The Clown Prince of Crime necessarily represents the diametric opposite of Batman’s mission to stop random, unnecessary violence. There have been many, many incarnations of the Harlequinn of Hate over the years (and in Batman and Son Grant Morrison drew attention to this and indicated that the character deliberately reinvents himself to further manipulate Batman), but every one represents the antithesis of Batman’s quest to eliminate unnecessary violence because laughter itself is fundamentally opposed to the seriousness of his mission (and that’s part of what makes the ending of The Killing Joke so powerful). Of course for many of these villains I’m going to say that I think they are strong characters because in some way they reflect Batman to himself, but Joker is the most immediate foil to the stern, methodical nature of the World’s Greatest Detective.
Knightfall is one of the greatest Batman stories of all time, and although Bane is the chief villain, it his not his strength of appearance that make it a good story. What makes Bane a great character is that he is able to out-think, out-plan, and out-work Batman and hurt the Caped Crusader more deeply than perhaps any villain previously had. He orchestrated a breakout at Arkham because he knew it would drive Batman to the edge of his abilities and that was only phase one of his plan. While the most recent film version did try to focus on his genius tactical abilities, without the cast of villains suddenly rushing upon Batman the film lacked any sort of metric to judge just how deeply the Christopher Nolan Batman had been defeated. An hour of recovery time in a movie took a year of comics continuity during which Batman’s city was left with an unstable interim protector. Since Knightfall Bane’s appearances have been let downs: having started at the top, the character can only go down. However, when depictions attribute this to his addiction to Venom, a drug Batman himself has struggled against addiction, they tend to be more satisfying.
- Ra’s al Ghul
The Head of the Demon, the leader of the League of Assassins is a fantastic villain because he mirrors Batman’s own complete commitment to a cause. As an ecoterrorist, he will stop at nothing to make the world a better place, even if that means genocide, making him a complex form of evil. Ra’s al Ghul can be portrayed almost as an anti-hero, and I find him particularly powerful when he’s trying to convince Batman to work with him. Also, as portrayed in Mark Waid’s JLA: Tower of Babel, he’s able to use Batman’s own paranoia in order to take down almost the entirety of the Justice League, showing even further how close Batman is to his own enemies. His film portrayal is pretty neat too, the only downside being that Batman kills him (the ending of Batman Begins is so anticlimactic and pointless).
- Hugo Strange
This professor is consistently one of the most interesting Batman villains, but struggles to keep himself relevant in continuity. As a chief antagonist of Batman: Arkham City (a game about which I will perpetually sing praises), he has earned a dear place in my heart as a genius mastermind who was able to deduce Batman’s identity based on his psychological profiles. One of the earliest Batman villains, he’s used both monster men and psychology to study the Dark Knight, but he’s most interesting when his obsession with Batman is pointed to his deep envy of Batman, as in Doug Moench’s Legends of the Dark Knight run Prey.
Originally a gimmick villain, Two-Face has seen many real transformations over the years. Two-Face used to obsess over the number two, has been a chief antagonist for Robin, and represented the idea of duality. However Jeph Loeb’s Two-Face in The Long Halloween is quintessential because he represents an ultimate failure and betrayal for Batman. If Harvey Dent, District Attorney, couldn’t survive Gotham without his dark side consuming him, why does Batman think he can? One of my other favorite moments for Two-Face is in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth where Two-Face has been reformed to use a deck of cards to determine outcomes instead of a coin flip, but at the end of the story Batman helps him return to reliance on his coin, perhaps because he has to believe that if given the choice and not reduced to stupor, Dent can conquer his darker half.
As Jeph Loeb continues to be my favorite Batman author, the villain he created in-continuity is an easy choice. Hush has become prolific as a major villain since his mid-2000s origin, which is remarkably impressive. Hush’s obsession with Bruce Wayne and ability to out-think him because he knows exactly how he thinks. The bandaged face thing is a neat way to do a villain too, and the famous quotes he utters is particularly neat as well.
