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  • Writer's pictureAaron Fonseca

Who Is Batman's True Arch-Nemesis - And Why?

This weeks Your Nerd Side Show:

ince the early days of Batman's Golden Age appearances, the hero has slowly cultivated what is arguably the single greatest rogues gallery of villains in comics. Ranging from his A-list foes like Joker and Riddler to minor villains like Man-Bat and Hugo Strange, each of his enemies occupies a special place in Gotham City's ecology. However, as the years have progressed, fans find themselves asking which villains are Batman's best arch-nemeses.

Batman's villains are the result of eight decades of design, long-form storytelling, reimaginings, and epic sagas for the Dark Knight. For so many heroes across comics, the world of Gotham is seen as a master class in constructing a compelling cast of characters and a city setting to match. As the World's Greatest Detective, a martial arts expert, and a symbol of order for Gotham, Batman needs a range of villains who can challenge him at every level. Since the Silver Age, fans have considered The Joker as the hero's arch-enemy, a perfect chaotic counter-balance to the Dark Knight's order. However, through a combination of equally compelling foes and a new creative direction for Joker, he doesn't feel like Batman's true nemesis anymore and the hero has many candidates for his optimal arch-nemesis.

Batman's Villains Each Present A Unique Threat

Like every great rogue's gallery in comics, Batman's foes each represent a unique threat and motivation, each presenting their own challenge to Batman. For instance, Riddler challenges Batman's intellect, presenting him with mysteries. Two-Face stories are about rehabilitation and justice. The Joker is an agent of chaos who shakes Batman's faith in order. Other enemies, like Scarecrow and Penguin, all bring different personalities, goals, and tactics to their fights with Batman. The hero's colorful and eccentric villains pose recurring threats to his war on crime. However, some challenge him more than others.

Batman's lesser foes also present specialized threats to him. The assassin-for-hire Deadshot, the evil scientist Hugo Strange, and the unrelenting serial killer, Victor Zsasz are very different but they operate on similar levels. The hero's modern stories have sought to build up great new villains, with Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee's Hush (Thomas Elliot) providing a solid example. This villain was one of Bruce Wayne's childhood friends, who returned to his life for revenge on the Waynes after Thomas Wayne foiled his plot to murder his parents for his inheritance. Hush also reminded readers about the threat Riddler posed, and the fact he had uncovered Bruce Wayne's secret identity made him a more credible threat.

The most important villain comic in Batman's history was the first issue of his solo series, Batman, in 1940. Here, Joker went on his infamous crime spree across Gotham and Batman contemplated killing the villain to bring the anarchy to an end. The story was retold through Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke's The Man Who Laughs, which had the villain intent on poisoning Gotham's water supply. Both of these stories showcased the sheer ruthlessness of Joker, building him up as the kind of villain who couldn't be stopped by a hero who wasn't willing to cross ethical lines. There was no reasoning, bargaining with, or even threatening that could dissuade The Joker from pursuing his mass-murderous plans.

Joker Has Become A Frenemy

As tempting as it may be to label Joker Batman's natural arch-nemesis, modern DC Comics stories simply don't paint that picture. While Joker was one of the most fearsome villains in the DCU overall, let alone just Gotham, his relationship with Batman has changed a lot over the years. The days of a Clown Prince of Crime who would murder Robin or shoot Batgirl just to upset his enemies seem to be relics of the past as Batman and Joker have repeatedly teamed up to take on bigger mutual threats. The idea works well, but over time it has watered down the villainy Joker is supposed to represent. Combined with the fact that the villain is more comedic in his solo series, it's hard to see him as the true threat he once was.

Unfortunately, Joker himself seems to have lost all interest in truly defeating Batman. In fact, numerous stories have played on the trope that the villain actually needs Batman to have a purpose. From a meta-perspective, this is absolutely true, and, The Joker would certainly have no equal if he defeated the hero. Other villains, however, just don't have this concern. Where Joker is locked in a twisted parasocial relationship with the Dark Knight, the likes of Firefly, Penguin, and Bane truly want the hero gone from their lives. As Batman's villains get more obscure, they also need him less. For example, Killer Moth was created as a villainous counterpart to Batman, intent on vanquishing the hero or eating him as Charaxes. Meanwhile, Joker is currently committed to the idea of playing sick games with Batman but he'd never resort to killing his supposed nemesis.

Ra's Al Ghul Is A Powerful Contender

Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams brought a lot to the modern Batman mythos, but their signature addition was Ra's al Ghul. Also known as the Demon's Head, Ra's is, for all intents and purposes, an immortal ruler, thanks to his magical Lazarus Pits. These allow the villain to rejuvenate himself whenever he's old, injured, or near death. One of Batman's most intelligent and even civilized villains, Ra's also poses the biggest threat to Gotham of all Batman's villains: As an eco-terrorist, the ancient lord believes that the excesses of the modern world are a threat to nature, and he intends to safeguard it by bringing down all modern civilizations, and Gotham City in particular.

