We may earn a commission when you buy through links in our articles. Learn more.

DC’s The Penguin explained - Oswald Cobblepot’s criminal origins

Who is The Penguin? You might have seen Oswald Cobblepot running around Gotham, so here's what you need to know about Batman's foe.

The Penguin, explained: Danny DeVito as The Penguin in Batman Returns

The Joker might be cool, but does he wear a top hat and own a club? Didn’t think so. Batman’s had plenty of memorable villains over the years, but this odd little penguin man is most definitely one of the top dogs in Gotham City, and for good reason. But who is The Penguin?

Well, to understand this DC baddie, you need to go way back in Batman’s history, because this DC villain has been around for decades. In fact, he’s shown up in some of the biggest superhero movies to take on Gotham’s favorite hero and no doubt he’ll show up in upcoming DC movies, too. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at this storied DC character.

Who is The Penguin?

The Penguin (aka: Oswald Cobblepot) is a Batman villain and crime lord who terrorizes Gotham City, and is named after his bird-like features.

The Penguin is one of the most well-known Batman villains around, ranking among the Joker and The Riddler in terms of longevity and fame.

His real name is Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, and he likes to refer to himself as the mobster gentleman of Gotham. In order to hide his illegal escapades, he usually does his business in the nightclub he owns called the Iceberg Lounge.

Typically, you’ll catch him dressed to the nines in a suit, top hat, and monocle, and carrying an umbrella. We’ll say this: he’s one of the best-dressed Gotham criminals, for sure.

The Penguin explained: The Penguin in DC comic book

His first comic book appearance came in 1941 in Detective Comics #58, but it wasn’t until 1989, with Secret Origins Special #1, that he would get a detailed backstory. In the segment titled ‘The Killing Peck,’ The Penguin kidnaps his childhood bully and tortures him in a basement. (Not a great first impression.) It also introduced us to his backstory.

When he was a young boy, he was picked on because of his stout appearance and big beak-like nose, and called names like ‘Birdbeak’ and, eventually, ‘Penguin.’ It’s during his early years that Cobblepot finds solace in his love of birds, who he sees as his only friends.

After years of merciless bullying, he eventually grows up to embrace the nickname and become one of Gotham’s most prominent mobsters. Don’t bully, kids!

The Penguin explained: The Penguin in DC comic book

The Penguin’s powers and abilities explained

The Penguin is not a supervillain and doesn’t have any superhuman abilities, but he is highly intelligent.

Because of this, he becomes a criminal mastermind and proves himself to be an excellent leader. He’s also incredibly business-savvy, which makes sense since he’s essentially able to build an empire.

In a sense, his greatest power could be how he adapted to his trauma. After years of bullying and abuse, he took his most hated aspect (his appearance) and embraced his lifelong moniker, using it as motivation to turn himself into a vengeful and successful legend.

Although he’s not overtly strong or physically superior, Cobblepot is surprisingly good at hand-to-hand combat. He’s quick, agile, and can throw a punch. But really, he doesn’t need to use this skill too often, as he surrounds himself with bodyguards and goons who do his dirty work for him.

The Penguin explained: The Penguin in DC comic book

Do you remember his signature umbrella that we mentioned earlier? Well, it’s more than a mere accessory — it’s a weapon. His collection of umbrellas have been adapted to act as guns, swords, and even a mini-helicopter at one point. All this means that while he’s able to fight if needed, his brains and his ability to craft hidden weaponry are his more valuable skills.

Finally, as his name would suggest, Cobblepot knows a lot about birds. His childhood obsession with birds, in general, resulted in him finding ways to control them in his adult life, mainly through technology. Obviously, penguins are the main event.

The Penguin explained: Danny DeVito in Batman Returns

The Penguin’s on-screen appearances explained

Being one of the longest-running Batman villains, The Penguin has appeared in movies and TV series for decades now, with his first appearance being in 1966.

This was in the first Batman TV series, starring Adam West, with Cobblepot played by Burgess Meredith. Although his version wasn’t as deformed or literal as later takes, Meredith’s Penguin was notable for his signature laugh and snazzy suits.

One of the other most famous on-screen adaptations of the character came in 1992’s Batman returns, where Danny DeVito played him. Here, his appearance was taken very literally, and DeVito wore prosthetics and make-up to give him an ugly, bird-like look.

The most recent (and our favorite) take on the character was in 2022’s The Batman. Played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell, Cobblepot was portrayed as a very prominent crime lord.

The Penguin explained: Colin Farrell in The Batman

Farrell’s version was dripping with sleaze and ambition, and his make-up gave him a scarred, mutilated version of The Penguin’s classic aesthetic. This version was so well-received that the character is even set to get his own spin-off show: The Penguin series.

These versions are far and away the most well-known, but The Penguin has been cropping up in Batman media regularly since the ’60s. From the Gotham series to video games to animated series like The Adventures of Batman, he’s been pestering Bruce Wayne’s moody alter-ego for a long, long time now.

YouTube Thumbnail

When it comes to The Penguin’s future, it’s not confirmed if he’ll be in any of the new movies set to come from the Chapter 1: Gods and Monster slate, but given how he’s appeared in most major Batman projects, we’re not betting against it.

In fact, if we had to put money down, we reckon Farrell could return in The Batman 2, or that Cobblepot could feature in The Brave and The Bold. Whatever the case, we just can’t wait to see our ugly little friend again.

That’s The Penguin! For more DC villain guides, check out our explainers on The Joker and Venom. You can also revisit the DC movies in order, to start your journey from the beginning. What’s more, we’ve got guides on Superman Legacy and the Swamp Thing release date, so you can keep an eye on the future.

Finally, check out our list of the best movies of all time, and find out the five things we want to see from James Gunn’s new DCU and the one we don’t.