It has long been held that Batman has one of the greatest rogue’s galleries of any comic book super hero. This is certainly what the game Arkham Asylum focused on with its boss fights and patient interviews (not to mention a good sprinkling of cameos), and for good reason – the source material is top notch. This isn’t just because of any one amazing and original character, though the Joker certainly carries his weight. I’ve come up with a list of more general themes within the bat pantheon that elevate it above all others.
Corruption: It’s not all about lunatics with superpowers, or even guys who like to play dress-up. Gotham’s crime bosses range from costumed psychopaths like Two Face and the Penguin to more mundane malcontents like Maroni and Falcone. This is an important facet of Batman’s adversaries because it illuminates not just a few standout criminals but a widespread corruption throughout the city. For all his training Batman is just one man, and the extensive criminal underworld of Gotham represents some truly staggering odds for him to be facing. He is constantly confronted with the problem of only being able to be in one place at one time when terrible things are happening all over the city – it’s why he takes on sidekicks like Robin and Batgirl, and it’s why he clings to Dent so strongly in The Dark Knight. Batman isn’t just fighting supervillains, he’s trying to make his city a safe place to live, and Gotham doesn’t make things easy for him.
Strength: This isn’t to say that Batman doesn’t face off against some fantastic heavy hitters, though. Plenty of his opponents, such as Poison Ivy and Clayface, actually do have superpowers, and the fact that a normal human confronts them on a daily basis and prevails contributes to his likability and mystique. He even helps the Justice League with its superhuman adversaries, and recently in the DC universe killed Darkseid, who is ostensibly a living god. Batman is like a statement on the unbridled potential of man: the incredible feats we are capable of when we train our bodies and minds to the peak of expertise. It’s much the same reason I feel we revere professional athletes so (and revile those who abuse steroids) – it’s not just that they are better than the competition, it’s that they elevate their sports and walk a plane of skill that most of us will never scratch the surface of. And they do this through their own agency and with tremendous sacrifice, spending untold hours at the grindstone. Batman is awesome, but he isn’t naturally so (at least, it isn’t completely natural). He has to work at it to the exclusion of everything else in his life, giving up love, family, and any sort of diversion. Maybe it’s an obsession, but he can beat the spandex off people who can throw big rigs around like toy cars, so yeah. Enough said.
Psychopathy: But enough about what the villains say about the hero. Batman has a tremendous number of adversaries who are diagnosed as criminally insane, and it’s this divergence that makes them interesting all on their own. While they might not paint a very flattering picture of abnormal psychological behavior (in reality, an incredibly small percentage of those suffering from mental disorders pose any threat to others), they do present a range of motives refreshingly different from the usual money / power / women trifecta. Some, like the Riddler, just want to prove that they’re smarter than the Detective, while others like the Joker are just in it for the thrill of the “game.” Additionally, their obsessions lead to great and eccentric character designs and go a certain way toward explaining why a person might don a Halloween costume and try to blow up a clock tower. A good number of these villains are also shown to meet their breaking points at the hands of an immoral business or soul-crushingly tedious office environment, which makes them queerly relatable and serves as a fairly relevant (if a bit simplistic) critique of our society.
Psychological Warfare: However, though they tend to be obsessive deviants, they aren’t stupid. On the contrary, the term “genius level IQ” gets thrown around a fair bit in character bios. Perhaps because of this, Batman’s villains aren’t content with simply trying to kill him; rather they often attempt to attack him mentally. The Scarecrow and Mad Hatter are two who rely on this tactic most heavily, using fear gas and mind control respectively to confront Batman with his greatest nightmares and deepest desires, but even the Joker likes to mess with our favorite hero’s head. It’s a more subtle struggle, and one in which Batman is tested on levels he isn’t quite as prepared for. It’s also a great engine for drama, forcing him to confront his greatest failings, wonder if he’s doing more harm than good, resist temptation to abandon the cowl or finally kill his nemesis, and so on. Superheroes are at their most relatable, and their stories at their best, when they have to deal with personal failings or tragedies, and having villains who know how to use these vulnerabilities against him makes Batman’s rogue’s gallery among the most terrible.
So that’s why I love Batman villains. Most of my knowledge comes from the 90’s animated series, though, so I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve overlooked that make them great. If you have anything to add to the list, or if you just want to call me an uncultured bat-plebian, sound off in the comments below.