The Mere-Exposure Effect: Why We Love Batman’s Bad Guys

Joseph Gioeli Joseph Gioeli
Expert Contributor
January 2nd, 2017

ComiConverse Expert Contributor focusing on film and television.

The Mere-Exposure Effect: Why We Love Batman’s Bad Guys

Over the years, we, as comic book fans, have come to love the super-villain foes that our heroes battle, specifically, the Caped Crusader’s plethora of antagonists that he is always fighting. Our Joseph Gioeli analyzes why we have come to like these villains so much.

Mere-Exposure Effect: Why We Love Batman's Bad Guys

Across all of the comic book portrayals in media over the years, very few heroes rival the dense selection of supervillains Batman has to choose from. There is always one main villain that a hero is constantly battling and as most would probably agree, for Batman, that villain is the Joker. Going deeper than that, Batman certainly has the widest arrangement of foes in the DC Universe, and arguably, across all comic book formats (being heavily contested by Spider-Man). The question is, if there are so many villainous characters to choose from, why do we know and like them all so much?

Shouldn't the number villains dilute their popularity?


My theory is that of the mere-exposure effect. This is a phenomenon often studied in social psychology in which people tend to prefer certain things simply because they are familiar with them.

Since the early Batman comics, many of these villains have been highly relevant and continue to be popular among ,any comics fans.

The plethora of villains Batman regularly faces

Credit: DC Comics

In the seven live-action film adaptations alone, we have seen two Joker portrayals, two Catwoman portrayals, two Two-Face portrayals, two Bane portrayals, Penguin, the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Ra’s al Ghul, Talia al Ghul, and Scarecrow, with arguably the most interesting villain, Deathstroke, being confirmed for Ben Affleck’s standalone Batman film.

Many of these characters were first introduced in the Golden Era of comic books (1938-1950), which means that comic book fans, young and old, have not only been familiar with, but have loved (or hated) these characters for over 70 years now.

This exposure to the same characters for so long creates a sense of relatability. Some people find solace in the fact that Mr. Freeze cares only about his wife and couldn’t be less interested with robbing banks or world domination. While some enjoy the simple condescending way in which the Riddler addresses Batman, and others just want to watch the world burn, but I digress.

A major reason comic books initially gained popularity over 60 years ago, was the fact that they were relatable. Fans could look at the panels of their favorite comic and see themselves in the outcast, bullied, and nerdy Peter Parker. Or they could find common ground with the lonely, orphaned Bruce Wayne. These characters would not have gained nearly enough traction to keep them as popular if not for the villains they battled throughout their stories.

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The relatability reeled us in, but the antagonists kept us hooked.

As far as the films go, I rank them in order of the fondness of the villain. There are only so many ways to portray Bruce Wayne/Batman, and while everyone from Adam West to Ben Affleck has done a remarkable job, it’s the malefactor that attracts fans to the stories.

The Dark Knight (2008) is widely considered the best superhero movie, and to some, one of the best films ever. Christian Bale did a great job playing Bruce Wayne/Batman, but nobody could possibly argue that Heath Ledger’s Joker was not the reason that movie was so successful and widely loved by fans and critics alike. Before Ledger, the Joker’s only live-action portrayals showed him being goofy and always having fun, and while Heath Ledger’s Joker still had fun, it was in a much more sadistic way than prior Jokers.

As long as these villains continue to fill the panels of our favorite comic books, and grace the silver screen, we will always find a reason to love them. They have become so familiar, that to some of us, they feel like a part of our lives, and isn't that the goal with any good character?

Do you think there's a different reason we like these characters?

Let us know in the comments below!



Joseph Gioeli is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @JoeGioeli

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