Batman would be incomplete without his villains. And it is safe to say that Batman’s villains are the most iconic in superhero history. What makes them so is their humane arc, one that allows them to connect to us and vice versa. Using superpowers to ruin the world is impossible, but doing the same thing via manipulation is doable. Be it Bane or Scarecrow or the Joker or Riddler, Batman’s enemies have given him, as well as society, a tough fight; one that disregards superpowers and leans on the powers of the mind and the body. Not all of Batman’s villains have received positive reviews from his fans, but the ones we mentioned above have done justice to their comic counterparts, sometimes even more than in the comics.
The same happens in Matt Reeves’ “The Batman,” where our protagonist, Bruce Wayne, faces the horrors of his past while trying to make sense of his present. We have Edward Nashton, aka the Riddler. We also have Carmine Falcone, and Oswald, Cobblepot, aka the Penguin. Each of these characters goes beyond their face value and serves as the rightful antagonist for a protagonist as dark and deep as Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. It’s not chaos but a motive behind the villainous intent. Let us talk about these characters one at a time.
To say that “The Batman” offers a darker take on the Riddler than his previous iterations would be an understatement. He is not a dramatic trickster with question marks all over his suit. Here, he is a symbol of the most sinister criminal, reimagined to suit the theme and tone of present times aptly. He may not look like the version from the comics, but he feels the same, not just in tricks but also in his condescending behavior. His traps are deadlier, his plans are macabre, and his love for show corresponds to the present reign of social media. And with Batman’s grounded arc, the violent tension between the Riddler and him is undeniably tangible. Despite having little shared screen time, the fact that they are on par with one another is evident.
Both the Riddler and Batman are orphans, connected via Thomas Wayne. This is what makes Paul Dano’s Riddler a perfect antagonist for Pattinson’s Batman. What makes him even more apt is that while Batman is targeted toward criminals to bring justice to Gotham, the Riddler is targeted towards those who are supposed to bring justice to Gotham but don’t. He aims to expose the corruption that is feeding upon Gotham. Perhaps this is what makes him garner followers too, and at some point, we, too, feel like he is doing the right thing. Punishing those responsible is needed, especially those who are entrusted with powers to help society grow. But his means of punishment are wrong. Moreover, his aim for vengeance stems from the corrupt roots of his want for personal revenge rather than saving Gotham, which thus nullifies him as someone trying to do good. He doesn’t care about justice but only wants to hurt the very people who he thinks hurt him and others like him, no matter what.
What makes Matt Reeves’ Riddler a worthy antagonist for Batman is also the violent way in which the Riddler uses Batman’s weapons of vengeance and fear against him. Be it the mayor, the DA, or Bruce himself; vengeance is made clear by means of the puzzles that Bruce solves, each of them revealing the crimes that “these civilized” elites of Gotham society committed. On the other hand, the very method of execution of those responsible is clearly to imbibe fear into those corrupt who might even be thinking that they are next in line. That sounds like Batman, right?
Batman was never a target for him, and neither did he want to find out his real identity. All that Riddler wanted was to clean up the “cesspool” people call Gotham, and he was no less than a technology freak with misguided ideals, plotting attacks online and killing people, desperately wanting attention. It does sound familiar for the present times, doesn’t it?
Falcone is the crime lord of Gotham who has his hands in every pie. Almost every crime in Gotham City can be traced back to him. Perhaps this is what makes him more of a villain to Batman than the Riddler. Had it not been for the Riddler, Batman wouldn’t have found out about the rats in the first place. And even if he could, it would take him a lot of time, at least more time than Riddler. The Riddler aimed to unmask the corrupt people, the same corrupted people who had given in to Falcone’s influence. We have to hand it to Matt Reeves for exploring the corruption that has reached greater depths than those in previous Batman films. And at the top of all the corruption sits the one who makes the most profit out of it, i.e., Carmine Falcone.
Falcone gives Gotham a more realistic arc. While someone like Riddler is rare, Falcone can be found in every sphere of society. There is always someone who ensures that power remains with him by keeping the police, the politicians, and even the city’s mayor in his pocket. And we also come to know that Thomas Wayne, too, was under his influence and contacted him when needed, a clear sign of his power. And he was the one responsible for Selina Kyle’s traumatic past.
What makes Falcone’s character interesting is the fact that he is proof that someone with power is tough, even for Batman to bring down. This is another way in which Matt Reeves makes Batman more human in his dealings with criminals. Punishment needs proof, and if there isn’t any proof, not even Batman can harm Falcone. Ultimately, it is the Riddler who shoots Falcone, and this indeed comes as vengeance for Selina and perhaps even Bruce himself (since he recently found out that Falcone was the one who got his parents killed).
Matt Reeves’ Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin, played by versatile Colin Farrell, does lack the iconic hat, monocle, and umbrella of his comic counterpart, but the spirit is the same. He is not a villain in this film but does claim his position as one of the prominent players in Gotham’s underworld. His loathsomeness is divided between the nature of his job and his behavior as a street thug. Even Batman knows what Penguin is capable of and thus doesn’t take him that seriously. He only uses him because he has a lot of information about everything illegal.
Throughout the film, Cobblepot acts as Falcone’s right-hand man and with Falcone dead at the end of the film, Cobblepot does have a winning streak at becoming the new crime boss of Gotham. And once this happens, we will probably have a Penguin who is more dangerous in his intentions and closer to his dark comic arc.
We get only a glimpse of the clown prince of crime at the very end of the film. As expected, the Joker, who now has the Riddler at his disposal in Arkham Asylum, will manipulate him in every way he can. With Edward already lost and in pain, his vulnerability allows the Joker to mold him in any way he wants to. And what better way to do this than by being a “friend”? Christopher Nolan already showed how the Joker could turn even the best of human beings into villains. And with Reeves proving how grounded his Batman is, the Joker’s “comeback story” is bound to bring Batman face to face with his most vulnerable side.
If there is a sequel to “The Batman,” it will probably have the Riddler teaming up with the Joker. Chaos and puzzles do seem to contradict each other, as the former has no set of rules and is utter mayhem, whereas the latter has only one solution to each. Both are equally tough to handle, and it is reasonable to say that Batman’s limits will be put to the test. But from the deleted scene, it is clear that Batman does know about the Joker and has probably visited him earlier to get more info on other criminals, this time it being about the Riddler. So what remains to be seen is whether we will get a recap of the “anniversary” of Batman and Joker, which basically means their first encounter with each other. Also, it might just be that Joker uses the Riddler to find out more about Gotham’s situation, only to give shape to his chaos all over again.
Keeping in mind just how grounded Matt Reeves’ Batman is, the antagonists are aptly molded. They add to the theme of the film, and their traits, though unlike in the comics, do serve perfectly in showcasing a world that is so much like our own.