- In this episode of “Good & Bad Acting,” we asked LA acting coach Anthony Gilardi to unpack the best and worst Batman villains from live-action movies and TV shows.
- Gilardi deconstructs 12 hits and misses of Batman villains across six decades in Hollywood – from Adam West’s campy 1960s TV series to Christopher Nolan’s modern “Dark Knight” trilogy and all the way up to 2019’s “Joker,” the standalone film starring Joaquin Phoenix.
- Gilardi critiques four Jokers, two Catwomen, a Riddler, a Penguin, a Scarecrow, and more, deconstructing where the actors went right and wrong in their performances.
- Gilardi looks for a number of criteria that distinguish the greatest Bat-villain performances from the rest, including shtick, motive, backstory, and humanity.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Anthony Gilardi: There wasn’t one moment in this story where I did not believe Joaquin Phoenix had real pain.
Hello, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Anthony Gilardi. I am an acting coach in Los Angeles, California. I am also a big “Batman” fan, and today we will be discussing “Batman” villains: what worked and what simply did not work.
Among the criteria that we’re gonna be looking for today is a solid motive; the origin, the backstory of the character; the humanity of the character; the mannerisms, what I call shtick. OK, let’s go.
Jared Leto in “Suicide Squad” (2016)
Joker: Where is she?
Frost: There’s this new law where if you’re a bad enough bad guy, they stamp “terrorist” on your jacket.
Anthony: This is an exposition scene, which means that the main character, in this case, Joker, in this moment needs to be listening.
Frost: They send you to this swamp in Louisiana. Black site.
Anthony: I feel that Leto got so caught up with being the Joker, he forgot the simple techniques of, what is my objective? What do I need? That is the humanity of every character in every scene, and right here, I just saw a performance that is rudderless, and it could have been solved by simply listening instead of external behaviour in this moment.
Joker: I can tell you meant that.
Anthony: He just didn’t make any clear decisions. Am I gonna be crazy in a menacing way? Am I gonna be crazy in a playful way? It just seems like he’s altering his voice too much and trying different things.
Joker: Ah! You’re gonna be my friend.
Anthony: The indecisiveness of Leto’s voice here seems more like it’s being worked out in front of us, but his audience shouldn’t be involved in that process.
Harley Quinn: What are you gonna do? Are you gonna kill me, Mr. J?
Anthony: I don’t even believe that she is even scared in this moment. They are in two different moments.
Joker: I’m not gonna kill you. I’m just gonna hurt you. Really, really bad.
Anthony: And this is the birth of this relationship, a Dr. Frankenstein type of moment, where Dr. Frankenstein is creating in his mind a perfect human being to be his companion. This moment should have been in that kind of vein, instead of a menacing, diabolical moment.
Joker: Are you sweet-talking me?
Cillian Murphy in “Batman Begins” (2005)
Falcone: I know about your experiments with the inmates of your nuthouse.
Anthony: If you know the comics and the origin of the Scarecrow, then this is a common trait for “Batman” villains. When they were younger, they were bullied, and they literally created a monster. But Cillian does a great job of creating the buttons and the triggers, and you could see it with his reactions.
Falcone: I own the muscle in this town now.
Anthony: His body really doesn’t move that much, but his eyes change, his breathing patterns change as soon as he hears, “I own the muscle of this town.” Don’t forget now, the muscle of this town is what bullied me and what created who I am today, and he knows there’s only one thing left to do.
Scarecrow: Would you like to see my mask?
Anthony: Pay attention to the childlike manner that he says it in.
Scarecrow: Probably not very frightening to a guy like you.
Scarecrow: The Batman.
Anthony: The cadence to his voice has changed. He is in a comfortable environment.
Henchman: What do we do?
Scarecrow: What anyone does when a prowler comes around. Call the police.
Anthony: He knows that this is his turf. He’s having fun. So we could just see, even though he’s not wearing the Scarecrow mask, we could see that he right now is the Scarecrow.
Scarecrow: But the Batman has a talent for disruption.
Anthony: He’s almost, like, mocking him by saying “the Batman” that way.
Scarecrow: The Batman.
Anthony: He doesn’t seem scared. He’s inviting him into his domain.
Batman: What have you been doing here?
Anthony: So now you have Batman using his Scarecrow poison against him, and at some point you could actually see him just letting go and giving in. His eyes stop bulging so much, his breathing changes.
Scarecrow: Dr. Crane isn’t here right now.
Anthony: This is a man that has mastered the art of fear. At his most fearful moment, he accepts it, because fear is part of his identity. Again, another beautiful moment where he uses his eyes to tell the story.
Scarecrow: But if you’d like to make an appointment…
[sirens wailing outside]
Eartha Kitt in “Batman” TV series (1967)
Batman: This is Batman, Catwoman.
