Batman Movie Villains: Burton Edition
Recently we published a three-part series taking an in-depth look at the villains used in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ Trilogy comparing how the characters are constructed in the comics to how Nolan re-interpreted them in his excellent films. We received a bundle of positive feedback and requests to expand into the other Batman films, so here we are! Keep tuned for the Schumacher edition, and check out the original series here:
(In order to avoid rewriting basic information, we’ll be re-using some of the Comics sections from the previous entries.)
Now onto the classics!
When Bruce Wayne donned his Batman persona he anticipated striking fear into the hearts of muggers and rapists, and rarely dealt with any major crime. It wasn’t long before something more challenging came into the picture: a madman. When Batman received word that a man dressed as a clown was going to poison the Gotham water supply he didn’t yet grasp what he had to contend with. The Joker is a pure psychopath, and he kills for enjoyment. And he will never stop.
Once a failed stand-up comedian, Jack Napier (rumoured real name) was ashamed that he couldn’t provide a good place to live for his young wife and their expected child. Although she assured him that she loved him regardless, he would do anything to find them a home. His path led him to the door of some local thugs looking to him to help them break into the chemical factory he was once employed in. When his pregnant wife is killed in a tragic accident Jack tries to back out of the deal, but the thugs respond to this notion violently and force him into acting as an accomplice. During the break-in Batman arrives on the scene and the ensuing fight sees Jack Napier knocked into a vat of toxic chemicals. He survived the event, but his skin was bleached white, his hair turned green and his face distended into a demented smile. The real damage was done to his mind however – the combination of the chemicals and his recent losses had driven him irreversibly insane. Whether this account is true, however, is never made clear.
Known to Batman, the authorities, and the public only as The Joker, he acts out his violent and demented plans and murders without any discernible motivation, making his actions extremely unpredictable. At best he seems to do whatever feeds his sick sense of humour. The Penguin once noted, after The Joker entered his club and shot a couple who where ‘at his table’, that The Joker would pick a random couple every night and considered it a fine joke. Most of The Jokers attacks and schemes involve elaborate and deadly pranks, but he also acts very much on impulse and will kill indiscriminately. His crimes range from straight forward murder sprees to running for mayor and rigging the election. Sometimes he’ll work with a gang in his employ but he’s equally likely to work solo. In recent years he’s often accompanied by his obsessive girlfriend and partner in crime Harley Quinn. Although she is highly devoted to him, Joker is often physically abusive and manipulative.
The Joker delights in the presence of Batman and seems to feel that forcing Batman to break his strict moral code by pushing to the point that he’ll kill the Joker would be the ultimate victory over the caped crusader. To this end he has made several attempts to drive Batman to the edge that have included brutally beating the second Robin, Jason Todd, to death using a crowbar, shooting Batgirl in the spine, murdered Commissioner Gordon’s second wife and attempting to drive his friend Commissioner Gordon insane. Batman came close to beating The Joker to death after he murdered Wayne’s childhood friend Thomas Elliot before being stopped by Gordon, after which he learned that Joker had faked the murder thinking it would be a great joke if Batman got blood on his hands over a misunderstanding.
- The Movie
- Jack Napier is a gangster working for Gotham’s crime-lord Carl Grissom. Grissom has a wide network, including agents throughout the police department making it difficult for Commissioner Gordon and DA Harvey Dent to make good on their promise to eradicate Gotham of corruption. Napier believes Grissom is at the end of his reign and expects to step into his shoes. Napier shows himself to have a sick sense of humour and often takes risks, including sleeping with Grissom’s mistress.
- Grissom, aware of Napier’s betrayal, sends him and his crew out to rob the Axis Chemical Factory to destroy incriminating records. At the same time Grissom arranges for his agent in the police department to raid the Factory with orders to kill Napier. Everything is going according to Grissom’s plan when Batman arrives on the scene. When Napier shoots at Batman the bullet is deflected and hits Napier in the face, sending him reeling into a vat of chemicals. When he washes up in the run-off outside the factory the chemicals have left him greatly malformed, and even with the help of a plastic surgeon he’s left with pale skin, green hair and a twisted, permanent smile.
- Now insane and donning the guise of ‘The Joker’, he returns to Grissom and shoots him several times, taking over the criminal empire. His violent ways and short temper quickly earn him the respect of his underlings through fear. His new insanity leads him to publicly expand his control of the city and terrorizes the public with a chemical agent hidden in make-up. Frustrated with the Batman’s attempts to foil him he challenges the Dark Knight to a showdown in the streets.
- Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker bears more in common with the comic book version of the character than any other version on screen. While in the 60’s he’s seen more as a goofy prankster and the version in the The Dark Knight carries an anarchist philosophy the version concocted by Burton and Nicholson is that of a homicidal criminal with a sick sense of humour. Describing himself as a ‘homicidal’ artist, The Joker does whatever seems to amuse him at the time and this fits in accurately with how he behaves in the comics. His homicidal tendencies are expressed in the form of pranks, like his lethal hand buzzer frying a henchman alive. He’s also as unpredictable as he is in the comics, shooting his loyal right hand man upon learning than Batman has a jet that he can use to destroy the Joker balloons.
