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Riddle Me This… Is The Riddler Really An Ideal Choice for Batman 3?

Last week I outlined why I didn’t think that Harvey Dent should be brought back for the sequel to The Dark Knight. If Nolan comes back, I trust him to do whatever he feels like doing with the franchise – he’s demonstrated that he knows what he’s doing when it comes to directing Batman. If he wants to recast the role of the Joker – or if he doesn’t – that’s fine with me. So, it’s ultimately futile to speculate about films that haven’t even entered production, but that’s never really stopped me before, has it? It keeps coming down to the Riddler – Johnny Depp or Eddie Murphy or whoever. It seems that everyone is expecting The Riddler to be the villain (or at least play a supporting role) in the next film. But I’m skeptical.

When the Riddler heard he was the new host of Bullseye, he didn't know that people would take the title so literally...

When the Riddler heard he was the new host of Bullseye, he didn't know that people would take the title so literally...

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Riddler. He may even trump the Joker as my favourite of the Dark Knight’s rogues, simply because there’s no one quite like him. Sure, you have your psychopaths (the Mad Hatter, Scarface, the Joker, the Black Mask, Bane), your mob bosses (the Penguin, Rupert Thorne, Sal Moroni), your physically deformed freaks (arguably Two-Face and the Joker and Poison Ivy), your monsters (Manbat, Clayface and Killer Croc) and so on, but the Riddler doesn’t really belong in any of those categories. He isn’t a mob boss, he isn’t physically deformed and while he has a psychosis he certainly isn’t psychotic.

Nope, the Riddler is a guy who likes to prove he’s smarter than you, and Batman, and the police, and everyone. His modus operandi – deathtraps – is pretty well known to anyone with a passing interest in the franchise primarily due to Frank Gorshin’s scene-stealing performance in the campy 1960s television show. In fact, the character made two appearances in the Golden Age of Batman, before becoming a recurring foe during the far wackier Silver Age. In fact, his two early appearances were towards the wackier (aka later) end of the Golden Age.

The Riddler is defined by that cheesiness. Some would suggest that the only reason that the character acheived his prominence among Batman’s rogues wasn’t based upon anything written concerning the character, but puring based upon Gorshin’s mesmorisingly over-the-top performance. While Gorshin’s Riddler suited that particular incarnation of the Batman mythos perfectly well, the fact that that performance has remained the touchstone – even for actors apparently seeking to inherit the role like David Tennant or Johnny Depp – means the character has in some ways been left behind by an ever-evolving Batman.

The Riddler doesn’t kill people – if he can avoid it. The character doesn’t really scream lethal threat. Certainly not in a way to compare with the Joker or Two-Face or The Scarecrow or Ra’s Al-Ghul or Mr. Zsasz, the featured villains of the screen franchise so far. That the character was played by Jim Carrey in the 1990s film series – the not-quite-as-low-as-it-could-go-but-almost Batman Forever – speaks volumes of the character we’re talking about.

Not that that is a bad thing. His disinterest in murder and chaos for its own sake makes him interesting, even among an interesting bunch. He steals because he likes money. He leaves clues because he has a compulsion. It’s hinted that he might actually suffer from a legitimate mental health complaint – as opposed to the generic sociopathy that seems to inhabit Batman’s world. Even with this modern take on his psychosis, fans still admire the nature of the character as a throw-back. Some even like him because of it. Neil Gaiman’s short story about the character (featured in the Deluxe Edition of Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?) hammers home this point – running around a dump with all his old props and deathtraps discarded after the campy and fun Silver Age, the character bemoans the current state of Batman’s rogues (he even laments that the Joker is killing people). I think it’s hard to make a character like that a viable villian in a world as dark and realistic as the Nolan franchise. While the Joker has fluctuated between light camp fare and darker villainry, the Riddler has remained almost a figure of fun.

Speaking of the Joker, it seems a bit much to follow the Joker directly with the Riddler, doesn’t it? The two villains share little in common but the fact that their names are taken from two distinct forms of wordplay, but I can see audiences assuming a link – particularly with the death of Heath Ledger. It’s easy to see a lot of confusion arising from a character who constructs elaborate traps-within-traps (assuming it’s played straight) – given that was the Joker’s MO for most of The Dark Knight. Sure, they were ethical dilemmas and problems (kill on man to save a hundred in a hospital; choose which friend lives and which one dies), but it’s hard to see how another villain based around testing Batman would fly (even if it ends up being intellectually rather than morally).

There’s also the simple fact that for the two big villains in the last smash hit, the writers and director drew from various strong storylines featuring them. For the tragedy of Harvey Dent, Nolan updated the narrative of The Long Halloween. For the philosophy of the Joker, the team looked to The Killing Joke – and his crimes followed the pattern of his iconic appearance in Batman #1 (or the updated version in The Man Who Laughs). The Riddler has no such iconic stories in Batlore. No classic comic books. He plays important supporting roles, but rarely occupies the coveted centre-stage. You could argue that the two (or three) villains of Batman Begins weren’t drawn from any particular storyline, but we imagine that the success of The Dark Knight means the third film (if there is one) is likely to follow that model.

Batman would never find the Riddler in his top-secret lava lamp base...

Batman would never find the Riddler in his top-secret lava lamp base...

