You guessed it, Bat-Fans: this time The Riddler is our subject. As always, to start with, er, year one of Jeremiah Lawson’s soon-to-be-definitive exploration of Batman mythology, go here. Or to simply catch up on the current arc, the villain-themed The Wounds of Discovery, go here.
PART FOUR: THE WOUNDS OF DISCOVERY
3. The Life and Death of the Mind
All this I tested by wisdom and I said, “I am determined to be wise” — but this was beyond me. Ecclesiastes 7:28
Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.
If there is a single thread that unites the big name Batman villains it is an inability to cope with regret. Villains like Two-Face or Poison Ivy seem veritably immune to remorse. To take it one step further, if there is a member of the Batman: The Animated Series rogues gallery who seeks retribution as a means to avoid regret it would be Edward Nygma, the Riddler.
Frank Gorshin’s Riddler notwithstanding, the Riddler has never been as popular as the Joker, Two-Face, or Catwoman. Despite his iconic look, his gimmick of sending riddles to Batman and law enforcement creates numerous story-telling limitations. If the riddles are too esoteric you may lose the audience, but if the riddles are too obvious they will feel insulted. Even if this precarious balance is struck the ever present question remains: “Why?” What kind of villain would feel compelled to give clues that would give the hero a way to defeat him?! Perhaps this is why even the writers of Batman: The Animated Series wrote no more than three episodes that featured the Riddler.
Furthermore, most versions of the character show us a man who thinks he’s smarter than other people but isn’t. Riddler’s egotism, his eagerness to belittle his adversaries, and his compulsion to flaunt his intellect make him almost impossible to like or sympathize with. Nobody feels sorry for a man who just can’t admit to being wrong about something. This is why most people will never see Riddler as a relatable character, let alone a tragic one.
Ironically, Riddler’s least relatable qualities are what make him most like us. As Kathryn Schulz put it in a 2011 TED lecture, anyone can grant personal fallibilty in the abstract but it is much more difficult to admit fallibily in the ever-living present, and that is how we ultimately err. We never warm up to the Riddler because he epitomizes a flaw we display at least once a day, every day, intolerable in others yet excusable in ourselves–”Of course I’m right. Join me or get out of my way.”
The Edward Nygma we meet is an intellectual giant in his own mind. Clever as he is at programming and inventing, Nygma discovers too late that the work-for-hire contract he signed with his employer Daniel Mockridge deprived him of the rights and royalties for his work. Fired by Mockridge, Nygma is indignant, certain that his ex-boss is too stupid to appreciate what he has done. Mockridge retorts, “Tell me, Eddie, if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Insult added to injury, Edward Nygma refuses to answer.
What Nygma does, famously, is become the Riddler, spinning obscure questions and taunting his intellectual inferiors. The aim is to goad his enemies into walking into their own deaths. When Mockridge bargains with Bruce Wayne to sell the rights to Nygma’s video game, the deal is interrupted by the villain’s first riddle. Bruce solves it after consulting Alfred and Robin, and the Dynamic Duo rush to save Mockridge. While Batman deduces the Riddler’s identity right off the bat, it will take several more battles before Nygma realizes that the Dark Knight has figured him out before he’s figured himself out.
Nygma shuns the advice of his surprisingly loyal henchmen and tries to trap and kill Batman to protect his secret identity, but Batman, in collaboration with Alfred and Robin, proves more than a match for the Riddler’s lethal puzzles. When Nygma’s poses his ultimate riddle to Batman–with Mockridge’s life hanging in the balance–Batman solves it immediately. “A lucky guess,” the Riddler sneers, “but it won’t save you.” Batman saves Mockridge and escapes the trap but alas, by then Riddler has escaped. If he had stopped there, the Riddler would have been one of the few villains to have outsmarted and defeated the Dark Knight.
But Nygma is bothered by two things, that Batman knows who he is, and that Batman figured out a riddle he was sure couldn’t be solved. Before long he returns to destroy any trace of his civilian identity and to kill Commissioner Gordon in retaliation for Batman foiling his plans. We never hear a word about Riddler resuming his vendetta against Mockridge. Why? Because Mockridge no longer represents the person who has shown he can outsmart Edward Nygma.
In his subsequent battles with the Dark Knight Nygma does manages to create riddles that Batman gets wrong. He even sets a trap Batman can’t escape (“Riddler’s Reform”). But in the end Batman always prevails. Whereas the Riddler is obsessed with proving he is smarter than Batman on his own, Batman has no problem looking outside himself for help, to Alfred and Robin. The Riddler may be shaken by how well Batman understands his compulsion, he nevertheless decides to double down (compulsively!), “I fooled the police, the doctors, the parole board, all of them. There’s only one person who has ever been able to challenge me, Batman. He’s the only one worthy of the game.”
Time and again Riddler tries to prove that he is Batman’s better, always running from the simple truth that he let himself get conned, unable to resist cerebral crime sprees in retaliation to its looming judgment. He can’t admit his madness to himself and is even less able to figure out what’s behind it. The Riddler is a man who has lost everything except his reason, which according Chesterton’s criteria makes him very much a lunatic. Yet perhaps the real riddle is this: even before his life of crime, he was outsmarted by a smooth-talking snake named Daniel Mockridge. If we find Edward Nygma unsympathetic, perhaps a little Genesis 3 is in order.
Next up in The Wounds of Discovery: The Villain soon to be featured in The Dark Knight Rises!