There aren’t many superheroes with villains as iconic as the heroes themselves. If they’re lucky, they might have one – like Superman and Lex Luthor – but Batman has legions of well-known foes. His rogues gallery is rivaled perhaps only by Spider-Man’s.
The Caped Crusader has also proven to be one of the most popular superheroes at the multiplex, with audiences demanding stories about Bruce Wayne more than any other masked vigilante, so fans have had the pleasure of seeing a lot of those villains depicted on the big screen (sometimes the same character played by multiple actors). So, here are The 5 Best (And 5 Worst) On-Screen Portrayals Of Batman Villains.
10 Best: Jack Nicholson as the Joker
Since Heath Ledger became the Joker to beat, Jack Nicholson’s version has been mostly forgotten about. But The Shining star did a fine job with the role of the Clown Prince of Crime (heck, the guy who played Jack Torrance sure knows how to play a maniac). Moments like laughing hysterically at the sight of his newly bleached skin have become iconic, and hold up even after the superhero movie market has become saturated and then some.
Plus, Nicholson’s version of the Joker brought his relationship with Batman more full-circle by giving him a real name and a backstory that included being the guy who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents.
9 Worst: Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze
Originally, Patrick Stewart was considered for the role of Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin before director Joel Schumacher (who has since apologized for the film) decided he should be buff and cast Arnold Schwarzenegger. Perhaps Stewart would’ve brought an interesting nuance to the character, despite the shamefully limited material offered by the script, and it might’ve been a different story.
Instead, Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze is just a corny one-liner delivery machine with a half-baked plan to freeze everyone on Earth and turn them into plants with Poison Ivy’s help (which is possibly the most forced way of teaming up two supervillains with a common goal ever conceived).
8 Best: Danny DeVito as the Penguin
It’s surprising that Danny DeVito wasn’t Tim Burton’s first choice to play the Penguin, because let’s face it: he looks exactly like Oswald Cobblepot. He also has the sly comic chops and charismatic performance style to fit right into the sumptuous, alluring gothic visual style of Burton’s sequel, which was arguably even gloomier and darker than the first one.
The trick of any Batman movie is taking a silly character like a criminal mastermind who manipulates penguins to do his bidding and making them feel like real people (or, at the very least, more than ridiculous caricatures), and that’s exactly what Danny DeVito did with this character.
7 Worst: Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy
Uma Thurman proved in Pulp Fiction that she could play a seductive, mysterious character who possibly couldn’t be trusted, so it made sense to cast her as Poison Ivy, and in anyone else’s movie, she probably could’ve turned out a terrific take on the role. Unfortunately, with Joel Schumacher at the helm, there was no chance of that.
What we got was a subplot that grated on fans in which Chris O’Donnell’s Robin became infatuated with her and eventually resisted her charms by kissing her venom-filled lips with a rubber mouth. It was one of the dreadful Bat-gadgets introduced in that movie, like the Dark Knight’s bulletproof codpiece.
6 Best: Jim Carrey as the Riddler
Coming off three star-making box office smashes in 1994 (the first, and arguably still the best, year of his acting career), Jim Carrey took on the villainous role of the Riddler in Batman Forever. He played the Riddler as a Jim Carrey character – we all know the type – but fortunately, that was exactly what the part needed.
His bright red hair and green spandex suit wouldn’t fly today in a superhero movie climate where comic book characters’ costumes are redesigned to look like military gear with practical usage for all the iconography, but in terms of performance, Jim Carrey nailed the Riddler.
5 Worst: Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face
The influence of Jim Carrey’s rubber-faced overacting can be seen in Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Two-Face in Batman Forever. It’s like he caught slapstick fever whenever he was on the set with Carrey.
That kind of absurd over-the-top acting works for Carrey – he practically wrote the book on it – and the character of the Riddler, but it doesn’t suit Jones (whose gruff personality makes subtler acting work better for him) or the criminally insane and unpredictable character of Two-Face. In the end, his habit of flipping a coin to make decisions becomes his fatal downfall, which is textbook screenwriting, but also pretty lame.
4 Best: Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman
Anne Hathaway played a great Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, but she wasn’t technically a villain in that movie. Plus, her Selina Kyle wasn’t as great as Michelle Pfeiffer’s incarnation from Batman Returns. Pfeiffer nailed the character, playing her exactly as she’s depicted in the comics, focusing on everything that makes her a great character: she’s the only one who can outsmart the Bat, and the only one who can manipulate him.
She’s always one step ahead of Batman, and one step ahead the villain she’s colluding with, playing both sides. It’s a touch character to pull off, but Pfeiffer had it down.
3 Worst: Jared Leto as the Joker
Since Jared Leto played the Joker in Suicide Squad, a sort of standalone, he almost didn’t qualify for entry on this list (that’s why Halle Berry’s Catwoman is nowhere to be seen; she technically wasn’t a Batman villain, or Catwoman, really, with the name Patience Phillips) – but thanks to Batfleck’s cameo, Leto technically played the Joker as a Batman villain.
The problem with Leto’s Joker is that he wasn’t asking himself what his interpretation of the character was; he was simply asking himself how he could play it differently from how Heath Ledger played it, since comparisons would inevitably be drawn. His Joker didn’t come from his soul, as Joaquin Phoenix’s take is shaking up to be. Plus, with the tattoos and the shiny teeth, he was trying too hard to be a “millennial” Joker. And he didn’t even stand for chaos – he perfectly arranged his guns on the floor.
2 Best: Heath Ledger as the Joker
Heath Ledger didn’t just do a good job of playing a comic book villain in a movie – he gave one of the greatest performances ever captured on film. He embodied the Joker and made him feel like a real human being with a very disturbed mind and a penchant for anarchism.
His Joker is endlessly watchable, as charming as he is terrifying, and even reportedly struck genuine fear into the actors he shared scenes with. It’s no wonder that he went on to win an (unfortunately posthumous) Academy Award for this intense performance; he stole a Batman movie from Batman.
1 Worst: Robert Swenson as Bane
While Tom Hardy would eventually do the Bane character justice on the big screen (albeit suffering from having to follow up Heath Ledger’s Joker and being incomprehensible under that mask), his film debut left a lot to be desired. In fact, that’s putting it lightly – it left everything to be desired. This might be the worst translation of a supervillain to the screen in history (yes, worse than the Trevor Slattery/Mandarin fake-out).
The great thing about Bane in the comics – and in Tom Hardy’s version – is that he’s not just a physical match for Batman; he’s an intellectual match, too. The version played by Robert Swenson in Batman & Robin is just a grunting mammoth who is unable to string together a sentence and knows nothing beyond smashing stuff.