You know, at Christmas time, you see a lot of certain animals decorating shop windows, dioramas and Christmas trees. You see several reindeer, maybe a polar bear or two, and of course, penguins. Penguins aren’t really that Christmassy given they live in the South Pole while Santa lives in the North, but they’re cold-related, and the internet loves them, so why not? I mean, a penguin was the subject of a recent Christmas ad:
Though when I think penguins, I think a certain Batman villain. A Batman villain that is simultaneously famous and underappreciated.
The Penguin is probably Batman’s second best known enemy next to the Joker, but there are some that think a little fat man with trick umbrellas is a bit too silly for the DARK AND EDGY Batman. He was intentionally left out of the Nolan movies, and made the fifth worst Batman villain on an IGN list (it’s IGN, so take it with a grain of salt, but still). Nonetheless, he still enjoys quite a bit of fame and popularity, and though he hasn’t appeared in the Dark Knight trilogy, he has made appearances in almost every other Batman adaptation ever.
And I can’t just help but love the fat little bugger. Like Batman and the Joker, he’s seen many varied yet similar interpretations, from a goofball baddie to a ruthless mob boss, from a sophisticated aristocrat to a snarling curmudgeon. All of them different yet you can trace their roots. Since I like him so much, I’m going to count down my five favourite interpretations of the character.
The most recent screen interpretation of the Batman rogue is low on the list for two reasons: 1) this is the Penguin before he became the Penguin, before he got his top hat and probably ate a thousand pancakes for breakfast, and 2) Gotham isn’t really that good a show. A show revolving around James Gordon and the Gotham PD could have been interesting, but Gordon here is too bland to really get involved with, and the show tends to beat you over the head with comic book references. Look, here’s Poison Ivy as a kid and she’s playing with a plant! Look, here’s Catwoman as a kid who feeds cats and is called “Cat”! And c’mon, having her witness the Wayne murders?
As is the custom with Batman stories, the villains are more interesting than the heroes, and Robin Lord Taylor as the Penguin-to-be is the most interesting character in the whole show. While the adventures of Gordon and Bullock aren’t really worth writing about most of the time, Penguin’s rise to power actually did have me wondering what would happen next. Taylor creates a character that is dangerously underestimated by his peers, a snivelly, weasely exterior masking true malice. True, he has some weird scenes like when he is given a sponge bath by his Bonham Carter-esque mother, but that makes his darker moments more significant in contrast. He’s like the Gotham equivalent of Tony in Catterick if you’ve ever seen that show.
His appearance is also striking, and a good way to evoke the character without a monocle or lard. He has the pallor of the Danny DeVito rendition (you know, like the show’s Selina is played by a Michelle Pfeiffer lookalike?) but has the smart wardrobe of his comic book counterpart. And speaking of comic books…
4) Joker’s Asylum: Penguin
The Joker’s Asylum comics were a bunch of short character study stories about Batman’s various rogues, told Cryptkeeper-style by the Joker, and the Penguin one was probably the best of the lot. This Penguin looks more of a human-penguin hybrid than DeVito’s, but this works in his favour, making him naturally alternate from adorable to terrifying.
This story begins with the Penguin having a bit more humanity than usual, with a flashback to his childhood where he is made the subject of a prank and him falling in love in his adulthood. This is not to last, however, as on a date, Penguin thinks a chef is laughing at him. So he goes and ruins the chef’s life until the chef commits suicide. As you do.
So the best Batman villains are those that are human beings (even the Joker, at times) and here, Penguin is human without losing any of the menace he is supposed to have. Penguin has always had an affinity for birds, well, here this facet is given a pretty freaky twist; a young Oswald pets one of his beloved birds, it bites him, he beats it, and then ends up cuddling the poor little dying thing. That really sums up this Penguin; he may appear sad but you really, really don’t want to get on his bad side.
3) Penguin Triumphant
Now there’s an image that tells you everything you need to know about the Penguin. He has that refined dress sense and manner, but also has a grimier Joe Pesci appearance to reflect his darker criminal tendencies. Like Bruce Wayne, he mingles with higher society as well as play a part in silly superhero stories.
This story turns one of Penguin’s faults into an advantage; he may look comical, but that means people underestimate how truly manipulative and brilliant he really is. Here, he joins up with Randy Holmes, who used to bully Penguin as a kid, to manipulate the stock market. Holmes tries to catch the Penguin out by taping his confession ala Batman Returns, but Penguin’s umbrella has a scrambler that means all he gets is static.
So here the Penguin is more sneakier than usual, but he still stays true to his roots, wauking like the 60’s interpretation and at the end, becoming a dead ringer for his Silver Age self. Also, a pretty big plot point in this comic is Penguin’s hero, the gentleman thief Raffles, which leads to some amusing fantasy sequences.
2) Batman: Arkham City
Batman: Arkham Asylum did bring us some pretty frightening takes on Killer Croc and Scarecrow, and its sequel does the same with the Penguin. I don’t think there’s ever been a take on the Penguin more ruthless and sadistic than this one.
This Penguin keeps the basics of his character – he owns the Iceberg Lounge, has an umbrella weapon and has a monocle. Well, the latter isn’t really true; his monocle is actually a beer bottle shoved into his face. Okay then. Still, it’s not too jarring. The fact that he now talks in a Cockney accent may seem arbitrary at first, but Nolan North plays the character so well. Every syllable he speaks drips with malicious glee and it’s utterly glorious to listen to.
Thugs in the game talk to each other about how the Penguin could rival the Joker and you actually believe it from the way he displays his victories in the abandoned museum, and the joy he takes in the Wayne murders in the interview tapes. Arkham City may not have the atmosphere of Arkham Asylum, but it still knows how to make a scary villain.
1) The 1966 Series
What else could I put as number one? All of the preceding Penguins on this list are interesting and intimidating in their own way, but it’s the one from the campy TV series that’s the best. Without him, these other Penguins wouldn’t exist.
The 1966 TV series actually did do a lot to shape the Batman mythos as we know it. It improved sales of the comics, it turned Mr. Zero into Mr. Freeze, and elevated Penguin into a top tier threat with how beloved Burgess Meredith’s performance as the character was. And how could it not be beloved? This Penguin had more vigour than even the Joker, and the ludicrousness and ridiculousness of the character and his schemes made him even more lovable.
In the movie, he had flying umbrellas and a penguin-shaped submarine, and had such wonderful chemistry with the other three villains of the piece. When they dehydrate goons into powder so they can be rehydrated in the Batcave later, Penguin says, while putting them in vials, ‘Every one of them has a mother.’
And how can you refuse someone in a purple top hat?
And yes, I know this was a pretty stretching Christmas article. Deal with it.