What’s Gotham without its gallery of rogues?
By now, you probably know the excellent Batman: The Animated Series (streaming on HBO Max) did a very good job adapting Gotham’s finest bad guys and distilling them to their most effective elements or rebuilding them from the ground up. However, aside from watching the whole show (which you should definitely do), what’s the best way to experience each rogue? Well, that’s where this list comes in: Here is the best outing of each classic villain, chosen not only because it’s a good episode, but because it reflects everything essential about that version of the character.
This list only includes villains that have multiple episodes to pick from. Sorry, one-offs like Hugo Strange, Calendar Girl, and Maxie Zeus. You will be missed. Sort of.
Joker: ‘The Laughing Fish’
Season 1, episode 34
Batman: The Animated Series’ best Joker episodes tend to key in on his warped sense of pride rather than his desire to murder all of Gotham, whether it’s his inability to let go of a grudge (“Joker’s Favor,” “Joker’s Millions”), his anger at having to be second best (“The Man Who Killed Batman,” “Mad Love”), or his disgust at someone profiting off his likeness (“Joker’s Wild”). The best example of this is “The Laughing Fish,” in which the Joker poisons Gotham’s fish to cause them to bear his trademark rictus grin. It’s all in an attempt to copyright the fish and thus take a cut of their sale, a bizarre, hilarious scheme that sounds like poetry coming from voice actor Mark Hamill.
Harley Quinn: ‘Mad Love’
Season 3, episode 21
With the creation of Harley Quinn, Batman: The Animated Series head writer Paul Dini might have concocted the most instantaneously famous antihero comics character of the modern age. She’s lovable whether she’s engaging in gal-pal mayhem with Poison Ivy (“Harley and Ivy,” “Girls’ Night Out,” “Holiday Knights”), simply playing Joker’s gun moll (“Joker’s Favor,” “The Man Who Killed Batman”), or forced into more of a solo act (“Harley’s Holiday,” “Harlequinade”). By the time we get to “Mad Love,” the origin story episode that reveals her evolving relationship to the Joker and every brutal aspect of it, we find someone fully formed enough to take over the world. With an HBO Max cartoon of her own and a lead role in three different live-action films, she’s certainly grasped the opportunity.
The Penguin: ‘Birds of a Feather’
Season 1, episode 47
If there’s any villain that is underserved by Batman: The Animated Series, it’s the Penguin. Episodes where he’s the main villain tend to underwhelm (“I’ve Got Batman in My Basement,” “The Mechanic”); he comes off better when he plays a supporting role (“Almost Got ’Im,” “Second Chance”). Though he does get a pretty good showing in “Blind as a Bat,” he’s most effective in “Birds of a Feather,” in which rich socialites prey on his innate need to be accepted into Gotham’s upper class. The Penguin winds up humiliated by them, with his disfigurement and uncouth temperament thrown back in his face, and by the end, you feel terrible for the little bird man that just wants to be liked.
Season 2, episode 9
Catwoman tends to serve as a one-size-fits-all villain, one that provides an interesting foil for Batman while also being athletic enough to hold her own in any action sequence. As such, she tends to be a character that’s better in individual scenes than in full episodes. (Stuff like “Tyger Tyger,” “Batgirl Returns,” and the two-parter “The Cat and the Claw” excel when she’s on screen, but are merely serviceable elsewhere.) However, “Catwalk” manages to capture her in full vigor with a plot to match: Enraged by betrayal, a previously reformed Selina Kyle re-dons her gray suit, and Batman is forced to try and stop her before she claws up Scarface and the Ventriloquist into wood chips.
Two-Face: “Two-Face: Part I”
Season 1, episode 10
With voice actor Richard Moll’s gravitas and a beautiful design, it’s hard to find a bad Two-Face episode, whether he’s just playing gangster (“Shadow of the Bat”), being forced to reconcile with his halves (“Second Chance,” “Judgment Day”), or acting as a sort of straight man against the more cartoonish denizens of Gotham (“Almost Got ’Im,” “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne”). Despite how stable his appearances are, his high point comes in his debut, “Two Face: Part I,” which chronicles his journey from troubled district attorney to scarred mobster. Unable to control his anger — an emotion that now manifests in a split personality — and beyond the help of his fiancée Grace and his best friend Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent eventually falls prey to blackmail and an ensuing explosion that gives him his iconic look. His lightning-lit face, horrified at being seen by his loved one as the man he fears he really is, is one of the most tragic moments in Batman history.