Still, there’s a lot to be said for the Riddler. He’s a far more complex character than his one-trick pony status would lead you to believe. In recent years the corny aspects of the character – such as the birthname Edward Nigma (E. Nigma, geddit?) – have been slowly phased out. He’s been reimagined as the sufferer of deep nuerosis. He doesn’t necessarily leave clues because he wants to, he leaves them because he has to – because he’s tortured. He’s one of the few villains to figure out Batman’s secret identity – in both the comics (in the Hush arc) and the aforementioned film (Batman Forever). In the comics he was convinced to keep the secret on the basis that there’s no point knowing the answer to Gotham’s greatest riddle (“Who is Batman?”) if everybody knows. In recent years he has even retired from being a supervillian (which is good as he’s not particularly suited to the life style). He is a private detective with a vaguely anti-heroic streak.

These elements might actually work within Nolan’s Batman universe. The character remains one the few high-profile characters not ruled out by David Goyer, who has rubbished the notion of the Penguin or Catwoman appearing. He also is a non-supernatural villain, but one showy enough to count as the villain in a feature film. Nolan made a point of bringing up Batman’s identity and how easily it could be uncovered in The Dark Knight. It’s a plot thread that really wasn’t fully developed – if it’s that easy to discover Bruce Wayne is Batman it’s only a matter of time before someone nefarious figures it out. Maybe the Riddler wouldn’t even need to be a villain in big shiny letters, maybe just a supporting character vaguely antagonistic to Batman – maybe a private detective.

It’s all up in the air, but of all the possible villains I am confused by this focus on The Riddler. Nolan is an independent enough director that – if he returns at all – he won’t want to be seen to be plodding old ground. He was reportedly very close to Heath Ledger (as were the majority of the cast and crew), so I don’t expect him to introduce what could be perceived as a same-villain-different-suit-colour style rogue into the next film.

That said the series has remained relatively faithful to the original rogues. Of the four featured villains, three began in the Golden Age. Ra’s Al-Ghul was a much later creation, in the mid-1970s. A modern 1990s villain – Victor Zsasz – had a cameo in the first film, but had about forty-seconds of screentime, total. Most of the obvious choices that fit with Nolan’s vision for the character and the world he inhabits would seem to be new (that’s the non-supernatural ones – Bane and the Black Mask, among others). While Batman has a very deep rogues gallery, I wouldn’t expect the next film to dip below the B-list (into wacky and even more outdated villains like Ten-Eyed Man or Crazy Quilt – he does exactly what it says on the tin), as it would seem a bit of a waste of some very good talent. I also don’t see Nolan relying solely on traditional gangster-style figures. There will likely be at least some supervillains.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am sure that Catwoman will appear, purely to the demographics of the ensemble. It’s a sausage-fest at the moment and it seems pointless to introduce a standard love interest for Bruce given the experiences of The Dark Knight. I don’t really care that Goyer has denied her involvement, it just seems such a logical fit.

For the Riddler, I’m not so sure. I’d love to see the character reimagined for the silver screen. He is an interesting and dynamic figure and one of the more complex of the rogues. I’m just not sure he’s a solid fit. Of course, you could say that about any of the characters Nolan has adapted – the Joker, Two-Face and Ra’s Al-Gul in particular. I don’t doubt Nolan could do it in such a way that would make it interesting, but I’m not sure he’d want to.

Hmm… when can we get some real news on this sequel?

4 Responses

  1. strange, i cant see Catwoman as a fit at all yet, but am ready to be proven wrong
    Riddler seems the logical choice – lots of interesting things you could do with him
    your Batman knowledge is most impressive Darren, never fails to entertain

    • I do pride myself on my nerditude, thank you. Yep, I’m not sure how Catwoman would fit, but when it comes to female supporting characters you have the stand Bruce Wayne love interests like Vicki Vale or Silver St. Cloud or even Jezebel Jett, which I can’t see the film going for if it’s going for if it’s planned to follow The Dark Knight as closely as The Dark Knight followed Batman Begins. That leaves female rogues like Catwoman and Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn. I think that last two are way too far out there, but I think Catwoman could work – she was even featured in the Frank Miller’s supervillain-less Year One, which was (whether they admit it or not) a huge influence on the original film (with several characters and set pieces lifted directly from it).

  2. It’s hard to imagine anyone — even a talented actor like Johnny Depp — reinventing The Riddler the way Heath Ledger did The Joker. But I’m with McG. Maybe someone will mosey along and make a liar out of me. Hey, I had my doubts about Heath, and I spent the better part of 2008 eating my words.

  3. The main villain is the key to the success of the film having only ever read one Batman Graphic novel that the Riddler doesn’t appear in, I have little knowledge of the character. I see the story as needing a two pronged storyline needing two villains. One is a mob boss who will get organised crime back on its feet after the events of The Dark Knight. The other a psycho serial killer that the police can’t catch and need Batman’s help. One thing is certain neither one of them should be The Joker even if Heath Ledger was still with us to play the part, the character should be safely locked away allowing a different story to unfold.

    Catwoman is easy to slip into a story. As a thief she could either steal something from the films main villain or even steal something for the main villain making her either an enemy or associate of said villain whoever he may be. At the same time Selina Kyle could meet Bruce Wayne away from their alter egos. She was varying back stories but if you go for the one where she is a socialite she could already know Bruce.

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