7 Batman Villains Based on Real People

Everybody knows Batman, the dark-natured, iconic superhero who leads a multi-billion dollar media empire. And everybody knows his villains. The Dark Knight’s rogues gallery is arguably the most recognizable, and also the most compelling, of any superhero in the genre.

Unlike other superheroes, Batman’s enemies aren’t defined by superhuman powers. They tend to be more human, reflecting the twisted side of our nature. Many of these characters are legitimately insane, exhibiting a range of psychotic and antisocial disorders, compulsions, and behaviors.

They also tend to have physical deformities that give them a more monstrous appearance. Batman villains are scarred, on both the outside and inside — much like the Dark Knight himself.

Joker, Two-Face, Penguin, Catwoman — these are some of the most iconic villains in fiction. But behind their flashy costumes, disfigurements, and fictional biographies, there can sometimes be a real person who inspired that character’s creation.

In some cases, the influence is minor; nothing more than that person’s name. But in other examples, the influence seeps into every aspect of that character, from their physical appearance to their mannerisms and personality. Whatever the case, these seven Batman villains are now as real to us as the people they’re based on.

7 Victor Zsasz – Thomas Szasz

Victor Zsasz is a secondary villain who often goes up against the Dark Knight. He’s a vicious serial killer, who records every murder he commits — by carving a tally mark into his own flesh. Zsasz’s body is covered in scars, a physical ode to his many, many victims.

You might recognize Zsasz from his cameo in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, where he’s portrayed by Tim Booth. Or from his recurring role in the live-action TV series Gotham, where he’s played by Anthony Carrigan.

Zsasz was partially inspired by Dr. Thomas Szasz. No, Dr. Szasz isn’t a serial killer, who tallies his victims’ murders into his flesh. He’s a well-known psychiatrist, who argued that mental illness is actually a metaphor for human problems. Victor Zsasz’s creator, Alan Grant, saw Dr. Szasz’s name in the library and decided to use it for his psychotic villain. A very loose inspiration, yes, but still an important one.


11 Weirdest Batman Villains You’ll Never See in a Movie (Probably)

Some of these villains probably won’t ever make the cut for a big screen showdown with Batman.

6 Ra’s al GhulJack Palance

The leader of the League of Assassins, Ra’s al Ghul is a criminal mastermind. He’s a skilled and deadly warrior, who’s extended his life unnaturally by bathing in the mystical Lazarus pits. Despite being enemies, Ra’s harbors a deep respect for Batman — or, as Ra’s calls him, “Detective” — and often tries coaxing the Dark Knight into being his heir.

He’s also the biological grandfather of Batman’s son, Damian. You’ll probably recognize Ra’s as the antagonist from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, where the character was grounded more in reality and was played by Liam Neeson. Or maybe from the character’s recurring role in Gotham, where he was restored as a mystical character and was properly portrayed as an Arab by Alexander Siddig.

When designing Ra’s al Ghul, co-creator Dennis O’Neil sought to distance the character from Batman’s typical costumed villains. He wanted to create a Professor James Moriarty rather than another Joker.

Artist Neal Adams struggled at first with drawing a character who didn’t have a costume or any defining physical traits. He was loosely inspired by actor Jack Palance to craft a character whose personality shines through his physical appearance, whose face is incredible to look at without any specific unusual traits.

5 Calendar Man – Anthony Hopkins

Calendar Man, whose real name is Julian Gregory Day, is a Batman villain that’s been around since 1958. He started off as a silly adversary, who committed crimes that corresponded with holidays and significant dates, often dressed in a costume correlating to that particular date.

Calendar Man went largely unused and forgotten by most Batman writers, until Jeph Loeb turned him into a supporting player in his legendary Batman comic book arc, The Long Halloween. Here, Loeb modeled the character after Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, turning him into a dark and disturbed criminal who consults and toys with Batman during a case.

You can argue that Calendar Man is really based on psychiatrist-turned-psychopath, Hannibal Lecter. But it was this particular performance from Anthony Hopkins that inspired Loeb’s reiteration of Calendar Man — not the literary character from Thomas Harris’ novels or the portrayal of Lecter by Brian Cox in the 1986 film, Manhunter.

4 Clayface – Lon Chaney, Sr., Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff

Clayface is an alias used by several DC villains, most notably Basil Karlo. Most Batman fans know Clayface as the muddy, superhuman antagonist with the ability to mimic an individual’s physical appearance. But long before Clayface became a shape-shifting mass of goo, he was just another costumed villain.