The Riddler: “Riddler’s Reform”
Season 2, episode 14
Although he’s now seen as one of Batman’s A-list villains, the Riddler’s appearances in Batman: The Animated Series are sparse. Part of this is due to the admitted inability of the show’s creators to come up with plots for him that felt exciting enough for animation (though “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” and “What Is Reality?” are both solid entries). The Riddler’s finest half-hour comes in “Riddler’s Reform,” in which the character attempts to “go straight,” while remaining obsessed with proving that, in comparison to him, Batman is just a big ol’ dummy. Aided by John Glover’s well-tested ability to play egotistical maniacs, the episode culminates with the Riddler back in Arkham Asylum, wondering in vain about just how the Dark Knight managed to best him once again.
Poison Ivy: “House & Garden”
Season 2, episode 5
Poison Ivy’s appearances only get better as the show goes along, taking the character from a fairly stock bad girl (“Pretty Poison,” “Eternal Youth”) to a memorable antagonist with a keen sense of vengeance (“Harley and Ivy,” “Chemistry”). Her transformation reaches its pinnacle with “House & Garden,” both in regards to her disdain for humanity and her desire for a twisted sense of connection. In it, Batman sees through her claims that she’s now settled down in domestic bliss, and discovers that her entire family is a bunch of plant monsters that she’s created, including a hulking vegetable beast that she calls her husband. By the end, we find sympathy for her, even if the family she grew came from a need for control. Such is the miraculous way of Batman: The Animated Series.
Mr. Freeze: “Heart of Ice”
Season 1, episode 14
“Heart of Ice” became the feather in Batman: The Animated Series’ cap, the Emmy-winning episode that let everyone know, See? We’re doing some pretty revolutionary things over here. Turning Mr. Freeze from an icy scientist to a cold, lonely husk of a man was inspired, and even though he’s never been in a bad episode (“Cold Comfort” is fun, and “Deep Freeze,” in which a mega-industrialist seeks to gain Freeze’s power of immortality, is very underrated), it’s hard to beat “Heart of Ice.” His final monologue to the ballerina snow globe that represents his wife (“...pray you hear me somehow, someplace… someplace where a warm hand waits for mine”) has never been surpassed as a showstopper.
Rupert Thorne: ‘It’s Never Too Late’
Season 1, episode 12
A crime boss with his hands in everything, Rupert Thorne shows up pretty frequently across the show (“Two-Face,” “Vendetta,” “Bane,” “Paging the Crime Doctor”), with the late John Vernon always supplying him with the appropriate menace and bluster. It’s hard to pick between two episodes, as he’s great in “The Man Who Killed Batman” as someone flummoxed by the idea that Batman could be wiped out by such a nerd, but the win goes to “It’s Never Too Late.” Here, an aging rival gangster experiences a change of heart, with Thorne eager to shut him up for good and end their mob war. It’s a morality tale, and Thorne is just so good as the devil on Gotham’s shoulder.
Scarecrow: ‘Fear of Victory’
Season 1, episode 24
The Scarecrow is perhaps best known for his changing look throughout the series, starting as a skinny Wizard of Oz cosplayer (“Nothing to Fear”) before switching to a more threatening design (“Dreams in Darkness”) and finally settling on a spooky Old West undertaker garb (“Never Fear”). He has a bit part in the stellar “Over the Edge,” but “Fear of Victory” is his best overall episode. Like “The Laughing Fish,” it doesn’t feature Scarecrow trying any mass attacks on Gotham. Instead, he uses his fear toxin on notable Gotham athletes and then scores big by betting against them. The final action sequence, in which Batman and Robin have a dizzying fight against Scarecrow while a sports announcer calls corresponding plays from the game below, is a master class in kinetic animation.
Mad Hatter: ‘Perchance to Dream’
Season 1, episode 30
Few villains are more pathetic than the Mad Hatter, a lovelorn creep who begins his career as a Lewis Carroll fetishist (“Mad as a Hatter”) and ends it as just another member of Batman’s assembly line of goons (“The Worry Men,” “Animal Act”). Between that transition, though, we get one of the best episodes in the entire series: “Perchance to Dream.” In it, the Mad Hatter puts Batman in a sort of coma in which he lives out a fantasy life where his parents are alive, he’s able to fall in love, and he doesn’t have to be Batman anymore. Bruce eventually sees through it all and wakes himself up, an act that reveals the despair that the Mad Hatter feels: “You ruined my life! I was willing to give you whatever life you wanted... just to keep you out of mine!”
