REVIEW: DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS THE PENGUIN
While there would be little argument that the greatest foe of Batman is the Joker, there might be some dispute as to who among the vast number of criminals, rogues, and assorted nut-cases faced by the Dark Knight on the grim streets of Gotham would come in second place.
For me, it's always been The Penguin. I think a lot of people would feel that way. The character was popularized by actor Burgess Meredith during the 1960's TV series, was one of a relatively small handful of villains turned out as part of Mego's World's Greatest Super-Heroes line (along with Batman foes Joker and Riddler), and has also turned up within the ranks of Mattel's remarkable DC Universe Classics line.
Within the comics, the character has had a somewhat tumultuous background and overall history, influenced from time to time by the very strange portrayal of the character in the second Batman movie produced by Tim Burton. I'll have more to say about that later in this review. First, though, let's see what Wikipedia has to say about this foul bird.
The Penguin, whose real name is Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, was introduced by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, making his debut in Detective Comics #58 (December 1941).
The Penguin is depicted as a short, obese man and is one of Batman's greatest enemies. He is known for his love of birds and his specialized high-tech umbrellas. A mobster-type criminal, he fancies himself a "gentleman of crime"; his nightclub business provides a cover for more low-key criminal activity, which Batman tolerates as a source of criminal underworld information. According to co-creator Bob Kane, the character was inspired from the then advertising mascot of Kool cigarettes which was a penguin with a top hat and cane. Bill Finger also thought the image of high-society gentlemen in tuxedos was reminiscent of emperor penguins.
Actor Burgess Meredith popularized the Penguin in the 1960s Batman television series, partially because of his signature squawking laughter. Danny DeVito played a much darker version of the character in the 1992 film Batman Returns. Subsequent Batman animated series have alternately featured the deformed Burton-esque Penguin and a more traditional version.
Born Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, the Penguin was bullied as a child for his short stature, obesity, and beak-like nose. Several stories relate that he was forced as a child to always carry an umbrella by his over-protective mother, due to his father dying of pneumonia after being drenched in a downpour. These traits make him an outcast in his rich, high society family; their rejection drives him to become a criminal. In keeping with his family's tradition of wealth, the Penguin lives a life of crime, yet executes it with his own self-proclaimed class and style. In keeping with his pretensions of being a refined gentleman, he also prefers to wear formal wear such as a top hat, monocle, and tuxedo during his jobs.
The Penguin received his alias from a childhood nickname, bestowed by his peers, who teased him because of his grotesque appearance and love of birds. (Retellings of his origin suggest he also suffered from some sort of hip ailment, which caused him to waddle when he walked. The Penguin shows no signs of suffering from this affliction today.) Some comics suggest that he tried to abandon the nickname, which he hates, but it has been permanently brought into popularity by his high-profile criminal career. He has cashed in on its popularity with his Iceberg Lounge nightclub in Gotham City.
Unlike most of the Batman villains, the Penguin is in control of his own actions and perfectly sane, features that serve to maintain a unique relationship with his archenemy, Batman. This has extended into the current situation with the Penguin ceasing his direct involvement in crime, instead running a nightclub that is popular with the underworld. As such, he is an excellent source of information on crime, so Batman grudgingly tolerates his operations. However, the entrepreneurial Penguin is often fencing stolen property or arranging early furloughs for incarcerated former criminal associates - for a hefty fee, of course - on the side.
During the storyline "No Man's Land", when Gotham City is nearly leveled by an earthquake, he stays behind when the U.S. government shuts down and blockades the city. He becomes one of the major players in the mostly-abandoned and lawless city, using his connections to profit. One of these connections is discovered to be Lex Luthor and his company, LexCorp.
More recently, upon his return to Gotham following a lengthy absence that virtually cost him his position in the city, the Penguin continues to claim that he has gone "straight" and reopened the Iceberg Lounge nightclub, selling overpriced Penguin merchandise. He urged Riddler to avoid crime, as it's more lucrative in their current, non-criminal lifestyle.
