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Heath Ledger’s Joker Fuels the Trend Toward More Dangerous Batman Villains

July 13, 2008

By Dane Stickney, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Jul. 13–Batman may be the star of the show, but the villains often steal the scenes. Most of the buzz surrounding the new Batman flick, “The Dark Knight,” which opens Friday, has focused on Heath Ledger. The late actor plays an especially creepy Joker. His is the latest dark reinvention of the Batman villain. Here’s a look at how the four main villains have evolved through the Batman comics, TV shows and movies:

The Joker

The character: While his back story is slightly different in comics and movies, the Joker generally is referred to as a criminal who plunged into a vat of chemicals. He emerged with his patented freakish look and started to murder for fun.

Actors: Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger

First appearance: In the comic book, the Joker is the main villain in the first edition of “Batman” in 1940. His first TV appearance was in 1966 in the fifth episode of the first season of “Batman,” played by Romero. Nicholson resurrected the Joker on the big screen in the 1989 film “Batman.”

Most recent appearance: In “The Dark Knight.” Heath Ledger plays an especially dark version of the Joker, a portrayal that’s already getting critical acclaim. Director Christopher Nolan alluded to the Joker’s appearance in the new film toward the end of “Batman Begins.” In recent media interviews, he said he was influenced by early comic book portrayals of the Joker, as well as the 1990s comic book series “Batman: The Long Halloween.” Nolan also said he appreciates the Joker’s anarchy and fervent commitment to crime.

Evolution: The character has come full circle. The original comic book featured a homicidal, purely evil Joker. The TV show made him out to be more of a playful pain who pulled pranks. His recent big-screen appearances have focused more on his dark, dangerous side. His image has generally stayed the same — white skin, green hair, bright red lips and a purple suit. Specific portrayals have ranged from Romero’s comically campy look to Ledger’s frighteningly crazy appearance.

The Penguin

The character: High society shunned this short, squat man with a beak-like nose because of his appearance. The rejection led him to crime. He fancies himself as a gentlemanly criminal, an intelligent aristocrat. He loves birds and always carries a high-tech umbrella.

Actors: Burgess Meredith, Danny DeVito

First appearance: In the 58th edition of “Detective Comics” in 1941. The Penguin — Meredith — first appeared on the TV series in the third episode of the first season. DeVito re-created the villain in the 1992 movie “Batman Returns.”

Most recent appearance: “Batman Returns.”

Evolution: Meredith’s Penguin was a jovial trickster with a signature squawking laugh. His features were subtle. DeVito’s Penguin was darker and more extreme — a maniacal killer. His hands were flippers, his nose exaggerated.

The Riddler

The character: The obsessive-compulsive criminal became fascinated with riddles as a child, and a rough childhood turned him to crime. He puts his victims in puzzles and almost always offers them a chance to live if they can solve his riddles.

Actors: Frank Gorshin, John Astin, Jim Carrey, left.

First appearance: “Detective Comics” No. 140 in 1948. On the screen, he’s the first villain featured on the 1966 TV series. Carrey played the villain in the 1995 film “Batman Forever.”

Most recent appearance: “Batman Forever.”

Evolution: In comic books and on TV, he originally is relatively sane and playful. But in both the recent comic book and movie portrayals, he becomes darker. Carrey’s Riddler is insane and obsessed with foiling Batman. His wardrobe changes from a green three-piece suit to a green jumpsuit covered in question marks. He almost always holds a cane with a question mark on the end.

Catwoman

The character: Catwoman has conflicting origins — ranging from an amnesiac flight attendant who confusedly turned to crime or a cat-loving prostitute who traded in tricks for thefts. In most accounts, the anti-heroine is the alter ego of Selina Kyle and piques Batman’s interest with her sexy, slinky style.

Actors: Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether, Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry

First appearance: In the first edition of the “Batman” comic book in 1940. She first appeared on the TV series in the 19th episode of the 1966 season. Newmar was the first TV Catwoman, eventually replaced by Kitt. Meriwether translated the TV character to the big screen in the 1966 “Batman” film. Pfeiffer portrayed Catwoman in the 1992 film “Batman Returns.” Berry starred in “Catwoman,” the 2004 spin-off movie.

Most recent appearance: “Catwoman.”

Evolution: Over the years, she’s worn less and less clothing. The original comic book Catwoman just wore regular clothing. The TV show put her in a sparkly black outfit with cat ears. Pfeiffer’s tight black plastic getup upped the sexy factor. Berry’s super-skimpy costume took it over the top. During her evolution, Catwoman has straddled good and evil. She lives a life of crime but tends to help out Batman.

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