Storytelling Breakdown Blog Entry 029

It’s More Fun To Play The Bad Guy – By Ben Clemmer.

I have already talked about how much Batman: The Animated Series was a part of my formative years. I actually met Kevin Conroy at Indiana Comic Con a few years back and thanked him for inspiring me to pursue a career that is based around my voice. While Conroy’s Batman portrayal is legendary, part of why Batman has been so often reinterpreted throughout his eighty-two years, is because his villains are often equally memorable. Some of the performances in Batman: The Animated Series are some of the best in any medium, era, or hierarchy. 

So let’s make a hierarchy in a tried and true format of pop culture discussions, the top ten list.

I should clarify a few things before I begin. First, Andrea Romano is a legendary casting director. She heard these actors and what she called “a voice with character.” It wasn’t just someone coming in and doing a funny voice, but rather an actor capturing so many emotions with only their voice or close to it, and creating a layered portrayal that would shine through even without the amazing animation, music, and other elements.

Doing a top ten list with Batman: The Animated Series is woefully insufficient. The voice cast is loaded and narrowing the field to the top ten villains leaves out both some iconic characters and some excellent actors. There can never be enough honorable mentions. 

I am going to limit this list to villains who are associated with Batman’s rogues gallery who appeared in the show. That takes out maybe one of the best villain portrayals in the DC Animated Universe, Clancy Brown’s Lex Luthor. His portrayal is part of why I could never get past the version from the Snyderverse, though we covered a lot of ground about the Snyder Cut in our most recent episode. We also can’t include Stacy Keach for his portrayal of the Phantasm in quite possibly the greatest Batman film of all time, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. With that out of the way, let’s start our list.

10. Ventriloquist & Scarface – George Dzundza

These first two spots are going to have something in common, and with that I’m probably giving away who number nine is. The voice with character concept can be stretched a little bit if you need one actor to embody one part with two distinct personalities. Enter the Ventriloquist, who is shy, stoic, and unassuming, carrying Scarface, a dummy with a suit, hat, and machine gun reminiscent of a hardboiled gangster. George Dzundza voiced both of those parts, bringing this odd, tragic character who first appeared in the eighties to life on the small screen. He manages to capture both sides of the Ventriloquist’s split personality, without making them sound like two completely independent voices. Scarface sounds like a performance being done by someone else and you can hear enough connection to buy into the dynamic.  

9. Two-Face – Richard Moll

For most if not all of these ten villain voices, I find myself asking one question. Do I hear their voice when I read the comics? For Richard Moll’s Two-Face portrayal, the answer to that is an emphatic yes. Moll had a similar task to Dzundza, though it didn’t require quite as much switching back and forth. At the beginning of the series, Harvey Dent hadn’t turned yet, and he was a good friend of Bruce Wayne’s. Moll did a great job accomplishing what the creators were hoping for. He made us care about Harvey Dent before his transformation into Two-Face.

Moll’s range here is crazy. Harvey’s voice has depth, but sounds significantly higher than where he went for Two-Face. Contrasting this with a pair of live action versions, Tommy Lee Jones laughed all the way to the bank as he played the part in Batman Forever. Aaron Eckhart’s version in The Dark Knight sounds the same as Harvey and Two-Face except for when he yells, and it’s raw and jarring. It’s a great contrast for the character’s two sides. Moll’s portrayal stays in a low, throaty, raspy place that it’s amazing he was able to sustain. Even the quietest of lines, have the raspy edge to them, but when he cuts loose and yells or laughs, it still works and doesn’t depart too far from the low raspy pocket Moll uses. In the episode “Second Chance,” there is a line that Two-Face delivers that makes a case for being one of best sinister villain laughs in the show. Given what competition he’s up against, that says something.

Though that’s further down…

There is maybe only one knock on Moll’s casting and at the time, there was probably little focus put on this. Now, it would probably generate some buzz. The version of Harvey Dent and Two-Face was somewhat based on Harvey Dent from Tim Burton’s Batman. In that film, the character was played by Billy Dee Williams, who was one day hoping to get to play Two-Face and didn’t get that chance until The Lego Batman Movie. Again, this was the early nineties. Maybe today a greater effort would have been made to cast a black voice actor, matching the character design and inspiration used at the time for the show.

