In a world increasingly filled with superheroes—in comic books, on movie screens—the stakes continue to be raised. Superhuman powers define our heroes and many of the villains come from outer space and other universes. Since the invention of comic books, there’s always been a desire to continually up the ante. In a medium that allows for infinite imagination and world-building, it was inevitable that superhero comics would become these grand cosmic events.
And then there’s Batman, the Caped Crusader who is on a never-ending mission to rid Gotham City of crime. He is Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego and, although his wealth gives him unlimited access to technology and a wide array of gadgets, Batman is very much human. Unlike his counterpart Superman, Batman is without superpowers. His stories are the most grounded superhero tales in comic book history. The protector of his city, Batman has made a vow to protect Gotham from the same evil which resulted in the tragic murder of his parents.
On the surface, Batman’s story feels small. But it is also what makes it one-of-a-kind because it is less about physically overpowering the villains that populate Gotham, and more about examining the philosophical differences between Batman and the long list of bad guys who disagree with his particular brand of justice. The Batman story, at its essence, is a psychological thriller. Bruce Wayne’s entire goal is to create absolute order but he is swept into a world of chaos by his villains. This juxtaposition of order and chaos is why Batman has the best rogues gallery of any superhero.
The Dark Knight has always been the most fascinating superhero to me because his villains reflect Bruce Wayne in certain ways, just enough to make you not root for them but still understand that they are like choose your own adventure versions of the Caped Crusader. Consider Two-Face. Harvey Dent was once a district attorney who held similar beliefs as Wayne before his own tragic incident left his face deformed and gave birth to a literal two-faced persona.
Dent came to see the world through a more nihilistic purview, no longer believing in free will and the ability to become an agent of change. Whereas Batman believes he can impart his own moral beliefs on an entire city, Two-Face is his opposite, a man who flips a coin because he believes in chance and fate. Both beliefs were born out of a tragic incident. It landed them on opposite sides of the coin.
Run through Batman’s list of villains and you can find the similarities and contrasts of what makes them bizarro-world versions of Batman. The Riddler has Batman’s intelligence but chooses to use it for his own ulterior motives. To some, Batman’s own pursuit to create an idealistic version of Gotham is just as narcissistic and obsessive. Again, two sides of the coin. The Penguin is another alternate version of Batman. Bruce Wayne is smart, handsome and the face of Wayne Enterprises. The Penguin is short, obese, not the most flattering to look at, and an outcast in the rich, debutante Cobblepot family. He is the criminal equivalent of Wayne. Scarecrow is Batman’s psychological nemesis, a human manifestation of his own fears. The list goes on.
No discussion of villains in Batman’s universe would be complete without the most iconic villain of them all: the Joker. Look past the freakish clown makeup, the acid-spraying lapel flowers, and the razor-tipped playing cards, and what is the scariest thing about the Joker? It is his personality and his undying belief in being an agent of chaos. He is exactly what Batman fears and the opposite of his philosophical beliefs. The Joker wants to create a world without order. He is obsessed with imparting his own beliefs on the entire world and will destroy anything in his path to accomplish that end goal. In that way, the Joker is just like Batman, but different.
The Joker once famously told Batman: “We are destined to do this forever.” There is truth in those words. Philosophical differences are never truly settled. It’s why the stories in the Batman universe can be told again and again in so many different ways. Everyone in Gotham holds a different worldview, and they are all juxtaposed against Batman’s own take of morality and order in the world.
Superhero comics can often pit good versus evil, giving us another generic story of right and wrong. Batman taught me something different, though. It taught me something real. It taught me that the world is not black and white, and that good and evil sometimes are a matter of circumstance. It’s why Batman has the best villains and why Batman continues to be the most interesting superhero of our time.