Saturday, October 30, 2010

In Defense of the Riddler

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve probably already heard that the Riddler will not be the villain in Christopher Nolan’s next Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises”. I certainly did hope that the Riddler would be the villain, and was looking forward to Nolan's interpretation of this underappreciated character. But I am okay with the announcement, particularly if the villain is the Catwoman, the Penguin, or Hugo Strange, all of whom arrived in continuity at least seven years before the Riddler did, and deserve their chance at a respectable turn on the silver screen.

What I am not okay with is the snark of the ‘thank god it’s not the Riddler!’ variety, particularly if the source of the snark is one of the many unread pop culture commenters who talk about comic book properties, but know too little about comic books.

Such commenters tend to make points like, "The Riddler is too much like the Joker."

“I think that there may be too many similarities with The Joker and The Riddler for one villain to follow the other in consecutive sequels.” Nick Newman at

“So would it be a good idea to pit Batman against an enemy who, to casual fans, will appear to be exactly like the Clown Prince of Crime? Both are apparent maniacal lunatics and delight in using mind games to get under Batman’s skin as opposed to beating him senseless. For those who haven’t followed the comics, the two are far too interchangeable.” Gabriel Ruzin at

Okay, I get it. If you draw from only a handful of non-comicbook media portrayals of the two characters and judge them a bit myopically by a few superficial characteristics, you might have this reaction. But really— you don’t have to have read any comic book portrayals of either to know that there is more than one way to play any character (certainly one that’s been around for seventy years). Anyone who doesn't understand that really shouldn't be a public commenter on popular fiction in any medium.

And, with even a little thought, the differences become obvious; they are intrinsic to the characters. If the Joker bothers to manipulate you, it's subtly, using ridicule and challenging your worldview. The Riddler delights in openly manipulating the hero, through forcing him to jump through hoops. The Joker is that annoying game opponent who psychs you out; the Riddler is the dungeon-master who delights in being fair- but only technically so. The Joker flaunts rules; The Riddler revels in using them to his advantage. The Joker is happy to tell you what his next crime is and dares you to stop him; the Riddler challenges you to figure it out. The Joker is an adaptive, philosophical challenge; the Riddler is a creative, intellectual challenge. As an opponent, the Joker's advantage is that you never know what he'll do next and neither does he; the Riddler's advantage is that he always knows what he'll does next and what you will, too. C'mon, people; is it really that hard for an average person to grasp the difference between a psychotic, chaotic, killer clown and an intellectual bully and control-freak?

Another common criticism based in an inability to look past previous media portrayals is that the Riddler is not a sufficiently serious villain.

"The next Batman movie should focus on one major villain from Batman’s rogues gallery – someone like Mr Freeze, Penguin, etc. (Riddler’s probably a little too goofy to carry a movie)." Oliver Wills, Like Kryptonite to Stupid.
"He’s a goofy character with a goofy gimmick, no matter how “dark and edgy” you make him. I’m of the opinion that the Riddler, ike the Penguin, is one of those characters who we only know about today and consider to be one of Batman’s Biggest Bad Guys because of the Adam West TV show." Phillip Mottaz Town

Sigh. I won't deny it: the Riddler can be goofy, in a way that Two-Face or Scarecrow are unlikely to. But so can the Joker (or the Penguin or Catwoman). But it doesn't mean they have to be. That's all the more reason that they need the occasional quite serious portrayal to re-emphasize that fact.

There's an undying appeal to game-playing villains and crimes posed as intellectual puzzles solved by intellectual means. Numb3rs. The SAW films. Hannibal Lecter. The works of Conan Doyle and Christie. The Zodiac Killer and Jack the Ripper. In the Batman mythos, the Riddler personifies this type of challenge. Sure, other villains have left clues (including the Joker and the Penguin). They've done it; but it's what the Riddler DOES. Perhaps he's not taken as seriously because writers aren't usually smart enough (or are too lazy) to craft intelligent clues for him. Or because (unlike most of the other examples I listed) he usually doesn't leave a trail of bodies in his wake.

But just because you-the-dullard-commenter cannot imagine a "non-goofy' interpretation of the Riddler doesn't mean that Christopher Nolan couldn't. You couldn't have imagined making "Memento" or "Inception", either.


Scipio said...


Don't just stand there, Mag; do your OWN pro-Riddler post! Did you see him on Brave and the Bold this week?

SallyP said...

Well, I'm sorry that it isn't going to be the Riddler, because he's one of my favorite Bat-Villains. He's got nuance, dammit.

Non-comic reviewers are ALWAYS ridiculous. They know nothing of what they are talking about, or only the bare bones, and so they continually make idiotic pronouncements. The only thing missing were the "Bam, Biff, Pow!" headlines.


Anonymous said...

I hadn't given the Riddler much thought, and my impression of him had been pretty much that of the stereotype. However, you've opened my eyes, and for that I thank you.

Scipio said...

YOu're very welcome!

Chris McK said...

The main reason why people think The Joker and The Riddler are similar is that Jim Carrey did his very best to try to out Jack Nicholson Jack Nicholson's Joker in Batman Forever. Had Nolan gone with a cold, methodical Riddler in the upcoming film like the one on The Animated Series, everyone would have declared him a "genius!" for re-inventing such a silly character, the same people who think Nolan invented the anarchist Joker.

