'The Batman's Penguin Spin-Off Could Be Dark As Hell (And Great)
People often ask me: you don’t understand the difference between a statement and a question. They also often tell me: What the hell is wrong with you? And I always tell them: Well, when I was about 11, I saw a sewer goblin in a dirty full-body diaper bite the nose off some guy, and I’ve never really recovered from that.
I like The Penguin in Batman Returns just fine. Come on, it’s Danny DeVito. Danny DeVito could play me in an unauthorized, libelous biographical film titled The Man Who Kept Farting On Puppies, and I’d still go see it. But his Penguin was a little bit too Tim Burton for me. I get where he was coming from, though. Despite having some decent comic book stories like the one where his umbrella fetish came from his overprotective mom always making him carry one because his father died of pneumonia after going out unprotected in the rain, The Penguin was mostly a joke character at the time. So it’s understandable that Burton went into BTO (Burton Tim’s Overdrive) and overcorrected Penguin’s threat levels a bit to make him into a character who could really take care of business.
Later, Batman: The Animated Series tried to marry this idea with the comic books where Penguin was “just” a criminal mastermind, giving us a mob boss with an inferiority complex who seeks legitimacy and respect from both the underworld and high society. It became the basis of some really great comics. But the BEST Penguin writers never forgot Burton’s Batman Returns. No matter how many different therapists they tried. Only instead of making Penguin a literal sewer monster, they made him into a vicious psychopath, the likes of which would even make The Joker go “Yikes, Oswald.” From the trailers, it seems that Colin Farrell will NOT be playing that kind of villain in The Batman. But it was recently announced that the character is getting his own HBO Max spin-off, which would be a great time to bring one of the best Penguin stories to life: Pain and Prejudice.
This 2011-2012 miniseries by Gregg Hurwitz and Szymon Kudranski takes a lot of cues from Batman Returns, portraying Oswald Cobblepot as a child born with a slightly-deformed nose and being shunned by his asshole father. But they mix it up a bit. Penguin’s mother loves her child, and he very much returns those feelings… by murdering his father and siblings so that it’d only be him and his momma. Fun fact: 2011 was also the last time that Freud’s grave contained a body because after this story was published, his corpse spun so fast, it broke the dimensional barrier and blinked out of existence. A really great thing about Pain and Prejudice is that it doesn’t sugarcoat Oswald’s undeniably abusive and psychologically-damaging upbringing. But the series never suggests that any of that is a valid excuse for the evil things he does because, again, some of them were off-the-charts “Yikes.”
The best example of that happens when a guy accidentally bumps into The Penguin at a party and tells him to watch where he’s going before realizing who he’s talking to and stopping short of dropping to his knees and licking Oswald’s shoes to apologize. And Bird Person seems to forgive him. Only later, he has the man brought to him to explain that he just had the man fired and framed for stealing from his company, burned down his apartment, KILLED HIS PARENTS, and poisoned his girlfriend with some definitely fatal, possibly bird-themed disease (condorrhea?) We’re gonna need a bigger Yikes.
Maybe Farrell’s character won’t be a good fit for a straight-up adaptation of that story, but if the spin-off is smart, it will at least learn the right lessons from it. Treat a Gotham man like a joke and a freak long enough, and he’ll embrace the latter to never be called the former ever again. The Penguin works best when he is a broken human torn between worlds. A criminal who seeks legitimacy and a man committing monstrous violence on those who deny his humanity. Plus, his umbrellas go “Pew, pew, pew.” That last part is also very important.
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Top Image: Warner Bros. Pictures