Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy peaked too early.1 The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, opened last weekend after much anticipation.2 His previous chapter, The Dark Knight, was a tough, maybe even impossible, act to follow. Heath Ledger’s Joker was more of a force of nature than a movie character.
The Joker’s violence was the worst kind of wrongdoing – he did wrong not as a means to seek something he wanted (like a thief trying to get money), but as an end in itself (like a thief stealing just to be stealing, and throwing the money away after he took it).3 Therein lay the perverse, cathartic delight in watching him – he was nasty without any admixture of purpose, profit or plan. It was violence without any reason at all. Ledger’s Joker was a primal expression of evil and chaos that baffled audiences, even while he entertained them.
There was no way Nolan could pit Batman against someone more evil than the Joker in the third movie. When he proposed to try it with Bane as the main villain, I was more than a little suspicious. Bane’s ‘roided up foreign mercenary promised to be a nasty piece of work, but unlike the Joker’s superhuman force of chaos Bane seemed eminently human.
After watching DK Rises, I must say that this impression was pretty much accurate. Throughout the movie, Bane offers justification of his well-orchestrated terrorism by reference to a vague political agenda. Bane hardly even distinguishes himself from the world of real life villains who justify violence with vague political agendas, much less standing out among the menagerie of Batman baddies.
I can’t deny that Nolan has put together a great action movie, complete with threat of nuclear annihilation. And I have even caught myself using Bane’s creepy voice (think of a highly auto-tuned Sean Connery) to talk to myself. But DK Rises was bit of a let-down in comparison to The Dark Knight.
So here I offer my own humble foray into the “What if” game. I propose the following five villains would have been better starting points for Nolan to try to match his previous accomplishment.
5. Poison Ivy – The first two movies had approximately 1.5 female characters between the both of them. Could a villainess best Batman and help balance that equation? Maybe, but it turns out the larger Batman universe doesn’t have many female options, either. Yes, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) is already in the movie, but she is more of an anti-hero than a pure villain anyway. That leaves Poison Ivy, whose eco-terrorist motivations would be very relevant and whose actress selection seems to me a no-brainer.
Played by: Helena Bonham Carter
Primal Motivation: Revenge of the environment
4. Two Face – I know, this one would require rewriting not just one, but two movies (and that’s the only reason I did not put him much, much higher). But I really was surprised when they polished off Aaron Eckhardt’s Two Face so shortly after they introduced him. Nothing could have been more natural for a comic book movie than to create a character like that and let him step into his own in the sequel. And best of all, he wouldn’t have to top the Joker since he was the ultimate conclusion of his nihilism. After all, at least the Joker wanted chaos, but Two Face doesn’t seem to want anything, he leaves all the decisions up to his coin. There’s nothing so tense as seeing the purposelessness of violence played out in a coin toss.
Played by: Aaron Eckhardt
Primal Motivation: Random Chance
3. The Riddler – The trick with the Riddler would be distinguishing his brand of fun-loving megolomania from the Joker’s. Leotard-wearing Jim Carreys need not apply. I’m thinking less emphasis on the cackling and more emphasis on the twisted use of puzzles to play mind games with Batman. Even more chilling, make him more of a disembodied intellect proposing life-threatening Sodukus one after another until we wonder if Batman can punch his way out of this problem.
Played by: Johnny Depp
Primal Motivation: Intelligence Without Humanity
2. Professor Hugo Strange – I am a philosopher by training, and nothing is more scary to a philosopher than the scientist who forgets that science can tell us what it is possible to do, but it cannot tell us what is right to do. (I am looking at you, John Shea…) Nobody embodies the ethics-less pursuit of science better than Hugo Strange. He offers not only the psychological insight to mess with the head of Batman/Bruce Wayne, but also all the “straight-from-the-headlines” appeal of genetic manipulation, armies of clone mutants, and super intelligent computer AIs on the rampage.
Played by: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Primal Motivation: Science Run Amok
1. Mr. Freeze – Any discussion about Batman villains who are a force of nature will eventually have to address the Batman villain who embodies a force of nature: Victor Fries. Mr. Freeze has the best backstory of any of the Batman villains. He froze his wife to preserve her from her incurable disease only to lose her when another character interferes (in certain storylines, her death is even attributed to, wait for it…Wayne Enterprises). Freeze loses the capacity for human emotion and sets out to accomplish cold-blooded revenge. The loss of a loved one both makes him a morally complex villain and also someone who could reasonably relate to Nolan’s Batman after the death of Rachel Dawes, providing delightful possibilities for plot twists.
I recognize the need to tread very carefully here because freeze guns are much more comic booky than Nolan’s Batverse. So he will definitely have to be naturalized some. But a villain who represents the death of emotion stands the best chance of any for one-upping the Joker’s hysterics.
Played by: John Malkovitch
Primal Motivation: Cold Heartlessness
So that’s my entry into the Dark Knight Rise redesign sweepstakes. I’m sure every true Batfan has a different idea.
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- Although not as early as the Star Wars prequels… Come on, you killed off a baddie named Darth Maul for someone named “Count Dooku”? That sounds more like a playground taunt than an appropriate epithet for someone deep in the ways of the dark side. ↩
- And to tragedy, which I will not touch on here – although I hope to come back to it in another piece just after the start of the school year. Regardless, let’s keep all affected in prayer. ↩
- St. Augustine was one of the first to notice how crazy this type of evil is. In his Confessions, he talks about a time when he stole just to be stealing when he was a kid. He took a bunch of grody pears from his neighbor, and he didn’t even eat them… just tossed ‘em to a bunch of pigs as soon as he could. ↩