The Batman is here and it’s brilliant. Aside from its portrayal of a particularly dark and moody version of the Dark Knight, one of the key reasons for its brilliance is a particularly evil version of the Riddler.
In this case, the Riddler is played by the fantastic Paul Dano (There Will be Blood, Love & Mercy), but of course Dano isn’t the first person to portray the supervillain in live action.
That honor actually goes to Frank Gorshin, who reprised his role from the 1960s Batman TV series in the 1966 spin-off movie of the same name. However, more recently, Jim Carrey (Dumb and Dumber, The Mask) played a very different version of the character in 1995’s Batman Forever – and we’re going to compare Carrey and Dano’s versions in this article.
While you’re here, why not check out our ranking of the best Joker actors?
“Riddle me this, riddle me that, who’s afraid of the big, black bat?”
Jim Carrey’s Riddler goes by the real-world name of Edward Nygma (get it?). While true to the comics, a cinematic world in which characters go by such pun names is always going to be a bit more cartoonish than average.
He’s an eccentric and clearly mentally disturbed inventor at Wayne Enterprises whose morals are distinctly lacking. He invents a machine that can beam television directly into people’s brains. When Bruce Wayne rejects his invention on the basis that it’s too invasive, Nygma becomes the Riddler in an attempt to prove he’s better than him, by sending him riddles to solve – which Wayne invariably succeeds in doing.
This Riddler then aligns himself with Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face, forming a wicked villainous partnership – but it does feel like the Riddler is in the underling role (which somewhat juxtaposes him with Dano’s version of the character).
Although he hated Bruce Wayne and Batman, and did indeed commit murders, the best way to describe Carrey’s Riddler is “kooky” and incredibly over-the-top. He’s peak Jim Carrey, after all – which gives him a pretty amazing screen presence to boot.
He’s almost constantly smiling, doesn’t really look at all physically imposing or threatening, dyes his hair pink and wears a comically tight-fitting bright green suit.
Essentially, he has all the showmanship and boastfulness of the classic comic book Riddler – the early depictions of the character he shared his somewhat silly name with. If he wasn’t a killer, he essentially wouldn’t look out of place on a Saturday morning Batman cartoon.
The character’s biggest problem is, arguably, his lack of chemistry with Val Kilmer’s Batman, but he’s still probably the best thing about Batman Forever (although, to be frank, that’s not really saying much).
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“What’s black and blue and dead all over? You!”
Dano’s Riddler is Edward Nashton – a far more sensibly-named character whose name doesn’t immediately scream “JOKE!”
A much more complex character than Carrey’s version, he’s a terrorist and a serial killer whose creation was inspired by the real-life Zodiac Killer who operated in Northern California in the late 1960s, as opposed to a specific version of the character from the comic books. The case of the Zodiac Killer is one of the most infamous unsolved murder cases in human history – which certainly suggests this version of the Riddler should be taken a lot more seriously.
Nashton is an orphan with a grudge against Thomas Wayne, due to his failure to fund his orphanage before his untimely demise. He’s envious of Bruce Wayne for being an orphan who still grew up in luxury while he grew up in squalor. His aim is to “unmask the truth” about Gotham City by targeting its elite while taunting Batman and law enforcement with ciphers and riddles.
Rather ironically, he actually idolizes Batman and was inspired to take up his Riddler persona because of him.
His costume is unsettling and menacing – and somewhat evocative of horror movie killers. It consists of entirely dark green items – including a long jacket and a disturbing mask that covers his face entirely. Although, underneath it all, he is still very meek and unthreatening in terms of his appearance.
His evil deeds include murdering Gotham’s mayor with a carpeting tool, mailing a letter bomb to Bruce Wayne which inadvertently hospitalizes Alfred Pennyworth, and tarnishing Thomas Wayne’s reputation by leaking information that he apparently hired Carmine Falcone to kill a journalist for threatening to reveal embarrassing details about Martha Wayne’s history of mental illness.
Dano brings a real creepiness to this role – seriously, is there anything more unsettling to think about than a harmless looking individual who looks safe to approach, is actually a homicidal maniac?
Although Carrey’s version of the Riddler does seem more firmly based on the original, kooky version of the character, one thing Dano’s seems to have in common with that iteration is being on the autistic spectrum, which the original was said to be written as – and that would certainly explain his incredible attention to detail, social detachment and singular obsession (in this case, Bruce Wayne).
Unlike Carrey’s version, however, this Riddler was no underling. Dano’s authoritative performance and his character’s aforementioned costume conveyed power – you really wouldn’t want him walking towards you – and rather than playing second-fiddle to another villain, this madman has followers of his own, in the form of an entire online community (intriguingly merging modern elements with what largely feels like a 70s or 80s depiction of Gotham City).
Dano also has much better chemistry with Robert Pattinson than Carrey did with Kilmer, which undoubtedly helps his cause in a very big way.
So who is the ‘truer’ Riddler?
If you’re looking for a zany, cartoonish, larger-than-life depiction of the Riddler, look no further than Jim Carrey. If you’re wanting something darker and closer to real-world villains, Paul Dano nails it.
Each version of the Riddler is a product of its time. Back in 1995, the world still loved comic book movies that were silly and colorful. Now, there’s more space for superhero movies to be more grounded and framed as political thrillers (see the critical reception of The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier). It’s fair to say that The Batman takes this to the next level.
Let’s just say that both versions are brilliant in their own right. Carrey’s is incredibly entertaining and closer resembles an iteration of the Riddler from the comics, but we must admit to loving the refreshingly sinister and more grounded nature of Dano’s – especially in a world where comic book movies are looking to be taken more seriously.
Now that you’re finished here, please check out our lists of the best Ivan Reitman movies and the best John Carpenter movies.