Catwoman: Oh. Speak of the angel.
Anthony: I mean, I know it was the 1960s. This show was designed to be campy and for kids. What she did with the genre that she was working with was genius. She’s using very simple but effective shtick, her mannerisms, everything she does with her fingers.
Catwoman: The turgid twosome arrive here to rrrescue their prrrecious ally, Batgirl.
Anthony: When she’s explaining to her henchmen her evil plot, which she’s very passionate about, her embodiment of Catwoman is coming out in her speech.
Catwoman: Batman has been invited by Queen Bessss for a prrrivate audience at thrrree o’clock.
Anthony: The way she’s using her S’s and her P’s and her R’s.
Catwoman: Queen Bessss.
Anthony: It’s “perrrfectly,” of course I can’t do it, but she does it brilliantly here.
Batgirl: We who enforce the law would gladly lay down our lives for it.
Anthony: She’s squinting her eyes to make them look more catlike, and then she is opening her eyes when she listens to Batgirl say something that she just doesn’t like. It shows that she is listening. It shows her passion. It seems like she believes that she is Catwoman.
Batman: Don’t try to pull the wool over our eye slits.
Catwoman: Now, would I do a thing like that?
Uma Thurman in “Batman & Robin” (1997)
Poison Ivy: I am nature’s arm!
Anthony: If I am born as Poison Ivy, I have to do very little to make sure that I show the world who I am. I just don’t feel like you need to break stuff and use your voice and raise your arms to show that you are empowered. It should come from within.
Poison Ivy: Her will!
Hell, I am Mother Nature.
Anthony: Now, I know that in this story everybody is going big, and they kind of wanted it to be like a campy version of “Batman,” much like the TV series. Now, if you’re gonna make a choice that, “I’m gonna destroy this place,” you’re either gonna go big or you’re not gonna go big. You can’t halfheartedly break things. Your audience is gonna question, “Why are you breaking things?” If you have a purpose and you execute, then we won’t even ask that question.
Poison Ivy: Sorry. My vines have a crush on you.
Anthony: Catchphrase. It’s forced in. Now, that’s not the actor’s fault that those are the lines in the script.
Poison Ivy: [laughing]
Gotta go, so many people to kill, so little time.
Anthony: But you either believe what you’re saying or you don’t believe. I feel with Uma Thurman’s skills and talent, she could have made even a cheesy line sound real and cool.
Batgirl: You’re about to become compost.
Anthony: I understand that the action sequences are not the actor’s fault, but the behaviour of being in battle is on the actor. I don’t see any kind of confidence, danger, pain. I just don’t believe that these two characters are in battle.
Poison Ivy: Curses! No!
Jack Nicholson in “Batman” (1989)
Joker: You can call me Joker.
Anthony: The reveal is very important. Jack understands that his character has to go big here, and while he’s taking off his hat, he has his eyebrows raised, his eyes widening, very much like Eartha Kitt did in Catwoman, but this one’s a little bit more maniacal.
Joker: And as you can see, I’m a lot happier.
Anthony: In this moment, he’s letting his facial expressions do the acting for him. Jack is a genius at that. He’s known for that. It’s perfect casting.
When you have defeated somebody that has been keeping you down, you celebrate, and Jack celebrates here. But the thing that I love about what he’s bringing here is the liberating madness, and that’s something that was never in the TV shows. This is something that, believe it or not, adds humanity to the character. We all wish that we could just go mad and say and do whatever we want. This Joker sets the bar for anybody that wants to play Joker from this point on.
Joker: You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?
Margot Robbie in “Suicide Squad” (2016)
Deadshot: Anytime I put this on, somebody dies.
Harley Quinn: And?
Anthony: She’s using her character shtick. A lot of the mannerisms that we saw with Jack Nicholson, a lot of the mannerisms that we saw with Eartha Kitt, but she’s using them as a tool, just like they did.
Harley Quinn: Something tells me a whole lot of people are about to die.
Anthony: The way she’s, like, chewing and snapping her gum, the way she says the word “die.”
Harley Quinn: Die.
Anthony: As if it’s, like, a good thing in her world. Everybody else around her, the word “die” is a good thing in their world too. It is established that Harley Quinn has allies, and you could tell that she’s going to have fun working with her allies.
The character needs to be unique, so her entrances and her exits need to be specific. Now she kicks these monsters’ butts, and she does it in a very, very cool way, handles her business. Her exit has to be just as powerful.
Harley Quinn: Hey, guys. Come on, let’s go.
Anthony: And that’s it. The anti-catchphrase, it really caters towards the genre. It’s called a mislead. By her being casual about it, it’s a power move. This moment defines her as a powerful character even more than when she destroyed her enemies.
