No superhero story is complete without a supervillain — in Batman’s case, there is a galaxy of some of the best ever created in comic books. From psychopaths to those who turned to a life of crime because of a cruel twist of fate, the best Batman villains of all time include all those who throw a formidable challenge to the Dark Knight’s quest to keep Gotham City safe.
Since the debut in DC comics and over the decades, Batman has become one of the greatest superheroes in history. The depiction of the character as someone who turned to fight crime after witnessing his parents’ murder by a criminal continues to resonate with readers of all ages. With the new Batman film now upon us, it’s timely to go back and revisit the Dark Knight’s impressive rogues gallery.
The greatest Batman villains and the changing face of evil
In Batman’s world, ranging from comics to TV screens, evil continues to reinvent itself in ways, deadlier than before.
But not everyone always remains evil. Case in point, Harley Quinn. Though the crazed psychiatrist started as a sidekick of Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker, she has since been presented as an anti-hero across comics, films and shows.
Harley Quinn is shown as a major hero in the acclaimed comic book series Injustice: Gods Among Us (2013-16), where she openly allies with Batman to protect the world. Similarly, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) films Suicide Squad (2016) and Birds of Prey (2020) takes on dangerous foes with a gang of supervillains and other misfits.
Yet not everyone undergoes a transformation like Harley. The others remain rooted in their cause of punishing Batman and destroying Gotham City or even the world. This is especially true for one of the greatest supervillains of all time…
The ultimate Batman villain is a deranged psychopath who acts as more of an agent of chaos than an organised criminal.
Also known as the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker is the arch-enemy of the Dark Knight — one capable of such unthinkable evil that can make even Batman shudder. He is the exact opposite of everything the superhero stands for and has, on occasions, caused pain, suffering and even death to the Caped Crusader’s near and dear ones.
The Joker first appeared in the DC comic book Batman #1 in 1940 and has undergone some changes when it comes to his appearance. Additionally, the origin of the Joker has also been modified by various filmmakers and comic book writers. His most identifiable characteristics are chalk-white skin, green hair and a permanent rictus across his face. In most comic books and movies, the disfigurement is presented as the effect of the Joker falling into a chemical vat — an incident that also drove him insane.
However, like Batman, the Joker has no special powers. He relies on his ability to manipulate smaller criminals for hit jobs and uses customised weapons. The Joker often relies on toxins to make his victims laugh to death.
The character has been portrayed in films by prominent actors, including Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989), Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) and Jared Leto in Suicide Squad (2016) and Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021). In 2019, Joaquin Phoenix played the supervillain in Joker, a film that presented a different origin story and gave a more sympathetic portrayal of the character.
What makes the Penguin one of the greatest Batman villains ever is his cunning way of getting away with his crimes.
His real name in the fictional world is Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, and he poses as a gentleman stock trader and businessman among Gotham’s elite. But as the Penguin, he runs a massive criminal empire involved in blackmailing, extortion and other crimes that Batman has found difficult to uproot.
Debuting in Detective Comics #58 in 1941, the character is noteworthy for his appearance — a short, portly man with an unusually long nose and dressed mostly in a tuxedo and top hat.
Unlike other villains in Batman’s rogues’ gallery, the Penguin is completely in control of his mind. He also carries an umbrella, which is actually a customised device that can be used as both a weapon and a means of escape.
The Penguin has been seen in many Batman films and shows, like the Joker. The character has been notably played by Danny DeVito in Batman Returns (1992) and Robin Lord Taylor in the series Gotham (2014-19). The film and the show have different origin stories of the supervillain.
Colin Farrell played the character in The Batman (2022).
The Riddler is an extremely dangerous criminal mastermind who terrorises the streets of Gotham City and keeps Batman guessing about his plans.
The supervillain, whose real name is Edward Nygma, possesses a genius-level intellect, which is enough to create elaborate traps for Batman to fall into. However, the Riddler considers himself superior to the Caped Crusader and leaves behind clues for Batman to soothe his own ego. He keeps challenging Batman, who is known for his detective abilities.
Debuting in Detective Comics #140 in 1948, the character became popular across comic books, animated serials and live-action films. He is usually dressed in a green unitard or green bowler hat and suit that features a question mark. He often covers a part of his face with a domino mask.
Jim Carrey immortalised the character in Batman Forever (1995). Later, Cory Michael Smith won praise for playing the Riddler in the Gotham TV series. Paul Dano essayed the character in The Batman.
Ra’s al Ghul
One of the greatest Batman villains, Ra’s al Ghul, Arabic for “Head of the Demon”, is immortal. Every time he is wounded or gets seemingly killed, his followers resurrect Ra’s al Ghul in the mysterious Lazarus Pit.
Thus, having lived for centuries, Ra’s al Ghul amassed an almost limitless fortune, which he uses to carry out his criminal activities around the world.
His long life has endowed him with several attributes that make him better than any of Batman’s enemies. A martial artist, incredibly knowledgeable and excellent tactician, Ra’s al Ghul also commands an army of the finest warriors in the world known collectively as the League of Assassins.
