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Image: Harvey Dent, Dark Knight
Warner Bros.
Aaron Eckhart is the latest actor to take on Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face). In Joel Schumacher's "Batman Forever," Tommy Lee Jones played the same character.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/14/2008 8:50:38 PM ET 2008-07-15T00:50:38
COMMENTARY

Perhaps no other superhero has undergone such drastic reinventions over the decades as Batman. The Caped Crusader was invented in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger as a night-stalking noir detective who used his fearsome bat-inspired costume to terrify criminals.

When comic-book violence became a political hot potato in the 1950s and 1960s, the mandate was whimsy above all, and Batman was softened into a cheerful, colorful hero whose exploits were often downright silly.

He got even sillier in the 1960s TV show starring Adam West, a series that so successfully satirized Batman that for many years the character was synonymous with the goofiest side of superheroes. But since Frank Miller’s landmark 1986 miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns,” Batman has returned to his dark roots.

Director Christopher Nolan embraced that version of Bruce Wayne with 2004’s “Batman Begins” and the new “The Dark Knight,” with a gritty, realistic approach to superhero storytelling that stays as far away as possible from the comic approach of the TV show or the goth-campy movies kicked off by Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman.”

As such, Nolan has to be careful about what characters to draw on for his version of Batman: It was no mistake that he chose the terrorist leader R’as al Ghul and the fear-spreading Scarecrow as the antagonists for “Batman Begins.”

“Dark Knight” brings in two of Batman’s most popular villains, The Joker and Two-Face, and reinvents them in a grimmer, more frightening mode. It’s a near-certainly that “Dark Knight” won’t be the final installment in Nolan’s series, and with that in mind, here’s a look at which villains in Batman’s roster would fit Nolan’s un-whimsical vision — and which wouldn’t.

Femme fatales: Catwoman and Talia al Ghul
Bruce Wayne’s only paramour so far in Nolan’s films has been his childhood friend Rachel Dawes, a squeaky-clean city attorney who inspires him to be a force for good. But Batman’s relationships in the comics have included several women whose moral character is cloudy gray, not lily white.

Jewel thief Selina Kyle is a habitual criminal, but she does adhere to a moral code of her own, even if it often puts her at odds with Batman.

His relationship with anti-heroine Talia al Ghul is perhaps even more complicated; she’s the daughter of R’as al Ghul, the terrorist villain of “Batman Begins,” and has divided loyalties, sometimes aiding her father’s plans for world domination, and sometimes siding with her lover. Although Batman has repeatedly foiled the illegal schemes of both father and daughter, R’as approves of Batman’s romance with Talia and would like to see them married; in some stories, Talia and Bruce Wayne even have a son.

Nolan-ability rating: Catwoman: A-. Talia al Ghul: B-
Catwoman seems almost certain to show up eventually if the current Batman series continues. Talia, on the other hand, probably won’t unless R’as al Ghul also returns, given her character’s intertwined relationship with both men.

Costumed crime lords: Penguin, Black Mask, Scarface and The Ventriloquist
Batman helped clean up Gotham City’s organized crime, but clearing out the villains opened the door for supervillains: tougher, costumed foes who could give Batman a run for his money. “The Dark Knight” sees the introduction of the two most prominent, The Joker and Two-Face, but there are plenty of others, some of them awfully bizarre.

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The dapper, gentlemanly Penguin, played with quacking elegance by Burgess Meredith on TV and reimagined as a grotesque hunchback by Danny DeVito in 1992’s “Batman Returns,” is portrayed these days in the comics as an eccentric but efficiently scheming criminal who controls much of Gotham City’s underground. Though this Penguin’s not as flamboyant as past versions have been, it’s still hard to take him seriously out of the comics’ operatically weird world, and Nolan himself has said moving Penguin into the movies would be “tricky.”

A better pick might be Black Mask, a ruthless and brutal crime boss who takes his name from his ebony skull disguise, and comes with the twist that he bears a grudge against Bruce Wayne rather than his Batman alter ego.

Much thornier would be Arnold Wesker, a mild-mannered ventriloquist who keeps a bloody grip on his criminal empire but will only speak though his dummy, Scarface, a wooden doll carved to look like a 1930s gangster. Scarface’s story is more tragic than Penguin’s since The Ventriloquist is so deeply insane, but ultimately the duo would probably be laughed out of the theater.

