‘The Batman’: how Paul Dano’s Riddler takes after real-life serial killers

the batman riddler
Photo via DC Films

With the release of the latest trailer for next year’s DC film The Batman, fan speculation is at an absolute fever pitch in terms of guessing as to the movie’s tone, inspirations, and plot.

One of those speculated elements is certainly the conversation swirling around Paul Dano’s Edward Nashton, AKA Riddler.

Far from the campy, joke-filled, and colorful portrayal of the character that we saw played by Jim Carrey in 1995’s Batman Forever, the Dano version of the character is instead painted as more of a grounded, realistic serial killer. He likes to toy with authorities and the capped crusader alike. Indeed, from the latest trailer we’ve seen, it seems that the character with a penchant for head games has an axe to grind against Bruce Wayne in particular.

Given this more stark take, it may not surprise you to know some very real-life evil-doers likely inspired the character. This can be determined both by an explicit reference by Dano himself in one case and by merely observing in the trailers the similarities the character seems to have to other real-life serial killers in other cases.

Zodiac Killer

Dano has stated explicitly that his character shares similarities to the real-life serial killer known as the Zodiac Killer. This was obvious to fans from early glimpses of the character for a number of reasons, including his black mask resembling that of one known to have been worn by the killer and Riddler’s question mark logo resembling the real-life murderer’s own crosshair-style logo on said face covering. And of course, both Riddler and the Zodiac Killer utilized coded messages they sent to authorities to try and entice them to unravel the mysteries behind their crimes.

Authorities have officially connected the Zodiac Killer to at least five murder victims killed in California in the 1960s. However, the killer was never identified and claimed to have taken at least 37 lives in publicly available letters.

“I like killing people because it’s so much fun,” one of the chilling ciphered messages from the killer read, which was sent to The San Francisco Examiner newspaper in 1969, according to History.com. “It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all,” the message continued.

While Dano has acknowledged the Zodiac Killer connection in an interview with Empire (via MovieWeb), he added that the character represents something “much bigger” in the world of the film.

“I liked how both grounded and big this film is at the same time. So there are some grounding forces like the Zodiac Killer, right? But it’s still The Batman, and for me it’s much bigger, so it was important to let my imagination react to the script, rather than strictly basing it on a serial killer,” Dano said.

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Paul Dano as the Riddler in ‘The Batman’ (Warner Bros.)

Dano explained that the costume for his character was something that came across as “actually scarier” to him than a more sophisticated outfit, in terms of having a more grounded, “DIY element” to its appearance.

“When you put on something like that, there’s a way to let it speak to you, and tell your body something. There’s a way to let it have a life of its own,” Dano said.

As part of the promotion for The Batman, a quite simple cipher appeared at the end of the latest trailer, which, when cracked, reveals the message, “You are el rata alada,” or “you are the winged rat.” This ties into a promotional website, rataalada.com. There, you can answer some riddles in a green-and-black retro computer interface to unlock some sketches of Batman and other promised updates to come ahead of the film’s release.

Two of the four ciphers the Zodiac killer produced in real life were never solved, and one took 51 years to crack. However, a French engineer has just recently claimed to have solved the remaining two, according to AllThatsInteresting.com.

The Zodiac Killer’s second cipher, which was not solved until December 2020 by an international code-breaking team, 51 years after it was released (Federal Bureau of Investigation).

Ted Kaczynski / Unabomber

From what we know about The Batman so far, it seems like at least some — if not all — of the Riddler’s motivation stems not from the pleasure of killing itself, as is apparently the case with what we know about the Zodiac based on his letters, but from an ideological campaign.

Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski—also known as the Unabomber (FBI)

In this respect, the villain very much so resembles the real-life domestic terrorist, Ted Kaczynski, AKA the Unabomber, who conducted a series of attacks using mailed bombs targeting academics, business executives, and others. The 17 year stretch of 14 attacks involved 16 bombs, killed three, and injured 23. He was eventually caught in 1996 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation thanks to his brother identifying the writing style and ideas of Kaczynski’s published manifesto.

A mathematical prodigy in his early life, Kaczynski was later dubbed a “twisted genius” by the FBI. His manifesto revealed him to be a luddite extremist who thought the world’s technological advancements were leading humanity toward its own downfall by being too disconnected from nature, according to History.com. Though he once had a promising academic career, he left it all behind to live without electricity or running water in a remote cabin in Montana in the early ’70s.

In the latest The Batman trailer, Riddler’s motivations also appear to be of an ideological nature, with his attacks aiming to “unmask the truth about this cesspool we call a city,” referring to the fictional Gotham and some of its public figures. And his tirade appears to be targeted at the wealthy Wayne family, in particular, perhaps pointing to a crusade of some kind against the wealthy elite of Gotham. A message on one of his victims’ duct-taped face from the first trailer also reads, “no more lies.”

The cabin near Lincoln, Montana, where Kaczynski was arrested on April 3, 1996. (FBI)

Similar to Riddler, Kaczynski played something of a cat-and-mouse game with authorities, leaving intentionally misleading clues for authorities to find in the mailed-in explosives. He also promised more attacks via letters if a major news outlet did not publish his 35,000-word manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future (which they eventually did).

These connections to Riddler and real-life serial killers were explored on New Rockstars Big Question Podcast, hosted by Erik Voss and Zach Huddleston.

“Both Riddler and Unabomber are driven, it seems like, by political agendas,” Voss said. “And both use ciphers. Kaczynski did keep a coded journal that he didn’t send out to people. It was just his own journal that he ciphered in case he was ever caught.”

In terms of other ways Riddler parallels Kaczynski, another obvious point is that they both use bombs. But while Kaczynski generally sent his explosives through the mail and tried to trick people into opening them, Riddler actually straps a bomb onto one of his victims in the film, closely resembling another infamous crime in American history.

Pennsylvania neck-bomb plotters as seen in Netflix’s docuseries ‘Evil Genius’

Another apparent similarity between The Batman film and real-life involves a scene of Riddler having apparently strapped a metal neck bomb collar device to the District Attorney character in the film, Peter Sarsgaard’s Gil Colson. While his mouth is duct-taped shut, a phone strapped to his hand allows Riddler to communicate with the authorities.

The device in question looks eerily similar to the real-life Pennsylvania neck-bomb plotters as seen in the Netflix docuseries Evil Genius. Below is a side-by-side comparison.

Left: Brian Wells with a collar bomb locked to his neck from the docuseries’ Evil Genius’ (Netflix) and right: a screenshot from the second trailer for ‘The Batman’ with Peter Sarsgaard’s D.A. Gil Colson with a similar collar bomb strapped to his neck by Paul Dano’s the Riddler (Warner Bros.)

The 2003 incident, which was gone over in excruciating detail in the docuseries, involved a pizza delivery man, Brian Wells, being killed by the said collar bomb that he could not take off his head as part of a complex bank robbery plot gone wrong. As the docuseries highlighted, Wells was an alleged co-conspirator at one point, though federal investigators concluded he probably didn’t know the bomb was real.

Eventually, a federal grand jury indicted Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Kenneth Barnes with bank robbery, conspiracy, and weapons charges.