(On Monday I wrote a setup to this piece, and you can find that here.)
The worst kind of fights are Batman fights. The guy is a nightmare. He is unbeatable. I’ve seen him clobber a guy so hard that the universe stopped for a moment and God Himself wrote the word “SCHAAAA-MACK” over the act so that people wouldn’t lose their sanity over the spectacle of it all. The second worst kinds of fights are nerd fights. Nerds will throw down in a debate unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Combining the two makes a new kind of hybrid awful. Today we’re tackling it. We’re answering “Who Is Batman’s Greatest Nemesis?”
Batman has a long list of foes, and I group them into a pyramid tier structure. There’s one spot for the Tier 1 nemesis, two spots for the Tier 2 villains, three spots for the Tier 3 bad guys, and so on. Generally, folks can agree on what Tier 3 and below look like. Tier 3 villains are Riddler, Catwoman, and Two-Face [debating here is perfectly acceptable]. They are the villains that show up often (every iteration of Batman has these), they are memorable, their characters have a definite psychosis that plays a major part of their personality, and most importantly they challenge the idea of Batman in a very real way. Riddler is constantly trying to tackle Batman’s intelligence and knock him off the platform of “World’s Greatest Detective”. Catwoman manages to capture Batman’s heart, despite his hatred of all things defined as “crime” in his head. It’s a weird relationship between those two because Batman hates crime but many of his own actions (assault, breaking and entering, destruction of property, lacking vehicle registration/insurance, and loitering) are not crimes in his head. Taking a string of pearls is a crime, and that has to be punished…sometimes. Two-Face is a reflection of Batman’s dual nature: Two-Face’s lawful code that he lives by is perverse, but it is also a reflection of Batman’s own lawful code which could be described as equally perverse. Great villains.
A Tier 4 villain looks like Harley Quinn or Scarecrow. Tier 5 looks like Mr. Freeze, Carmine Falcone, or the Penguin. Tier 6 has your Deadshot and Clayface types. Tier 7 has your Mad Hatter and Rupert Thorne. Tier 8 is your Red Hood kind of rarity. Tier 9 are your absurd Gentleman Ghost types. Tier 10 are the named villains that probably rank below “Random Thug With A Pipe Wrench” such as Calendar Man, Egghead, and Clock King.
What’s that? You think the Penguin should be ranked higher? Have you seen Danny Devito play him? It’s like Mac and Charlie were the directors of Batman Returns; that ending is terrible. No, the only redeeming Penguin was played by Burgess Meredith in the Adam West series. That Penguin representation had some class! No, other than the Adam West series, he’s just a fat midget whose super power is that he has a lot of money. He’s annoying, and presents no real threat himself, it is the thugs he hires that are troublesome. He’s so pathetic that video games don’t give him a fight sequence (unless he has found some super weapon that his thugs stole for him, the kind that even a child could use to be a threat to society). I’d rank him lower if it wasn’t for Mr. Meredith (I wouldn’t want to fist-fight Rocky’s boxing coach).
So with those out of the way, we’re left with what most people would agree are the top 3 contenders for Batman’s Greatest Nemesis: Bane, Ra’s Al Ghul, and The Joker. These are the three names that come up time and time again by Batman fans. Bane, a calm and methodical planner with the objective of conquering Batman. Ra’s Al Ghul, the fire that forged Batman, a shadowy figure with his own ideology of what fate corrupt cities should suffer in order to serve the greater good. The Joker, the antithesis of Batman, a chaotic maniac bent on trying to destroy Gotham. Each has their own list of reasons of why they could be the top contender, but there can be only one.
Bane’s major campaigning claims for why he is the A-1 badguy is that he has broken Batman’s back. Several times. It first happened in the comic book series “Knightfall”, where Bane was the main brooding bad guy who kept plotting and plotting until finally he picked up Batman and dropped him on his knee. It happened again in the Chris Nolan movie. It happens in the Arkham video games whenever you have a Game Over screen. It’s Bane’s signature move. The reason why Bane should be the A-1 badguy is that he has broken Batman’s body.
Ra’s Al Ghul is a bit more complex. Mr. Ghul made Batman, trained him, gave him a code, instilled a passion for justice, and turned Bruce’s life around when he was wasting it away. Sure, Batman later decided to change a bit of Ra’s Al Ghul’s input, but that’s what a son always does with his father. What makes Ra’s Al Ghul truly sinister is that he fills the void left behind by Batman’s dead father, and while the two see eye-to-eye about the generic picture of a better world, they clash violently about the means to achieve that better world. Batman clashes to stop whatever threat Ra’s Al Ghul presents to Gotham fighting tooth and nail. Ra’s seem to bring out the training wheels during the fight, trying to teach Batman lessons, challenging him, coaching him, and letting him reach his full potential. Just like an evil father would. The reason why Ra’s Al Ghul should be the greatest nemesis is that he was portrayed on film by Liam Neeson. Also, he doesn’t want to destroy Batman, he wants to change him into something else, a slight push from the fanatic he is to the fanatic that the League of Shadows needs him to be.
