WARNING: The following contains spoilers for The Riddler: Year of the Villain #1 by Mark Russell, Scott Godlewski, Marissa Louise and Travis Lanham, on sale now.
The Riddler has long been one of the most prominent Batman villains despite years of being something of an afterthought to the Dark Knight. His riddle-filled schemes never lead Riddler to true victory, and often serve only to foil his plans.
But why? He's consistently proven to be a dangerous villain, and the lecture he gets from Lex Luthor in the Year of the Villain: The Riddler special might have inspired him to become a much darker and more powerful figure.
If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?
Edward Nygma was a clever child. He won contests in his youth that showcased his intelligence, but his abusive father, offended by his own lack of status and convinced that his son must have lied and cheated his way to victory, instilled in Nygma a compulsion to always prove his intelligence. This is at the forefront of his criminal identity, as he can't stop himself from leaving clues his enemies can uncover and, thus, stop him.
Riddler actually has a long history of accomplishments and near victories. He was the architect of Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee's "Hush" storyline, pushing Batman to the edge of his vow to never kill. He forced Batman into an almost unwinnable conflict with the classic Peter Milligan, Kieron Dwyer and Mike Mignola story "Dark Knight, Dark City," which forced Batman to do unspeakable things to save Gotham.
Following the events of "Infinite Crisis," Riddler was given a heavy head injury by the Shining Knight. Spending most of the time skip that led to the "One Year Later" initiative across DC in a coma, Riddler awakened with a clear mind and no psychosis. Deciding to go clean, Edward Nygma became a private detective and went to work trying to solve the various mysteries of Gotham City before his rival, Batman, could. This lasted until an explosion at Wayne Manor retriggered his psychosis.
With the beginnings of the New 52, Riddler briefly rose in prominence as a villain again. He became the overarching central villain of "Zero Year" by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. The final arc of the story focused exclusively on a dangerous and jovial Riddler turning Gotham into his own post-apocalyptic playground until Batman finally rallied to stop him. Although he was underplayed for a period during the current Tom King run, "The War of Jokes and Riddles" by King and Mikel Janín sees the Riddler turn against the Joker in a supervillain civil war that threatens to tear Gotham apart.
The problem is that whenever he has a prominent role in a Batman story, he quickly vanishes back into the near endless fold of other Batman villains. Each of his schemes seem to push Batman to his absolute limits, both mentally and even physically. Riddler is one of the few villains as genuinely clever as Batman, necessitating the hero go all out in their battles. In "War of Jokes and Riddles," Batman even came close to outright murdering Riddler for all the collateral damage he'd caused across Gotham City during his war with the Joker. He should stand out among the other villains as a major player within the pantheon of Batman villains.
But instead, his habit of self-sabotage and commitment to "gimmick" crimes in an age when most Batman villains have moved on to become more successful and straightforward threats has made him a proverbial laughing stock. He's never been able to fully escape his schtick, preventing him from growing as other bad guys did. That's why it's so important that someone shake him from his rut and help make him into the villain he deserves to be.
Year Of The Riddler
The Riddler appears in his own Year of the Villain special by Mark Russell, Scott Godlewski and Mikel Janin. The special features Riddler hanging out with fellow apparent B-list baddie, King Tut. While Lex Luthor is traveling around the world and empowering various villains across the DC Universe, he still hasn't offered anything to the Riddler. All that changes when Luthor actually surprises Riddler with a visit. But while the other villains (such as Mister Freeze) have gotten a serious power boost from Luthor, Riddler gets a lecture.
Throughout his speech, Luthor is straightforward and honest with Nygma. There's no condensation or ridicule for Riddler, just a brutally honest breakdown of his failures. Lex verbally tears him down for being content just being "the Riddler" instead of becoming something bigger and more dangerous. He compares Riddler to himself, and how his own ego consumed him for decades in the same way that Riddler's persona has superseded Nygma's potential.
Riddler initially doesn't seem to take this speech to heart, railing against the speech by doubling down on his typical Riddler persona. He complains to Tut about the "Tony Robbins" spiel that Luthor delivered. Tut convinces Luthor to team up with a joint death trap, intending to overwhelm Batman when he won't expect it. But watching Tut waste the small fortune he'd lucked into on the absurdities of a death trap, Riddler begins to understand what Lex was trying to tell him. Halfway through the scheme, Riddler walks out, announcing that he "quits." As he leaves the warehouse where they'd set up the death trap, he seems to abandon the identity of the Riddler and promises to become something more dangerous.
If Nygma is really considering abandoning the trappings of the Riddler, he could become something far more dangerous. He's been able to bring down the entirety of Gotham City, and has only been stopped by his own self-imposed weaknesses, giving Batman the opening he needs to win. Without those faults, he could take his place as the most genuinely dangerous member of Batman's rogues' gallery, and perhaps the one man who could finally out-think Batman once and for all.