In 1966, The Joker was played by famed “Latin lover” Cesar Romero, who had previously appeared in films like The Cisco Kid and The Thin Man. Romero famously refused to shave his iconic mustache to play the role, so the show's producers merely painted makeup right over it. Romero's Joker was not a suave charmer at all. Indeed, Romero was very good about tapping into the giggly mania of the character. His Joker is like a mall Santa run amok. He was oddly gregarious and friendly, but bent. His goals were more about causing mischief than wreaking havoc. Although exploding tricks were occasionally employed.
In 1989, Jack Nicholson played The Joker as, yes, a maniac, but Nicholson's age (52 at the time) dictated a lot of who the character was. The Joker – and this is the only time we've seen his origin on the big screen – was a 1940s-style gangster with a gun, a "Made Man," who knew the way the underground worked and was merely waiting his turn to be Gangster #1. This Joker was an organized criminal whose biggest transgression was ignoring the code of thieves. Well, and also murder. This was a “darker” version of Batman, so it makes sense that the villain be a little more expansive and a little more ruthless. This is the only Joker we've seen who leads such a large army of killers and criminals.
In 2008, Heath Ledger played The Joker, and won an posthumous Oscar for it. This Joker was younger than any of the previous versions, and, as such, lived a more extreme, more exuberantly violent punk rock life. Ledger has said in interviews that he modeled his version of The Joker after both Sid Vicious and Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange. This is the first time we've seen The Joker be this unhinged (he seems to have deliberately mutilated his own face) and the first time he seems to operate by a stated philosophy. This Joker is a nihilist. He's no longer "fun" or "funny," but Ledger's performance is most certainly the best thing of this much-lauded film.
The buxom and pretty Julie Newmar from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers originally played Catwoman in a slinky, sparkly body stocking, a kicky belt, and cute little cat ears. Newmar originated the look, and her Catwoman was played as conniving and tricky. She was the one villain who would often appear in disguise to trick Batman and others. Later in the series, the role would be taken up by Eartha Kitt, who would be the best Catwoman we have yet seen. Kitt had the same tricky conniving qualities, but added a sultry goofiness to the role that no other actress could handle. Lee Meriwether played the role in the 1966 Batman feature film, and she was perhaps the best actress of the three originals, chomping into the various roles with an obvious glee.
In 1992, Catwoman appeared in Tim Burton's Batman Returns, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. This Catwoman was the most unusual we had ever seen in comics or on the big screen, transforming the tricky and playfully wicked catburglar into a damaged psychopathic sex fetishist. She wore skintight vinyl, and became Catwoman not to steal or to cause mischief, but as a way of acting out violently against the repression she previously felt in her day job. Oh yes, and her old boss tried to murder her. This is a woman who hit her head and began dressing in scary/sexy fetishwear just for the heck of it. This Catwoman is terrifying.
In 2004, Halle Berry starred in Catwoman, a now-infamous spinoff to the Batman universe, wherein the minxy villainess was repurposed as a noble grrl-power heroine in a stripper costume. This was a Catwoman who was mostly about female vanity. Her personal appearance and sexual allure was now front and center. She wore diamonds on her claws and fought Sharon Stone over a tainted makeup product. In a spin that upset many fans, this Catwoman was also given supernatural powers. Batman villains have always been known for their playful camp, but this was the wrong kind of camp for most people.
In the 2011 film The Dark Knight Rises, Catwoman was brought back, although not under the name Catwoman. Like The Joker, we now had a younger version of the character who was still finding their feet as a criminal, and who seemed to live less by a general sense of mayhem, and more by an actual philosophy. This Catwoman was a Robin Hood character, playfully taking from the rich because, in her mind, the rich don't deserve what they have. This Catwoman was easily a metaphor for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Anne Hathaway gave this Catwoman more wickedness than ever before, and more girlishness.
Prolific character actor Burgess Meredith played The Penguin in the original TV series, and was depicted as something of a dandy. The Penguin was squat and had a long nose, but was rarely seen without his kicky purple top hat, tailored suit, and umbrella. Hardly any version of The Penguin has ever used an umbrella for its intended purpose. Meredith's enthusiasm, physical devotion, and iconic cackle turned The Penguin into a giggly madman. Unlike The Joker, however, The Penguin was more calculating, usually leading the Rogues Gallery with his clear thinking and logical planning. Well, as logical as a TV show like “Batman” could get.
In Batman Returns, Danny DeVito played The Penguin, and wow was he ever grotesque. This Penguin was a sewer-dwelling mutant – complete with pale skin, long nose, and fused fingers – cast off from a rich family. He lived with dejected clowns and circus performers, fed on raw fish, and spit up revolting rivulets of blackened saliva. This Penguin wasn't merely a criminal. He was an outright monster. I suppose someone who looks like a human penguin could take work as a circus freak, but never have we ever seen the freakishness of the character so strongly highlighted. Wow, Batman Returns is a weird movie.
This isn't a feature film, but he's worthy of note, as he already has many fans. On the new network television show “Gotham,” a younger version of The Penguin is played by Robin Lord Taylor. Although the show is somewhat dismal, Taylor has proven to be the most interesting thing about it, turning his Penguin into a combination of previous Jokers. He is a bit kill-y like Ledger, but also an embittered, ambitious gangster, not unlike Nicholson. There are other proto-villains on "Gotham," but as of this writing, The Penguin is the only one to engage in any proper villainy.
If you do not enjoy watching Frank Gorshin as The Riddler, then I have nothing else for you. The Riddler was the most unhinged of Batman's original Rogues Gallery, often laughing so hard that veins would pop out on his temples. The Riddler's M.O. was always a strange one: He would commit crimes, and leave clues on how to be apprehended. He wanted to be caught, but only by someone smart enough to answer his riddles. I say it would be easy to catch a man who wears a bright green body stocking covered in question marks. The Riddler was an imp, always smiling, never dark. He was my favorite.
In 1995, Jim Carrey played The Riddler in Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever. Carrey is a brilliant physical comedian who could contort his face and body to amazing effect. That elasticity worked wonderfully with The Riddler's impish charm. Batman Forever, however, provided us with a dark backstory for The Riddler, turning him into a rejected inventor who needed to prove his brilliance to Bruce Wayne specifically. I think I prefer a man who operates by mad integrity rather than one who has a point to prove.
Mr. Freeze only appeared in six episodes of “Batman,” but he stood out. Three actors played Mr. Freeze and they are all amazing: George Sanders, Otto Preminger (who only agreed to play the part because his grandchildren insisted), and Eli Wallach. Mr. Freeze started his life, according to the series, as a regular criminal who was accidentally exposed to cryogenic chemicals by Batman, making his body incapable of living in warmth. He was a, well, cold villain without any empathy. Unapproachable. Of the villains in the original series, Mr. Freeze was one of the more outlandish, but also one of the scariest. Again, for as scary as “Batman” can be. A bit of trivia: Mr. Freeze was called Mr. Zero in the original comics.
Arnold Schwarzenegger played Mr. Freeze in the infamous 1997 film Batman & Robin, oddly making the character even campier and sillier than in the original TV series. Now sporing silvery skin, reflective eyes, and a glowing blue mouth, Mr. Freeze stole diamonds to power his nefarious devices. He also keeps his wife in cryogenic sleep, unable to touch her, but determined to eventually revive her. Schwarzenegger is not exactly a subtle actor, however, and any sense of pathos the character may have is lost in the goofy sea of colorful crap around him. I do, however, like the look of Mr. Freeze's elaborate refrigeration suit. He looks like Tetsuo the Iron Man going to Carnival.