Either way, I'm looking forward to the next film and finding out who the villain(s) may be.

By the way... welcome back Scipio!

Your Obedient Serpent said...

When everyone was certain that the third Nolan film was going to feature Eddie Nigma, I confess that I was of two minds.

On the one claw, the choice disappointed me. It was too "by the numbers" for a film series that opened by using Ra's al Ghul as an adversary. A Joker story was essential, but there's such a rich history of characters in the Bat-Mythos who've never had a shot at the media exposure live-action lends -- do we have to see the same "iconic" characters rehashed again and again?

It's bad enough that these adversaries are now permanently-entrenched members of the monthly supporting cast.

On the other claw, I think Nolan's Riddler would have been brilliant.

On the gripping hand ... I'm not sure the Nolan-Bale Batman would be up to Eddie, truth to tell, and most certainly not a Nolan-Brilliant Eddie. Bale-Bruce is a terrific ninja, and he's cranked "wonderful toys" up to eleven, but we haven't seen much in the way of detective work from him.

The Nolan films aren't mysteries, and his Batman is not a detective. It's worth noting that Batman Begins is the only Ra's al Ghul tale in which Ra's doesn't refer to Bruce by that title of respect.

Scipio said...

Perhaps Batman's need to BECOME a detective would be the POINT of the film...

Unknown said...

'writers aren't usually smart enough (or are too lazy) to craft intelligent clues for him..' got me thinking. Does Mr. Nigma have the same problem as Watson.
I've always been bothered by the early Film and TV adaptations of Holmes' best friend. Instead of making him what he is in the books, Sherlock's intellectual equal without the genius or the neuroses, the writers and directors of those early works decided to make him an idiot.They did that, as best I can tell, to illuminate Holmes' brilliance. The bright light shines all the brighter against the dark, and all...
But here is the problem: Holmes seems even more intelligent, interesting and engaging when Watson is one of the smartest men around, and Holmes is still leagues ahead of him. Look at the recent Robert Downey Jr. film and, perhaps more notably Wilson and Houses' dynamic. Holmes and House's genius is only magnified by the fact that they continually one up their, brilliant, but still slightly inferior foils.
Sorry it took me a while to get here, I'm really excited to see the Absorbascon back and it sent me off on a little tear. So here is the punchline. If the Riddler is Batman's Watson, the meter by which his Detective skills are measured, is it possible that weaker writers have been tempted to write him as goofy or silly or incompetent in order to make the Dark Knight seem more competent? Did they hamstring Mr. Nigma to make sure Batman would win the race?
I could say more, but thats likely more than enough...

CobraMisfit said...

I have to admit my disappointment that The Riddler is not the villain for the next Batman movie. In all honesty, however, I'm not surprised considering Nolan's fumble of Two-Face. Outstanding character development through the film and then it was tossed away. What is the point of a franchise if you don't build upon previous films? Granted, the new movie will open doors for more villains, but in terms of escalation (as "Gordon" mentioned in Batman Begins), where does one go for evil in the post-Joker movie world? For me, Nolan's pairing of Two-Face and the Riddler, polar opposites in their design, would have been amazing. Batman would be forced to think between a criminal who's actions are based solely on chance and one who calculates every cold, vicious step. As was pointed out, the new Batman has done little detective work thus far and a nemesis that challenges him, and subsequently the viewers, intellectually would have been a welcome addition to the franchise. Maybe Nolan wanted to avoid any connections to the Tommy Lee Jones / Jim Carrey incident years ago, but if done correctly and with the right actor (Depp), the pairing would have been chilling.

Jeff R. said...

The problem with the Riddler as a movie villain is that he's a low-stakes character. He's not a killer, and to turn him into one does violence to the concept; the worst that's going to happen if Batman doesn't stop him is that he'll get away with something valuable. Catwoman is extemely similar, except that Catwoman is better, as a concept, at sharing the spotlight with another villain.

I still want Hugo Strange to make a comeback and stop being the lupus of mystery-bat-villain stories...

Perplexio said...

When one's exposure to the Riddler is limited to the 60s Adam West TV show or the Jim Carrey Batman Forever interpretation than the assessment of the Riddler being too similar to the Joker is spot on.

When one actually delves into the comics and sees the depth of the character it's a much different story. The Riddler is less gimmicky than Mr. Freeze or The Penguin (I'm so glad he won't be the villain in The Dark Knight Returns) so he'd have been a better fit than either of those characters.

That being said I'm still glad Catwoman was chosen over The Riddler. I think she "fits" Nolan's filmmaking style better than The Riddler. I'm also glad that The Penguin wasn't chosen-- he was a perfect fit for Tim Burton's style but I don't know how Nolan could have pulled it off. It doesn't really fit the style of Batman Begins or The Dark Knight.

Scipio said...

You have evidence that has happened...? If so, I have missed that news...

LissBirds said...