A B-list actor who was driven insane and donned the costume of Clayface, a villain he once played in a movie, while committing his crimes. The character was co-created by one of the minds behind Batman himself, Bob Kane. A movie buff, Kane partially based Clayface on Lon Chaney’s take on the Phantom from the 1925 film, The Phantom of the Opera.

Meanwhile, the character’s true name, Basil Karlo, was taken from two great actors of the time: Basil Rathbone, who famously played Sherlock Holmes, and Boris Karloff, who delivered the most iconic portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. We have yet to see Clayface in a live-action film, but rumor has it that he’s the leading contender for the next villain in The Batman: Part II.

3 Harley Quinn – Arleen Sorkin

Harley Quinn is one of entertainment’s most popular leading ladies. But it certainly didn’t start off that way, nor did it start in the panels of a comic book. Harley was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for the highly acclaimed animated TV show, Batman: The Animated Series.

Looking to create a fun henchwoman for the Joker, Dini came up with the character after watching his college friend, Arleen Sorkin, portray a jester in the soap opera, Days of Our Lives. He then asked Sorkin to voice his fledgling character.

Not only that, but Dini based Harley’s personality and mannerisms on Sorkin’s performance. That thick Brooklyn accent. That bubbly yet psychotic personality. Throw in some black and red, and voila — you’ve got Harley Quinn.

Harley was only meant to appear in one episode, but Batman‘s producers enjoyed the lovable maniac so much that they asked for more. Despite concerns that Harley’s presence would humanize the Joker, Harley became a recurring character and the love interest for the Clown Prince of Crime. Or, as she calls him, her puddin’.

Harley’s origin story was also fleshed out, depicting her as a young and impressionable Arkham Asylum therapist who was manipulated by the Joker into a toxic and abusive relationship. Another classic case of a psychiatrist-turned-psychopath.

Harley has been famously portrayed by Margot Robbie and is set to return to the big screen later this year in Joker: Folie à Deux, where she will be played by Lady Gaga.

With her zany personality and infectious charm, Harley Quinn has become one of the most popular and recognizable DC Comics characters. And it’s largely thanks to Arleen Sorkin, the woman who breathed life into this character in more ways than one.

2 Catwoman – Hedy Lamarr and Jean Harlow

Some superheroes have a definitive love interest. Spider-Man has Mary-Jane Watson. Superman has Lois Lane. And Batman — well, he has Selina Kyle, better known as Catwoman. She’s a skilled thief who dons a skintight cat costume and slinks in the shadows. Although she started off as a villain, Catwoman has since become more of an anti-hero, operating in a morally gray area.

Catwoman is widely regarded as the love of Batman’s life — and it makes sense. Of course, the masked hero falls for the masked criminal. Their on-and-off romance has been featured in many Batman storylines, from comic books to Hollywood blockbusters, such as Batman Returns, The Dark Knight Rises, and most recently, The Batman.

Back in the 1930s, co-creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger wanted to give their comic book more sex appeal while attracting female readers. The end result was Catwoman, a friendly foe who also served as Batman’s love interest.

While designing the character, Kane was inspired by two beautiful actresses of his time: Hedy Lamarr and Jean Harlow. You can see Lamarr’s influence in particular, with that dark hair and those sultry looks.

1 Conrad Veidt – The Joker

The Joker is arguably the most famous villain in fiction, thanks to his iconic rivalry with Batman. These two arch-nemeses have a yin and yang relationship; they’re two sides of the same coin. On one side, there’s Batman, who’s subtle, grim, and dressed in all black. And on the other side, there’s the Joker, who’s theatrical, boisterous, and dressed in flashy, bright colors.

Each of them is the result of “one bad day” (a reference to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke). And, some might argue, they both exemplify cases of insanity — though the Joker is definitely a special breed of lunatic. He’s a murderous psychopath, a criminal mastermind who will murder you while cracking a joke about it.

This iconic rivalry dates all the way back to the 1930s, when the Clown Prince of Crime was first created. As we’ve seen already, movies inspired the creation of several Batman characters, and the Joker is no exception.

The villain was heavily influenced by actor Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of Gwynplaine in the 1928 silent film, The Man Who Laughs (this title was later used for the one-shot comic book that recounts Batman’s first encounter with the Joker).

Related: 10 James Bond Movie Characters Based on Real People

It’s impossible not to see the resemblance once you see Gwynplaine’s face. That hairstyle and pale skin. That large, twisted, perpetual grin. Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine is the Joker.

Since then, we’ve seen many Hollywood stars portray the Clown Prince of Crime, from Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman, to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, to the more recent Joaquin Phoenix, who will reprise his role in Joker: Folie à Deux.


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