We live in a world filled with superhero movies. Whether it's the unstoppable MCU or the “keep trying until something sticks” DCEU, there is a steady stream of capes popping up in mainstream entertainment. However, Batman has remained the most iconic bigscreen superhero. The 1989 Batman movie effectively kicked off the modern superhero movie, and the public couldn't get enough of the character. That's why we've had five different popular actors playing this character across decades of different movies.
It's not hard to see why people keep coming back to Batman. As good as these Batman actors are, even the most casual fan understands that Batman is defined by his villains. On top of that, he has the coolest rogues' gallery of villains, so it's fun to see each new movie bring one of these vibrant villains to life. With so many villains over so many movies, fans start to wonder: who's the best Batman villain performance of all-time? And who is so far down the list that you've already forgotten about them? You don't need a fancy Bat-computer or access to Oracle to figure these things out. Instead, all you have to do is keep scrolling to check out our ranking of every modern on-screen Batman villain!
20 BANE (BATMAN AND ROBIN)
The Bane of the comic books was a physically intimidating foe, but he was also deadly smart. He was able to deduce that Batman was actually Bruce Wayne and force the hero to fight his deadliest foes. When the time came, Bane was able to break Batman and leave the hero temporarily disabled.
Unfortunately, our first big screen Bane is the worst onscreen villain.
He was part of the Batman and Robin farce of a film, and had almost no dialogue and pretty much zero intelligence. He was just a big, dumb thug who made noises while trying (and failing) to look intimidating. That’s why he sits squarely at the bottom of this list. Fortunately, the second attempt to bring Bane to the big screen was much more successful!
19 THE RIDDLER
On paper, Jim Carrey was great casting for the Riddler in Batman Forever. The actor was at the height of his popularity and prowess, and everyone expected to throw his full manic energy into the project. And while we got plenty of manic energy, it turned out that the rubber-faced comedian turned the role into nothing more than a punchline.
When he’s written well in the comics, the Riddler represents an intellectual challenge to Batman, forcing him to use his brains and not just his brawn. In the movie, all of the riddles have the substance of a children’s gum wrapper, and the Riddler’s big plan involved stealing secrets by sucking the brains of Gotham City. While Batman saves the day, there were still victims… we certainly felt our brains were sucked out during every scene with the Riddler!
18 MR. FREEZE
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance as Mr. Freeze is legendarily terrible. The actor pursued the campy nature of the role and the writing with glee, throwing his infamous accent into every possible ice-related pun. Ultimately, the performance ended up being a disappointment to fans on many different levels.
First of all, this Mr. Freeze barely has any scenes acknowledging that he pursues crime to save his wife, Nora. This was a plot detail added to the Mr. Freeze mythos by Batman: The Animated Series, and it gives the character added heart and depth. This Freeze has no depth, though, and the performance is basically nothing more than an excuse to sell Mr. Freeze toys and accessories to young children. At the very least, that’s a demographic that’s not likely to realize how bad this movie and character portrayal really are!
17 JOKER (SUICIDE SQUAD)
Everyone knew that Jared Leto had big shoes to fill when he was cast as Joker. Heath Ledger’s performance as in The Dark Knight was absolutely stunning, and it was difficult to imagine anyone living up to that legend. Suicide Squad was Leto’s time to really embrace the role and prove all of his haters wrong.
However, Leto’s Joker ended up being nothing but dumb gimmicks and bad makeup.
The first disappointment is that there's no interaction with Batman -- Bats helps steer Joker’s car into a body of water, but we only see him trade blows with Harley Quinn. The second disappointment is how few scenes we get: instead of being a main villain, Joker is just a distraction in Suicide Squad. Finally, the performance is all style and no substance, leaving a clear message that the actor is trying way too hard for way too little.
16 POISON IVY
While this may be damning her with faint praise, Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy was the best thing about Batman & Robin. Most of the other performances in that movie veer away from what fans expected from characters (such as dumb brute Bane and punchline-spewing Mr. Freeze). However, Thurman leans hard into the idea of Poison Ivy as a seductive temptress.
In short, she does as much as she can with the material she is given. Her performance (and wardrobe) are certainly memorable long after the credits roll, but even Uma Thurman can’t do much with lines like “’cause it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature” and “I can help you grab your rocks.” Maybe someday the DCEU can give this character live action justice.
15 TWO-FACE (BATMAN FOREVER)
Generally speaking, Tommy Lee Jones is a pretty serious actor. Therefore, it was surprising to see that he was cast as the colorful Two-Face in Batman Forever. It turns out he was convinced to take the role by his 11-year-old son. Hopefully his son was happy, because this performance made no sense to anyone else!
Unlike the cold and calculating Two-Face that we got in the Animated Series and later in Dark Knight, this is a Two-Face who does everything big and wacky. The character (and filmmakers) seemingly put more design in colorful costumes and set pieces than they did on making any of this make sense. The bottom line was a performance that was fun to watch, but not at all fitting to the character Batman fans know and love.