- Poison Ivy
In the line of reflecting Batman back at himself, Poison Ivy, like Ra’s al Ghul, represents complete commitment to a cause. Batman does everything he does because of a belief in the sanctity of life. So does Poison Ivy. They just differ on the definition of what life is. Particularly fascinating when working as a sort of antihero or misunderstood villain, Poison Ivy ought to force Batman and the reader to evaluate whether of not his quest is itself misguided and excessive. Also she is one of Batman’s most powerful villains (perhaps the second most powerful major villain next to Clayface) and has even taken control of Superman (personally my favorite excuse for a Batman v. Superman fight).
- James Gordon Jr.
James Gordon Jr. represents the worst fears of the person arguable most important to Batman: James Gordon (although, sigh, I suppose I should say Bruce Wayne Batman). James Jr. has exhibited psychopathic tendencies on par with Joker since he was a child. The best part is, James Jr. was possibly made this way because of an injury he sustained as a baby because of James Gordon’s commitment to justice. Like Two-Face and Alan Moore’s Killing Joke origin for Joker, he represents a villain that was produced by the ferocity of Batman and his allies pursuit for what’s right. By far, my favorite Scott Snyder villain: seriously one of the creepiest villains in the universe. Honestly he’d probably be higher for me if he had more stories, but I’ve thuroughly enjoyed his appearances in both Batman and Batgirl stories.
Azrael has played villain, hero, and anti-hero to Batman. In fact, he’s literally played Batman. The avenging angel in service of a brainwashing religious sect is a cool image, but what makes Azrael such a great character is how he fights back against his own mind to try to do what’s right. And one of the things I love about Batman is that even a killer like Azrael Batman will try to reform and help the good win, and this is a character where you can actually see Batman’s reason for not killing the Joker actually work…sometimes. He still can be quite villainous because of selfishness.
- Black Mask
When I think about maybe someday writing a Batman story, I think I’d start with Black Mask as a villain. Gotham is a city of people that wear masks and pretend like that’s normal. Black Mask’s mask means something. He’s obsessed with appearances and he forms the False Face society to get others to aid him in taking over Gotham’s criminal world. Definitely both crazy and evil, but driven that way by a troubled past, he can be depicted as wanting to show the superficiality of appearance to the world.
- Victor Zsasz
When he first appeared in Shadow of the Bat #1, Zsasz was a Hannibal Lecter-esque captured killer. One of the most disturbing violent villains in Gotham, it is his devotion to killing that makes him so captivating. While the Gotham TV adaptation ditched the disturbing ritual self-mutilation, they have captured the obsessive violence of Zsasz.
- Red Hood
A common theme in Batman stories is that his greatest enemy is not a named nemesis, but the unnameable, unknown nobody that is merely a byproduct of his own success at helping people. This is embodied in the lack of alias Joker, the low-level thug Joe Chill that killed his parents, the sudden appearance of the man who would kill him Doctor Hurt, and most recently the entire climax of Batman Eternal. Alan Moore chose Red Hood to be a possible early Joker and perhaps it was because of the anonymity the hood brings. Batman pedantically prepares for any enemy, but how can he fight someone who is fundamentally an enigma? Jason Todd’s reappearance as a Red Hood is also a brilliant way to symbolize the importance of his change, and Scott Snyder’s Zero Year story gave the Red Hood a nice modern update.
- Carmine “the Roman” Falcone
Carmine Falcone is a man trying to hold onto a criminal empire in the face of two threats, arguably the smaller of which is Batman. Falcone has done things as criminals in the real world do them for many years, but how does a man like that compete against the Joker? To the last Falcone proves himself shrewd and powerful, and his appearance in Batman Eternal shows that he still can compete with the most vicious members of a city of freaks.
