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Original Airdate: May 21, 2005
Writers: Christopher Yost & J.D. Murray
Director: Sam Liu
How can a villain be so beloved and yet so hated?
Okay, maybe “hated” is too strong a word – the perception, especially among the public, is that the Riddler is too pathetic to even be properly hated. Even critics whose views I usually respect sadly dip into this, to say nothing of people who actually work in comics. People ranging from Denny O’Neil, the trailblazer credited with returning Batman to his darker roots during the 1970s:
To Neil freaking Gaiman, whose “When is a Door” gently but firmly told Eddie that he was a relic of the past – a past worth cherishing, yes, but not one with any place in today’s vicious world.
When asked to elaborate, their logic usually goes something like this*. This argument makes sense, but only through an annoying double-standard. The Riddler’s penchant for leaving clues constantly leads to his defeat, yes, but so does the Joker’s big man-crush on Batman, Two-Face’s obedience to a piece of metal… hell, when you think about it, all of Batman’s villains are to blame for their own defeats, simply by virtue of living in the same town as the World’s Greatest Detective.
Many Riddler fans blame the ’66 show for tainting the Riddler’s image – reasonable, given how Penguin faced a similar backlash during the ’70s and ’80s and only escaped it by
hiding in the Iceberg Lounge reinventing himself as a “legitimate businessman” who conveniently no longer participates in stories except as a colorless mob boss/exposition box. But this can’t be the whole story either; Frank Gorshin’s portrayal of the Riddler is touted as one of the most, if not the only, threatening villains on the ’66 show, with an icy-cold menace that could instantly snap into a torrent of psychotic, high-pitched giggles and back again.
Oh, shut up, Joker. Yeah, you were doing the whole send-Batman-clues thing way before Riddler was, but then you went and stole his actor’s shtick. Last I checked, that makes you even.
This is another common put-down hurled at the Riddler – that he’s a pale imitation of the Joker, meant for wimps who can’t handle Dark, Serious Batman. Setting aside how Dark, Serious Batman has never been the sole valid take on Batman (as much as some people would have you believe otherwise), there is a germ of a valid criticism in here. The Riddler was neither the first nor the last villain whose m.o. involved leaving clues for his enemies (that little club included everyone from Scarecrow to Lex Luthor), but few of the others made it their main gimmick.
And when that gimmick hit its expiration date? Joker still had the “killer comedy” angle. Scarecrow still had his fear gas. But poor Edward was left high and dry, the kind of comic-book villain who seemed like his own parody, like so. Oh, kinder writers tried to adapt him to the times, but I’ve found their success mixed at best. More and more, they’ve put a strong emphasis on intelligence as his key trait: his primary weapon, the focus of his personality, and the way in which he functions as a dark mirror of Batman.**
You may recall that this is the route That Other Show took with the Riddler, and as a Riddler fan, here’s my two cents: I hated him. No, not “love to hate”. Flat-out hated. “Started siding with the dickbag game company CEO who’d screwed him over” levels of hated.
Don’t look at me like that, you little shit.
Here’s the thing: I’m not especially hot on That Other Show’s Riddler even in concept, but the execution – at least in his debut episode – made me taste bile. From beginning to end, he was a pompous douchebag whose only emotions were Smug, Really Smug, and Smugly Annoyed; there was no vulnerability, no humanity to him. Even his “mistreatment” by his boss did little for me, mostly because:
- You’d expect a supposed “genius” to look at a contract before he signs it.
- Eddie didn’t lose anything from his firing except his pride; he doesn’t seem to have loved ones to provide for, and even after getting canned, he did well enough to convert an entire amusement park into a giant deathtrap.
- Mockridge got way worse than he deserved, and Batman’s self-righteous “ironic” narration at the end, coupled with Riddler’s logical-but-deeply-unsatisfying getaway, just pushed the man into straight-up Mary Sue territory for me.
Would better execution have made me like That Other Show’s Riddler more? Probably, but it would leave other problems intact. And when I say problems, I’m getting into even more subjective territory than usual, so please bear with me (or just click the “Read More” if you want to see me get to some actual reviewin’).
A common defense from Riddler fans is that most writers aren’t smart enough to plot something that can do the Riddler’s intelligence justice – a valid one, since the resolution of a Riddler story necessitates that Batman pick his scheme apart step by step, so you can’t just bullshit his intelligence with wacky inventions or vague schemes a la Lex Luthor or Dr. Doom. But I believe that it misses a larger point.
Simply, when intelligence is your character’s key trait, that character might as well not have a trait. This goes especially hard for Batman’s rogues gallery, where “mastermind” has always been the in-thing and pure, unintelligent brawlers are an endangered species. Even Killer Croc, that patron saint of brainless baddies, can outwit the Bat if someone feels like using him as the main villain (don’t believe me? Watch his debut episode on That Other Show again, or just wait a couple reviews for his debut on this one).
You can try to circumvent this by crafting a hierarchy of Gotham’s criminal geniuses, with Riddler at or near the top, but I doubt you’d have much luck. Intelligence – especially superhero comic intelligence, which usually translates to “I made a string of decisions that let me get one over the other guy” – isn’t really a thing you can objectively measure. With the other rogues, it’s a tool, a plot device at most, certainly not their raison d’être.***
But let’s say you don’t give a damn if Riddler’s unique or at the top of the pecking order or whatever, and just want one that’s suitably intelligent with an ego the size of Jupiter. Very well – but to be frank, I don’t think the kinds of stories you could tell with him would be terribly popular with the public.
I’ve spoken about this elsewhere, but I’ve come to believe that the Riddler is Batman’s most civilized enemy. Not just in the sense that he’s less murder-happy than the others, but in the sense that Riddler stories don’t have much to hook Batman – and thus, the readers – on an emotional level. And in this era of Batman, at least, emotional blows are king – the Joker’s terrifying, yet disturbingly amusing cruelty, Two-Face’s descent into insanity and immorality, Freeze’s tragic, hopeless love story. Batman himself is appreciated less for his detective prowess (which in any case rarely amounts to much) than for his emotional turmoil and/or inner humanity, which make him not only more interesting but more real.
The Riddler is a left-brain villain in a sea of right-brainers – in the hands of a smart writer, he could be the centerpiece of a mindbogglingly complex and meticulous story, but that story would more likely than not feel artificial. Entertaining, maybe, but with all the soul of a mechanical birdcage and featuring an antagonist who has little reason for existing other than to give Batman someone to chase.****
(Maybe it’s just me, but I have a much harder time envisioning a Riddler story without Batman, or even just told from Riddler’s POV, than equivalent scenarios with the likes of Two-Face or Freeze, who are rich enough in personality and thematic depth to support solo tales.)
Not all portrayals of the Riddler are like this, I must hasten to add. I’m a Riddler fan for a reason, and there have been a handful of appearances that have made me love him as I do few Bat-villains. And hell, even the take I just spent ten paragraphs dissecting and dismissing can be perfectly enjoyable given the right execution – though it admittedly faces an uphill battle in TV and film, where action and constant, inevitable progress are emphasized over deliberation and problem-solving.
Let’s see if today’s episode can hit the mark and, uh…