The Penguin was played by Burgess Meredith in the Batman television series of the 1960s and the spin-off movie. A largely campy interpretation, Meredith's performance is perhaps best remembered through his signature laugh, meant to mimic the squawk of a penguin. One cause of the laugh was the smoke from the cigarettes the character always smoked, which irritated Meredith's throat and made him cough, as he had already quit smoking in real life.
I always got a kick out of the Penguin whenever he turned up in the series...
When Batman: The Animated Series debuted in 1992, the Penguin was voiced by Paul Williams. Due to the close relation in time between Batman Returns and the animated series, the film version's freakish look of the character remained, although somewhat toned down. While physically altered, The Penguin returned to the gentleman of crime of the comics, with an English-like accent and fancying himself a high society elite.
In the 1997 follow-up to the original animated series, The New Batman Adventures, the Penguin returned to an appearance more like his traditional comic book look. He also assumed a role similar to the one in the comic books: a "legitimate" businessman and mob boss who runs a night club called the "Iceberg Lounge". Williams reprised his role for the new series.
Although lacking any distinct super-powers, the Penguin is a master criminal strategist; he uses his considerable intellect to gain wealth and power through less than legal means. Driven entirely by self-interest, Penguin often relies on cunning, wit and intimidation to exploit his surrounding for profit and advance his own schemes. He usually plans crimes, but doesn't often commit them himself. Although fighting and hard work is mostly pushed over to his henchmen, he himself is not above taking aggressive actions on his own, especially when provoked. He is also a master of multiple forms of hand-to-hand combat (although not nearly a match for Batman), and is considerably agile and strong -- which is pretty impressive considering his relatively short stature and rather rotund appearance.
The Penguin always carries an umbrella due to his mother's fanaticism. The umbrellas usually contain weapons such as machine guns, missiles, lasers, flame-throwers and acid spraying devices. He usually carries an umbrella with the function to transform its top into a series of spinning blades. This can be used as a mini helicopter or as an offensive weapon.
So, how's the figure? Really very impressive. This may well be the best Penguin figure since the days of Mego. There was a Penguin figure in the Super Powers line, but I always felt that version was too cartoonish. It made Penguin too obese, for one thing, and dressed him in a blue tuxedo and top hat, rather than black.
Obviously, someone like the Penguin is not going to fit into the typical "male-hero" motif, let alone set of body molds, that Mattel has used extensively for many of the more traditional-looking characters in the DC Universe Classics line. Penguin had to be designed from the ground up, and Mattel did a really superb job with him.
The overall look of the figure leans about 95% toward the traditional interpretation of the character. I'll deal with the other 5% momentarily. This is Penguin looking as he did before Tim Burton worked him over, replete with top hat, black tuxedo, orange vest, white shirt, and purple pinstriped trousers. The shoes even have white spats.
The headsculpt is excellent. There is a definite bit of Burgess Meredith in it, especially, in my opinion, around the one visible eye. The nose is appropriately beaky, although I don't entirely agree with the sculpting decision of having the upper lip taper outwards in the direction of the nose. Penguin is wearing a top hat, very slightly askew, but nicely done, and not especially exaggerated in appearance.
Now, I said that the figure leans about 95% toward the traditional interpretation of the character. There is some paint detailing to the Penguin's face that I believe Mattel intended to be a very slight nod towards the more freakish version of the character as played by Danny DeVito in the second Burton-produced movie.
Let me address that for a moment. I thought Tim Burton did a very capable job with the first Batman movie. I was nowhere near as impressed with the second film. Tim Burton took two relatively conventional characters, the Penguin and Catwoman, and upped their "freak" level to a degree that neither character had ever been known for in any previous incarnation.
The Penguin was (quoting Wikipedia) "re-imagined not as an eloquent gentleman of crime, but a physically deformed sociopath with a homicidal grudge against Gotham City. He was given a huge visual makeover. Where the comic version had varied between a full head of hair and varying degrees of thinning, this Penguin was bald at the top, with his remaining length of hair long and stringy. His hands were now flippers, with a thumb and index finger, and the remaining three fingers fused together. An unidentified thick, dark green bile-like liquid sometimes trickled from his nose and mouth."