By establishing a secret society that operates around the world, Ra's is perhaps the only villain who can match Bruce Wayne's wealth and resources. Thanks to his incredible longevity, he has trained himself to become a master tactician, expert swordsman, and brilliant martial artist, paralleling Batman's own abilities. With his League of Assassins behind him, Ra's often poses the most high-stakes threat to Batman, at least when he actually sets his plans in motion. Many recent stories have seen Ra's take on a neutral role or have cast him more as a Justice League villain. That all said, in the stories where Ra's is at his best, there's no foe more deadly to Batman. Unfortunately, he rarely pays off his potential, and that makes it hard to sell him as Bruce's nemesis, although he isn't far off.

Bane Is The Anti-Batman

In his debut comic, Vengeance of Bane #1, Bane was built up as a man driven by purpose and an unbreakable will to survive. As he was experimented on in Pena Duro prison on Santa Prisca, the villain acquired incredible physical power thanks to the addictive Venom super strength serum. Though nothing like Superman or Wonder Woman, Bane's juiced-up muscle was more than enough to beat Batman. Unlike what many people believe, Bane doesn't actually depend on the Venom serum to match Batman. In fact, many of his earliest stories showed the villain only activated the serum when he felt necessary, usually relying on his natural strength to fight his enemies, much like Batman. During Knightfall, the villain actually made a point of making sure Batman wore himself out so he wouldn't have to resort to Venom to defeat him.

With little to do in Pena Duro, Bane committed to enhancing himself, both physically and mentally. From intense bodybuilding to reading all the books in the prison, he established himself as Bruce Wayne's opposite. The villain had all the determination, strength, and intelligence of Gotham's Batman, but channeled it into his own ambitions. This self-made power made him compelling in the run-up to Knightfall, as he plotted the downfall of Batman and the conquest of Gotham. From the moment Bane heard about Batman, he resolved to take everything from the hero and make it his own.

According to Bane's creators, Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan, Bane was actually based on a dark reimagining of Doc Savage, with elements of Mexican Luchador culture added in. The reference to Savage is interesting in itself, as he helped inspire Batman, as a near-superhuman with unmatched skills. In a sense, Bane shares Bruce Wayne's incorruptible nature, though where Batman is a force for justice, the villain is nothing but criminal will and determination. He stays true to himself and isn't motivated by the same material gains as other criminals, and that's part of what makes him so dangerous.

How Bane Displaced Joker

The story "Joker War" seemed like an earnest attempt on DC's part to remind readers that Joker was the definitive Batman foe. It could have even worked had it not been succeeded by perhaps the best Batman and Joker team-up story, Deadly Duo (Marc Silvestri). "Joker War" felt like a duplicate of its predecessor arc, "City of Bane," where Flashpoint Batman (Thomas Wayne) and Bane united to defeat Batman and conquer Gotham together. Bane even murdered Batman's most stalwart ally, Alfred Pennyworth. This immediately restored the idea that the man most driven to beat Batman in every way possible wasn't Joker but Bane. It symbolized the breaking of Batman's spirit after he broke his body in Knightfall. In a sense, Bane orphaned Batman all over again.

In the aftermath of "City of Bane," Joker himself remarked on how the villain had crossed the one line he never would have by killing Alfred. However, this illustrated the fact that Joker had gone soft. The Joker of The Man Who Laughs or even the New 52 would have had no problem killing literally anyone. This is the same man who beat Jason Todd to death and laughed about it. The idea that the villain would suddenly have a line he won't cross is the very reason the Dark Knight needed a new nemesis. That was where Bane stepped in. The arc itself recounted the second major triumph of the villain over Bruce's beloved city and showed that Bane was one of the most successful villains in comics. He represents a combination of Lex Luthor and Doomsday, rolled into one, in Batman's life.

Having established that Bane possesses all the strengths of Batman without his moral code, it's hard to find someone who poses a bigger threat to Batman than the Venom-addicted villain. Bane does possess his own honor code, but it's a far cry from the ethics of a superhero. From breaking the Bat in Knightfall to robbing Batman of his most precious relationship, not even Joker has matched Bane's impact on Batman's life. After all, Joker's worst deeds have been undone, through the resurrection of Jason Todd and Barbara Gordon's recovery. Alfred, however, remains deceased, making Bane's victory one of the longest-lasting defeats of a hero's spirit in comics. Far from a villain who's interested in keeping Batman in play, Bane's sole personal mission is the abject defeat of the Dark Knight.

Batman Has Many Under-Served Villains

While Bane is Batman's current arch-nemesis, he actually has some lower-profile foes who could match him. For example, Hugo Strange is the classic embodiment of the "mad scientist" trope, Batman's oldest extent enemy, and was the first major villain who learned that Batman was really Bruce Wayne. This alone has earned the villain the respect of many Batman readers, and his intelligence could make for a Lex Luthor-style dynamic in Gotham.

Batman's rogue's gallery continues to be the strongest in comics, with only Superman and Spider-Man coming close to the range of styles, powers, and motivations it represents. Ra's al Ghul remains the villain who could most easily ascend to the title of Batman's greatest foe, though he's better in a few long arcs than as a villain of the week. From creature feature horrors like Killer Croc and Man-Bat to the clever conundrums posed by Riddler, every Batman villain has the potential to step up as his next big threat. However, for the modern era of DC, Bane has more than earned his crown as the definitive, most successful Batman arch-nemesis ever to set foot in Gotham City.

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