80 years of the Penguin: Batman’s nemesis to be explored in new origins HBO show

The TV series about the celebrated villain’s backstory will be dark, gritty and 'Scarface-like' as Colin Farrell becomes the latest actor to portray the umbrella-toting baddie

Batman fans rejoice, because one of the most enduring villains in Gotham City is set to get the origins treatment.

Following in the footsteps – or should that be "flippersteps"? – of other DC Comics favourites such as the Joker and Harley Quinn, who have both been the subjects of deep dives into their histories, the Penguin aka Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot is the latest supervillain to have his backstory explored.

Streaming platform HBO Max is putting together the show. Described by entertainment news website Deadline as a “Scarface-like series about the rise of the Penguin character”, it will be a spin-off from the highly anticipated Batman film staring Robert Pattinson, The Batman, which is slated for release in March 2022.

Colin Farrell, who takes on the role of Cobblepot in the film, is expected to star in the series.

The Penguin first appeared in the comics in December 1941. From a wealthy background, he considers himself a “gentleman of crime” and originally wore a monocle, top hat and tuxedo, while carrying an umbrella.

With 2021 marking 80 years of the Penguin, we take a look at the actors who have portrayed the villain, and some of the comic book lore, which has made him one of Batman’s most feared and enduring enemies.

Who is the Penguin?

A member of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, the Penguin sits alongside the likes of Bane, Catwoman, Poison Ivy and the Riddler as one of the crime-fighter’s most famous nemeses.

Making his first appearance in Detective Comics No 58, Penguin is the owner of Gotham City nightclub The Iceberg Lounge, which acts as a cover for his criminal activities. The character was bullied as a child for being short and overweight, for his pigeon-toed way of walking and also for his beak-like nose. The omnipresent umbrella he carries was insisted upon by his mother, following his father's death from bronchial pneumonia after being caught in the rain without an umbrella.

Cobblepot’s wealthy parents owned a bird shop, which led to his interest in birds, and he later studied ornithology at university where his knowledge outstripped that of his professors. In the comic books, he turns to crime when his mother dies and the bird shop is repossessed to pay her debts.

Batman v Penguin

Being one of the few villains in Gotham who is sane and in control of his actions makes the Penguin a more thoughtful and calculating adversary than the Joker. Fans will note that in the 1992 graphic novel Penguin Triumphant, Batman admits that Penguin is smarter than him.

Starting out his criminal career as a thief, the Penguin crosses paths with Batman many times, more so when the Penguin becomes the head of his own crime family and his omnipresent umbrella starts to do double duty as a machine gun.

Some of the pair’s most famous entanglements include The Penguin Affair, in which the villain gains control of flocks of birds with the intention of using them to bring down a passenger plane – a plan ultimately foiled by the Caped Crusader. Another involves the Penguin, with the help of fellow villain the Mad Hatter, kidnapping Batman and brainwashing him to assassinate Black Mask. The supervillain also at one point becomes the Mayor of Gotham City and divides the territories up between the inmates of Arkham Asylum.

Penguins through the years

Sixteen actors in total have portrayed the Penguin, either starring on-screen as the villain or voicing animated versions of him. Until Farrell shows his acting chops as the legendary criminal, the most recent actor to portray the Penguin was Robin Lord Taylor, who took on the role in the TV series Gotham, and was described by the Wall Street Journal as “spectacularly cast as the Penguin”.

For fans of the classic 1960s TV show Batman, there is only one Penguin, and that’s Emmy-winning actor Burgess Meredith. He played the baddie on the small screen from 1966 to 1968, as well as in the 1966 film based on the show.

“We had great fun making it. Kids on the street would run after me going ‘Quack, quack, quack’,” he revealed during a 1989 interview with US radio station KRLA. He jokingly said: “This is a message to the Batman: The fact I didn’t get you before doesn’t mean I won’t get you this time.”

For many though, Danny DeVito’s turn as Penguin in 1992’s Batman Returns is the one that sticks in the mind.

“I had a ball doing that,” DeVito told WTF with Marc Maron podcast about playing the character. “I was in the make-up trailer for three hours. You’re behind that mask and you have all this padding ... I never had more fun.”

When it comes to passing the mantle to the next villain, from one Penguin to another, DeVito told ScreenRant movie news website of Farrell: “Colin’s a great actor. He’s a good friend of mine. I’ve known him for many years and I think he’s going to do a great job as the Penguin.”

Updated: September 19th 2021, 12:52 PM