The live-action Scarecrow was something of an enigma (not you, Riddler, we mean an actual enigma). Cillian Murphy’s performance was very solid, and he did a great job of portraying a psychologist who had gone off the deep end.
In other words, he made a great Jonathan Crane, but it was tough to take him seriously as Scarecrow.
Many have made jokes over the years about the absurdity of superheroes and supervillains. Why bother to throw on a mask to do the thing you were planning to do anyway? The live-action Scarecrow is the punchline to that joke because he just carries around his freaky mask wherever he goes. He has no other suit, so every time we see him onscreen, he looks like an office worker who only remembered Halloween at the last minute and put on a dumb rubber mask to go with his suit.
13 TALIA AL GHUL
Talia al Ghul is a tough character to get right. The performance has to balance the beauty and seduction of the character along with her steel and reserve. In other words, she needs to be just as capable of melting a man’s heart as she is in commanding the League of Assassins to cut it out.
Overall, Marion Cotillard does a solid job with her portrayal in The Dark Knight Rises. We see her infiltrate Bruce Wayne’s inner circle and gain his trust and affection before revealing herself as the mastermind behind Bane’s plot to destroy Gotham City. The only thing keeping her from being higher on the list is how little time we get to see her openly portray Talia and the downright stupid way she dies (a car crash is a pretty chump way to punch your ticket, especially in Gotham).
Deadshot ended up being one of the best parts about Suicide Squad. The role was anchored by a solid performance from Will Smith, and he brought the character to vivid life. We even get to see the human side of the character, as his sole motivation in the movie is to help take care of his young daughter.
Will Smith’s Deadshot is one of the most compelling Batman villains in the history of film.
There are only two things holding Deadshot back on this list. The first is the simple fact that we only get one scene with Batman: it’s tough to compete with these movie-long villains when you have so little shared screen time. The other thing is that Suicide Squad was crowded with too many characters, which constantly left us wishing we were watching a solo Deadshot movie instead!
11 CATWOMAN (BATMAN RETURNS)
Batman Returns was a mixed bag. The follow-up to the 1989 Batman movie brought us a bold new portrayal of the Penguin by Danny DeVito, but it also featured a bizarrely out of place Christopher Walken as the villain Max Schreck. However, what fans remember most about this movie was Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman.
This was our first glimpse of a live-action Catwoman since the glory days of Adam West, and it was one hell of a glimpse. With her skintight leather catsuit and trademark whip, she fit right into the kinky noir of Tim Burton's Batman world. And while the character was different from her comics portrayal in many ways, the bottom line is that this is an unforgettable performance that would help define Batman for years to come.
If we're being honest, the Penguin has rarely seemed like a threatening character. In Batman's rogue's gallery of killer clowns and clay monsters, “fat guy with umbrellas” isn't very scary. Nowadays, Robin Lord Taylor gives the role a manic menace on Gotham, but few would consider Penguin a threat if not for Danny DeVito in Batman Returns.
DeVito showed us a Penguin trapped between worlds: even as he gains power and legitimacy in the public sphere of Gotham City, he gains prestige as an underworld villain whose plans and appearance are downright inhuman. Devito manages to find the fine line between the campy fun of a man putting rockets on a penguin army and the genuine pathos of an outcast seeking approval. Love or hate the performance, you are never going to look at the penguin the same after this movie.
9 HARLEY QUINN
Aside from Will Smith's Deadshot, the other standout performance from Suicide Squad was Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn. She manages to capture the sexiness and the silliness of this fan favorite character, and she manages to make her every scene shine. And though we don't get much of her and Batman, she has clearly left an impression on the hero.
Harley Quinn quickly establishes herself as the scariest Batman villain in the DCEU.
In Batman v. Superman, we see that Batman has held onto an outfit belonging to Robin. The outfit has been vandalized to say “ha ha,” and the Suicide Squad movie clarifies that it was Harley Quinn that managed to kill Jason Todd (who was the second Robin in the comics). In a movie universe where heroes rarely die, this automatically makes Harley one of the deadliest villains of Batman!
8 RA’S AL GHUL
Part of the charm of Batman is his dual life. So while Batman constantly faces physical threats from his various villains, Bruce Wayne is typically a safe retreat for the hero. This is what makes Liam Neeson's performance as Ra's al Ghul so compelling: he's a threat to both Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Under a different name, Ra's al Ghul was responsible for recruiting and training Batman to be the ultimate warrior. Batman refuses to kill and abandons Ra's al Ghul's compound, but he's forced to fight him when the villain comes to destroy Gotham. Overall, this villain is one of the few who is a match for Batman in a physical fight, and his knowledge of Batman's secret identity allows him to burn Bruce Wayne's mansion down, hitting the hero where it hurts.
7 JOKER (1989 BATMAN)
Let's just put it out there: we would probably have never had so many Batman movies if not for Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker. While Michael Keaton gave an admirably quirky turn as Batman, it was Nicholson's over-the-top performance that convinced the world that this was a franchise worth returning to. We see several dimensions to his character in this movie.
