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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Batman's Villains: The Greatest Rogues Gallery in Comics

Superman is the most iconic superhero, and Spider-Man has the best supporting cast, but Batman has the best villains. And believe me, I'm not just playing favorites. The Joker, Two-Face, the Riddler, the Scarecrow, Catwoman, Mr. Freeze, Ra's al Ghul, Bane, and the Penguin are all awesome villains who have battled the Dark Knight for decades and will continue to do so, even while those upstart new villains like the Court of Owls and the Black Glove and Professor Pyg try to make a name for themselves. These classic villains are all well known for their flamboyant appearances, unique methodologies, and compelling back stories. But none of these things tells us why they are the best at being bad. Indeed, there is one singular reason that Batman's villains, the best ones anyway, all share which makes them the greatest rogues gallery in comics.

First, to understand Batman's villains, we have to understand Batman. Indeed, we could easily turn that phrase around and say that to understand Batman, you have to understand his villains, but we'll get to that later. Right now, the key to understanding Batman is that he's a, to quote the Joker from The Dark Knight, "an unstoppable force." He's got the body, the brain, and the bucks to be the Batman, and he does exactly that: Be the Batman. He's the World's Greatest Detective. He's the Caped Crusader. He's the Dark Knight. He is Batman. He sees a problem, comes up with multiple plans to solve it, and then tackles it with gusto, always succeeding. He doesn't just see problems. A lot of times, he foresees problems, and takes appropriate preventative measures, such as always carrying a Kryptonite ring in case Superman goes rogue, or instilling a "back up personality" in his mind to take over in the event of... something happening, I don't know. Just got read Batman R.I.P. or look up the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. I didn't. Anyway, the idea here is that Batman is ready, willing, and able to accomplish his goals, such goals including protecting the innocent, fighting against crime and corruption, and beating up evil clowns.

What does all of this have to do with why Batman's villains are the best rogues gallery in comics? The long and short of it is that Batman's best villains are the best around because they are all, to some extent or another, a reflection of some aspect of Batman himself. The Joker, for instance, is the "immovable object" to counter Batman's "unstoppable force"; that is, both are stubborn in their goals, which are polar opposites. The Joker is an unstoppable force for chaos while Batman is an unstoppable force for order. Two-Face is a bit more obvious, reflecting the dual nature of Batman and Bruce Wayne, though that's a bit of an oversimplification of what Chris Sims called "the most overrated truism in comics." The other ones are all a bit easier to identify. Riddler is really smart and does whatever he can to prove it; Batman is super smart and doesn't feel the need to prove anything. The Scarecrow uses fear as a weapon for evil; Batman uses fear as a weapon for good. Ra's al Ghul wants to make the world a better place by destroying it; Batman wants to make the world a better place by fixing it.

Catwoman is a bit more difficult to categorize (no pun intended), mainly because she's not really a villain anymore, and more of an anti-heroine. She does, however, reflect Batman in that she targets the criminal element for theft, and the criminal element only. Batman may make plans to deal with fellow superheroes, but only if they become part of the criminal element. In addition, both generally show restraint in pressing situations, not to mention having above average athletic and strategic capability, and both are willing to go to extremes to accomplish their goals. The most notable commonality, is simply that they are both the best at what they do. Even the Penguin, while an admittedly lesser villain in the Batman rogues gallery, reflects Batman in that he is a rich heir who turned to crime while Batman was a rich heir who decided to fight crime.

Batman's rogues gallery retains the honor of being the best in comics for one simple reason: They all, to one extent or another, reflect him or a faucet of him. All of the best villains, from the ones as old as the Joker to newer villains like Bane, are great villains because they have varying commonalities with a great hero, while at the same time being perfect foils to him. As the villain in Unbreakable said, "In the comic you know how you can tell who the arch villain is going to be? He's the exact opposite of the hero!" In a similar vein, the best villains, not just the best Batman villains, but the best villains everywhere, have to be the total opposite of the hero, but still have something in common in him in order to be able to have any sort of dynamic with them. Whether the link is in motivation, back story, or methodology, where you have this principal, you generally have a great villain. And having a great villain is the key to having a great story.

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