Batman has the best rogues gallery in comic book history. Spider-Man is a very close second, but the level of penetration the Gotham City ne'er-(or perhaps ra're)-do-wells have managed to achieve within the popular cultural consciousness is second to none. In the upcoming Batman: Year One animated film, the focus is entirely on the Caped Crusader and Jim Gordon's rise to commissioner status and personal life meltdown. In the upcoming Batman: Arkham CIty video game, these crazy villains are going to be all over the place. So let's do a quick rundown of the top five villains Batman's ever faced.
5. THE PENGUIN
What's that you say? Oswald Cobblepot? Sure, he's famous, but what about R'as Al-Ghul? What about Bane? To that, my friends, I say "Burgess Meredith." To that, my friends, I also say "read Penguin: Pain and Prejudice #1." Without the former, there would be absolutely no way to make Dick Cheney remotely humorous. Without the latter, it would be a pretty sorry DCnU for the classic Batvillains. Just… don't look at the Riddler. But what the DC reboot isn't doing for every other one of Gotham City's malcontents it's doing in spades for the Penguin. It creates an incredibly ominous tension, based on the absolutely merciless childhood Oswald suffered through translating via money and power into a cold and ruthless wrath unleashed on anyone who dares inflict even the slightest indignity on his person. Normally,the general goofiness of his past portrayals might have Oswald floundering into the bottom five of the top ten list, but Gregg Hurwitz has done an amazing job in revitalizing the Penguin in just one issue. It's that good.
4. THE RIDDLER
We love Frank Gorshin, and we tolerate Jim Carrey, but the bright green Matthew Lesko pajamas aren't really what makes the Riddler great. It's when he classes himself up with the green suit and the slick bowler hat, strutting about with the question-mark cane and pitting his considerable intellectual skills against the Caped Crusader's mental might that gives him his cool. He's dapper. He's slick. He's verbally agile and endlessly creative. Sure, he can be a bit of a nebbish dweeb, but underestimate him at your peril. He'll gladly lull you into a false sense of security by letting your derision go unchecked – hell, he might even head-fake towards reformation. But Edward Nygma is a dangerous man, and he gets nasty when you don't play his game. But really, the look is just snazzy. We don't know what the hell they're doing with him in the New 52. A green question-mark shaped mohawk? With a bunch of little question-marks drawn all over his scalp? How can DC not even remotely get its own character?
If he was still just Harvey Dent, he might be higher on the list. One of Batman's only friends gaming the system from the inside as Gotham City's District Attorney – breaking the rules just like Batman does, but in more morally dubious ways that could even require a coin flip to decide. That would be highly interesting. You could even give him a less egregious facial scarring on one side, too, to make him a bit more believable. As it is, he's Two-Face, who does have his cool moments. Long debates with himself about huge concepts like justice, morality, legality and murder are fun to watch, and that grotesque look is really damn striking, even if a guy with no skin on his face like that would be getting awful infections constantly. Two-Face is the gimmick, but Harvey Dent is where the real story is – the tragic fall of a white knight. Aaron Eckhart proved that by making us dread the arrival of Two-Face in The Dark Knight because he'd made Harvey Dent such a fantastic and compelling hero you didn't want to see fail. Let's just ignore Tommy Lee Jones.
2. THE JOKER
I can hear the outcry as I write this – HOW IS HE NOT NUMBER ONE?! HOW DARE YOU, SIR! Listen, I know the Clown Prince of Crime is awesome. I know he's a chaotic force of nature dedicated not as much to his own criminal career as he is to messing with Batman's head. I know Heath Ledger was amazing in The Dark Knight. I know Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero were each quite the hoot. I know he's built up as Batman's opposite number, a dark reflection of his own tactics turned against him to make him question everything he does in his mission to fight crime. But truth be told, he's a little played out at this point. Alan Moore gave us about all the insight we're ever going to get into the Joker with The Killing Joke, and any more would likely irrevocably shift the cat-and-mouse dynamic that so many people have grown to enjoy. More often than not, Joker stories today seem to be about how creatively and gruesomely he can murder people, and that just threatens to make him a one-note slasher-movie villain.
How did Catwoman manage to beat out the Joker for the top spot? Simple. For as much as the clown dedicates his life to messing with Batman's mind, nobody in the DC universe gets under Bruce Wayne's skin like Selina Kyle. Bruce Wayne being the operative name here. She's the only one that has managed to involve herself in both sides of the Caped Crusader's life, and that doubles her effectiveness at muddling his head. Unless you're a slash-fiction writer, there's no way Batman is ever going to consider dating and maybe marrying the Joker. She breaks the law, but she's not a killer, testing Batman's commitment to stopping crime, forcing him to prioritize. She'll save his life, forcing him to owe her favors and look the other way, testing that dedication even more. She's got heart and a self-sacrificing streak that occasionally flares up enough that some might consider her a hero, but she'll never follow the Batman's rules. She'll fight crime with the best of them, but she'll also shoot creeps like Black Mask square in the face. She wants Bruce Wayne as much as he wants her, but she relentlessly teases him on that to the point where he can't think straight, and that's ten times more effective than any Joker gas bomb, because it's real. It's legitimate emotion he can't just brush aside. She encompasses all the gray in the world of a man who works in black and white terms.
So there you go. The five greatest Batman villains of all time. Just please, don't think about Halle Berry.