Black Mask would fit perfectly, especially if they need another villain in Two-Face’s evil mode.

Nolan-ability Rating: Penguin: D. Black mask: B. Scarface: D.

Monster men: Man-Bat, Killer Croc and Clayface
Although Batman has more than his share of psychotic nasties in his rogue’s gallery, most of them are still human. That’s not the case with this trio, who are beasts and monsters in body as well as mind.

Man-Bat is the Mr. Hyde-like double of scientist Kirk Langstrom, who transforms uncontrollably into a giant winged mammal after a lab accident. Killer Croc, similarly, is a mutated beast-man who’s slowly becoming less human and more crocodilian over time. He’s not really much of a lead villain in his own right, but would make an excellent secondary bad guy. There have been several versions of Clayface, but the most well-known version is a bloblike creature that can change its shape and eats humans to survive.

Nolan-ability Rating: B+ for all three.
Visually these guys are among Batman’s most interesting villains, but there’s one potential problem: So far, Nolan’s movies have steered clear of overtly fantastical elements. R’as al Ghul, for instance, is basically immortal, but that’s only hinted at in his appearance in “Batman Begins.” If Nolan decides that monsters will work in his Bat-world, all bets are off.

The puzzlers: The Riddler and Cluemaster
Played as an outrageously over-the-top cackling bad guy by both Frank Gorshin on the TV show and Jim Carrey in “Batman Forever,” Edward “Riddler” Nygma wears a trademark green suit covered with question marks and specializes in leaving Batman mocking puzzles at the scene of his crimes — or hints at future dasterdly deeds, daring Batman to stop him. His jester-like qualities sometimes make him something of a low-rent Joker, but lately in the comics he’s turned over a new leaf and reinvented himself as a detective, solving puzzles instead of creating them.

Speaking of pale imitations: What would “Jeopardy!” quizmaster Alex Trebek be like if he turned his formidable game-show hosting abilities to evil? That’s essentially the premise of Cluemaster, who turned to a life of crime as after being fired from his high-profile TV job, with a signature attention-grabber of leaving clues behind for Batman to follow. Even the Riddler, not exactly the least gimmicky of villains, felt contempt for Cluemaster’s shtick, which he thought was a rip-off of his own.

Nolan-ability Rating: The Riddler: B. Cluemaster: D.
The Riddler’s apparently got a pretty good shot at a future film, if you can believe comments made recently by Gary Oldman, who plays Commissioner Gordon in the series. Anthony Michael Hall has been rumored to play the role, and “Doctor Who” star David Tennant reportedly would love to do it.

Penny Plunderer
It’s not exactly uncommon for a Batman villain to have a theme that all his crimes and misdemeanors revolve around, but Joe Coyne’s particular peccadillo was possibly the most pathetic of any of them: He was obsessed with pennies, going to ludicrous lengths to steal rare coins and one-cent stamps, and defended himself by hurling rolls of copper coins at Batman’s head. After getting caught, the poor schmuck got sentenced to the electric chair, which seems harsh for a guy who was, after all, just small change.

Nolan-ability Rating: C-.
He’d work as comic relief, but the series hasn’t shown much inclination to need any.

Chandell
Pop quiz: Which villain got the highest ratings on the 1960s “Batman” TV show starring Adam West? The answer might have even longtime Batman fans asking “who?” Weirdly enough, the most popular guest villain was none other than the flamboyant pianist Liberace playing a dual role as a pair of twins — famous pianist Chandell and his evil brother Harry, who schemed to steal a fortune from Batman’s Aunt Harriet and blackmail his own brother in the bargain.

Nolan-ability Rating: D-.
A villain played by Liberace is pretty much the dictionary definition of “camp,” exactly what Nolan’s avoiding.

Bat-Mite
Just as Superman is often plagued by the mischievous genie-like extradimensional being Mr. Mxyzptlk, Batman has his own magical imp who pops in every now and then to sow trouble. Bat-Mite doesn’t really mean any harm, and in fact has a childlike hero-worship of Batman, but whenever he uses his magic to “help,” he usually just complicates things.

Nolan-ability Rating: F.
Bat-Mite only works as a character if you keep things light and zany. Put him in a movie, and you might as well put Homer Simpson, Daffy Duck and the Tasmanian Devil in there while you’re at it.

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