Batman Movie Villains, Ranked by Effectiveness
Last month was the 30th anniversary of Tim Burton’s Batman, one of the most successful films of all time. There are a lot of articles you could write about Batman: its effect on pulp action films throughout the ‘90s, the way it presaged the superhero movie boom of the ‘00s, the part it played in corporate tie-ins, and many other topics.
Instead, I’ve chosen to rank all of the Batman movie villains based on their effectiveness. To do that, I’ll be taking a few things into account. Here they are, in order of importance:
- How large or intricate is the plan? Does it affect Batman or Bruce Wayne in particular?
- Were they successful? How close did they come?
- How good was the performance?
I’ve made a few exclusions. While Adam West’s Batman: The Movie is great, I’m leaving it out because the plan the villains have is so goofy it’s hard to judge the effectiveness. I’m also excluding any of the animated films, even if they received theatrical releases. Christopher Nolan’s films, in particular, have a lot of corporate douchebags like Rutger Hauer’s William Earle and Ben Mendelsohn’s John Daggett, so I’m leaving them out unless they play a huge antagonistic role. Finally, I’m leaving Suicide Squad out since the vast majority of the film isn’t told from Batman’s perspective … also, it’d almost double the number of entries in this article. Screw that.
Before we get to the rankings, I want to highlight the true heroes of the franchise …
Henchman Hall of Fame
Henchmen are the backbone of any decent antagonistic organization, and it’s hard to do any better than these four. First, there’s Bob the Goon (Tracey Walter): the man, the myth, the legend. Not only does he threaten to kill the police commissioner just to make Batman let his boss go, but he also keeps following that boss once he’s been turned into a psychotic clown. That’s true dedication. I mean, his boss ends up killing him for no reason, so it was misplaced dedication, but still.
Next is Bane (Jeep Swenson) in Batman & Robin. He isn’t exactly the chattiest Bane in existence, but he seems like a damn good bodyguard. He’s strong and loyal, and he never talks back. He also rocks a trenchcoat and fedora.
You know you can trust a henchman when you let him pretend to be you. You have to trust his instincts and improv skills to let that happen. Fake Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) gives one hell of a performance, and it’s almost as much a disappointment as it is a twist when we find out he’s not the real Ra’s al Ghul.
Finally, there’s the aptly-named Kilson (Aidan Feore), a Joker henchman who shows a lot of guts. He does that by letting The Joker put a bomb in his stomach and set it off. RIP Kilson.
Finally, the list you’ve all been waiting for …
20. Joe Chill (Richard Brake), Batman Begins
Literally created Batman by killing his parents and then got shot and killed a few years later. Absolute dogshit effectiveness.
19. Carmine “The Roman” Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), Batman Begins
Falcone has pretty standard goals for a criminal. He just wants power and money. Which he generally has. Unfortunately, he screws up royally by helping to create Batman. By having Joe Chill killed and humiliating Bruce Wayne, he makes himself a target. Then, once Batman gets him imprisoned, he tries to strongarm Scarecrow, which gets him dosed with that fear toxin. He tried punching above his weight class and fell flat on his face, that’s why he’s so low on this list.
18. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), Justice League
You get points if you can even remember Steppenwolf’s plan from the execrable Frankenstein monster that is Justice League. His plan is to find the three Mother Boxes on Earth and use them to terraform the planet so that Darkseid will be happy with him, I guess? He manages to get all of the Mother Boxes, but part of that is due to the League’s stupidity (they legit leave it lying around), and his return also makes the League bring Superman back to life. It’s a bad plan that only manages to bring the world’s most powerful hero back to life. Great job, dumbass.
17. Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), Batman Returns
Money and charisma can take you pretty far in life. Max Schreck is a great example of that. His ultimate goal is to get richer by monopolizing Gotham’s energy supplies, and everything he does in the film is in service to that. Max tries to kill Selina Kyle to cover it up. He aligns with The Penguin to cover it up. He tries to make The Penguin mayor so he can approve the new power plant. Unfortunately, his ideas and his schemes are half-assed. He effectively creates Catwoman and pisses off The Penguin. By the end of Batman Returns, he has all three masked freaks out to get him. But does he get his power plant in the end? No, he doesn’t. He gets a million volts zapped through his ass and gets turned into a goofy skeleton.
