Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bane of the Bat: My thoughts on the antagonist of The Dark Knight Rises

When Tom Hardy was cryptically announced merely as 'a villain' for Christopher Nolan's final installment in his trilogy of re-imagined Batman films, fans were unusually pleased. His casting in this new Bat-film ensured elegant grace, sharp British wit as well as the possibility of some good old fashioned cinematic testosterone. Internet speculation suggested that Hardy might be playing Hugo Strange or even the Riddler (which was admittedly, a long-shot for a burly English actor). Quite recently however, it has been confirmed that Tom Hardy will be playing Bane, a behemoth obsessed with domination, who uses cunning and skill to break his opponent down before finally crushing them with brute strength. Essentially, an evil version of Batman. The "what if Batman was an evil masterplanner" bit has certainly been played before, by other characters (Owlman, Prometheus and most recently Hush), but Bane has remained the most frighteningly credible exploration of this concept. 

Bane's origins in the 1990s came about when DC Comics were attempting to stage an event for Batman that would hopefully match the mammoth, comic-selling powerhouse that was The Death of Superman. However, rather than killing off their two best-known characters, they opted instead to have Batman humiliated and defeated rather than simply having him die a traditional hero's death. The opening chapter of the staggering epic that is Knightfall sees a mass breakout at Arkham Asylum, where every single villain Batman has ever captured from the very beginning of his career is suddenly released. Over a number of months, Batman exhausts himself trying to hunt down and recapture each and every one of the insane inmates and return them to Arkham, testing his personal ethics and morality regarding the killing of criminals in the process. Finally, when he is completely spent, the villain behind the breakout reveals himself as Bane. Bane discovers Batman's true identity, destroys the Batcave and breaks the Dark Knight's back, dumping his barely-alive body on the streets of Gotham for all its citizens to see.

That story continued on for more than two years (in which time a controversial new Batman took over) to the point where it had well and truly trailed off after such impressive beginnings. But that opening still stands up as a remarkably credible take on just how someone could actually defeat Batman by wearing down his defences until he simply couldn't retaliate. After all, one of the themes so constantly returned to not only in the comics but in these films is that Batman is just a man. No matter how great this legend is that Bruce Wayne has created and no matter how athletically advanced he may be, he is just a man who can be defeated by a force greater than his own.

In the context of the next Batman film, one could speculate that the direction Nolan is taking the Bane character could be quite similar. Over the course of two films (which are only set within a few weeks of one another) all of the villains of Arkham Asylum have been released (not very many of whom seem to have been recaptured) an entire island section of Gotham has been driven insane by fear-inducing poison and the efforts of a madman have seen to it that Gotham's one last visible hope for lasting change has been lost. On the bright side, Gotham's organised crime has been more or else eradicated. Unfortunately, Gotham is now without a district attorney and is rife with freakish looney tunes. 

Ra's Al Ghul sought to destroy Gotham City. The Joker sought to corrupt it. Batman has exhausted himself both physically and mentally trying to defeat both of these antagonists, only managing to parlay their efforts, at the cost of his image as a hero and the life of his first love, Rachel Dawes. The time is now ripe for a despotic pariah to come and rule what little is left of this once great city, destroying Batman in the process. Will the Dark Knight survive with only one film remaining? For the very first time, I'm not so sure. 

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