If you were asked to create a list of iconic Batman villains, then chances are you could reel off a collection of characters without much hesitation. Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Harley Quinn, Two-Face, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Bane, Mad Hatter and so on.
I believe it is fair to say that most people would place the Joker at the top of that list – because he is arguably the most famous Bat-foe – but I don’t think anyone would find it difficult to name at least ten villains. Why? Because the Batman villains have become so ingrained in pop culture.
The ’60s Batman television show played a huge part in making Batman’s villains so recognisable, by bringing a succession of characters into peoples’ homes on a weekly basis. From there, the live-action Batman movies took over, connecting those iconic characters with some of the biggest stars of the day (Jack Nicholson as Joker, Jim Carrey as the Riddler etc).
So far, the Joker has edged his way out amongst his peers, by becoming a role that often overshadows the film he is in. Nicholson stole the show when he played Joker in Batman (1989), as did Heath Ledger when he took on the part for The Dark Knight (2008).
Jared Leto’s turn as the Clown Prince of Crime might not have been as well received in Suicide Squad (2016), but there’s no denying his role was one of the most talked about aspects of the film – and he was barely in it.
And then there’s Joaquin Phoenix, who knocked it out of the park when he played Arthur Fleck in Joker (2019). Teaming with director Todd Phillips, the pair managed to take the Joker to a whole new level and they made over $1 billion in the process.
2019’s Joker made two things very clear:
- The Joker is popular enough to front his own film and never needs to be a supporting character again.
- All future Joker films can tell different tales, with different actors, and they don’t have to fit in with any previous or current continuity.
And if the Joker can do this, then so can any other Batman villain, because they are all such rich, diverse, interesting characters.
Harley Quinn is taking the first steps towards Joker stardom. She has always been a fan-favourite character, ever since she made her debut in Batman: The Animated Series, but thanks to her scene-stealing appearance in Suicide Squad, her profile has risen considerably.
Before Suicide Squad, Quinn was big in the geek-sphere, but not well-known by non-comic book/genre fans. She is know far more recognisable, which led to the 2020 follow-up movie, Birds of Prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn).
But while Harley is positioned as a key focus of the film, with promotional material aimed squarely at Margot Robbie’s take on Quinn, the film is still an ensemble piece. It might carry a subtitle that name checks Harl, but it is still named Birds of Prey on all the posters.
Harley is not quite at solo status yet, but the character is making the right moves towards Joker appeal. This may come with Margot Robbie in the driving seat, but it’s likely to come via a succession of different Quinns, all played by a variety of talent over the coming years.
And there really is no reason why Warner Bros./DC Entertainment can’t apply this same approach to other Batman villains. Audiences are familiar with enough Batman villains now to start accepting them as solo stars – because all of the leg-work has already been done to make them recognisable.
Moving forward, who doesn’t want to watch a movie that places the spotlight on Two-Face or Scarecrow? Who wouldn’t be interested in seeing a Mr. Freeze film?
Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix managed to elevate Joker, with a new, captivating story and direction, and Margot Robbie is doing wonders for that Harley Quinn. I genuinely believe this same tactic can now be applied to other Batman villains to elevate them further.
Take the icons, the villains that are well-known, strip them back and give them a platform. Don’t link any of the films together as part of a shared universe, just present them as standalone tales, like Joker.
There is a wealth of characters to tap into and each villain has his or her own tale to tell. Joker has started something – I hope Warner Bros./DC Entertainment continue it with Harley and the rest of the rogues.