What does Colin Farrell's casting as the Penguin tell us about The Batman?

<span>Photograph: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney</span>
Photograph: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney

In many ways, Colin Farrell would be a surprising choice to play Oswald Cobblepot, AKA the Penguin, in Matt Reeves’ The Batman – though the Hollywood trade press is reporting he is the likely candidate. Farrell is neither squat and rotund like the version portrayed by Danny DeVito in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, nor slight and awkward like the memorable Penguin played on TV by Robin Lord Taylor in Gotham. Many observers had expected the role to go to Josh Gad, the Frozen and Book of Mormon stalwart who campaigned heavily for the role on Twitter and seemed the perfect choice, should Reeves be headed in an operatic, larger-than-life direction for his reinvention of the Batman myth.

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That it is the Irishman who will pull on Cobblepot’s trademark top hat and tuxedo may be instructive about this forthcoming vision of Gotham City. Farrell is perfectly capable of hamming it up – there are those of us who are still reeling from his toe-curlingly oirish Bullseye in the misfiring Daredevil (2003). But he still seems likely to be a more understated Penguin than those we have seen in the past. A more obvious choice to play the villain, if Reeves wanted a furniture-chewing Cobblepot, might have been his old pal Andy Serkis – yet the latter has been cast as Alfred Pennyworth instead.

Farrell will be competing for villain space with Paul Dano’s Riddler, and to a lesser extent (for her loyalties are often mixed), Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman. His challenge is to stand out from the crowd, and make his version of the umbrella-toting bad guy the definitive one. DeVito’s great achievement was to simultaneously encourage the audience to sympathise with his torrid existence and reel from his cruelty and sideshow-freak schtick. Farrell, though a capable character actor, has the demeanour of a leading man not a gimpy outsider. So Reeves will have to paint the story in a different way to carry it forward. This syncs nicely with the Planet of the Apes film-maker’s rumoured neo-noir take on the material, and avowed aim to restore the caped crusader’s mantle of the “world’s greatest detective”, rather than recapture the pantomime bombast of the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher years. The less said the better about Ben Affleck’s appearances in the misfiring, dull as ditchwater and now almost forgotten DC “extended universe” films.

Might including both the Penguin and the Riddler in the same film end up crowding things? That depends on Reeves’ long-term plans for his movie and any sequels. One of the two seems likely to be the film’s main antagonist, with the other cast as a more shadowy figure, perhaps with their place in the picture to emerge more fully in subsequent films. If so, the clever money would be on Dano’s character surfacing as the immediate threat. The star of There Will Be Blood can do unhinged mania so well that it would be a huge pity if Reeves did not fully unleash him on Pattinson’s new dark knight. If such a “fast stream, slow stream” approach is taken, it will surely be Farrell’s Penguin, with his traditional position as a totem of the Gotham underworld, who finds himself watching patiently from the shadows, a master-manipulator waiting for his moment.

The good news for Reeves is that Batman, perhaps more than any other superhero, is capable of sustaining a myriad enemies at a time: his famed “rogues gallery” of nemeses. But there is a warning hanging in the air here, too. As Schumacher found to his cost with the over-packed Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, it is when the camera does not know where to rest that potentially heavyweight figures can suddenly appear gossamer thin and lacking in threat. Of course, Nolan had no such issues, despite cramming Bane, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul and the Scarecrow into The Dark Knight Rises.

And therein lies the greatest poser: how have so many film-makers, working with essentially the same source material, ended up with such vastly different results when wrestling with Batman?