Comics Watch: How New 'Batman' Villain Will Change the Game

Batman No 90 Cover - Publicity - H 2020
Jorge Jimenez/DC Comics
The Designer is the type of nemesis Matt Reeves should pay attention to as he crafts a Dark Knight film series.

Welcome back to The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Comics Watch, a dive into how the latest books from Marvel, DC and beyond could provide fodder for the big (and small) screen. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead for Batman No. 90.

The Designer stands revealed. After two months of buildup, Batman’s newest, and perhaps most indirectly dangerous, enemy gets the spotlight in today’s Batman No. 90 by James Tynion IV and artist Jorge Jimenez. With Deathstroke’s assassins dispatched, and Batman realizing they’ve been a distraction for a larger conspiracy, Catwoman comes clean about a part of her past, and that of the Riddler, Penguin and Joker, that even the World’s Greatest Detective wasn’t aware of.

Like Tom King and Grant Morrison before him, Tynion weaves the early, pre-Crisis days of Batman comics into the Dark Knight’s current continuity. Catwoman’s tale, told in the form of a flashback, takes us back to the brighter days of Gotham City, no less dangerous, but at least less murderous. A time when villains set up elaborate traps and puzzles, and defeating Batman was viewed as more of a game than a deathmatch. Catwoman’s nostalgic recollections are imbued with a meta quality as the style of Batman’s '70s adventures are evoked in both Tynion’s writing and Jimenez’s character designs. Catwoman and the others are proto-Rogues, yet to become the villains they ultimately become thanks to The Designer.

Given the decades of history and iconic stories Batman villains have built up, it’s rare to see a new player enter the game and have the same kind of weight and purpose, a place carved out in the Batman mythos as if they were always there. The Court of the Owls achieved such a position, as did Hush a decade earlier. The Designer feels set for a similar level of importance, not simply because he’s a new figure with an outfit destined to be a cosplay favorite among fans, but because he comes with history. Like Hush and the Owls, The Designer is immediately entrenched within Gotham’s secret past, and has defined the course of the present even if we, like Batman, are only now becoming aware of it. Retcons can be either work like a hammer and destroy the past, or like scalpel and efficiently make an insertion without damaging the body of work. Tynion works with the second tool.

A man with no name, and a history so grand he’s been regarded as an urban legend, The Designer thrives on the evolution of the adversary. Years ago, perhaps even centuries ago, he realized that he could not beat his masked nemesis by simply trying to be one step in from of him, as his adversary would also match that step in kind, but that he had to be 100 steps in front. He had to become the villain he would become after decades of combating his adversary, he had to take an “exponential leap forward” and achieve a lifetime’s worth of skill in a year, so that his enemy would never see him coming, and not even know where to look. And so for a year, he locked himself in a room and designed a plan to defeat his enemy, bigger plans upon bigger plans, pushing his limits past their breaking point until he emerged as The Designer, an adversary with a plan to thoroughly defeat his enemy before he was even aware what the game was.

That was the legend, but what Batman didn’t know is that The Designer saw potential in Catwoman, Riddler, Penguin and Joker and aimed to help them each evolve to their final forms, to take control of Gotham and defeat a still nascent Batman. On the night of their meeting, The Designer met with each of the four individually, learning about them, helping guide their masterplans into bigger and bigger feats that he would bankroll so that they could defeat the Batman and become who they were always meant to be. The member The Designer met with last was the Joker, and that was the point everything changed, where The Designer realized it wouldn’t take four villains to rule Gotham but one, and where the Joker realized what he would have to become to do so. This, as Catwoman explains, was the turning point where Joker went from creating laughing fish to slaughtering 100 innocents. In this meta-commentary on the evolution of these comic book characters, we’re effectively given the Joker’s second origin story, his transition from the Clown Prince of Crime from the days of writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers, to the sadistic, murderous psychopath who emerged in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns' Frank Miller.

The evolution of Batman’s villains, not only in terms of their costume choices, but their method of operations has always been one of the most interesting aspects of the Batman mythos, and arguably one of the central reasons Batman has endured as DC’s most popular character. Despite that factor, we’ve never really gotten to see that evolution on film. From Burton and Schumacher’s Batman series, to the films of Christopher Nolan, Batman’s villains have emerged fully formed, and most often died after that initial battle. But with Matt Reeves’ upcoming The Batman, there’s an opportunity to play the long game with these characters, and just as we expect to see Batman (Robert Pattinson) progress we can hope to see the same from Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), The Riddler (Paul Dano), The Penguin (Colin Farrell), and whomever else Reeves may include over the course of what will hopefully be a long-running series not restrained within the mold of a trilogy.

There is already a lot of speculation that we’ll see some of Batman’s more recent adversaries, like Hush and the Court of the Owls play into this new series, and new, villainous blood would certainly be welcome and help distinguish this series from those of the past. But part of what helps these new arrivals stick the landing in the comics is how they provide an opportunity for Batman’s classic adversaries to change and, in some ways, become new again. Whether The Designer ever makes it on film, the spirit of what he represents is key to the ongoing saga of Batman in comics and film. These characters exist in stages, ones we’ve traced over decades of comics but have yet to track on celluloid. It’s time we see these villains pushed beyond their expected limits so that they might evolve, like Batman, into their next form and remain not only challenging for our hero but surprising for audiences.