- Mr. Freeze
Victor Fries has swung from a villain to an antihero and then back to a truly out of touch villain. Bad puns aside (if you don’t know what I mean, trust me, you don’t want to know), for a cold-hearted character he actually evokes a lot of pathos. Willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to try to salvage his wife, Fries can actually do some good if it serves his purposes. Scott Snyder’s New 52 origin for him is unsettling, and while I’m not sure if I prefer him as totally insane, it certainly is a startling and very conceivable revelation.
“Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot” is the most commonly cited justification for Bruce Wayne taking on the form of a bat to fight crime. Ultimately, a social-justice minded billionaire that also pours millions into philanthropy invests so much of his time, wealth, and energy into Batman because he believes that using fear is essential to combating senseless violence. But Scarecrow turns that drive on Batman. If “criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot,” it is because we are all cowardly, and if Batman can use fear, so can his enemies. I tend to prefer grim, serious depictions of Scarecrow that match Batman’s own penchant for fear, but casting him as a pretentious scientist with an inferiority complex allows him to better interact with the other rogues of Gotham. My one hesitation with Scarecrow is while he sounds like an amazing villain in theory, it’s hard to pinpoint a great Scarecrow story, which is why he plunged from number two in my initial plan for this list to this spot.
- Professor Pyg
By far the most interesting and enduring Grant Morrison creation, Pyg is known for being one of the most genuinely insane villains. While his motives can be obscure because he’s driven by deeply illogical contradictions, generally he values perfection and will kill and mutilate people to help them achieve it. Batman sometimes monologues about how hard it is for him to think like Joker, but with Pyg there’s no chance his moves can be predicted.
- The Riddler
Edward Nigma was my least favorite villain as a child. I thought he was semantically too similar to Joker. My two favorite Batman authors won me over: Loeb and Snyder through Hush and the Zero Year storyline respectively. I also really enjoyed the Batman: Arkham Origins version (might be the only thing I can say that about) that was trying to collect blackmail information on dirty cops to improve the city (not unlike Batman’s own willingness to break the law to pursue justice). I still find most of his appearances trite though. So I suppose for me the definition of a good Riddler story is one with as little Riddler ego as possible (sorry Jim Carrey).
One of the oldest Batman characters, Selina Kyle has been an ally (or at least lead character) almost as much as she has been a villain. What makes her work as a character is how resistant she is to building her relationship with Batman. Like Batman she cares for those hurt by the system, but unlike him she doesn’t have problem with also acting in self interest. While I like her as a character, as a villain she’s only second tier.
Alright, ignore the completely unoriginal name and general concept (other than to positively state that he’s literally a mirror to Batman). Kirk Langstrom is a fascinating Jekyll/Hyde type. Turned into a monster while researching medicine, Langstrom continues to battle his personal demons and usually serves as an antihero. After Batman died (well, was sent back in time and everyone thought he was dead), he was my top choice for a new Batman in the Battle for the Cowl storyline.
- Ventriloquist and Scarface
Not a particularly popular Batman villain overall, this is one of the first Batman villains that captured my imagination as a child watching the various animated Batmans. I really appreciate the way that Ventriloquist uses Scarface as an outlet for his own dark personality to the extent that he no longer feels the need to be evil, but does feel captive to his dummy. It’s a different form of duality than Two-Face, and one that I think nicely juxtaposes Bruce Wayne’s creation of a darker personality in Batman.
Owlman is multiple different characters from different multiverses tied together by the Owlman identity and the Thomas Wayne Jr. alias. Always a sort of evil twin of Batman, Thomas Wayne Jr. gives us a glimpse of who Batman would have been if he had turned to evil.
Although not primarily a Batman villain, the Terminator’s belief in honor and tactical genius make him a good match for Batman’s own abilities. He’s a top notch character without question.
- Doctor Hurt
The man that killed Batman. Sort of. Or maybe not. It’s unclear. Perhaps he’s the devil, or an incarnation of some sort of ultra-powerful entity, or immortal? Bruce Wayne’s father? An ancestor? It’s complicated. What’s certain is that he is Batman’s greatest fear: an enemy for which he hasn’t prepared.