- One major difference between this version of the Joker and the one that appears in the comics is that this Joker will occasionally don make-up to make him appear more human (albeit with a fixed grin). It always turns out to be an attempt to hoodwink people or woo Vicki Vale, but it is a very out of character tactic for him to use, his distinct look being an important part of his routine and need to put himself in the public spotlight. Burton’s version of the character works though.
Born into one of the most wealthy families in Gotham, Oswald Chester Cobblepot did not have an easy childhood. Short, rotund, and odd looking Oswald was mercilessly taunted by his peers. His mother kept large numbers of exotic birds, which became his refuge. He spent his free time fawning over the birds whom he soon considered to be his only friends. His love of birds and his unusual appearance lead to him being nicknamed ‘The Penguin’, a label that stuck with him throughout his life. When his mother died and the rare birds were repossessed to pay her debts, Oswald found himself outcast from high society and eventually turning to crime in order to get by.
Not wanting to let go of his upper class past, The Penguin frequently wore a tuxedo, top hat and monocle even when robbing banks. When the name ‘The Penguin’ was used as a taunt by other criminals he swore that he’d make it a name that would be feared. When he tried to join a gang and was laughed out of the place, he returned with a .45 caliber gun hidden in an umbrella and used it to kill the gang leader. Now with a gang at his disposal The Penguin began to expand his operations and control more territory, perpetrating more ‘classic’ crimes, such as robbing banks and stealing priceless works of art. During his crimes he’d make use of a range of armed umbrellas, kitted out with knifes, explosives and more. His unpleasant childhood left him with a short temper and a vicious attitude that could see him unleash violence on his villains and allies alike. At times Penguin has been shown to seek out genuine relationships that wind up seeing his sadistic nature re-emerge when things turn sour.
As his criminal empire grew the Penguin invested his funds into the Iceberg Club and Casino, from which he’d operate his affairs. Although still well known to the public as a criminal the Iceberg Lounge hosted Gotham’s elite and power players alongside the rulers of the underworld on a nightly basis. Unlike many of Batman’s foes, The Penguin is not classed as insane and has full controls of his actions. Whilst this can make him dangerous, he has enough wits about him to know how to the play the game and has managed to establish an unusual relationship with Batman where he would exchange information with the Dark Knight in exchange for the freedom to run his business as a legitimate enterprise.
Playing both sides of the table has led many of Gotham’s other gang leaders to mistrust The Penguin. In recent times the changing power base has seen Black Mask launch an attack on the Iceberg Lounge, leading to Penguin’s gang being absorbed in Black Mask’s.
Whilst Christopher Nolan aims to turn the cartoonish villains of the comics books into something plausible, Tim Burton exaggerated many features of the characters in order to give them more of a fantasy element. In the case of the Penguin this makes him far more grotesque, with actor Danny DeVito donning a number of prosthetic and costume embellishments (still must’ve been an awkward conversation for the casting agent: “so, we think you’re perfect to play this horrible deformed midget”). With an elongated nose, fingers fused together into fins and rotten teeth the label ‘penguin’ seems all the more apt. This also plays into the character not being a distinguished gangster but a malformed sewer dwelling monster.
Oswald Chester Cobblepot was born into a wealthy family, but that’s where the similarities between the comics and the movie end. His family were so repulsed by his appearance that they dropped his bassinet into the river, seeing him being washed into the sewers. He was found by penguins and raised underground at some point joining forces with the Red Triangle Circus performers who have turned to crime. Grown resentful of the lives of people living above him he unleashed an attack on Gotham that was foiled by Batman. While at the outset The Penguin seemed to be simply causing chaos, his true goal was to kidnap millionaire industrialist Max Shreck, whom he plans to blackmail into helping him rejoin society.
Shreck sees another opportunity however, and plots to use Penguin as a candidate for the mayoral election hoping to have a mayor under his influence. Penguin teams up with Catwoman and uses his gang to wreak havoc throughout Gotham in order to undermine the mayor while he’s setting himself up as a hero. When Batman seeks to stop him, The Penguin has the dark detective framed for murder. When Bruce Wayne eventually manages expose Cobblepots criminal behaviour, The Penguin swears revenge by kidnapping the first born children of all the wealthy families.
Although Batman quickly thwarts this plan and rescues the children, The Penguin has another plot in the making – unleashing an army of penguins equipped with missiles to destroy the city. During his final confrontation with Batman, The Penguin is dropped into the toxic waste he was using the threaten the kidnapped children, and dies shortly after.
Tim Burton’s take on the character not only makes him more deformed, but also more monstrous. While The Penguin of the comics is certainly vicious, the film version is on a different level. Shown to be a dangerous creature from childhood, he’s kept in a cage that doesn’t prevent him from grabbing and eating the household cat. As an adult there’s little difference, as he’s seen eating raw fish and attempting to gnaw of a guys nose. The powerful gangster aspect of the character is dropped entirely in favour of the underground dwelling creature.