Interestingly, his daughter, Talia al Ghul, is Bruce Wayne’s romantic interest. Thus, Ra’s al Ghul, who is aware of Wayne’s secret identity, wants him to inherit the League of Assassins. However, their confrontations stem from Batman’s desire to stick to his path of justice and Ra’s al Ghul posing a constant threat to mankind.
While Alexander Siddig played the character in Gotham, Liam Neeson portrayed Ra’s al Ghul in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
Poison Ivy first appeared in Batman #181 in 1966. What makes her extremely dangerous is her ability to control plant life in a supernatural manner. She can make plants obey her command, and they can grow rapidly to attack those who try to harm her.
She can control whoever she wants using a potent mix of natural pheromones. Such is the effect of her pheromones that she was able to even enslave Superman in one of the comic books.
Unlike several prominent supervillains, Poison Ivy does not commit crimes of a traditional nature. Her obsession is with plants, and she believes that humanity must pave the way for them. This is why she is described as an ecoterrorist.
Ivy has often partnered with Harley Quinn on missions against crueller and more formidable supervillains and dodge Batman when he tries to capture them.
Depicted across Batman comic books, animations and live-action films and shows, Poison Ivy has been most famously played by Uma Thurman in Batman & Robin (1997).
No supervillain — not even the Joker — has been able to inflict so much physical pain on Batman as Bane. After all, the superhuman supervillain can claim to be the only one to have broken the Dark Knight’s back in a fight.
Bane is a pure terrorist and a deadly combination of brain and brawn. A genius tactician and strategist, he consistently strives to rule over Gotham City’s criminal underworld and his home island of Santa Prisca. He is more physically intimidating than other supervillains because of a super-steroid known as Venom, which makes him grow bigger and stronger as soon as it is injected into his body.
The character first appeared in Batman: Vengeance of Bane #1 in 1993, becoming one of the few characters to have debuted in a title bearing the supervillain’s name.
In comic books, Bane is depicted as having been born in a prison on the remote Caribbean island of Santa Prisca. He was a test subject for the Venom super-steroid and escaped from his brutal hell to unleash hell on Gotham City.
Bane has been a regular across media related to Batman. In live-action, the character has been famously played by Shane West in Gotham and by Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
District Attorney Harvey Dent is the classic case of a hero-turned-villain because of a cruel twist of fate. Fighting corruption and crime in Gotham by law, a part of Dent’s face gets horribly disfigured when a criminal throws acid at him. Driven insane, he enters Gotham’s criminal underworld and emerges as Two-Face.
The character made his debut in Detective Comics #66 in 1942. Two-Face has no superpowers, but his intellect and knowledge make him the criminal lord of Gotham City. He also carries a set of .22 calibre guns. His most defining trait is his way of making a decision — with the toss of a coin — which makes him one of the deadliest Batman villains ever.
The character is one of the most iconic among Batman’s villains, especially because of his past as the one who tried to do good.
Dent has been portrayed in films by actors such as Billy Dee Williams in Batman (1989) and Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever (1995). Aaron Eckhart played the character in The Dark Knight (2008), where Dent becomes Two-Face because of the actions of the Joker.
Jonathan Crane was subjected to inhuman experiments by his father from a very young age. Though his mind became unstable, Crane managed to graduate as a specialist in psychology and phobias. He figured out that a mix of special chemicals could cause hallucinations in people, making them ‘see’ what they fear the most.
Armed with his toxins, Crane becomes Scarecrow and goes on to terrorise Gotham City. Even Batman often finds himself a victim of the chemicals that Scarecrow uses. The toxins conjure Batman’s worst nightmares, including the killing of his parents, and haunt him while Scarecrow continues to improve his experiments, with deadlier consequences for his victims.
The character first appeared in World’s Finest Comics #3 in 1941. Scarecrow has been played on the big screen most famously by Cillian Murphy in all three films of The Dark Knight trilogy.
Doctor Victor Fries, an expert in cryogenics, tries to keep his dying wife, Nora, alive through suspended animation. However, the corporation he works for forcibly shuts his lab down, causing an accident that transforms Fries into Mr. Freeze.
Counted among one of the greatest villains of all time, Mr. Freeze uses a freeze gun, which he created, to transform anything into ice. Since he cannot survive in temperatures above freezing levels, he also wears a special suit to keep himself alive.
Unlike villains such as the Penguin and Two-Face, Mr. Freeze’s only objective is to keep his wife alive by any means. This brings him face to face with Batman.
The character debuted in Batman #121 in 1959. Arnold Schwarzenegger played Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin.
Professor Hugo Strange
Hugo Strange takes the credit for being the first Batman villain who determined that Bruce Wayne is the one who wears the cowl and cape. He first appeared in Detective Comics #36 in 1941 and has since been a recurring character in Batman comic books.
Strange is a psychologist and possesses a genius-level intellect. He is also an expert martial artist and can, therefore, take on Batman on his own. The character has also appeared in all Batman media, including video games.
BD Wong played the character in Gotham — the only live-action appearance of Hugo Strange.
(Main and Featured images: Ron Phillips – © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding LLC/IMDb)