He also had pale skin, dark circles under his eyes, and looked like he smelled regardless of how well dressed he was at times.
He lived in the frozen remnants of the penguin house at the Gotham Zoo, had an affinity for raw, whole fish, and virtually nothing in the way of social manners. And his plan was to murder every rich-born child in the city, something I cannot imagine the comics Penguin ever doing.
I don't disagree with the casting decision. Danny DeVito had certainly proven that he could play short, pudgy, and nasty, especially since he already was the first two, and had played the third during his time on the TV series "Taxi". He was an ideal choice for the Penguin. It was the way the character was envisioned for the movie that I had a problem with.
Nevertheless, the movie was reasonably popular, and certain elements of this incarnation of the Penguin have turned up elsewhere from time to time. I think to acknowledge that in some small way, Mattel had a rather sickly caste paintbrushed over the otherwise normal flesh tone of the Penguin's face, and put rather wide darkened lines between his teeth.
Personally, I don't like it, and as reluctant as I am to "customize" these figures, I do suspect that at some point I'm going to try to match the normal flesh tone, try to clean up Penguin's face, and then get a little off-white together and do something about his teeth. But that's just my preference, and I'm not necessarily recommending it per se for everybody.
The facial expression is a little odd, sort of a sneer, with an upturned lip.
The figure is otherwise excellent. The black tuxedo looks excellent. As has become a fairly common practice with action figures from various toy lines that are wearing jackets or robes, the main body of the tux is a rubbery, vest-like construct, while the arms themselves are the actual sleeves of the coat. Sometimes this practice works, sometimes it doesn't. On the Penguin, it works extremely well.
Penguin's main body is wearing a large orange vest, neatly buttoned, with a white shirt underneath, and a black bow tie. Credit to the paint detail, the buttons on the vest and the shirt are individually painted. The ends of Penguin's arms have the lower part of the sleeve painted white, and he is wearing white gloves, very nicely detailed.
Penguin is wearing purple trousers, and black pinstripes. Once again, credit to the paint detail, the thin stripes are very neatly done, and even line up on either side of the knee joints, and very well with the lower torso. The Penguin's shoes are black, with white spats, which also have individual buttons on them.
Articulation is excellent, although a few points that appear on more typical DC Universe Classics figures are missing. The Penguin is fully poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles. Missing is a mid-torso articulation, which would've been virtually impossible given the figure's physical build, or at the very least would've looked like heck; an outward movement to the legs -- not a big deal -- and an upper leg swivel -- also not a big deal and the pinstripe painters had enough parts to do. I am not at all disappointed, really. Regardless of how formidable a combatant the Penguin is reported to be, he's not going to have the same moves as someone in better physical condition.
The Penguin is, obviously, short. Whereas the standard DC Universe Classics figure tends to be around 6-1/2" in height, Penguin is slightly under 6" -- and half an inch of that is the hat.
Accessory-wise -- well, what do you expect? He comes with an umbrella. The umbrella is a surprisingly nasty-looking piece of business. The main section of it looks outright armored, in alternating sections of silver and black. Not especially hidden along the handle is a multi-barreled machine gun mechanism. One would expect that the umbrella isn't quite as armored as it looks, otherwise there's going to be a really nasty bounce-back effect on the bullets here.
The Penguin was technically part of the first assortment of DC Universe Classics figures, although a shipment of them mysteriously turned up relatively recently (as of this writing) at Toys "R" Us, complete with the "Collect and Connect" pieces included, which for this first assortment was the hero known as Metamorpho.
So what's my final word? Hey, it's The Penguin. Okay, he's not some cosmic super-villain determined to rule the galaxy. He can't beat Superman. He's not even an unpredictable maniac like the Joker. But, he's a classic character with a good recognition factor and a lengthy history, and Mattel's done a really nice job with this figure of him.
The DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS figure of THE PENGUIN definitely has my highest recommendation!