Whether it’s Bruce Wayne’s tragic origins, his first year as a neophyte crimefighter, or even his second donning the cape and cowl, organized crime almost always dominated Gotham City during Batman’s early days. Matt Reeves’ The Batman sports an impressive ensemble cast – and Colin Farrell’s unrecognizable transformation into Oswald Cobblepot/the Penguin is an important representation of this “Earth-2” story. It appears there’s at least one other crucial cog present in this incarnation of Gotham’s corruptive machine, but there are plenty of things that prospective fans should know about the Penguin – from the pages of the comics to the screen – to understand a piece of that oppressive system.
Even with his cartoonishly evil appearance (replete with a monocle, top hat, and cigarette), the cockney-accented mobster managed to become one of the Dark Knight’s most iconic and notorious supervillains. Given his gangster persona, depictions of the Penguin generally share a similar foundation, although the way Tim Burton depicted the character in Batman Returns is without a doubt the most gruesomely memorable in live-action in a way only his gothic sensibility could pull off.
The Penguin’s live-action portrayals have been fairly sparse, which may be a hint that writers and directors typically don’t see the stumpy, almost literal penguin-shaped mob boss would translate well into a “modern” live-action setting. Assuming that bit of pure speculation is true, it’s not an entirely unfounded concern. After all, the 1997 over-the-top camp-fest that was Batman & Robin effectively nuked the Batman IP theatrically until Christopher Nolan came along.
That’s why when it was revealed that director/writer Matt Reeves cast Colin Farrell as Cobblepot, many fans expected him to make the Penguin work by going the opposite direction of the comics, appearance-wise. A handsome, slick, but no less villainously cunning take on the Penguin sounds pretty good on paper. But once the first teaser for The Batman premiered at DC FanDome 2020, many fans didn’t even realize that Farrell was in the trailer opposite Robert Pattinson’s ambitious Caped Crusader. Reeves and Farrell were staying true to the Penguin’s essential nature after all: as a gangster whose internal moral corruption would manifest itself physically via a receding hairline and a scarred face.
Oswald Cobblepot’s fairly consistent appearances in DC’s comic books and elsewhere are largely defined by the classic mobster persona: an inflated and fragile ego; the desperation to prove himself as Gotham City’s new “top dog” in the criminal underworld; and violent insecurity are the villain’s most notable characteristics.
In the comics, it’s the size of the Penguin’s role in the given story that fluctuates the most. During the original Golden Age noir comics and throughout the campy days of the Silver Age, the character appeared fairly regularly, but after the publisher-wide reboot catalyst that was Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, Penguin faded more into the background. Once writer Alan Grant and artist Norm Breyfogle folded him back into mainline stories, he was reinvented to be more erratic and threatening.
In a metaphorical sense, it’s almost fitting how he came and went, and came back again into the comics “bigger” and “badder,” as overcompensation is Cobblepot’s greatest weakness. His overt “Napoleon complex” often proves to be his downfall, where he’s even mocked by Batman’s extended Bat-Family members (and fellow villains) for fading pathetically into obscurity during writer Mariko Tamaki and artist Dan Mora’s recent run on Detective Comics. But perhaps his best role was in Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Earth One Vol. 1, where the Penguin is Gotham’s top mob boss – and mayor – while admirably holding his own as Batman’s main antagonist.
On-screen, like many members of the Caped Crusader’s loaded rogues gallery, Penguin made his live-action debut in the campy Adam West Batman TV series from the ‘60s and was played by veteran character actor Burgess Meredith. After the days of the family-comedy Batman waned in the mainstream, Penguin wouldn’t get another adaptation until Burton’s aforementioned Batman Returns in 1992. Danny DeVito’s portrayal was a firmly “Tim Burton” take on the character, and can still be nostalgically appreciated for it and the actor’s larger-than-life performance. The penguin motif was more blatant than it’s ever been, to the point of being a grotesque, gothic-horror spin on the iconic villain.
There was another massive gap in the character’s appearance outside of the comics, with his next major adaptation not coming until the 2014 Fox drama series Gotham. Robin Taylor Lord played the role to resounding critical praise in how he depicted an up-and-coming crime lord. Funnily enough, Lord’s performance was also lauded in part by his engaging back-and-forth dynamic with Gotham’s version of the Riddler, portrayed by Cory Michael Smith. The show became widely known for being an effective showcase for the most colorful, and often underrated, villains in Batman’s mythos.
After that, the next high-billing, live-action iteration of the Penguin will be by Farrell in The Batman. Just by the trailers alone, there aren’t enough praises in the world for the crew’s costume and makeup department. As it turns out, it is possible to put together a theatrical Penguin that’s both realistic and a clear rendition of the comic book version’s aesthetic.
And casting Farrell in the role looks like a clear slam dunk given the actor’s compelling way of playing crude characters, whether it’s the sympathetic and emotionally-flawed assassin from In Bruges or the self-absorbed writer in Seven Psychopaths. Both of these characters from director Martin McDonagh are excellent showcases of Farrell’s penchant for dark humor, which should fit seamlessly into Reeves’ take on the short-fused villain.
Despite being one piece of a greater puzzle, the Penguin’s presence in The Batman is a telling one for the future. In fact, fans who’ve yet to see the movie can already see that since Matt Reeves is confirmed to be producing both a GCPD prequel and Penguin series (with Farrell signed on) for HBO Max.
But even aside from the projects on the horizon, Reeves’ emphasis on The Batman dissecting the anatomy and psychology of systematic corruption as one of its core themes could mean more for both the villain and this Bat-verse’s future. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween – commonly regarded as the greatest Batman comic and a major influence for this movie – chronicles the dying days of organized crime as the apex predator of Gotham City. The story arc shows Carmine “The Roman” Falcone desperately clinging to what’s left of his power before the inevitable “rise of the freaks” takes the city over. John Turturro is playing that same mob boss in The Batman, with the Penguin being his right-hand man.
So while mob bosses may never truly go away in this world, perhaps the latter’s upcoming TV series will further shape Gotham’s villainous power balance. Cobblepot might even become the “Emperor Penguin” he so desperately wants to see himself as in the process. Under Reeves’ guidance and in Farrell’s capable hands, the Penguin may just get the attention and respect the character deserves.