- Deacon Blackfire
Not many villains have manipulated Batman’s mind successfully in recent continuity. Batman prides himself on the ability to resist mind control, but in The Cult Batman succumbs to brainwashing techniques at the hands of Blackfire. Evil to the core, my only regret about this villain is that he has a bit of a supernatural backstory which doesn’t seem to serve much purpose. His resurgence in Batman Eternal was also reasonably well done.
- Talia al Ghul
Like Catwoman, the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul is a strong character because she resists control by both Batman and her father. Not as committed to the ideals of her father, she is certainly driven for what she does want.
The World’s Deadliest Marksman is always a serious threat to Batman, but it’s his non-Batman appearances that make him most interesting, other than his ability to ricochet bullets. I particularly like his appearance in Arrow.
What’s important about Clayface is that he can look like anyone at any time and is very difficult to stop. He’s probably the most naturally powerful Batman villain (Poison Ivy is the other inherently powerful rogue). However, low intelligence means that Clayface makes a good pawn in the service of other villains, but doesn’t do much on his own. By far, his appearance in my much loved Batman: Arkham City is my favorite.
Penguin’s early career bird-themed crimes have been replaced with a sadistic personality and vengeful hatred of the Waynes. I highly value his presence in Gotham as a dealer of illegal goods and owner of the Iceberg Lounge, but in general he’s a duller lead villain.
- Rupert Thorne
Like Carmine Falcone, Rupert Thorne is a remarkable character because he’s the sort of villain we see in the real world, a corrupt politician. It’s nice to know that Batman takes the people that are evil in our world as seriously as he takes the Joker (avoiding making a “Why so serious?” joke).
- The Court of Owls
The New 52 Batman kicked off with a new villain that pick and chose some of the best aspects of other Batman villains. It’s an unknown evil organization that reminds Batman of his parent’s death (like Doctor Hurt). They inhabit old buildings in Gotham and are uncountable (like the Body). However, despite not being particularly original, they’re frightening aesthetic, grueling assault on Batman, and all-around high quality execution make them quality villains.
- Killer Croc
Waylon Jones seems to be a completely different character in every incarnation, and that’s the major reason it’s hard to consistently call him high quality. At times he’s one of Batman’s strongest physical foes. Sometimes he looks relatively normal. Sometimes he eats people. Sometimes he protects the poor. I’ll make up a backstory for him that I like here: born relatively normal, turned to a life of crime, was hideously mutated by some sort of accident during a crime which injured his mind, was sent to Arkham, was relatively successfully reformed, now tries to protect the disenfranchised while still occasionally being overcome by animalistic instincts. Now that wasn’t so hard: why can’t comics writers keep that straight?
- Harley Quinn
Harley Quinn is a fantastic character. She raises the stakes in the war between Batman and Joker by showing that Joker’s actually more successful at turning others to his side than Batman is. She also underscores that Joker and Batman’s relationship may not be love, but it feeds a deep need in at least Joker that resembles love. When on her own she’s a very fun character, but it’s hard to call her particularly good at being a Batman villain except as a pawn or in tandem with others.
- Mad Hatter
The only thing that keeps Mad Hatter back is that he doesn’t bring much new to the table other than his Alice in Wonderland gimmick. Granted, he did first appear in 1948, so he has survived a long time despite an irrational love of hats, and has been around longer than Poison Ivy, the other villain famous for mind control. Perhaps he’s a prototype Professor Pyg–someone who just represents being plain insane.
Being a legend does include some thrills, and Cavalier explores the idea of perhaps what Batman would be like if he was more of a thrillseeker than motivated by justice. The Legends of the Dark Knight early Cavalier story “Blades” is fantastic, although that is technically about a different Cavalier, and it proposes a man that takes to being a vigilante for slightly more noble, but still manipulable, reasons.
I wish I could say Anarky was one of my top favorites, but sadly his stories always fall a bit short. However, I like the idea of a genius child who believes strongly in his ideology and shows Batman how inconsistent his belief in the law is and hope someday Anarky can get a truly great story.