16. Anatoli Knyazev/KGBeast (Callan Mulvey), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
You could argue that KGBeast is essentially a henchman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and, as such, he’s exempt from my stringent criteria for villains and their effectiveness. But I’m including him because he seems to have his own agency and he gets his personal mission away from the other villains. That mission is to kill Martha Kent, and he fails pretty spectacularly. This guy is a globetrotting soldier for hire and he can’t even off a middle-aged mother from Kansas. He even gets an ironic death by accidentally blowing himself up with his own flamethrower. It’s a poor showing.
15. Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), Batman Forever
This version of Two-Face has a simple goal: revenge. It’s a classic for a reason. The guy blames Batman for causing his Two-Facedness, so he wants to kill him. It’s a simple enough plan. Unfortunately, he lets The Riddler talk him into trying to completely ruin Batman’s life instead of just shooting him in the face. Two-Face has Batman exactly where he wants him, with a gun to his head, but he doesn’t pull the trigger! His plans are undone, ironically, by peer pressure. It’s because he was so close to succeeding and then got too greedy that he’s this low on the list.
14. Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (Danny DeVito), Batman Returns
The Penguin has a few schemes going on in Batman Returns, with varying results. He manages to successfully rehabilitate his image for a while by staging a kidnapping of the mayor’s baby, which works out well. He blackmails Max Schreck into helping him. Penguin frames Batman for murder, and his mayoral campaign seems to be doing okay. But then things go wrong, and he panics, immediately opens fire on a crowd of people, attempts to kidnap the first-born children of Gotham’s most prominent families, and uses a penguin army to destroy the city. Basically, his follow-through needs a lot of work. He’s way too emotional to be effective, and Batman takes him out pretty easily in the end.
13. Jack Napier/The Joker (Jack Nicholson), Batman
It’s fitting that The Joker actually has a really funny goal in Batman. He wanted to take over all of the crime in Gotham, but he also wanted the credit for it. Unfortunately, the media and the authorities were blaming a lot of his crimes on Batman. A few of his endeavors were successful. He seemed to become the number one crime boss in Gotham, he messed with the ingredients in certain products and managed to kill people, and he was coming into his own as the first fully functioning homicidal artist. For the sake of this list, he loses some marks for having some pretty conservative goals, and he loses a lot of marks for being the guy who creates Batman by killing his parents. That’s always the kind of shitty move that will knock you back on a list (see: Joe Chill at #20).
12. Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), Batman Begins
We’ve got another Batman creator over here! This guy didn’t just have a hand in getting Bruce Wayne’s parents killed. He also trained him to become the freakin’ Batman. Remarkable fuck-ups like that would normally drop someone to the bottom of this list, but being the leader of a vast organization called the League of Shadows that has altered history for centuries whenever they saw fit gives him a little bit of street cred. He’s ultimately taken out before he can bring down Gotham City, but he had a good run for a while.
11. Dr. Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Batman & Robin
It’s difficult to judge Mr. Freeze’s effectiveness as a villain. There are a lot of ups and downs. Mr. Freeze manages to steal a bunch of diamonds and freeze a lot of people, but he also gets captured by Batman twice. He has two main goals: freeze the entire world and cure his wife’s illness. He comes somewhat close to both of them but never crosses the finish line. However, he cooperates with Batman at the end which will give him the opportunity to continue his research and possibly cure his wife, so his ability to adapt puts him higher on the list than some others.
10. Dr. Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), Batman & Robin
Poison Ivy gets points for having one of the most noble goals of any villain: she wants to save nature from humanity. It’s such a shame that she goes about it in the most cartoonish way possible (which is to be expected from a live-action cartoon). She doesn’t come close to succeeding, but she does manage to pit Batman and Robin against each other and convince Mr. Freeze to team up with her. She’s also taken out like a chump before the final fight. She’s in the top half of the list for having one of the biggest and best goals and for having a completely batshit performance from Thurman, but that’s about it.
09. Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart), The Dark Knight
Like the previous Two-Face on this list, The Dark Knight’s Two-Face is looking for revenge. That’s a big factor in achieving your goals, it seems. Keep it simple and personal with easily identifiable targets. Sure, he gets used by The Joker, but he also kills a handful of corrupt cops. That’s pretty neat. Ultimately, he’s a bit of an afterthought and more of a pawn in someone else’s plans, but he’s still pretty damn successful until Batman throws his ass off of a building and kills him. The scale of his goal keeps him on the lower end of this half, but he still does a damn good job.
08. Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), The Dark Knight Rises
This is kind of a tough one to judge. The Dark Knight Rises version of Catwoman is very efficient and effective. She manages to rob Bruce Wayne, double-cross him, and help start a revolution. She also kinda flip-flops on the plan and helps Batman put an end to the uprising she helped facilitate, one that she seemed to truly believe in. So is she a sell-out, or is she so effective that she’s even good at putting an end to shit she started? I could see an argument for her being higher on the list, but I kind of lean closer to considering her a sell-out. A villain with the conviction to follow their plan through to the bitter end will always be more impressive to me than one who switches sides because it’s “the right thing to do.”
07. Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), Batman Begins/The Dark Knight/The Dark Knight Rises
Scarecrow absolutely gets points for being a survivor. In Batman Begins, he’s a successful and well-respected psychologist on top of being a smuggler and a go-between for a shadowy criminal organization. He’s got a lot of plates spinning, so it’s not a surprise that they’d eventually come crashing down. Sure, he gets busted by Batman in The Dark Knight, but when The Dark Knight Rises rolls around, he finds himself in charge of a kangaroo court. Not exactly the top of his field, but a pretty good come-up for a guy driven insane by his own fear toxin.
06. Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Jim Carrey), Batman Forever
The Riddler does what very few Batman movie villains are able to do: he figures out Batman’s secret identity. As far as effectiveness is concerned, that’s major. With that information, he’s able to blow up the Batcave, kidnap Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, and almost kill Wayne himself. He’s also able to become rich and powerful with some weird device that … sucks brainwaves … I guess? He did really, really well! His problem was hubris. He should have let Two-Face blow Bruce Wayne’s brains out, but he wanted to toy with him more. Shit like that is what keeps The Riddler just out of the top five.
05. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
This little shit has some lofty plans, ones that are more idealistic and symbolic than others. He comes pretty damn close to succeeding too, although he does ultimately end up in prison. So he’s not completely, 100% successful. Looking on the bright side, though, he accomplishes a lot. He successfully figures out the secret identities of Batman and Superman. He manages to pit them against each other, and he blows up a room full of Senators. That’s pretty damn successful for a villain. This twitchy creep comes close to winning, and he’s without a doubt the most effective billionaire asshole on this list.
04. Bane (Tom Hardy) and Miranda Tate/Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard), The Dark Knight Rises
This is a two-for-one because they both have the same goal and even though we get way more of Bane as a villain than Talia al Ghul despite he turning out to be more of a henchman with Talia as the mastermind. This is a rehash of the Ra’s al Ghul’s plan with some revenge mixed in, so we’ve got both large-scale and personal stakes. This duo comes in fourth because they actually succeed! Bane breaks Batman’s back! Talia takes over Wayne Industries! They isolate and rule Gotham for months! The two of them come extremely close to actually blowing the city sky-high, but Batman stops them in the end. While Bruce Wayne doesn’t actually die in the end, he does fake his death and retire, so in a way, they “kill” Batman. These two can’t stop winning.
03. The Joker (Heath Ledger), The Dark Knight
The Joker only has one big loss in The Dark Knight, and that’s when two boats full of people come pretty damn close to blowing each other up but ultimately decide not to. Other than that setback, his track record is pretty damn impressive. It makes sense that he’d be an effective villain since his entire life seems to be about achieving his goals. The guy has nothing else going on, except maybe amateur tailoring. He pulls off an intricate, nonsensical bank robbery, he gets a bunch of gangsters to hire him to kill Batman, he gets himself arrested on purpose before that became a cliché, he kills Rachel Dawes, AND he turns Harvey Dent into Two-Face. This Joker is a winner, so it’s hard to argue with his effectiveness.
02. Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Batman Returns
Catwoman’s goals were simple, but the success of those goals and the powerhouse performance from Pfeiffer put her near the top of this list. Her primary goal seems to be vengeance, getting back at Max Shreck for pushing her out of an office window. She also wants to get back at Batman for doing kind of the same thing. She and The Penguin successfully manage to frame Batman for murder for a while there. She’s also able to kill one of Shreck’s department stores and then, you know, Shreck himself. She accomplishes what she set out to do originally, survives the film, and doesn’t end up in prison or an insane asylum. That sounds successful to me!
01. Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Superman is easily the most effective villain that Batman has ever faced. His mere existence turns Batman into a hard-line, murderous, anti-immigrant right-winger. Then, once Batman gets to know Superman, he becomes a total convert. Batman literally ends the movie believing in Superman so hard that he’s willing to go door-to-door asking people if they’ve heard the good word. That’s two big personality swings based purely on Superman being himself. Presumably Superman’s “goal” would just be the second, more positive personality change, but still. I’d argue that being able to cause such a massive shift in ideals just by being himself makes Superman the most effective villain Batman has ever faced.