Batman is one of the few superheroes whose villains are as iconic as the hero himself. Characters like the Joker and the Penguin and Catwoman are arguably just as recognizable and widely adored as the Caped Crusader himself. So, casting the right actors to play those villains is as important as casting the right actor to play Bruce Wayne.
From Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle to an Oscar-winning Heath Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime, the casting agents behind the Batman movie franchise have often gotten it right. But those actors weren’t always the first choice for their role.
Updated on March 18th, 2022 by Ben Sherlock: The release of Matt Reeves’ The Batman has brought a couple of fresh new takes on iconic villains from the Bat’s rogues’ gallery. From Paul Dano’s Zodiac-inspired Riddler to Colin Farrell’s Scarface-inspired Penguin, this movie’s baddies were perfectly cast with actors who took a refreshingly grounded approach to comic book archetypes. But, as always, they weren’t the only actors on the casting shortlist. The new Bat-reboot could’ve starred Jonah Hill as one of these villains.
The Riddler & The Penguin In The Batman (2022)
Perfectly Cast: Paul Dano & Colin Farrell
Both of the main villains in The Batman were played by the perfect actors. Paul Dano’s unfaithful but undeniably compelling take on the Riddler is a real-world-style serial killer inspired by the Zodiac who stalks his victims in the night. His heavy breathing, merciless executions, and maniacal shrieks really sell the terror of this character.
Colin Farrell, on the other hand, disappears into the role of the Penguin. He’s unrecognizable in the costume, but he also seamlessly embodies the character. This Penguin is a low-level mobster with the dry wit and uncontrollable rage of a De Niro gangster in a Scorsese movie.
Almost Cast: Jonah Hill
According to Variety, Jonah Hill was in early talks to play a villain in The Batman. These talks were so preliminary that the actor wasn’t considered for one specific role; he met with Warner Bros. to discuss the possibility of playing either the Riddler or the Penguin. These negotiations reportedly broke down when Hill and the studio disagreed over which role he should play.
Whether Hill played the Riddler or the Penguin, it would’ve been a great opportunity to see a new side of the actor. The traditionally comedic performer could’ve explored new sides of his talents as a heavy-breathing serial killer or a deadpan mobster.
The Joker In Batman (1989)
Perfectly Cast: Jack Nicholson
After his acclaimed turn as Jack Torrance in The Shining, Jack Nicholson was well-versed in playing psychotic killers with a dark sense of humor before Tim Burton cast him to play the Joker in his groundbreaking original Batman movie.
Nicholson’s Joker deviates wildly from the comics – he isn’t always in clown makeup, his real name is Jack Napier, and he’s the gangster who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents – but he captures the character’s chaotic nature spectacularly.
Almost Cast: John Lithgow
According to Vulture, before Nicholson was cast to play the Joker, John Lithgow auditioned for the role. Lithgow would later give a pitch-perfect turn as a sadistic serial killer on Dexter, but he named his audition for the Joker as the “worst audition” of his career.
At the Tony Awards, Lithgow told Vulture, “I have never told anyone this story, but I tried to persuade [Burton] I was not right for the part, and I succeeded. I didn’t realize it was such a big deal. About a week later, I heard they were going after Robin Williams and Jack Nicholson.”
Catwoman In Batman Returns
Perfectly Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer
Bruce Wayne is the quintessential film noir antihero – Humphrey Bogart in a cowl – and Selina Kyle is the quintessential femme fatale. Michelle Pfeiffer captured this aspect of the character perfectly and went a step further with her sinister feline obsession.
Anne Hathaway similarly nailed the femme fatale side of the character (and Zoë Kravitz’s take looks promising), but in keeping with Burton’s horror-tinged vision of the Bat’s mythos, Pfeiffer’s turn as Catwoman is slightly unnerving.
Almost Cast: Annette Bening
According to Insider, Annette Bening was the first actor to be cast as Catwoman in Batman Returns. Pfeiffer stepped in at the last minute when Bening became pregnant and couldn’t make the shoot.
Producer Denise Di Novi explained, “We were a little bit in a panic, because we’d fitted the costumes and the mask and everything, and then Annette was pregnant.”
