DC’s main Batman ongoing series gets a new creative team in July and along with them a brand new supervillain, Failsafe, who new writer Chip Zdarsky describes as Batman’s Doomsday.
Those are pretty big words, comparing Failsafe to the villain responsible for Superman’s death, but there you go. Go big or go home.
If Failsafe lives up to his billing, he still might have a hard time cracking a list of the best Batman villains of all time. After all, that list includes a who’s who of some of the most iconic comic book foes of all time, including Ra’s ah Ghul, the usually immortal Batman adversary who just met his maker with a bullet through his head.
Over 82 years the Dark Knight has had to outsmart and outfight some of the most popular and well-known villains in all of fiction, including Ra’s.
It would take Batman’s Crime Computer hours to calculate a ranking of every Batman villain ever, so for starters, here are the ten best Batman villains of all time, including a few you just might have seen on the big screen in The Batman.
Court of Owls
Batman is synonymous with his home of Gotham City, where he works tirelessly to eliminate crime and criminals from the lowest purse-snatcher all the way up to those who wish to dominate, destroy, and control the world.
And it’s the latter category, the “dominate and destroy” crowd, into which the dreaded Court of Owls falls – and unfortunately for Batman, the target of their conquest and manipulation is Gotham itself.
It’s one thing for Batman to have to face down a single supervillain, even one he has to unmask or uncover, but it’s another matter entirely to oppose a cabal of secret, generational crime bosses with an army of vicious bodyguards known as Talons.
In their eponymous debut in Batman: The Court of Owls (opens in new tab), the secret organization attempts to stop Bruce Wayne from uncovering the secret truth of their schemes by turning the very city of Gotham against Batman in a harrowing labyrinth of danger and intrigue.
Batman is known as the Caped Crusader, thanks to his fanatical one-man-war on crime. But compared to Poison Ivy, an environmental fundamentalist who believes in the sanctity of plant life and flora above all else, he’s practically casual in his hardline morals.
Poison Ivy is almost a case study of what happens when reasonable, even responsible ideas like preserving and restoring the environment are taken to such an extreme that those who champion them lose sight of the bigger picture beyond their personal mission, perhaps even hurting their own cause in the process.
Batman’s violent vigilante methods may sometimes be questionable, but Poison Ivy has often operated without regard for the harm she causes – or even with the intent of causing as much harm as possible, despite her arguably altruistic motives.
In recent years, that altruism has become a much more prominent part of her character, with Poison Ivy somewhat reforming and operating alongside her friend and occasional lover Harley Quinn, herself a former villain turned full-on hero (well, anti-hero).
The prim and proper (on the surface) Oswald Cobblepot believes himself to be every bit the deserving society darling that Bruce Wayne actually is – though rather than being the scion of one of Gotham City’s most prominent families, he’s a ruthless gangster whose gentlemanly penchant for tuxedos and gimmicked umbrellas hides his savage criminal heart.
As a diabolical mastermind and a top-tier gangster, the Penguin lashes out his bitterness at the world around him, who he blames for his inferiority complex, through much more mundanely criminal means than some of his more colorful contemporaries – his collection of trick attack umbrellas notwithstanding.
Like Bruce Wayne, Oswald Cobblepot suffers in a world he feels has left him behind – though whereas Batman takes a heroic, if an occasionally questionable approach to resolving his tragic circumstances, the Penguin has turned those feelings of trauma and rejection into a violent criminal enterprise.
Penguin appeared in the upcoming film The Batman, played by Colin Farrell, and will spin off into his own HBO Max streaming series.
Bane broke the bat. That alone puts him among the worst of the worst of Batman’s enemies.
We could almost leave it there, but it’s important to point out that what makes Bane so compelling as a villain is not just his physical advantage over Batman, but the way he embodies a harsh reflection of the rigorous discipline and personal code that allows Bruce Wayne to operate as Batman.
Like many of the most prominent of Batman’s villains, Bane takes a part of who Batman is and turns it into a weapon against him – forcing Batman to overcome even greater and more dire odds than ever before.
Some of Batman’s best villains take intrinsic aspects of his personality and methods as a hero and twist them into cracked reflections of the Dark Knight.
Case in point, Jonathan Crane AKA the Scarecrow, whose obsession with inflicting fear and understanding its causes resembles Batman’s use of intimidation and psychological manipulation against his enemies to its most extreme and destructive ends.
That relationship between Batman’s methods and Scarecrow’s crimes is explored in-depth in the film Batman Begins, in which Scarecrow is instrumental in sending Gotham into a city-wide, terror-driven riot.
Scarecrow’s biggest comic book moment, the recent Batman: Fear State (opens in new tab) story, takes a similar approach to his potential as a villain by attacking all of Gotham City with a scheme to induce traumatic fear into all the city’s citizens as a method of forcing them to in some way emotionally evolve – a twisted psychiatric experiment on a massive scale.
