I’m not going to lie. The Penguin scared the bejeezus out of me when I first saw Batman Returns (1992). He still scares me, but not as much. And my brother is still scared of Catwoman, but that’s another matter altogether.
The make-up artist gets a nod here because DeVito probably wouldn’t be as frightening if he wasn’t so… monstrous here. But his acting gets a ton of points, too, and then some for just acting underneath all that… stuff. BR‘s big three are humans who identify with animals better than they do with other humans: bats, cats, and penguins. The real villain is the most human one, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), but while he is despicable, he’s not really scary.
The Penguin, on the other hand, is just as canny and calculating as Shreck, but utterly savage. DeVito invests all of the Penguin’s dialogue with that roughness, even when the character is trying to act smooth and charming. He can never escape from what he is, and when he finally snaps and proclaims himself an animal– by golly you believe it. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B33GH4nW_gM.)
He’s charismatic. He’s cold-blooded. He can give a rallying extemporaneous speech to his troops, but can be lured around with a raw fish. He can smile and murder while he smiles. And then eat you. Probably.
Whether you think Mr. Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot will turn you into sushi or not, he’s still a memorable, scary villain. Far more frightening than anything in those “realistic” new Batman movies (yes, that’s a soapbox).