The Riddler: The Lasting Appeal of Batman’s Most Enigmatic Foe

Riddle me this! Which Batman villain is universally known and feared across all media, but criminally underutilized by creators?

Born of the greatest rogues’ gallery ever conceived, The Riddler is one of the most frequently referenced though infrequently utilized of Batman’s villains. The Riddler first appeared in 1948, and since then has appeared in countless comics, a legendary TV show, a high-profile feature film, and one of the most beloved superhero animated series of all time, not to mention the action figures, t-shirts, and other merchandising opportunities. So why isn’t one of the most recognizable villains in comics history more visible?  

Some of this could be attributed to one problem with The Riddler: he’s rather hard to write. You see, its easy to write Batman figuring things out because the basic conceit is that he is smarter than most people. Batman can figure out things the reader wouldn’t, and hence, the writer doesn’t need to explain much. With The Riddler, not only does Batman have to decode the conundrum, but the writer has to create it.  

This was the idea most toyed with in the Adam West Batman series. The typical ridiculousness of the riddles paired with Batman’s ability to derive locations and intentions from them was a cornerstone of the show. The lack of real cohesion became the joke. But don’t dismiss this version of the character so quickly.

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Frank Gorshin was perhaps the first person to realize Riddler’s actual potential. An admitted fan of the comics (a rarity in the 60s), Gorshin did not hesitate when offered the role. A 1988 Late Show interview featured a reunion of the Batman television cast. Gorshin’s segment is brief (actually cut off), but he did offer some insight into his take on the character. In the interview (linked above) Gorshin cites Richard Widmark’s seminal turn as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death as a strong influence on his take on The Riddler.

A “bizarre” character with an “honest” laugh, Gorshin took what was on the page, saw it as real and then made it so. A character so intelligent that he could have foiled Batman, had he not had that little part in his mind that needed the attention. Sort of a serial astounder, The Riddler did everything to prove how smart he was, and when he felt it was working, boy was he pleased. Extremely pleased.

Part of the charm of the character is that he doesn’t really care that he’s hated. He thinks he’s just so impressive that most of the world can’t keep up. Scott Snyder has done an amazing job translating this into the proto-Riddler in the pages of Batman: Zero Year, where Nygma slowly turns from an intellectual hatchet man into a full blown supervillain. But back to the point at hand. Why does The Riddler retain his status as one of the top Batman villains even with an inconsistent history?

Part of the overwhelming popularity of Batman is his complexity. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he is not the avatar for a single ideal, but many. The greatest Batman villains play off of this. The Joker is chaos, bright colors, and evil. Batman is order, darkness, and good. So if Batman is the ultimate detective, that makes The Riddler the ultimate mystery. The Riddler pushes Batman beyond even normal investigation, adding puzzles to the already dastardly crime. Defeating Riddler isn’t just a function of Batman, it is part of the proof of who he is.

In a recent interview with CBR, current Batman scribe Scott Snyder referred to The Riddler as “Batman’s favorite sword sharpener” in reference to his ability to push the hero to his intellectual limits. This was somewhat ignored in the last big-screen appearance of Edward Nygma, 1995’s Batman Forever, where much of Nygma’s knowledge comes from literally draining intelligence from others to create over-the-top technology, which is then used to foil both Bruce Wayne and Batman.

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Though the film was successful, Jim Carrey’s Riddler is generally seen as a step down from the narcissistic genius portrayed in the 60s show and the comics. While working on this piece I watched as many Batman Forever interviews from the period as I could find. Aside from a false impression from screenwriters Lee and Janet Scott Batchler that no one had ever done a Riddler origin, there simply wasn’t much being said about the character on an intellectual level. What is interesting is that, perhaps instinctively, the filmmakers also cast Batman Forever‘s Riddler as an anti-Bruce Wayne, somewhat making up for his lack of a clever plot to foil the detective.

Paul Dini played with a similar expansion of the character in his 2006-2009 run on Detective Comics. In these stories, Dini took the ultimate puzzle and twisted him into an evil reflection of The World’s Greatest Detective. “…I always thought Batman needed a dirty detective to match wits with,” recounted Dini in a 2008 interview. He would go on to mention that this interpretation of The Riddler was an attempt to modernize the character in what Dini described as a contemporary society wherein “…it’s almost impossible to do anything that can bring you permanent shame in the public eye.” This comment is important to Dini’s philosophy on the character, as some of the audience may have seen this as an attempt to make Nygma a hero. This attempt to modernize the character may have been justified. Jeph Loeb had cast The Riddler as the true mastermind in “Hush” a few years prior, and though the story was wildly popular, Nygma’s role is and was often buried underneath the hip, new titular character’s rise into the Rogues’ Gallery.

In the recent Christopher Nolan films, Batman typically uses technology to get the upper hand in his investigations. With the villains he is facing, this makes sense as the threats he faces aren’t meant to confuse him, but are far more focused on their own goals. The Joker’s attempt at this in The Dark Knight by dressing victims as henchmen and vice-versa is almost immediately detected by Batman. It is the police who nearly fall for the ploy. His earlier kidnapping of Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes was not a plot to outsmart Batman, but an attack to ensure Rachel’s death.

After the incredible success of The Dark Knight, sequel speculation immediately began. Almost across the board, early theories included The Riddler. It was a logical thought, since this Batman had not faced anything like The Riddler in the two previous outings. Fans were eager to see Nolan’s interpretation after Heath Ledger’s landmark performance as The Joker. After months of Riddler casting rumors, Catwoman and Bane were announced as the antagonists for the successful but divisive The Dark Knight Rises.

Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are currently redefining The Riddler in the pages of Batman: Zero Year, with Snyder acknowledging that he is enamored with the character. “…obviously he’s someone I’ve been dying to use.” said Snyder in a recent interview “And even though he’s a lot of people’s favorite villain, I think he’s actually been one of Batman’s most underused villains over the years.” Though personally I have loved what Snyder has done so far (yes, you guessed it, The Riddler is my favorite villain) it is not typically the comics that reach the general public/ I think something more can be done to revitalize the villain.

Batman vs. Superman will hit screens in 2015, and rumors are already flying about who might be Lex Luthor in this film, even though Luthor’s presence isn’t even confirmed. That said, with the heroes coming in pairs, shouldn’t the villains as well? There are maybe three true arch Bat-Villains that haven’t worked their way into a recent Bat-Film: Mr. Freeze (who certainly could fit in the new, more fantastic world established in Man of Steel), The Penguin (the real Anti-Bruce and a logical business partner for a Lex Luthor), or…there is the one that the people really want. The man who could bring The World’s Greatest Detective to his knees. A threat that has left a lasting impression on the pop culture minded, despite his recent absence from the mainstream media.

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We know that this new Batman will already be fully functional when audiences first meet him. With no origin story to spend time on for our heroes, that leaves plenty of room for a complex villain like The Riddler. With The Riddler’s return in the comics and the potential for a feature film appearance, we could be entering a new Golden Age for Edward Nygma. Then again, who knows what they’re cooking up? There are just too many questions…

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