Ra’s Al Ghul In Batman Begins
Perfectly Cast: Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson is initially introduced as a mentor figure to Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s origin movie Batman Begins. Nolan explored the Bat’s origins in more depth than any previous movie, showing his combat training with the League of Shadows throughout the middle act.
“Henri Ducard,” the mentor who teaches Bruce to fight, turns out to be an alter ego of iconic Batman baddie Ra’s al Ghul. As usual, Neeson plays the role with a healthy dose of nuance that grounds the comic book storyline in a relatable reality.
Almost Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis
According to IndieWire, Nolan discussed the role of Ra’s al Ghul with a number of high-profile stars before Neeson was attached to the project. The director initially approached his Memento star, Guy Pearce, but the actor felt that he was too young for the part.
Nolan offered the part to both Daniel Day-Lewis and Viggo Mortensen before Neeson accepted the role. Day-Lewis and Mortensen would’ve brought just as much pathos to the role, but Neeson ended up being perfect for it.
Two-Face In The Dark Knight
Perfectly Cast: Aaron Eckhart
Two-Face was played on the big screen by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever, but Jones matched Jim Carrey’s zaniness (as the Riddler) at the expense of Harvey Dent’s antihero nuance.
In The Dark Knight, Aaron Eckhart got it right. His performance is somewhat overshadowed by Heath Ledger’s Joker and Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon, but Eckhart perfectly embodies the “white knight” archetype that Harvey represents. He leans into the character’s bitter cynicism in the second half, unraveling Harvey’s dark side after the tragedy of Rachel’s death.
Almost Cast: Matt Damon
Matt Damon told MTV that he was offered the role of Two-Face in The Dark Knight. The actor explained, “I couldn’t – there was a scheduling thing. I never spoke to Chris Nolan. I’m a big Chris Nolan fan, but I never spoke to him. Look, Aaron is a great actor, so the movie didn’t suffer for it. Every now and then, you get one and you can’t do it.”
Damon has since worked with Nolan twice. He made a surprise cameo appearance in Interstellar and he’s currently working on Nolan’s upcoming WWII-era biopic, Oppenheimer.
The Joker In The Dark Knight
Perfectly Cast: Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for his turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight. An Oscar win for playing a comic book role was unprecedented, but Ledger dominated the screen in The Dark Knight. He managed the near-impossible feat of stealing a Batman movie from Batman himself.
Combining the punk rock stylings of Sid Vicious with the unabashed ultraviolent sadism of Alex DeLarge, Ledger played a Joker that was completely unpredictable and utterly terrifying.
Almost Cast: Paul Bettany
According to USA Today, Nolan was criticized for casting Ledger as the Joker over more popular contenders like Robin Williams and Paul Bettany. Nolan stuck with his initial choice, knowing that Ledger was the perfect actor to play the role, but there were rumors that Warner Bros. had Bettany waiting in the wings in case Ledger didn’t work out.
Access Hollywood’s Scott Mantz explained, “There was backlash and controversy, like, ‘How can he be the Joker?’ But Ledger’s Joker and The Dark Knight were monumentally different from anything we had seen before, or have seen since.”
Catwoman In The Batman (2022)
Perfectly Cast: Zoë Kravitz
Catwoman is traditionally depicted as a straightforward villain evoking the classic “femme fatale” noir archetype, but The Batman has brought new layers to the character. She’s more of an antihero who’s just as committed to bringing down bad guys as Batman himself.
Zoë Kravitz did a terrific job with this more human, more vulnerable portrayal of Selina Kyle. She’s every bit the elusive, high-kicking, leather-clad badass that she is in the comics, but she’s also a human being with real emotions. The ending of the movie sets up Kravitz’s Catwoman for a solo adventure set in Gotham’s neighboring city, Blüdhaven. Hopefully, fans haven’t seen the last of this take on the character.
Almost Cast: Zazie Beetz
While Kravitz ended up being the perfect choice for the role, she wasn’t the only actor that Reeves considered to play Catwoman. According to Variety, Kravitz beat out such big names as Zazie Beetz, Eiza Gonzalez, and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander.
This wouldn’t have been Beetz’s first foray into the DC Comics universe. She previously played the love interest in Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker movie (and – spoiler alert! – the romance turned out to be mostly imagined).
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