Killer Croc: ‘Sideshow’
Season 2, episode 1
Many Batman: The Animated Series villains are victims of their own obsessions, unable to cope with their personal tragedies in any way other than lashing out in violence and manipulation. Killer Croc, through? He just likes being bad. Whether he’s trying to get revenge (“Vendetta”) or playing the brutish heavy (“Trial,” “Bane,” “Love Is a Croc”), he’s a funny, simple presence. The closest we get to analyzing Croc’s inner self is in “Sideshow,” an episode that finds Croc on the run from Batman and seeking solace with a group of deformed former circus acts. Though he initially seems to fit in with the others, he eventually turns on them and tries to rob them, a betrayal Croc candidly admits as just “being myself.”
Clayface: ‘Feat of Clay: Part II’
Season 1, episode 21
A tragic character and an animation tour de force, Clayface is the perfect villain to show off Batman: The Animated Series’ strengths. The closest thing to a bad episode that he gets is “Feat of Clay: Part I,” and that’s mostly due to the lackluster visuals. (“Mudslide,” “Holiday Knights,” and “Growing Pains” are thrilling, fun, and heartbreaking, respectively.) However, for a villain that is so tailor-made for cartoons, Clayface’s best outing comes in “Feat of Clay: Part II,” which relishes in every blob, fold, drip and stretch of his muddy body. The climax, in which Clayface is rendered unable to control his shapeshifting abilities, is awe-inspiring, and a tribute both to the show’s clever plotting and the dedication of some of the animation teams that it worked with (in this case, the skillful TMS Entertainment).
Ra’s al Ghul: ‘Avatar’
Season 2, episode 4
Voiced with confident menace by the late David Warner, Ra’s al Ghul is a fairly late addition to the Batman: The Animated Series cast, but he is an exciting one, adding globe-trotting antics to Batman’s usual inner-city adventures. He’s fantastic in “The Demon’s Quest” and provides an interesting hook to “Showdown,” an episode that takes place more than 100 years prior to the series. However, the best Ra’s adventure comes in “Avatar,” where the immortality-seeking eco-terrorist opens the tomb of a queen from ancient Egypt, seeking her power over life and death. It... doesn’t go well, and Batman has to save Ra’s from his own desperate ambition.
Man-Bat: ‘On Leather Wings’
Season 1, episode 1
The official first episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “On Leather Wings” delivers a near-perfect balance of crime fiction, noir atmosphere, and monster movie escapades. It also introduces Man-Bat, the horrific outcome of a professor’s experiment gone wrong, resulting in a creature that looks enough like Batman that Gotham’s citizens are getting the two confused. Man-Bat would appear again in the decent “Terror in the Sky,” but it’s hard to top “On Leather Wings.” The episode’s finale, which features a creepy transformation and an exciting flight through the skyscrapers of Gotham, shows off what audiences can expect going forward, and though Man-Bat lacks the pathos of someone like, say, the Riddler or Two-Face, he’s a perfect first villain to set the tone.
Scarface and the Ventriloquist: ‘Read My Lips’
Season 1, episode 64
With the kind of bizarre noir trappings that make them a perfect fit among more classic villains, Scarface and the Ventriloquist were a welcome addition to Batman: The Animated Series. Their episodes combine detective work, horror-tinged comic book psychosis, and superhero derring-do (“Catwalk,” “Double Talk”), with the best coming from their debut, “Read My Lips.” Though anyone who has ever gotten even a whiff of Batman’s lore will guess the twist from a mile away, the episode is so finely tuned and the dialogue so rich that it’s simply a blast to watch Batman work through it all. It ends with Scarface being blasted apart by machine guns, something the censors wouldn’t dare let happen to anyone else. A wooden dummy, though? Fire away.
Roland Daggett: ‘Appointment in Crime Alley’
Season 1, episode 26
On the surface, Roland Daggett seems like a “we don’t need Rupert Thorne; we have Rupert Thorne at home” kind of character. He’s a crooked capitalist, always involved in some moneymaking scheme that can seem pretty low rent in comparison to Batman’s more colorful foes. Voiced by the incomparable Ed Asner, though, Daggett shows that you don’t need to have a clown face or a trick umbrella to plague Gotham. He’s great in the “Feat of Clay” two-parter and “Batgirl Returns,” but the episode that shows off his pure Daggett-ness the best is “Appointment in Crime Alley,” in which he plans to destroy a low-income section of Gotham to make way for his new “renovation” project. He doesn’t get punished at the end of the episode, either, giving grade-schoolers at home a lesson in the type of person who seems to be able to get away with anything, regardless of how awful it is.
