Matt Reeves’ The Batman Is the Perfect Universe for Doctor Death


  • Batman’s first recurring villain in the Golden Age was not the Joker, but another grounded foe that easily fits the world of The Batman.
  • This Golden Age villain was reinterpreted in Scott Snyder’s and Greg Capullo’s Batman: Zero Year storyline, which capitalizes on horror tropes.
  • The Batman ended with a flooded Gotham, which makes this Golden Age villain a perfect future adversary that easily stands out from other villains like the Joker.

The Batman: Part II is still a few years away, but many fans are already wondering which member of Batman’s iconic rogues’ gallery will appear as the movie’s central villain. Some are concerned that the Joker will be used in another movie, while others hope for more esoteric choices in antagonists. Given all the enemies that the hero has faced in his long-running history, there are several choices, with one obscure character possibly being perfect.

Doctor Death isn’t the most well-known Batman villain, and his name might even sound too “comic booky” given the tone of the Matt Reeves’ The Batman universe. Nevertheless, his concept can play well in a Gotham City that’s in particularly bad shape, as seen in the first movie’s ending. Plus, given his status as Batman’s original supervillain, he’s a more than fitting enemy to fight against Robert Pattinson’s still young take on Bruce Wayne.

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Doctor Death Is Batman’s First and Most Forgotten Villain

Batman first faces off against the evil Doctor Death.

Created by Gardner Fox and Bob Kane, Doctor Death first appeared in Detective Comics #29, just two issues after Batman’s own debut. He was also the first true supervillain that the Dark Knight fought. The developer of a deadly poison, Doctor Death — real name Karl Hellfern — uses his creation to extort the wealthy citizens of Gotham City. One of his initial encounters with Batman saw him seemingly killed in an explosion, and though he survived the ordeal, it left him heavily physically scarred. Beforehand, he was merely a bald mad scientist who heavily resembled future Batman enemy Hugo Strange. Now bearing a ghastly appearance befitting his pseudonym, he returned to vex Batman once more.

These early stories during the Golden Age of Comics were some of the few times that Doctor Death had any real spotlight. He was quickly overshadowed by foes such as the Joker and others who’d go on to become major players within the Batman mythos and the DC Universe as a whole. Though he had a scant few appearances in the decades afterward, he’s mostly remained a marginal character at absolute most. There was even an entirely unrelated character by that name in the Vertigo series Sandman Mystery Theatre, showcasing how little of an impact the original villain had made. This finally changed somewhat, however, due to his presence in a prominent modern Batman comic book storyline.

Scott Snyder’s and Greg Capullo’s Batman: Zero Year was the character’s origin story during the New 52, with this tale supplanting the iconic Batman: Year One (by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli) as his canon backstory. It saw a young, inexperienced Dark Knight attempt to protect Gotham City amid a violent storm, with the city’s criminal element taking advantage of the natural disaster. Chief among these foes were both the Riddler and Doctor Death, with the latter’s presence once again making him the first “supervillain” that Batman faces. This time, his design and modus operandi were fairly altered, with Doctor Death’s experimental serum causing uncontrolled bone growth. Deformed after testing it on himself, the villain has a much more monstrous appearance than normal. This was the last time that he had any major push, but The Batman: Part II presents a golden opportunity to put him on the big screen.

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The Batman: Part II Requires a Worthy Yet Fresh Antagonist

As mentioned, a major question regarding the direction that The Batman: Part II involves the potential villain or villains involved. The first movie beautifully balanced the limelight for three iconic Batman foes: the Penguin, the Riddler and Catwoman. Thus, there’s definitely the chance that the sequel can do the same, but fans are hoping that it does so with more unknown Batman villains. The biggest problem with a lot of Batman movies is that they tend to recycle the same villains, with The Joker having the biggest stranglehold on the character and DC movies as a whole. Thus, a fresh set of faces is needed to keep The Batman universe fresh, but they still have to fit within the scope of this Elseworlds franchise.

Much like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, The Batman is a fairly grounded story that focuses on a gritty crime-driven scope. Eschewing the more comic booky aspects of Batman’s world, it’s far more in line with classic crime capers than more bombastic superhero blockbusters. Throwing that all away for the sequel would definitely be a waste, especially since the upcoming cinematic DC Universe will offer a better place for the character’s less realistic elements. A big part of why The Batman stood out was its tone, which wasn’t bogged down in ridiculous or cartoonish concepts.

Given that it released as other superhero movies were stuck in the narrative miasma of the multiverse, this was definitely a breath of fresh air. Thus, foes like Mr. Freeze, Clayface and Man-Bat are completely out of the question, as they’d be the equivalent of adding vampires or a walking pile of mud into The Godfather. Killer Croc has been done in a more realistic fashion before, and this is actually how the character debuted in the comics. However, this incarnation was essentially the one used in 2016’s Suicide Squad movie, so director Matt Reeves may hold off on him. With a fine line needing to be walked between the interesting and the realistic, Doctor Death may be the new movie’s best chance at featuring an “iconic” yet underutilized villain.

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Doctor Death Can Fit Well Into The Batman: Part II’s Tone

At the end of The Batman, Gotham City is flooded by the machinations of the Riddler and his followers. This leaves the city in turmoil, with many citizens unaccounted for as their home becomes even more of a war zone. This setup is quite similar to the one in Batman: Zero Year, albeit switching out a natural disaster for a manmade one. Given the circumstances, many of the less financially advantaged citizens of the city might seek treatment and medical care from less than mainstream sources. This is how Doctor Death can be introduced, using his modern comic book backstory as a former employee of Wayne Enterprises to explain why he turned to such unauthorized means to treat patients.

One element that might also be cribbed from the comics is the idea that his son died at war while searching for the missing Bruce Wayne overseas. This might be changed to where his son instead dies as a police officer in Gotham City during the flood, perhaps falling prey to its criminal element. Such a development can drive Bruce to devote himself more to his activities as Batman, all while making him lose his connection to his normal life. Thus, as the crooks in the city get more horrifying, so too does Batman and his actions. That might also lead to his being further “humanized” by the introduction of Dick Grayson/Robin.

The grotesque, serum-derived mutated form of the modern Dr. Death might be done away with, however. Though it would give the movie a more “horror-based” tone, it still might go too far in terms of making things ridiculous. A more realistic version of a bone deformity could be used, with Karl Hellfern using his few funds to try to find a way to fix his debilitating and worsening condition. This might see him use unorthodox and amoral means to acquire money, perhaps becoming a pusher of an experimental drug called “Dr. Death.” While it would definitely involve some tweaking, the villain can definitely work within the grounded confines of The Batman: Part II, finally giving the villain a major breakthrough in terms of adaptations.

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