Batman is perhaps the most adapted superhero in the world. Not in Bob Kane’s or Bill Finger’s most confident moments could they have imagined the success Batman would find when they debuted the character in Detective Comics #27 more than seven decades ago. He’s been campy, dark, animated, colorized, parodied, casted, recasted, rebooted, sequeled, and prequeled. With each iteration, his supporting cast has followed suit resulting in not just a multiverse of variation for the Dark Knight, but also for his allies and enemies. Here I rank the most iconic and essential take on each of the central Bat-cast.
Joker From ‘The Dark Knight’
Homicidal maniacs attract good talent. Jack Nicholson was a lot of people’s favorite “devil in the pale moon night” until Luke Skywalker voiced a Mista J who had room to develop over multiple seasons of ‘Batman: The Animated Series.’ He too was dethroned in the eyes of the public at large when Heath Ledger crushed the role when it escalated in ‘The Dark Knight.’ Ledger said in interviews that playing such a madman took its toll, a sentiment that Jared Leto has recently reiterated quite colorfully. We can only hope that Leto’s take has as memorable a moment as Ledger’s magic trick.
Riddler From ‘Batman: The Animated Series’
The Riddler’s move from comics to other media tends to err of the silly side. Frank Gorshin cracked himself up with his own riddles to Adam West while Jim Carrey blended Edward Nigma with his title character from ‘The Mask.’ It wasn’t until ‘The Animated Series’ did we see a man who didn’t want a life of crime as much as a life worthy of respect. A goal he could never quite grasp despite being cleverer than Batman in many ways.
Catwoman From ‘Batman Returns’
Catwoman is a villain who uses her sexuality as a weapon, and Michelle Pfeiffer nailed it without objectifying herself. She is a character of female empowerment as she sums up with “I am woman, here me roar.” Her supernatural origins as seen in ‘Batman Returns’ made her unfit for a Christopher Nolan movie, but keeping track of her nine lives was a worthy payoff.
Penguin From ‘Gotham’
‘Gotham’ is a show primarily about James Gordon, but the runaway success is Robin Lord Taylor’s portrayal of Penguin. In fact, he may have been the reason the show was renewed. He plays a low-level criminal assistant who rises to boss by simultaneously being gutless and ruthless. He lived the Gotham Dream of double crossing your way to fame and fortune.
Two-Face From ‘Batman: The Animated Series’
Harvey Dent is the primary subject matter of ‘The Dark Knight’, but it doesn’t result in a great villain until the third act. Even then Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face is overshadowed by the Joker. That’s not good, but the real reason I can’t give it up to Nolan’s vision of Two-Face is because he wasn’t even schizophrenic. ‘Gotham’s Riddler has more of a split personality. Tommy Lee Jones’s version had two personalities, but they were both nuts and enjoyed being so. In the ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ we are presented with a Harvey that is plagued with an evil identity growing inside him that is finally unleashed when Batman fails to save his friend’s face. One personality desperately wanted to be rid of the other, but, alas, the bad tended to win out. Episodes featuring Two-Face were more menacing than any other villain because of the history Bruce had with the character.
Scarecrow From ‘Batman Begins’
There is a reason Cillian Murphy was asked to appear as Dr. Jonathan Crane in each film of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. The dude is creepy. He plays Scarecrow as an ingenious doctor who comes across as a little unhinged because he is bottling up true insanity just below the surface.
Batgirl From ‘Batman’ (1966)
Modern fans tend to like our Batman dark and his villains darker, but there is space for the rest of the Bat-family to lift our spirits. The light-hearted campiness of Batman ’66 is where we find our Batgirl. She is many of us older Bat-fans’ first crush and doesn’t have much competition. I wasn’t going to pick Alicia Silverstone, after all.
Robin From ‘Batman’ (1966)
Dick Grayson is the best Robin and Burt Ward is the most iconic Dick Grayson. His legacy lives on in both nostalgia and parody, with lines like “Holy rusted metal, Batman!” coming out of later, more serious Robins. He acted as a sounding board for Adam West’s thinking-out-loud detective and occasionally chimed in with the answers himself. To top it off, he could BAM and POW with the best of them.
Alfred From ‘The Dark Knight Trilogy’
A good Alfred should never back down to Bruce Wayne while ultimately serving him. Michael Caine played the father figure perfectly. He encouraged when he needed to encourage and warned when he worried about losing the man who is essentially his son. Think of all the great lines from Nolan’s Batman series and you’ll find that many of them come from Alfred.
Commissioner Gordon From ‘The Dark Knight Trilogy’
Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ served as a beginning for Jim Gordon as well. We saw him meet the Dark Knight and deal with the moral implications of helping such a vigilante. We watch him go under cover to save the day then bargain for his family’s life with an emotional range that has me identifying Gary Oldman as the best actor of this bunch. It’s debatable, but I tend to believe that the nuance of his acting throughout the films tells us that he has deduced the dual identity of Bruce Wayne. This Gordon was no dummy.
Batman From ‘Batman’ (1989)
This was peak Burton. Before Johnny Depp, Michael Keaton was Tim Burton’s go-to along with Danny Elfman who gave Batman a theme for the ages. Keaton intimidated villains without Christian Bale’s overkill growl. He had a love interest without Val Kilmer’s blank stare. He was a detective without Adam West’s monologuing. And he wasn’t in ‘Batman & Robin.’ Keaton’s main competition has to be Kevin Conroy‘s voice which brought the most popular animated version of the character to life, but the strength of that Batman comes from his duration. Conroy could explore every facet of Batman because he had seasons to do it. Keaton inhabited both the essential Batman and the essential Bruce Wayne in just one film. Yes, he was in two, but he only needed one.