Harley Quinn: Love your perfume! What is that, the scent of death?
Danny DeVito in “Batman Returns” (1992)
Penguin: Tragic irony or poetic justice?
Anthony: If you are a purist, like I am with the comics, the Penguin character is a very internal, emotional character, and Danny plays Penguin too much of a monster.
Penguin: This is all just a bad dream. You’re at home in bed.
Anthony: He is using the attention to detail that we saw a lot of the other villains use, emphasising certain words, and in this case, he’s emphasising, like, the P sounds and the B sounds.
Penguin: What you put in your toilet, I place on my mantle.
Ah, ya big baby!
Anthony: But he’s doing it in a way that his objective is not human. He’s saying it just so he can spit out the green slobber and make him look more menacing and more like a monster.
I think this image says it all. At least give them a noble death and a respectful death. As Penguin is dying and he’s approaching our hero, I never for one second felt like Batman was in real danger.
Penguin: I’ll murder you momentarily.
Anthony: They wanted this Gothic death, but because it just looks ridiculous in so many ways, it turned more comical, and Danny runs with it. I think that he could have maintained a lot more humanity.
Penguin: My babies!
Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” (2019)
Anthony: There wasn’t one moment in this story where I did not believe Joaquin Phoenix had real pain. The external mannerisms all come from a visceral place. The way he looks down and up in that uncertainty, that laugh, I get that it’s coming from an involuntary place from his gut, and it’s so much more powerful that way.
[melancholic string music]
I take my hat off to Todd Phillips, the director. Phillips understood that if I just let Joaquin do his thing, he could improvise a beautiful moment by using his body. You see he comes in, it’s almost like a caterpillar coming into a cocoon. His posture is bad. His muscles are tense. He starts to metamorphosize. His gait slows down, his posture gets a little bit better, he lets go. He’s able to look at himself in the mirror for the first time and see his true self, and you could just see that he just marvels at the results. And he could take up as much space as he wants. Yes, you could call it madness, but you could see that it is liberating him.
Murray: And I’ll tell you this, not everyone is awful.
Joker: You’re awful, Murray.
Murray: Me? Anthony: He does have a gun on him, but you get the sense that he’s not quite sure yet how this moment is going to turn out. So he’s listening, and his eyes are telling the story about how he’s processing what he’s hearing.
Murray: I’m awful? Oh, yeah? How am I awful?
Joker: Playing my video.
Anthony: Then at this point, the voice is very childlike. He’s whispering. Now, a huge piece of the puzzle with this Joker is not knowing who his father is, and you could tell that he has latched onto Murray as a male figure, even though he only saw him on TV. In his eyes you could see the disappointment that could only be described as a son being disappointed in his father. It was so clear where his day-to-day pain lied. He’s got us, like, hook, line, and sinker from the very beginning.
Joker: Isn’t it beautiful?
Jim Carrey in “Batman Forever” (1995)
Reporter: Are you yesterday’s news, Bruce?
Riddler: Yes, yes, yes. Bruce, old man.
Anthony: We need to see the evolution of Edward Nygma here. Before Edward Nygma becomes Riddler, I could see that kind of behaviour when he’s around Bruce Wayne. But in this moment, we need to see the change. He’s still behaving the way he used to behave. He’s still insecure and doesn’t have the confidence that he has gained through his transformation.
Riddler: The press were just wondering what it feels like to be outsold, outclassed, outcoiffed.
Anthony: Now, I like what he’s motivated by. I see a man that is motivated by envy and pride. He’s trying to emulate Bruce Wayne, but if you’re trying to emulate somebody, then emulate them and prove to them how far you have come. So your face needs to be a lot more still. Now, I know that Jim Carrey is a very animated actor to begin with. That’s why I think we’re seeing too much Jim Carrey, and just by relaxing his face, it would have added the humanity to the moment and told the story better.
Riddler: And become Gotham’s cleverest carbon-based life form!
Anthony: Your voice, your facial tics, your mannerisms, your body language should tell the story without it being too theatrical. You could put your unique stamp on it without going too big.
Riddler: Who is Batman?
Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Anthony: The attention to detail, even down to the laugh is not one note. He starts to laugh, and then he starts to grunt.
Almost like he’s mocking human laughter.
Joker: I thought my jokes were bad.
Anthony: Christopher Nolan, the director of this film, he said that Heath Ledger really idolizes ventriloquists and how creepy the ventriloquist dummy really is, the way that it is mechanical and almost being, like, manipulated by a higher power. And you could see that he incorporated a lot of those mannerisms into the character just by the way he walks, just by the noises and the sounds that come out of his mouth.
Joker: We are tonight’s entertainment.
Anthony: The way he moves around his eyes, the way he moves his mouth and his jaw.
