In Praise Of Colin Farrell's Penguin

We love the Penguin, don't we folks? Ever since the character first appeared in the pages of "Detective Comics" #58 in 1941, the Penguin has been one of Batman's most popular, recognizable villains. And he's gone through several different incarnations. At first, Penguin (or Pengy, as I like to call him) was an art thief, earning his nickname because he was a short, chubby guy fond of tuxedos. As the character progressed, he became a full-blown mobster, complete with a variety of weaponized umbrellas. The first live-action version of the Penguin was portrayed memorably by Burgess Meredith on the campy, wonderful 1960s "Batman" TV show. Meredith, with his ever-present cigarette holder and his fondness for bird-like squawks, helped make the character his own. 

Then, in the 1990s, Pengy got a new lease on life in the form of "Batman Returns." Played by Danny DeVito (who seemed destined for such a role), the Penguin in Tim Burton's 1992 sequel was a far cry from the comic book character. He was no longer a dapper gangster — he was a full-blown freak. A kind of mutated monster, half-man, half-bird, complete with flipper hands. Sure, he still had some of his umbrella guns, but he also was fond of biting people's noses off, eating raw fish, and letting black goo drip down his chin. The live-action Penguin was revived in the series "Gotham," where the character was played by Robin Lord Taylor. Having never watched the show, I can't tell you much about Taylor's performance. But the character is still on the younger side on "Gotham," and he's definitely not the horrible wannabe child killer from the Burton film. He's also rather tall and svelte, characteristics not often associated with the Penguin. 

Now, Penguin gets to live again in "The Batman," Matt Reeves' new take on the story of the Dark Knight. To play the part, Reeves brought in professional handsome man Colin Farrell and had him buried in heavy make-up, rendering the actor practically unrecognizable. And while the Penguin plays a relatively small part during the film's epic runtime, Farrell makes every one of his moments count, chewing into the scenery the way DeVito's Penguin chewed into raw fish. 

Warning: spoilers ahead for "The Batman."

Big and broad, but not over-the-top

I've seen more than a few people perturbed by Farrell's casting here. Not so much about the fact that he's playing the character, but that the film has dropped him into a fat suit and slathered on the prosthetics. Personally speaking, I have no qualms. In fact, I kind of love it when a big Hollywood actor allows themselves to be covered in make-up. Isn't that part of the fun of acting? Pretending to be someone else? Someone completely different? Sure, you can list a cavalcade of stout, portly actors Reeves could've cast in the role. That doesn't mean we should discount Farrell's take on the character, though. In fact, Farrell's performance is one of several highlights in the film. Yes, it's big and broad, but it never feels painfully over-the-top. He manages to find just the right mix of sleaze and charm.

In "The Batman," Penguin, AKA Oswald Cobblepot, AKA Oz, AKA Ozzy, isn't a major threat just yet. Sure, he's clearly a bad guy, and Batman (Robert Pattinson) has no reservations about roughing him up. But there are bigger fish to fry in the corrupt, crumbling city, and old Pengy is still working his way up. He runs the Iceberg Lounge, a hot-spot for Gotham's upper-crust and criminal element — who turns out to be one and the same. There's a great early moment where Batman needs some info on some of the club's patrons, and has a sit-down with Penguin to get some answers. Penguin plays dumb — he's a bird, not a rat.

Farrell's make-up is extensive, to the point where if it were just a little bit heavier he'd be close to becoming Karl Havoc from "I Think You Should Leave." But it's never distracting. In fact, it's downright eerie how believable it all looks. Farrell himself revealed that after the make-up was applied for the first time, he tested it out by heading to Starbucks to see if anyone there noticed something was off. No one did (and no one recognized Farrell under the make-up, either). The effect is so good that I had to keep reminding myself it was Farrell up there on the screen.

Take it easy, sweetheart

The make-up wouldn't be nearly as impressive without Farrell's performance, though. Adopting a New Yawk-ish accent, Farrell plays the character as a sleazy, low-class crook who mostly just hangs around. He runs his club, he talks tough, and he plays pool with Gotham's current criminal boss, Carmine Falcone (an icy John Turturro). There's a great moment midway through the film where Batman captures the Penguin and tries to grill him for info, with Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) by his side. Batman and Gordon are trying to stop the Riddler (Paul Dano), a serial killer plaguing Gotham. And the Riddler, helpful killer that he is, keeps leaving behind clues in the form of riddles. Batman and Gordon think Penguin knows the answer to one of those riddles, but Farrell's Penguin hilarious shoots their entire theory down. Part of the clue is written in Spanish, and as it turns out, both Batman and Gordon read it wrong. But not Penguin — he's apparently bilingual and knows the ins and outs of the language. There's something almost charming about the fact that Batman and Gordon, two characters presented as super-smart heroes, are so easily proven wrong by Penguin, who at first blush comes off as a total dunce.

That charming factor is a big part of what makes Farrell's performance so damn memorable. Sure, he's one of the villains here. But he's surprisingly one of the most likable villains in the entire movie. He's not nearly as evil or deranged as the other bad guys running all over Gotham. He's just a crook trying to make some money, and make a name for himself in the process. Watching him tell Batman to "Take it easy, sweetheart!" after the Caped Crusader has just pummeled a whole bunch of goons at Penguin's club, it's impossible not to chuckle. I'm just going to say it: I like this guy.

There's plenty of room for that to change, though. By the time "The Batman" ends, the Penguin has his eye toward the future. And there's already an HBO Max series on the way with Farrell on board to reprise the role. I have no doubt that the character will grow more villainous and vile the more powerful he becomes. For now, though, let's all enjoy these surprisingly likable Penguin moments while we have them.