The Clock King: ‘The Clock King’
Season 1, episode 25
Obsessed with being on time and driven to madness by a late appointment, the Clock King is a villain with ’60s Adam West style — he’d show up there played by Lifeboat villain Walter Slezak — that works very well for Batman: The Animated Series’ brand. Though his second of two episodes is sci-fi wackiness (“Time Out of Joint”), the first episode in which we get to see all of the Clock King’s little anxieties and needs for discipline regarding time is the better installment. The opening sequence, in which the aptly named Temple Fugate loses his schedule and subsequently his mind, is one of the best examples of the Batman system of one bad day being the turning point for someone on the edge.
Baby Doll: ‘Baby-Doll’
Season 2, episode 11
A former child star whose condition keeps her from ever physically growing past the age of 5, Baby Doll only shows up twice. The second episode, “Love Is a Croc,” pairs her with Killer Croc, which is fun, but doesn’t really approach the disturbing and eventually heartbreaking antics of her debut, “Baby-Doll.” Having kidnapped her former co-stars and now planning to link them in TV history forever with a murder-suicide, she’s eventually stopped by Batman and Robin. The climax, which finds Baby Doll in a house of mirrors, gazing upon the body she’ll never grow into and the life she’ll never have, is a triumph of animation direction.
Bane: ‘Over the Edge’
Season 3, episode 12
It’s hard to separate Bane from the “Knightfall” comics storyline, in which — in a panel that jumped straight into prominent Batman iconography — the villain breaks Batman’s back over his knee. Batman: The Animated Series never really tries to replicate it, presenting Bane at first in, well, “Bane” as Rupert Thorne’s latest hire. He returns in “Over the Edge,” in a dream sequence that sees him shedding his lucha libre attire and now sporting a leather-daddy gimp mask, an all-black outfit, and a spiked choker chain. He beats the hell out of Batman, which is all you can really ask for, honestly.
Firefly: ‘Torch Song’
Season 3, episode 10
Showing up in The New Batman Adventures, Firefly never really gets the chance to earn a spot among Batman: The Animated Series’ most notable antagonists. It doesn’t help that one of his episodes (“Legends of the Dark Knight”) sees him playing second fiddle to a group of children inventing their own representations of Batman. So we’re left with “Torch Song,” which portrays Firefly as the deranged fan of a pop star. Scorned in love, he turns to mass arson. All of the flames and explosions make for impressive visuals, and without a true masterpiece, we’ll take what we can get.
Achilles Milo: ‘Cat Scratch Fever’
Season 1, episode 36
A go-to scientist whenever a plot requires some unscrupulous medical work, professor Achilles Milo is in one decent episode, “Cat Scratch Fever,” and one excruciating one, “Moon of the Wolf.” So going with the former as his best episode isn’t a hard choice. Employed by, you guessed it, Roland Daggett to infect stray animals with a virus in order to then make money off the cure, Milo is a devious coward. Few characters exist just to get an eventual comeuppance from Batman, but Milo is one of them.
Kyodai Ken: ‘Day of the Samurai’
Season 1, episode 44
A ninja who once trained in martial arts with Bruce Wayne, Kyodai Ken is a very cool villain that suffers from a pretty mediocre introduction in “Night of the Ninja.” However, he is redeemed with “Day of the Samurai,” a moody action epic that ends with him and Bruce dueling on a volcano. Kyodai, desperate to unleash his “fatal touch” technique on Bruce, eventually fights his old peer to a standstill. Rather than allow Batman to save him, Kyodai lets an explosion from the volcano take him. You might expect this to set up a return appearance, but to quote Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Bruce Timm, “No, no. He’s dead.”
Red Claw: ‘The Cat and the Claw: Part II’
Season 1, episode 16
Red Claw has the honor of being introduced in the same episode as Catwoman, and the rooftop flirting between the Cat and the Bat is far more entertaining than any setup the terrorist leader gets in “The Cat and the Claw: Part I.” Her last episode, “The Lion and the Unicorn,” isn’t much to write home about, and so “The Cat and the Claw: Part II” is her shining hour. Dressed in a red jumpsuit with one shoulder bared, she’s mostly around to threaten Gotham while Batman and Catwoman reluctantly hang out. That said, though Batman: The Animated Series’ villains are mostly known for their psychological nuance and tragic motifs, not all of them need to be that way. Sometimes you just need a loud person with a bad idea... in superhero cartoons, of course.