- Roland Dagget
The Animated Series did a lot of things right. One of the most noticeable is that Batman’s most evil recurring adversaries were business men, politicians, and mobsters. For the same reasons that Year One and The Long Halloween succeed by making Batman seem just a little bit more plausible. Daggett has not done much outside the Animated Series, but still managed to be one of Batman’s most plausible antagonists.
- Tiger Shark
The most interesting smuggler I’ve seen in comics, Tiger Shark manages to bring an air of excitement and interest to any story he’s in.
- Joe Chill
The one crime Batman can never stop, Joe Chill’s one significant act dominates the Batman’s psyche. Really, the only interesting thing about this villain is how personal the stories are where he appears. But the New 52 (and I think Scott Snyder in the Court of Owls storyline, but I was unable to fact check) said something like “the important thing about Batman isn’t who created him, whether it was a grand conspiracy or just some Joe Chill, what matters is that he was created.”
Another Animated Series original, Lock-Up wins points for being a vigilante utterly devoted to capturing criminals, but whose excessive methods he doesn’t approve. I like to imagine this is actually Frank Miller Batman…
Jeph Loeb somehow managed to make multiple characters who plan crimes on holidays interesting. Holiday deserves to be on the list because of he shows that in the war between rational order and insane chaos, Batman might be making Gotham a worse place.
- Doctor Death
While his abilities vary, Batman’s first recurring villain deserves praise for still feeling fresh in the modern era.
- Rex “the Lion” Calabrese
The first character on this list that does not have a Wikipedia page! The Lion is a new character, created for Batman Eternal I believe. Theoretically the Lion ruled Gotham’s criminal empire before willing stepping down and hiding his true identity so he could live out penance in Blackgate Penitentiary. Of course a figure whose primary appearances would have to be in the past doesn’t have much chance of high profile stories in the future, but I’d definitely like to see some appearances for him in the future.
- Lady Shiva
Batman really respects Lady Shiva’s code of honor, but her willingness to kill makes her an interesting antagonist because she (like Ra’s al Ghul) believes Batman will never be all he can be until he crosses that line.
- The Monk
An early Batman villain, the Mad Monk hasn’t appeared too many times, but he adds a nice touch of supernatural mystery to the Batman world.
- Calendar Man
Despite sounding like a stupid idea for a criminal, he’s actually quite competent in the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale stories in the captured Hannibal Lecter role.
Firefly’s incarnations have been vastly difficult, and most Batman authors seem to treat him as “the Batman villain interested in fire.” But an inconsistently interesting villain is still sometimes interesting.
I have mixed emotions about Kevin Smith’s Batman stories. Essentially, his plots are very strong, but his style I find excessive. This villain’s major story is incomplete, but this modern gimmick villain is able to really mess with Batman’s ability to trust.
- Arnold Flass
To round off the list of realistic villains is a corrupt cop. Flass stood as a major antagonist to Gordon’s ascendancy and made Batman’s presence in the city that much harder.
- Doctor Phosphorous
Steve Englehart wrote some of the best Batman stories of all time, certainly some of the best pre-modern age. Here’s one of his creations that succeeds because his powers are fundamentally unstable. Not often in comics are powers a mixed blessing.
- The Terrible Trio
The ’50s produced a lot of gimmicky villains, but these managed to remain fairly serious, despite the whole having animals on the head thing. The Animated Series made them bored elitists, and that’s probably a reasonable outcome of being very rich in the DC universe.
- Honorable Mention: Superman
Obviously more of an ally than a villain, Batman has proved numerous times his superiority to an alien with effectively every power you could want. Also a candidate for this place was Lex Luthor, who is obviously more of a Superman villain, but who occasionally serves as a strong enemy to Batman.
- Bottom: Killer Moth
Unlike gimmick villains that reinvented themselves, Killer Moth remained stupid and pointless. At least Crazy Quilt has mildly interesting powers–this guy is worthless.