We see him as conniving mafioso Jack Napier as well as the unstoppable killer clown known as the Joker.
He provided the most comics accurate Joker performance that we have yet seen, and he helped prove to audiences that there is a way to balance campiness and gothic pomp inside one gleefully-insane villain. In fact, his performance was so great and so accurate that fans were able to (mostly) overlook the weird changes to his character (such as making him the gunman who killed the Waynes).
6 BANE (THE DARK KNIGHT RISES)
Tom Hardy's Bane was the face (and voice) that launched a thousand memes. It was already tough to take him seriously with the silly mask, and then Hardy doubles down with a wild accent. Admit it: you and your friends have spent years cupping your hands around your mouths and yelling “Citizens of Gotham!”
Here's the thing, though: Hardy gives a performance that rises above this silliness. He pulls off the raw physical intimidation of Bane perfectly -- one look at this guy and you'll believe he's got a shot at beating Batman. And he imbues the character of Bane with the kind of charisma of a cult leader...very fitting considering how his henchmen live and dies for him. All in all, Bane forms the core of The Dark Knight Rises and helps Christopher Nolan's trilogy of Bat films to end on a memorable note.
When fans tally up the theatrical Batman movies, they often overlook Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. This movie featuring the cast and characters of Batman: The Animated Series is beautiful and memorable, and it has remained one of the best Batman movies of all time, even after all these years. And one of the main reasons is the title villain, Phantasm.
We see the Phantasm as a Grim Reaper-type figure who is murdering various Gotham crime leaders. In a fun twist, she ends up being Andrea Beaumont, a former love interest of Bruce Wayne. It turns out that criminals had destroyed her life, too, so she became a different creature of the night..one who wasn't afraid to kill. Phantasm was a sympathetic character with powerful ties to Batman's past, and it was captivating to see him try to save her even as he tries to stop her.
4 CATWOMAN (THE DARK KNIGHT RISES)
When it came to The Dark Knight Rises villains, most fans observed that Tom Hardy had big shoes to fill. Who would want to be the main Batman film villain after Heath Ledger's unforgettable performance in The Dark Knight? While Hardy did a great job, there was an even harder task given to Anne Hathaway.
She had to give a new spin to Catwoman while also acting in the dark leather shadow of Michelle Pfeiffer.
Fortunately, Hathaway takes the role and runs with it. Her performance shows how her undeniable beauty is just another weapon that she uses to get what she wants. Interestingly, the performance taps into the Catwoman we see in Frank Miller's Batman: Year One. This is a character who has known poverty and lower-class life, and she sees her theft as nothing less than class warfare against characters like Bruce Wayne.
3 TWO-FACE (THE DARK KNIGHT)
Part of the problem with the Two-Face in Batman: Forever was that we only saw him as the colorful villain. Fittingly enough, the best part about Two-Face is his duality: he is simultaneously a deadly foe to Batman and a dear friend to Bruce Wayne, who cared deeply for Harvey Dent. And in every possible way, Aaron Eckhart's performance as Two-Face in The Dark Knight is the definitive take on the character.
Eckhart shows us a Two-Face who is a true perversion of Harvey Dent. While Harvey cared about justice, Two-Face cares only about vengeance. However, these are two sides of the same coin, and we see how easily he gets swept into Joker's chaotic plans to undo all of the order Batman has tried to bring to the city. Like Bruce, we all end up believing in Harvey Dent thanks to Eckhart's standout performance.
Superman, of course, isn't typically considered a Batman villain. Depending on who is doing the writing, they are often portrayed in DC Comics as great friends and, when they team up, the World's Finest Heroes. However, the Batman v. Superman film pit these characters against each other, and Henry Cavill's Superman ended up being the fight of Batman's life.
Many hardcore Batman fans like to gloat that Batman won this fight. However, it took millions of dollars of technology and weapons along with an entire Kryptonite arsenal in order to bring Superman down. He very easily and effortlessly challenges Batman physically, but he also presents a kind of moral dilemma, forcing Batman to reevaluate how he looks at the world around him. In this way, Superman is one of the very best “villains:” the kind who profoundly change the heroes that he encounters.
1 JOKER (DARK KNIGHT)
Come on -- you knew Heath Ledger's Joker was going to be the best villain before you even clicked on the article, right? As his character might say, “it's all part of the plan.” This performance has more than earned the top spot because Ledger channeled the very best of the Joker character while adding dynamic changes that no fan could have predicted. Like the comic icon, this Joker is an immaculate planner. He teases other characters about daring to think he has a plan...and then executes plans that perfectly disable small armies of police officers. At the same time, Ledger turns the character into an anarchist.
He doesn't hate Batman, but he hates the order and structure that Batman represents.
Every interaction between Joker and Batman keeps you on the edge of your seat, and Ledger brings a haunting energy that ensures you'll be squirming every time he's on-screen!