The Joker is what most people would go with, but nerds rarely care what is ‘popular’ and care more about what is ‘right’. The Joker has been paired against Batman since the earliest of days, starting in 1940, and has been in every version of Batman that has come out. The Wikipedia pages I looked at for research flatly state that he is Batman’s greatest nemesis (so it must be true). What sets him apart from every other villain is that he understands who Batman is at his core. He sees Batman’s insanity, his moral code, his embodiment of a greater symbol, the whole package. The Joker is Batman’s polar opposite in most regards. Batman is Lawful; Joker is Chaotic. Batman is reserved; Joker is flamboyant. Batman wants justice for the city; Joker wants to watch the city burn. Batman wants to protect people; Joker wants to expose people to their true selves. Batman wants to give the city hope; the Joker wants to destroy all of the illusions people live their lives under, including Batman’s protection. Now the Joker has had plenty of opportunities to kill Batman, he captures him every other week, but he knows that killing the actual man doesn’t destroy the Batman symbol. This is why the Joker always stresses Batman’s moral code to the extreme. He wants to break Batman as a symbol. Even if no one else sees it, Batman will. It’ll destroy him. It’s why the Joker keeps pressing his forehead up against gun barrels, it’s because he wants Gotham’s symbols to break, even if he has to martyr himself to do so.
So the question is “Who Is Batman’s Greatest Nemesis.” We’ll have to define what “Greatest” means, and in order to do that, we need to smash 7 Batmen and their identities together. So I’m going to go through the various Batmen, show who they are at their core, and then show which of these three villains threatens that core identity the most.
ADAM WEST – Adam West portrayed a Batman who was mostly concerned about Truth, Justice, Manners, and the “American Way”. It’s hard to define what the “American Way” is, but whenever someone says “the good ol’ days”, they are referring to a heavily edited past (probably their childhood) where nothing was ever wrong and some things were just better than they are now. That Batman was campy, entertaining, and not in the least bit threatening to the establishment of America. Batman could walk down the street in broad daylight and everyone would just wave and smile. He could scale their building and everyone thought that was a hoot. He could walk into the police station and no one tried to arrest him. He was an unquestioningly good guy. Always. So which of our three villains was his arch nemesis? The Joker. The Joker (Cesar Romero) was the only one that actually existed in that Batman franchise, he fought Batman 22 times (and in a movie). On top of that, Bane and Ra’s Al Ghul couldn’t exist in the Adam West Batman. Ra’s Al Ghul would taint the Batman image, which at the time of Adam West was the embodiment of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics illusion (the insanely wealthy just go to such lengths for those poor folks). It wouldn’t work for Ra’s or for Bane. I have a difficult time seeing Adam West writhing on the floor beneath Bane’s boot heel, his back freshly broken, and the ever so cheerful announcer ending the episode with “Broken Batman! Can Batman show some spine in a less literal sense than he is doing now? Will he ever walk again? Find out tomorrow if he’ll receive some much kneeded physical therapy! Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel!”
Video Game Batman – Before the Arkham series, Batman video games were the Wild West. Besides there being a guy in a Batman outfit, the games had little to do with whatever else Batman had going on in the comics, TV shows, or movies. One game was literally putting together a hovercraft and nothing else. Batman was a lot more lethal in these games, he punched bad guys out of existence, often killed the Joker at the end, used machine guns against criminals from the Bat Mobile, and knocked guys into bottomless pits where they presumably starved to death before hitting anything that could be considered ‘the bottom’. This Batman didn’t have much of an identity, usually just a side-scrolling generic hero that fought generic villains. I had to use video game logic to see who the nemesis was. I tallied up how often Bane, Ra’s, and The Joker showed up in these games. Joker was in 16 (the end villain in 12), Ra’s Al Ghul was in 3 (end villain in 2), and Bane was in 3 (always under someone else’s direction). As far as the early video games go, The Joker is 8-Bit Batman’s worst nemesis.
The First 4 Batman Movies – Not including the first Adam West movie, I’m bringing up the original attempt at a Batman series of movies. These were awful. Tim Burton is to blame. When he was given the go ahead to make the first Batman movie, he didn’t. Instead, he made an homage to the movie Metropolis. Seriously, watch the end of Metropolis, and then watch the end of Batman. Put the characters in Batman themed costumes and you have the exact same movie, even some of the exact same shots. In these movies, Batman is a dull and two-dimensional hero stereotype. His alter ego of Bruce Wayne is just a detail that the audience is expected to accept, not something to be explored. The dialogue is dull and unbelievable, and often said in a voice that screams “I’m acting in front of a camera!” Bruce Wayne always seems to be suffering from an unhealthy dose of valium. The Joker is obviously the nemesis in these films, he gets his own movie all to himself. Ra’s Al Ghul is never mentioned. Bane…oh dear. The reason why Bane can never be Batman’s greatest nemesis is the movie Batman and Robin. Bane, the criminal mastermind that everyone wants to put up there with the great Joker, is a turd of a villain in this film. He’s a henchman, for starters, a giant yellow man who only talks in one noun phrases. He’s a dumb-dumb with no real impact on the plot. Ultimately, he’s defeated by batgirl kicking off his rather obvious tube weakness. The only way you could argue that Bane almost killed Batman is that Warner Brothers stopped the movies after the movie Bane showed up in because it was so bad. I’m going to give Joker a point here, and Bane gets a negative point.