The Penguin rarely gets given centre stage as a villain in the Batman comics, often operating as part of a group or in the background as a member of the Gotham underground. To get the best insight into the villain it’s worth checking out the Batman: The Animated Series episode ‘Birds of a Feather’, and his entry into the anthology collection ‘Joker’s Asylum’. His role in ‘Gotham Underground’ also gives him some good material.
When Gotham city is plagued by a series of robberies Batman looks into the matter, eventually uncovering ‘The Cat’, an attractive young woman who up until then had been donning an old woman disguise to commit her crimes. Escaping Batman, The Cat would return to Gotham again and again, managing to escape each time. When she was eventually apprehended years down the track she revealed herself to be a former air hostess suffering from amnesia who turned to crime after being involved in a plane crash. This was later revealed to be a ruse, but her true identity was finally known to be Selina Kyle.
Her true origin was not as fanciful. Growing up on the wrong side of the tracks Selina was left to do whatever it took to survive. As a young woman she worked as a prostitute before being driven out of the business by her abusive pimp/boyfriend. Because of the dangerous lifestyle and witnessing multiple violent crimes she took up martial arts to defend herself and her sister. Still needing to support them both, Selina decided to rob from the upper class. Needing to protect her identity she donned the catsuit she wore as a prostitute, adding to it to give it a more cat-like appearance. Inspired by Batman she also took on the name ‘Catwoman’.
Being a highly skilled thief, street smart and a powerful fighter she soon found herself in high demand as a thief. In addition to operating as a modern day Robin Hood, Selina Kyle started to be offered contracts to steal on behalf of others. Over the years her relationship with Batman and her role as a criminal and a protector has evolved. Originally she was very much a femme fatale, using her sexuality to distract or lure Batman as required. Later she was redesigned as the independent and headstrong thief she’s known as today. Not inherently an evil character Selina Kyle often takes the people living in the slums around her under her protection, ensuring that no-one is abused or exploited by the police or organized crime rackets.
Although very much rivals at the beginning of their encounters, Batman and Catwoman came to understand and trust each other. On occasion they would work together and Batman would respect Selina’s prerogative in defending the East End. Their relationship was taken further during the events of Hush when they first became romantically involved and Batman revealed his real identity to her. Hush later used this to exact revenge of Batman by abducting Catwoman and surgically removing her heart. An emergency procedure kept her alive and she later returned to a life of crime, teaming up with Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, although they never fully trusted her because of her relationship with Batman. At present she’s again working as an individual, albeit with some ties to Batman Inc.
Much like The Penguin, Catwoman in Batman Returns takes a turn for the fantastic and even the supernatural. Whilst Catwoman was introduced into the comics as a suave cat burglar who is already at the top of her game, Selina Kyle in this incarnation is a timid and put upon secretary to Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken). We see evidence of a lonely life in a bright pink apartment decorated with stuffed animals and the slightest confrontation sees her collapse into a nervous breakdown. After returning to the office at night she happens across Shreck’s evil plan to build a giant capacitor to store the cities electricity and hold the government to ransom. Shreck catches her in the act and, being the level headed guy he is, throws her out the window to her death.
While laying broken and bleeding Selina is approached by a clowder of cats who, strangely, lick her wounds clean. Even more strangely this brings her back to the land of the living with a new found insanity, agility and fashion sense. After tearing about her apartment Selina creates a full body leather cat suit, complete with claws and takes to the streets. Instead of focusing her energies on stealing valuables, this version of Catwoman is on more of a revenge kick. Understandable considering Shreck threw her out a window.
Catwoman takes to the streets and attacks a mugger before expressing some feminist ideals, and blows up a sporting goods store while stealing her signature whip. Seeing a potentially strong alliance she join forces with The Penguin, helping him kidnap the Ice Princess who is then murdered with Batman being framed. Shocked by this turn of events she confronts Penguin and rejects his advances. He attempts to kill her, but her cat-like abilities extend to having nine lives and she lives. Now at odds with Shreck, Batman and The Penguin, Selina lays low but inadvertently exposes her identity to Bruce Wayne at the same time that he does the same.
During the final confrontation between Batman and The Penguin in the Gotham sewers Catwoman takes advantage of Max Shreck being held prisoner and attempts to take her revenge, surviving gunshots from Shreck due to her nine lives. Batman tries to appeal to Catwoman using the bond they have formed, imploring that she hand Shreck over to the police. Instead she uses a stun gun to electrocute them both. Batman assumes that she perished, but it is revealed at the end that she still has one remaining life.
This version of Catwoman puts a greater emphasis on feminist ideology, even though it comes across as hokey at the best of of times. When she attacks a mugger it is specifically in the defense of a woman, claiming that he should “hear her roar” before scratching his face. The sexuality of the character remains a central aspect of the villain as she uses it to manipulate both Batman and The Penguin. The major factor that separates out the Burton version of Catwoman from the source material is her role as a thief. Apart from stealing her whip this Selina Kyle shows no interest in stealing, instead fitting a rather generic supervillain role.
There’s oodles of material available for Catwoman fans, being one of the longest running villains in Batman’s publication history and often having her own line. Recommended reading includes Hush, which provides the best insight into her relationship with Batman and Gotham City Sirens, a recent series concerning her activities with Ivy and Harley.