'Gotham's' Cory Michael Smith Unlocks the Mystery of the Riddler

Gotham S01E12 Cory Michael Smith Still - H 2015
Jeff Neumann

Gotham S01E12 Cory Michael Smith Still - H 2015

For Gotham’s Cory Michael Smith, reading a bunch of old Batman comics was “easily the smartest thing” he could have done while preparing to play the Fix show’s Edward Nigma, a character better known as Gotham City villain the Riddler.

Smith tells The Hollywood Reporter that he didn’t grow up with Batman, preferring to spend his time outside. Outside of repeated viewings of Tim Burton’s 1989 movie and episodes of the animated television spinoff, he was coming to the material fresh — which meant he wanted to research the role.

“When I was auditioning for Gotham, I got a handful of comics from different decades, so I had a perspective — it’s been around for 75 years, which is a long time,” he says. “I wanted to see an evolution of the comics — and of the character.”

What he found was that there is no consistent Riddler throughout the character’s 60-year-plus existence. (The character debuted in 1948’s Detective Comics No. 140, created by artist Dick Sprang and writer Bill Finger, who was also responsible for the creation of the Joker and the Penguin, as well as Gotham’s lead character, Jim Gordon.)

“What I love about [the character’s history] is how diverse it is in terms of how the character is portrayed, in terms of his appearance, the different costumes and hair color,” Smith says. “Sometimes it’s incredibly ostentatious, other times it’s almost professional, or regal. Sometimes, he’s a showman, sometimes he’s a nerd.”

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More importantly for Gotham’s purposes, perhaps, is the fact that the comic book version of Edward Nigma — or Edward Nygma, or Edward Nashton, because even his name hasn’t stayed consistent throughout the years — hasn’t always been portrayed as a villain. One thing that has stayed true through the character’s career to date is that the Riddler’s reason for turning to crime was never simple greed or a desire for mischief, but instead the need to match wits with a suitable opponent. That means that, like Gotham’s currently benign Nigma, the comic book Riddler has worked with the police on occasion when the circumstances dictated. Indeed, under the pen of Paul Dini, the character spent a number of years working on the side of the angels as a private investigator, occasionally even teaming with Batman to solve crimes (much to the suspicion of the Dark Knight).

While Smith likens the current Gotham incarnation of Edward Nigma to “walking through a field and picking up flowers, hanging out with his buddies at the GCPD and having no evil intentions whatsoever” — a description that could never be applied to any of the comic book versions of the character — he suggests that that isn’t going to be the case for much longer, likening Nigma’s character development on the show to a giant U curve.

“What I’m really excited about is the bottom of that curve,” he says. “Going from this quite innocent, well-intentioned, joyful person to starting to find this other part of him that he didn’t know he had — accessing this place where he responds to the unfortunate things that people are doing to him, and starting to realize how cruel people are to him and how they mistreat him, and then doing that back to them. He’s a person who’s constantly abused, and to finally reach a part of himself where he just can’t take it anymore and starts doing it to other people — and it’s out of anger and exhaustion, and then realizing that when you start taking control of situations like that, you can gain power that way — it’ll be something that he can start to enjoy.”

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Although that would make for a far more emotionally brutal origin than the comic book Riddler — where, traditionally, he’s been portrayed as a man too smart and too bored to stay within the law, and more of a playful sociopath than a survivor of trauma — Smith suggests that the end result would be someone as gleefully mischievous and fun to watch.

Once Nigma “slips up the other side of the U as this completely other person because he’s finally realized how to harness power, he’s going to have a great time with it,” he says. “That’s how you end up with the Riddler, who is this very joyful villain.”

And if there’s one thing that’s consistent in all of the Riddler’s inconsistency, it’s the joy he takes in his job — whatever that job may be.

What do you think of Gotham's Riddler? Sound off in the comments below. Gotham airs Mondays on Fox.