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With Paul Dano, The Batman can finally give Riddler the respect he deserves

Riddle me this: Will The Batman finally give us a great live-action version of Riddler, one of the Caped Crusader’s greatest foes?

The casting of celebrated actor Paul Dano as Riddler in the Dark Knight’s upcoming solo movie certainly seems to suggest that Warner Bros. Pictures has finally decided to take Edward Nygma — the diabolical criminal known as Riddler — a little more seriously. And it’s about time, given how much potential the character has, and how often that potential has been wasted in previous iterations of the character.

Brains over brawn

Created by Bill Finger and Dick Sprang, Riddler made his debut in a 1948 issue of Detective Comics that had him face off against Batman and Robin in what would become the first of many battles over the years. A brilliant criminal strategist obsessed with riddles and puzzles, Edward Nygma has been established as a truly unique member of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery, regularly testing Batman’s detective skills and problem-solving abilities instead of his fighting skills, endurance, or cornucopia of gadgets.

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At his best, Riddler has been a powerful force that operates behind the scenes, moving heroes, villains, and their allies around in a puzzle of his own making and for his own diabolical ends. Neither a psychopath like Joker, nor a power-hungry crime boss like Penguin, Riddler sees crime as the ultimate puzzle, and regularly tests Batman simply for the sake of sharpening his own wits.

In doing so, Riddler provided comic readers with some of the most surprising and rewarding plot twists in Batman’s long publishing history.

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Throughout various story arcs within the DC Comics timeline, Riddler has not only proven himself to have one of the most calculating criminal minds of any Batman villain, but managed to manipulate nearly every other superhero at some point or another, too. From taking over Gotham (in 2014’s Batman: Zero Year), to deconstructing Batman’s life (in 2009’s acclaimed Batman: Hush), to staking a claim on the title of “world’s greatest detective,” Riddler has always been a powerful force in Batman’s history.

That’s why it’s such a shame that his live-action iterations have been so frustratingly one-dimensional — and why casting Dano in the role for The Batman just might be a stroke of authentic, Riddler-level brilliance.

No laughing matter

There haven’t been all that many on-screen iterations of Riddler, and even fewer that managed to channel what makes the character great.

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In one of his earliest live-action portrayals, Frank Gorshin (pictured above)) and John Astin played Riddler in the Batman television series from the 1960s. Decades later, Jim Carrey (below) squeezed into green spandex to play the role in 1995’s Batman Forever. Beyond that, Cory Michael Smith played him in the Gotham TV series, while Riddler also played a memorable role in several high-profile animated features, TV series, and video games over the years — most notably, perhaps, in the Batman: Arkham game franchise.

To be fair, Gorshin and Astin’s portrayals of the character in the Batman television series were in keeping with the show’s campy tone and rarely made him — or any villain, for that matter — seem very formidable. No such excuse exists for Carrey’s over-the-top performance as the character in Batman Forever, which opted to make him more insane than intimidating and a walking sight gag instead of a formidable threat.

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Although Smith’s portrayal of Nygma in Gotham went a long way toward giving him the respect the character deserves, that series — along with the similarly positive iteration of the character in the Arkham games — never quite managed to achieve the sort of mainstream attention that would erase the damage done by years of campy portrayals.

That could change with The Batman and Paul Dano, though.

Riddler, redux

An accomplished actor who first earned audience’s attention with roles in the raunchy comedy The Girl Next Door and indie hit Little Miss Sunshine, Dano has become a well-established dramatic talent.

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It’s no easy task to hold your own when acting opposite a scene-chewing, mesmerizing actor like Daniel Day-Lewis, but that’s exactly what Dano did in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2008 drama There Will Be Blood (pictured above), which earned Day-Lewis an Oscar for his powerful performance. Dano later portrayed Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson in the acclaimed biopic Love & Mercy, a film that proved he was more than capable of carrying a high-profile dramatic feature.

His performances in films such as PrisonersLooper, and 12 Years a Slave only solidified his reputation, as did his celebrated performances in the Emmy-nominated series Escape at Dannemora (below) and the quirky Swiss Army Man, a film that was essentially a two-man show in which Dano somehow made the story of a man stuck on an island with a dead body both fascinating and endearing.

It’s in that breadth of projects — and his history of getting the most out of the characters he plays — that should inspire plenty of goodwill for his involvement in The Batman.

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We’ve seen countless times over how easily Riddler can slip into a one-note (and painfully unfunny) joke, but in the right actor’s hands, he offers all of the potential complexity and sinister depth of Hollywood’s greatest villains. Acting opposite Pattinson’s brooding Batman, the opportunity to steal the spotlight is certainly there, and Dano’s résumé suggests he’s more than capable of delivering a nuanced, compelling interpretation of Edward Nygma.

There’s a lot to like about the Dark Knight’s return to the screen, but the casting of Paul Dano in The Batman makes the return of Riddler something for audiences to be just as excited about.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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