hounding him for being himself and doing nothing wrong.
Now, who plays beautiful monsters better than Mr. Lewis? Who plays characters with absolutely zero morals who think they’re perfection better than Daniel Day? Who brought us Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood?” Who brought us Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in “Gangs of New York?”
Daniel Day-Lewis, that’s who.
Drainage, Eli my boy. Drainage.
2. Geoffrey Rush as Mr. Freeze
I realize the odds of getting a reboot for anything remotely touching the abominable “Batman and Robin” are slim, but that’s a shame because Mr. Freeze is probably one of the better villains going. At least the version I know from the Animated Series is, which, as it turns out, was an Emmy winning episode. Go childhood!
Now, I have no idea what the Arnold Schwarzenegger incarnation existed of in “Batman and Robin.” When that movie is on I try not to do things like listen or open my eyes. However the version of Mr. Freeze I know revolves around a doctor losing his wife. And really that’s what the actor needs to capture more than anything.
The story is simple. A brilliant man’s wife contracts a terminal illness. He knows, in his heart, that he can save her but that he’ll lose her long before he can come up with a cure so his first step is to cryogenically freeze her to buy some time. To do so he takes a few liberties at the company currently employing him and at this point things begin to escalate. On one side you have a man faced with the loss of his soul mate trying to do anything he can to stop time, on the other you have a kind of dick-head boss who, understandably, doesn’t like the fact that he’s being embezzled from so that these experiments can continue and, not so understandably, freaks out after Mr. Freeze surrenders and throws him into table full of chemicals then leaves him to die.
If you know anything about comic books you know that being thrown into a chemical vat and left for dead means that you will not only live, but will receive super powers. Thus is born Mr. Freeze, who can…you know freeze stuff…although his inner workings were already in place. You don’t really even need the superpower part so much. What you need is a man turned criminal because he knows he is the only person that can save his wife’s life while everyone else like his boss, the police and Batman are just drains on what little time he has left. The fun of this story is watching someone with such a good heart slowly become the worst villain in Gotham because he starts to justify all of his actions as excusable since the end result is life for his wife.
To play this part you need a lot. You need brilliance, Freeze is no slouch in the science department. You need frailty, his complete and utter lack of ability to deal with loss is his driving point. And you need someone who can portray a love this strong convincingly. I was at a loss for who could fill this slot until I remembered Geoffrey Rush in “Quills’ as the Marquis de Sade. Brilliant, obsessive, yet somehow touching and believable as a love interest. Albeit a seriously f*&#Ed up love interest there, but I think he could play it normal.Well…normal-ish. This is a Batman villain after all.
And the fact that Mr. Rush is maybe a little too old to be playing super-villians (though he does make a fine pirate) is actually a plus here. Mr. Freeze is a married man of many years losing his wife, not some schoolboy who loses a crush to the local bully. We’re talking about someone forced to look forward at a future that is devoid of everything that gave him life in the past. We’re talking about a husband losing his foundation.
A little age on that role would be welcome in my mind.
3. Steve Buscemi as the Riddler
Actually the picture-perfect Riddler actor is no longer with us. He passed away in 1978. But we’ll come back to that.
First a quick rundown of the Riddler.
The Riddler is a genius. Aren’t they all. The fun thing about the Riddler, though, is that he thinks he has to be THE genius, that he has to always be THE genius and that anything else is proof that maybe he isn’t as smart as he thinks. Which is to say that he’s a very smart man utterly crippled with insecurities that don’t allow him to give himself the benefit of the doubt or forgive his own mistakes.
He engages with Batman, and anyone else he views as a contender, in elaborate mind games and puzzles. Usually a loved one’s life is at stake if his victim can’t solve his riddles. But he doesn’t do this to entertain himself like the Joker, he does this to prove via perfectly crafted encounters that he is, flat-out, the smartest person in the room. If he can lead someone around by their emotions, always be one step ahead of them and finally crush them doing nothing but plan and plan and plan then he will know, in his heart, that he was the smarter person. If he fails, though, then that other person is the smarter one and he has nothing left because there is nothing to life but being THE genius. The Riddler doesn’t exactly see himself as well rounded. It’s be smarter than the world or be useless. Personality doesn’t win him any points.
When he’s at his best he drags others down into this horrible state of mind. If your loved ones are going to die unless you solve a series of unsolvable riddles, it’d be pretty hard to do anything but blame yourself for not being smart enough when you inevitably fail.
When he’s at his worst, though, this guy is his own downfall. Because nobody could possibly pull off what he demands from himself. The very nature of reality dictates that things will go wrong here and there, but for him it’s not things going wrong, it’s him being wrong. Trap didn’t spring properly? That’s his fault. Random unforeseen factor messed things up? That’s his fault. Elaborate plan that needed perfectly predicted reactions from his enemies to work didn’t go off without a hitch? It’s his fault. Rainstorm got in the way? His fault. Act of god? His fault. Any and every tiny little detail that didn’t work flawlessly? All. His. Fault.
And the more he sees himself as failing, the more elaborate his plans have to become because the level of proof he needs that he’s not stupid rises by that much.
We had an actor that could have done absolute wonders with this part.
His name was John Cazale, though you probably know him as Fredo Corleone.
He brought us the always scrambling, always failing, always inadequate Fredo. What this man could have done with the Riddler makes me giddy.
But he passed away in 1978.
That’s okay because we have Steve Buscemi. From the, “I’m in control here so why isn’t anyone listening to me?!” Mr. Pink in “Resevoir Dogs” to the, “I’m in control here so why isn’t anyone listening to me oh my god what are you doing with that wood chipper?!” Carl Showalter in “Fargo,” Buscemi does some great things with characters who just want the entire world to see that they’re the smartest person in the room.
And who self-destruct trying to prove that simple fact.