In Matt Reeves’ new Batman movie, the Riddler is portrayed as an internet-poisoned gremlin. Batman fans have overwhelmingly looked at this portrayal and replied, “Same.”
The Riddler has always been a fun Batman villain—his determination to match wits with the Dark Knight plays to Batman’s at-times underutilized strengths as a detective, rather than a guy who’s really good at judo or has expensive gadgets—but not one that I think has an indelible, iconic portrayal. In Batman: The Animated Series, he’s depicted as a frustrated tech worker getting back at his bosses. His cinematic portrayal by Jim Carrey was, for all intents and purposes, just Jim Carrey doing Jim Carrey stuff. While there have been memorable arcs for the character in the comics, most recently Tom King’s “War of Jokes and Riddles,” none of that has crossed over into a defined portrayal of the character in the same way that has happened for the Joker or Harley Quinn or Mr. Freeze. The most definitive portrayal just might be his depiction as an annoying but easily-ignored troll in the Arkham games or as an annoying but easily-ignored troll in a skin-tight jumpsuit in the ‘60s Adam West show, This isn’t ideal for a character who’s been in the comics for 74 years. At worst, the Riddler is a watered-down version of the Joker, but most of the time he’s just sort of there.
Reeves’ The Batman brings the Riddler, played by Paul Dano being a freaky little guy, closer to the Batman: The Animated Series portrayal in that he is an irritating know-it-all, but he also puts a new spin on it. It turns out that this Riddler is a brutal mass murderer, rather than a goofy prankster, but he’s also a born poster, dropping a video to his followers that begins with the YouTuber greeting of choice: “Hey guys.” He even uses a private social-media account to organize his followers into an armed cell. It serves to add some contemporary flavor to a well-worn conspiracy plot—he’s like the Zodiac Killer with internet access—and has also become a point of real identification with the character for fans.
For one, The Batman’s portrayal of a guy who is way too online is just chillingly accurate. He talks in obtuse riddles that refer to beef that no one else knows about and becomes infuriated when his expectations don’t match reality, taking it out on the person he had a parasocial relationship with. He’s a little bit like if you gave a streamer a gun and agoraphobia. Fanart of the character, when not shipping him with Batman, riffs on the character as an egirl, complete with pink cat-eared headphones.
It’s the isolation of the character that people seem to identify with here, even more so than him actually being very correct about how corrupt Gotham is. He’s the kind of person who has learned to make and cherish deep connections over the internet, and seemingly nowhere else. It’s not a huge surprise that fandom, which is just a massive network of online friendships, sees this and identifies with it.
Because being in fandom is about acting out what makes you a fan, people’s appreciation for the Riddler comes out through not just drawing fanart, but writing fanfic. An easy way to tell how much a fandom likes a character is to see which characters make up the components of the biggest ships in the fandom. On Archive of our Own, a fanfiction website, fanfic that depicts Batman and the Riddler in a romantic or sexual relationship is overwhelmingly the favorite; there are 400 fics with that pairing, eclipsing even the classic Batman and Catwoman, who only feature in 235 fics. In fact, the fic with the most hits out of the entire tag for The Batman is a Riddler/Batman fic, with 64 thousand hits.
On Tumblr, shipping the Riddler and Batman is also popular, but there’s also a deep sense of identification with the character among fans, sometimes to the point of hyperfixation. There are plenty of blogs—to which I’m not linking and which I’m not describing in specific detail because I want to leave people to be harmlessly weird in peace—describing what it would be like if the Riddler had a crush on a co-worker, or you tried to flirt with him at an emo show, or what he would have been like in high school, among many other deeply personal, and sometimes horny, scenarios. As I browsed through blogs posting Riddler-themed mixtapes or laying out ideas about what his favorite movie is, it struck me that this is exactly how Paul Dano’s Riddler would write about The Batman. In Reeves’ film, the Riddler is so obsessed with Batman that he is not just convinced that they’re friends, but that he understands Batman’s interior life. I can only imagine him on Tumblr, writing his headcanons about what he thinks Batman is like under the cowl.
Watching the movie, you get the sense that Reeves is trying to depict the more negative aspects of online communication, the way that lonely people searching for community can get radicalized. It’s weirdly comforting to see fans of The Batman embrace the inverse, the totally freeing nature of making connections with people just based on shared interests, and the opportunity to craft a new identity in that community. Maybe if Dano’s Riddler had gotten hyper fixated on Supernatural instead of government corruption, he’d have been happier.
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