Batman: Fear State ultimately resulted in Batman’s new status quo, in which Bruce Wayne has lost his fortune and struggled to maintain the mantle of Batman.
On that note, Batman’s penchant for intimidation is hardly the only tool in his utility belt. He’s called the ‘Dark Knight Detective’ for a reason – because of his unparalleled deductive powers and his almost preternatural ability to reason through lateral thinking.
And the villain that most challenges that concept is the Riddler, who, true to his name, loves to bait Batman into his schemes through oblique, sometimes deadly riddles that are meant to reveal the true nature of his crimes.
While many of Batman’s top villains are more than capable of challenging him on a physical level, there’s no one who pushes his mental faculties to their limits like the Riddler, who has often transcended the simplicity of his gimmick to threaten all of Gotham City, as in the story Batman: Zero Year (opens in new tab).
Riddler appeared in a very different incarnation from his classic comic book version in the film The Batman, played by Paul Dano, who will also write a comic about his movie Riddler’s origin story.
Bruce Wayne’s double life as Batman has often been framed as a compulsive drive for justice, a quest he couldn’t abandon if he wanted to. But even Batman can ‘turn it off’ from time to time, and hide his vigilante career behind the mask of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.
Not so for Two-Face, the all-too-literal nickname for former Gotham district attorney (and one-time close friend of Bruce Wayne) Harvey Dent, who bears unspeakably horrific scars over one side of his body due to an acid attack by a gangster he once tried to convict.
Driven to a mad obsession with duality and chance by his accident, Harvey embraces the mantle of Two-Face, one of the most fearsome gangsters of Gotham’s underworld whose violent streak can only be curtailed if a flip of his two-headed coin, on which he sometimes bases nearly all his decisions, lands in his intended victim’s favor.
Like Batman, Two-Face is the product of a corrupt justice system that often fails to protect the citizens of Gotham. But whereas Batman tries to correct that imbalance through rigorous morality, Two-Face gives everything over to chance, embracing the idea that life is merely a series of events with no one pulling fate’s strings.
Many people know Catwoman as less of a villain and more of an ally to Batman or even something of a hero in her own right. But for decades, despite her flirtations with the Dark Knight, she was ultimately Gotham’s greatest femme fatale and one of the most well-known members of his rogue’s gallery.
Over the years, though Bruce Wayne and Batman alike have tried to reform Selina Kyle into using her skills and identity as Catwoman to be a hero, she’s almost always backslid into some kind of criminality – often in the pursuit of some kind of greater good, despite her methods – leaving her a regular antagonist for Batman even when she’s not an out-and-out villain.
And though she’s as much a lead character and solo star as Batman these days, Catwoman’s relationship with Batman and their often complicated ebbs and flows have kept them intrinsically bound together, with one of their most defining chapters coming when Selina Kyle left Bruce Wayne at the altar, ending what had become an almost straightforward romantic relationship and once again throwing Batman’s life into disarray.
A new movie Catwoman, played by Zoe Kravitz, made her debut in the film The Batman, which explores her relationship with the Caped Crusader.
Ra’s al Ghul
Batman’s quest is all about purging Gotham City of the kind of violent crime that shattered his own youth with the murder of his parents. But his nemesis Ra’s al Ghul, the immortal leader of the League of Assassins, takes that quest even farther – turning it into an obsession with guiding the morality of global society and the Earth’s environment itself.
With a lifespan of centuries, owing to the magic of the life-restoring Lazarus Pit which can raise the dead, Ra’s al Ghul has often masterminded world-spanning schemes to violently restore what he believes is the natural equilibrium of humanity.
In that quest, he’s often attempted to recruit Batman to his cause, even allowing his daughter Talia to fall in love with the Dark Knight and have his child, the current Robin, Damian Wayne.
But Batman has never cowed to Ra’s al Ghul’s manipulations, opposing the megalomaniacal villain at every turn – even when it has cost him dearly on a personal level.
Ra’s al Ghul’s legacy is at the heart of the current ‘Shadow War’ crossover event.
The real joke would be any other character making the grade as the best Batman villain of all time.
At this point, the dichotomy between the Joker as the Clown Prince of Crime and Batman as the Dark Knight Detective has become a crucial part of both characters’ personalities, along with holding strong as the most major theme explored between the two characters in other media.
But Joker’s appeal goes far beyond his adversarial history with Batman. In fact, he’s become a leading man himself in both comics and movies in recent years, with almost as many fans (and solo comic titles) as the Caped Crusader himself.
There’s just something captivating – and kinda terrifying – about a villain who is the ultimate agent of chaos, an amoral and unpredictable predator who is all too willing to visit his own existential madness on the world around him at a moment’s notice.
Batman and even some of his villains star in numerous titles every month from DC, which is why we’ve assembled this handy guide to all the new Batman comics scheduled for release in 2022 and beyond.