A Dose of Reality (Bane)

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It’s September 10, 1994. The top song is “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men. Lisa Loeb, John Mellencamp, Babyface, and Changing Faces also chart. The last two are rather appropriate, given Bane’s interest in unmasking Batman and the eventual reveal that Bane is actually quite boyish-looking under his mask.

The top film this weekend is Forrest Gump; Natural Born Killers and Clear and Present Danger are second and third, respectively. In the news, on the 8th USAir Flight 427 crashes outside Pittsburgh, killing all 132 people on board; today a Wollemia Pine, previously believed to be an extinct, prehistoric tree, will be found growing in Australia; tomorrow actress Jessica Tandy dies.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that the animated Batman would have to fight Bane. Introduced in the comics for the prior year’s massive Batman story “Knightfall,” Bane was essentially the evil Batman: a violent masked man who asserts his power and dominance by beating his chosen enemies to a pulp, but who is also extremely clever and cunning, carefully studying his enemies and patiently planning exactly when and how to strike against them. More plot device than character, his narrative purpose was to render Batman incapable of fighting so that a different “evil Batman,” Azrael, could temporarily take over before the original Batman would eventually be restored, essentially the same storyline as The Death of Superman.

In the years since, Bane’s developed a reputation as one of DC Comics’ most “90s” characters. He is hugely overmuscled, a wrestler who uses the “super-steroid” Venom to amplify his power at a time when professional wrestling in the U.S. was being rocked by steroid abuse scandals, kicked off by a 1991 federal investigation. He’s a dual Latino stereotype–he’s a drug-related criminal who enters the U.S. to kill people and a masked wrestler–at a time when anxiety about and racism against the U.S.’s growing Latinx population was on the rise. (As of this writing that rise is still ongoing, having become, along with Islamophobia, a key element of Donald Trump’s campaign to become our first white nationalist President in at least eight years.)

In short, he is a cocktail of the anxieties and concerns of his time, coupled with the deeply questionable aesthetics that gave us characters like Cable, pre-parody Deadpool, and the Youngblood team–which is to say, aesthetics which placed massive piles of badly drawn muscle with absurdly overhuge guns at the highest pinnacle of comic-book art.

But BTAS is not the comics. Between its efforts to be anachronistic and thereby timeless, and the constraints of airing as children’s television, it is unable to fully embrace the aesthetics of 90s comics, and therefore the more restrained Batman, the Batman who holds himself back, must win decisively over the equally intelligent, even stronger murderer.

The result is that Bane’s Batman-like qualities are downplayed. He does not, as he does in the comics, wear Batman slowly down by staging a mass breakout of Arkham, delaying his own attack until after an exhausted Batman finishes capturing all the other villains. He instead stages a trap worthy of the Adam West show, kidnapping Robin and placing him in an absurdly slow death trap to lure Batman to him, then confronting a reasonably well-rested Batman one-on-one.

In short, Bane is clever and powerful, but his confidence is misplaced; his actions reveal it to be the arrogance of a man who has yet to lose, not the confidence of a man who has lost massively and returned from the brink. But he’s still a reflection of Batman in one respect: he’s rich and entitled. Not initially; he comes from prison, not a wealthy family that controls a massive corporation. But he charges five million dollars per assassination, and he’s done enough of them to be reasonably well known, at least enough so that both Candice (Rupert Thorne’s assistant, last seen manipulating Harvey Dent in “Two-Face”) and Batman have heard of him.

Given what we see of Bane’s history in the episode–the product of an experiment conducted on prisoners to develop a super-soldier drug, who even before that was “obsessed” with Batman in Candice’s words–we can see a path through his life. A man surrounded by criminals who read about the adventures of Batman, the world’s most powerful criminal, who hunts and dominates the other criminals of Gotham, to become the ruler of its underworld. Given physical power by the experiments, Bane used that to acquire the power of wealth, and happily came to Gotham to prove himself the new most powerful criminal in the world.

He barely blinks at Candice’s offer to betray Rupert Thorne and help Bane become the new ruler of Gotham. In his mind, that is hardly even important; what matters is proving himself the most powerful. He is exactly what we talked about in the last entry, the hypermasculine (literally; he’s hopped up on anabolic steroids, which simulate or amplify the effects of testosterone in the body) figure who seeks to climb the existing structures of power until he sits atop them.

But in the end, it is Batman who stands atop those structures, and he will not allow himself to be toppled. He breaks Bane just as Bane threatened to break him, removing his mask and presenting it to Thorne, and then turning Thorne and Candice against each other on the way out. (Thorne’s “Candice!” is presented as a comedic moment, like he’s simply very annoyed, but he’s a mob boss who’s just been betrayed. Candice never appears in the series again.)

Bane’s failure comes from a simple source: the structures of power, by their very nature, empower those at the top more than those at the bottom. Climbing them is very difficult, and knocking someone off their perch so you can claim it requires either very, very careful work or major mistakes by the person at the top. Power structures which don’t work this way, where the people at the higher levels are easily unseated by those below, are unstable, easily toppled and replaced with more stable power structures by people like Bane–or, for that matter, Batman, who over the course of his career has transformed Gotham from a city with multiple unstable power structures (including the ineffectual police and city government, and the endlessly squabbling gangs) into a city with one, very stable power structure with Batman at the top, both police and crime below him, and the citizens/victims below them.

This episode’s villains all underestimate the ruthless efficiency of the power structures of Gotham. Thorne believes that his wealth and the organization at his command will allow him to bring in Bane, knock out Batman, and take his place as lord of the city. Candice believes that she can seduce Bane and use him to take out both Batman and Thorne, becoming the number two to the lord of the city instead of an also-ran. And Bane believes he can defeat Batman and take the city. But Batman demonstrates they’re all wrong, beating each of them at their own game. He defeats Bane in direct confrontation, kills Candice by manipulating another into doing his dirty work, and before the episode even began had defeated Thorne by “stealing” from him, leading the police to disrupt Thorne’s activities and cost him millions.

In all three we see how a taste of power led them to embrace wholeheartedly the extant power structures and try to move higher within those structures. But what about a villain who’s never had any kind of power at all? We turn to that next.


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