Well, they're probably not going to use the RIddler because even though there are differences, it still comes down to a battle of brains and worldview and intellectualism. Bringing in Catwoman challenges Batman from a romantic angle, and you can't have that with the Riddler. Even if the Riddler and the Joker are different, the story itself would be along the same lines: solve a crime by way of brains, not heart. The first film was much different from the second, and I'm guessing they'll make the third one much different from the second by using a female villain. Plus, we had a control freak in the last film, remember?

Suffice to say, I was hoping The Riddler be in it, and I was hoping he wouldn't be all "badass," but intelligent and cunning. And the rumor about Johnny Depp playing him sounded promising.

Actually, what I really wanted was Two-Face to come back, but that isn't going to happen.

Bryan L said...

Bless you for not using the abominable "commentator," the sound of which is like an icepick to my ears. Yes, I read your posts aloud; why do you ask? Worse by far though is the use of the "verb" "commentate."

Derek said...

Thank you. Riddler is one of my favorite characters, and I'm sick of how he's treated my most comic fans (and creators).

Civilians can be forgiven for thinking that the Riddler is a Joker knockoff, however. Frank Gorshin's Riddler was closer to modern portrayals of the Joker. And as mentioned above, Jim Carry's Riddler was a tittering, be-bodysocked version of the Joker in Batman Forever (and so was Two-Face, which was the main problem with that movie).

I'm disappointed that we won't be getting a Nolan-verse Riddler. Nolan's movie create an environment where an intellectual villain could really work, and Riddler's costume is simple enough that it could be represented without being outlandish. A green suit jacket and bowler and a cane is easy to pull off.

Besides, the one aspect of Batman that has yet to illustrated in the Bale-Batman is the World's Greatest Detective. He did some minor CSI work in The Dark Knight, but he comes off as a bit of a doofus when it comes to actual detecting.

Honestly, if I could figure out that Joker switched the addresses of the warehouses, Batman should have.

A villain that would challenge him intellectually would up the stakes even more than the Joker did, if only because it would force the Batman to become something he hadn't already trained his whole life to be.

Allan said...

As someone who invariably responds to any criticism that begins with "I can't imagine..." with "That says a lot more about your lack of imagination than it does anything else," I can say I appreciated this post as much as I did discovering that a certain comic book blogger had finally ended his long exile.

Jeff said...

I've always liked that the Riddler is the villain where the reader gets to play along. In his best stories, his riddles are fair game, and can be figured out if you're clever enough.

He's my favorite bat-villain.

Diabolu Frank said...

I like the Riddler. He's been poorly handled for ages, and he's the perfect villain for a Christopher Nolan film. You could even use Robin Williams, in Insomnia/One Hour Photo mode.

D said...

I was very disappointed when I found that it won’t be the riddler. I was hoping for a more psychological batman, not relying so much on the special effects but on the tension of the script. Something like the police hiring the eccentric, yet effective private detective Nigma (I’m thinking something like Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes) to hunt down the Batman. And he would get pretty close, at the same time that Wayne would have to find something on him, a well-played chess match. Nolan could even make it a mindfuck, which would be fitting.

Gabriel Ruzin said...

Hello, Scipio. Gabriel Ruzin from Shadowlocked here. I just wanted to say that this is my first visit to 'The Absorbascon' and I think it's great. I wish you the best in your writing.

I fear that, while you used my quote mostly in the vein that I intended, it was taken just slightly out of context. As I'm sure you know, it was part of a larger article entitled 'The 8 Reasons that the Riddler in Batman 3 would be a bad idea.' It was written back in May and was largely a kind of personal backlash of mine against the apparent groundswell by Batman fans that the Riddler in Batman 3 was a foregone conclusion. In response, I wrote that article, targeted really towards such fans, as to why I thought he shouldn't be included in Nolan's "Gothamverse".

Despite what it might seem, I'm actually a HUGE comic fan (although not nearly with the comic knowledge that you appear to have) and I love the Riddler. If anyone could pull off a great Riddler, it would have been Nolan, and if that's the direction he had decided to go, I'd have been as excited as the next guy.

What worried me and prompted me to write the quote that you used was that the NON-COMIC FANS that went to see the film wouldn't understand who the Riddler was and would dismiss him as a viable character, thus diminishing the movie's success as a whole. I was worried that people who DIDN'T know his backstory would sit there and say "This guy's just like the JOKER! WTH is this crap?"

So yeah, Nolan has decided to go a different direction as I figured he would, but I get no pleasure out of being right. I'm a Jim Carrey fan in general but I think he was terrible in Batman Forever. A little part of me was kinda hoping that Nolan would do the character justice, but alas 'twas not to be. However, I DO understand comic stuff and am not some stuffy twerp who sits in his Manhattan office and doesn't know an X-man from an X-ray. I'm a fan. And I love the site. Keep up the good work, dude. AVENGERS...ASSEMBLE! ... lol :)

Unknown said...

I actually see Riddler and Joker as opposites. Joker worships Batman, Riddler dismisses him. Joker's mind is broken, Riddler's mind is perfect. Joker wants to make a big splash, Riddler wants to escape detection. Joker is chaotic, Riddler is organized. Joker wants to prove that anyone can be like him, Riddler wants to prove that no one can be like him. And so on.