Joker: You remind me of my father. I hated my father.
Anthony: His actions make you think that he’s making up these stories as he goes. But he does a really good job of using his voice in a very powerful way, almost like a musical instrument. He changes his pitch, and he changes his cadence. It adds an unpredictable effect.
Joker: Well, hello, beautiful.
And you are beautiful.
Well, you look nervous.
Anthony: This Joker is very rough around the edges and not polished. If we go back and watch that walk, his head is tilted, his spine is tilted, even his posture is chaotic. And when it comes down to his plot, he doesn’t want money. He just wants chaos.
The subtle mannerisms, like the licking of his lips, that calls attention to the origin of the Joker. He’s telling the person that he’s speaking to, “I’m gonna give you permission to look at my scars. Don’t look away.” Because he knows that that is the core of his origin.
I don’t wanna kill you!
Anthony: This right here is a clinic on storytelling. Joker is Batman’s nemesis. You have to learn something from your nemesis, and that is what we see right here. Watch the excitement in Heath Ledger’s eyes.
Joker: No, you, you complete me.
Anthony: Same thing with his body language. He’s leaning in. He really wants to get through to Batman.
Batman: You’re garbage who kills for money.
Joker: Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not.
To them, you’re just a freak.
Anthony: He’s actually using inflection to add different subtext.
Joker: You see, their morals, their code.
Anthony: When he says, “Their code,” he creates subtext â€” what he really means and how he really feels about these things. He very clearly is saying, “You’re not talking to one of these thugs that you put in Arkham Asylum. You’re talking to me.” This moment pretty much sums up everything that we talk about.
Joker: See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
Michelle Pfeiffer in “Batman Returns” (1992)
Catwoman: [breathing heavily]
Anthony: This is a very good Catwoman reveal. She looks at Penguin and Batman almost, like, in a disappointing way. That disappointing look along with the way she delivers the line, “Meow,” kind of makes it look like she’s better than them, she’s cooler than them, she doesn’t even belong here. “These are the people that I’m gonna fight?” And she really tells that story in one word.
Anthony: Now, I understand that she’s getting shot. I think that she should have stood up, used her voice, got her power back. I don’t like the waddle towards him.
The laugh just could have been done in a more powerful way. We see too much pleading and begging in her eyes. Don’t forget, Catwoman is going to persevere through this, resilient like a cat, and I don’t see that in this moment, in her voice, in her eyes, in her tone, and in her posture. We saw too much Selina Kyle and not enough Catwoman. A lot of the blame has to go to the storyteller themselves, in this case, Tim Burton. I feel that it would be more powerful for her to rise up in this moment than to make it look like she’s collapsing within.
Catwoman: How about a kiss, Santy Claus?
Tom Hardy in “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
Bane: Oh, you think darkness is your ally? You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it.Anthony: You know, you hear stories about how he bulked up, and, to be honest, anybody could do that. What separates the good actors from the great actors are the way they use their body. Now, watch the way he’s walking around. Look at his posture. His body language tells us he feels comfortable here. He’s been in the darkness his entire life. He even turns his back a few times on Batman. It’s a very cool way to deliver exposition and show the origin of his character.
Bane: I didn’t see the light until I was already a man. By then it was nothing to me but blinding!
Anthony: And that eruption right there, it’s a brilliant move by Tom Hardy.
Daggett: I’m in charge.
Bane: Do you feel in charge?
Anthony: He didn’t come over to him and put his hand on his shoulder in a very menacing way, squeezing his shoulder. He’s just, in actually a very, very delicate, almost nurturing manner, and his hand looks like it’s almost gonna caress his face. And you could put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. It’s like, “What is happening? Is he gonna kill me? Is he gonna kiss me?” It just sucks you in.
Bane: Gotham! Take control.
Anthony: If you really listen closely to Bane’s voice, there’s a lot of moments where it looks like he’s out of breath and he’s catching his breath.
Bane: Now, we come here not as conquerorsâ€¦
But at the first sign of interference from the outside worldâ€¦
Anthony: Now, Tom Hardy incorporated that into his character because he wanted to show his pain. It shows a lot of humanity, and it shows his origin, and he does it without explaining it. He does it through the subtleties of his actions.
Bane: That’s a lovely, lovely voice.
Anthony: There are so many “Batman” villains. We can’t get to all of them, but I want to give some shout-outs. I wanna give a special honorable-mention shout-out to Burgess Meredith as the Penguin in the TV show; Mark Hamill, plays the voice of Joker in the animated series; Liam Neeson for Ra’s al Ghul, I think he did a great job. I also wanna give a very dishonorable mention to Uma Thurman’s henchman, Bane; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze; Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face. Did not work.
Ally’s gonna have her work cut out for her editing this, because there’s a lot of stuff.
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