8. Ra’s Al Ghul – David Warner

Had a live action version of Batman included Ra’s Al Ghul during the nineties, it’s not a stretch to picture David Warner playing the role. His voice is perfect for the six hundred-year-old criminal mastermind, especially when one considers the version we got from Liam Neeson. Both actors are British. Ra’s Al Ghul simultaneously evokes a sense of the regal, the sinister, and the untouchable once it is understood how he has been around so long. His dynamic with Batman is unlike any other character as he sees Bruce as a suitable successor to his empire and partner for his daughter, Talia. Warner is able to pull off this dark father figure who is willing to take up a sword to complete his objectives if it proves necessary. Ra’s Al Ghul hadn’t even been around for thirty years when Batman: The Animated Series first aired and Warner’s portrayal is a great example of Romano and the show’s creators getting exactly what a part called for despite a lack of previous interpretations to emulate or avoid.

7. Catwoman – Adrienne Barbeau

If I’m recalling the interview correctly, Barbeau once said “there’s a little bit of ‘I’m sexier than you are’ is what’s in her voice.” Catwoman remains in a weird villain/femme fatale/love interest category after so many versions from Newmar to Pfeiffer to Hathway. Because of the constant back and forth between Catwoman and Batman, as well as Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne out of costume, this is a part that lives and dies with the chemistry between the actors.

Many fans of Batman: The Animated Series know this. If you watch behind-the-scenes footage of some animated shows being recorded, each actor often does their part individually in a time and place that is convenient to record. Batman: The Animated Series recorded their episodes with the whole ensemble present, so Adrienne Barbeau and Kevin Conroy really got to play off of each other beautifully. This was the show’s first impression. The order in your series box set or on HBO Max probably doesn’t have “The Cat and the Claw Part I” listed first, but that was the first episode to air on September 5, 1992. 

6. The Penguin – Paul Williams

You could make an argument that Paul Williams could easily have played the Penguin in live action. He’s only 5’2” and his more recent part as the Butcher in the movie Baby Driver felt so much like his embodiment of the Penguin if you closed your eyes.

Though I don’t recall a specific interview where this was explored, I’m sure Williams’ version was intended to be a departure from the two very different versions that came before. Burgess Meredith’s version was iconic but odd. Danny DeVito’s version was vicious and disgusting. Williams makes even some of Penguin’s most ridiculous lines sound completely natural, such as the description of his aviary of doom in the episode “Almost Got ‘Im.” Visually, the show’s Penguin did have some characteristics similar to DeVito’s such as long black hair, the fingers resembling flippers, and he even had an aquatic vehicle shaped like a giant, yellow, rubber duck. Despite that overlap, Williams makes the character sound respectable and you almost believe him when he describes his affairs as legitimate at the Iceberg Lounge.

5. The Scarecrow – Jeffrey Combs

This is the only voice on my list specific to the redesigns for The New Batman Adventures. Some characters were aged up, as Dick Grayson became Nightwing, Tim Drake became Robin, and Batgirl became a more regular part of the team. Some characters had their designs tweaked with varying degrees of subtlety, and easily the greatest redesign that also came with a recast was the Scarecrow.

Gone was the burlap sack and torn red shirt. The New Batman Adventures version of Scarecrow looked like something out of a nightmare. The wide brim hat, the leathery face, the noose around his neck, and the almost zombielike features were accompanied by Jeffrey Combs’ chilling Scarecrow voice. He was calm, with a whispering rasp that easily made your hair stand on end. If Romano struck gold with Moll’s Two-Face, she repeated the feat with Combs taking on the part of Scarecrow. From his first moments in the episode “Never Fear,” speaking calmly to his hired muscle, he achieves the fearful reaction that had to be the starting goal with this character’s new look. Combs would go on to voice the Question in Justice League: Unlimited, again making use of the subtle, whispery rasp. His contributions to the DCAU made it even better and I’m honestly kind of surprised he landed at number five.