Cartoon Batmen – So much is going on here, smashing them all into one is hard. The primary focus of all the cartoons is the Batman side of the persona, Bruce Wayne is just a problematic side effect. The thing they all seem to have in common is that their goal is to stop the badguy and protect Gotham. Beyond that they don’t care. They aren’t interested in being role models, symbols of hope, or leaders of a movement of change for the better. They just want to beat up the bad guy and stop them from whatever it is they were trying to accomplish. I’ve tallied up appearances in animated Batman shows. Bane shows up 5 times, Ra’s Al Ghul shows up 11 times, and the Joker shows up 60 times. The Joker wins, because cartoon Batman had to stop him more times than he had to stop the rest.
The Arkham Batman Video Games – Joker is always the end badguy in these. In video game logic, that makes him the nemesis. Bane, the criminal mastermind, is defeated by throwing boomerangs at him and then jumping out of his way so he’ll smash himself into a wall. Ra’s Al Ghul shows up in one…and he does a great job, but I can’t give him the nemesis spot. I’m giving Joker another point and taking another away from Bane.
Chris Nolan Movies – Nolan understood who the Big 3 were, and dedicated a movie to each. I won’t go with what awards each movie got, because acting isn’t what Batman is scared of, so the Joker’s Oscar doesn’t really count. We need to know who Batman is, and the Nolan movies does a good job of exploring that. Bruce Wayne makes Batman to be a symbol of hope and change. Batman is the constant force for good who does not kill. He is the guardian of the city and will protect it no matter the cost, as long as he doesn’t have to break his code. Ra’s Al Ghul wants to destroy the city, but doesn’t necessarily want to destroy Batman. Ra’s Al Ghul’s actions are to make Gotham so bad that it will destroy itself, but this is what creates Batman. I’m going to say that Ra’s Al Ghul doesn’t get a point, because when there were 0 Batmen, Ra’s actions caused there to be 1 Batman. Bane is more successful, taking over Gotham for several months. He breaks Batman’s body and spirit. Still, Batman comes back after a prolonged stay in a pit, so his spirits and body must have been not entirely broken. The Joker is what wins this round. Ra’s wanted to destroy the city. Bane wanted to destroy the city and Batman’s body. The Joker wanted to break the symbols, which is what Batman was in the mind of Bruce Wayne. Joker wanted to free everyone from the illusions they held, and one of those was Batman. He put himself in harm’s way just to keep digging his clutches further into Batman to rip him apart. He had already tainted the symbol of Harvey Dent, now he just needed to destroy Batman. And he did. Despite Joker failing to perform ‘Suicide by Batman’, he destroyed Batman’s spirit for 8 entire years. During that time, Bruce Wayne’s body wasted away. The Joker did more to break Batman than Bane ever did. I’m giving this point to The Joker.
Comic Book Batman – This one is the hardest of all to have a decided winner. Joker was earliest, appears the most often, but Bane and Ra’s Al Ghul show up often and with significant story arcs. Batman’s personality changes a lot, as well as his priorities. It’s almost impossible to say what Batman would consider his greatest threat, because DC Comics keeps amping up the hype machine so that the next comic villain is better than the last. I’m going to call this one a wash.
The Joker wins, and there really shouldn’t have been any doubt. When Batman is Adam West and stands for Justice and the American Way, Joker stands for crime and a communistic redistribution of capitalism. When Batman is in a side scrolling video game walking to the right, the Joker is facing to the left. He’s always the opposite.
Bane couldn’t be the nemesis. He’s credited as being a criminal mastermind in the Knightfall series, but he just isn’t. When you look at Bane’s plan to defeat batman, it really just boils down to “make Batman tired, and then fight him when he’s really tired”. Other than Knightfall, he’s portrayed as a really strong dude who can be defeated as long as you don’t stand between him and the wall he’s running at face first.
Ra’s Al Ghul couldn’t be the nemesis either. While I think he ranks higher than Bane (because apparently he also made Bane), I don’t think he beats the Joker. He’s just not around long enough, and he doesn’t try to break the symbol of Batman, which would be a worse tragedy than death in the mind of Bruce Wayne.
Thanks for reading. This one has been heavily researched and ran a bit long. I’ll now be watching my email for hate-mail from Bane and Ra’s Al Ghul fans.