4. Harley Quinn – Arleen Sorkin

Considering how massive Harley Quinn’s footprint is now, this performance is a bedrock foundation that has stood up almost thirty years. Paul Dini belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Batman writers for this contribution and others. Since her first appearance in “The Joker’s Favor” Harley Quinn has become one of the most recognizable comic book characters ever. Remember earlier how I talked about David Warner not really having anything to base his portrayal off of? Harley Quinn did not exist until she was created for Batman: The Animated Series. They had scripts, a character design, and a sense of what she should sound like, as Dini based her off of his college friend Arleen Sorkin, who ended up playing the part. What was going to be a one off became a recurring character with a tragic origin story intertwined with an abusive relationship with the Joker. Given the short amount of time she’s been around, other versions like Tara Strong, Kaley Cuoco, and even Margot Robbie haven’t departed too far from where Harley Quinn began with Arleen Sorkin’s portrayal in Batman: The Animated Series.

3. Mr. Freeze – Michael Ansara

Here’s the other reason Paul Dini belongs on a Batman writer Mount Rushmore. He wrote “Heart of Ice,” which won multiple awards and gave us the definitive Mr. Freeze origin story as we know it today and have seen it reinterpretted in Batman & Robin as well as Batman: Arkham Origins DLC.

But all of that came after Michael Ansara took the part and gave us the absolute perfect voice for Mr. Freeze. It was an amazing concept carried out to perfection. With his emotions frozen dead in his body, Mr. Freeze is cold and emotionless. His delivery of the line, “it would move me to tears if I still had tears to shed” is so… I can’t avoid the ice pun, chilling. Where Joker appeared in many episodes, we only got Michael Ansara’s Mr. Freeze three times during the original and new adventures versions of the show, not counting Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero. It’s easy to see how impactful Ansara’s version was given how quickly that version of the character stuck in comics lore and went beyond it.

2. The Riddler – John Glover

Yes, I have a Riddler bias. I’ll again pull from Andrea Romano. She knew John Glover before they cast him as the Riddler and she described him as, “the nicest man on the planet, but there’s something about him that’s just a little bit scary.”

That comes through in his version of the Riddler. Again, we only got him in three episodes, but Glover makes them count as Riddler’s calculating, cocky, and (I know I’m overusing the word) sinister demeanor drives the stories he’s in. You can tell he absolutely believes he’s the smartest man in every room. He plays the Riddler with some subtlety considering what came before, but there’s one moment that still stands out to me all these years later. There’s an episode that ends with Riddler believing Batman is dead, but when it’s revealed that Batman survived the death trap Riddler had waiting for him, he completely loses it. Glover’s wild screaming echoes into the night and shows for a few brief moments what was percolating beneath the surface. The Riddler is one of my favorite Batman villains, mainly because of Glover’s portrayal. Also, if you do some digging, you’ll be amazed how many DC characters he’s played over the years.

1. The Joker – Mark Hamill

This might have been the least suspenseful top ten list ever. Of course Mark Hamill’s Joker is number one. Even if we somehow were able to ignore that he’s voiced the character for multiple decades across multiple mediums, his performance in Batman: The Animated Series still holds up as the strongest villain performance in the show. Hamill pulls you in with the wide variety of evil laughs that he practiced in his car and the delivery of great lines like, “I’m crazy enough to take on Batman! But the IRS? No, thank you!” You can hear Mark Hamill chewing the scenery as the cast records in ensemble. He was often the only actor to record his part while standing up, and we talked about his portrayal in the very first episode of Storytelling Breakdown.

Perhaps no episode shows the place of Hamill’s Joker better than “The Trial.” Batman is captured and taken to Arkham Asylum along with Gotham City’s current district attorney. She’s forced to defend Batman in a trial for his part in the creation of Gotham’s colorful criminal underworld. Some villains serve as witnesses. Others make up the jury. Ventriloquist and Scarface serve as bailiff and Two-Face acts as prosecutor. But no one, absolutely no one else could have been the judge in such a ridiculous affair. Mark Hamill’s Joker also was the last to tell his story in “Almost Got ‘Im.” It says something that the Joker might be the part Mark Hamill is best known for now and he rides alone at the head of this cavalcade of chaos.

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