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“… is Ra’s Al Ghul immortal?” Denny O’Neil, and Reflecting on a Bronze Age Batman Villain…

Denny O’Neil passed away last week, at the age of 81.

Many more informed and articulate individuals have written at length about the writer and editor’s contribution to comic books as a medium. In practical terms, Denny O’Neil was a crucial figure in the evolution of Batman, one of the medium’s most enduring characters. During the seventies, he served as a stepping stone between the bright and chirpy “New Look” of the sixties and Frank Miller’s gritty reinvention of the eighties. He also served as editor of the line during the nineties, overseeing beloved events like Knightfall and No Man’s Land.

This is to say nothing of O’Neil’s larger contributions to comic books. During the seventies, he served as the conscience of mainstream comics, reinjecting the sort of politics that had been largely missing since the earliest days of Action Comics and Superman. With runs on Justice League and Green Lantern/Green Arrow, O’Neil sought to engage the iconic DC superheroes with contemporary America. It was often clumsy, but it was always powerful. This is without getting into O’Neil’s hugely influential runs on books like Iron Man or The Question.

However, this week was also the fifteenth anniversary of the release of Batman Begins. This was a hugely influential superhero film, kicking off what might be considered the genre’s crowning accomplishment. Christopher Nolan’s film is heavily indebted to O’Neil, with O’Neil’s comic The Man Who Falls serving as a touchstone for the film’s approach to Bruce Wayne. However, the film was also notable for offering the first live action interpretation of one of O’Neil’s most sizable additions to the Batman mythos: Ra’s Al Ghul.

Batman has one of the most crowded and iconic rogues’ galleries in comics, packed to the brim with recognisable faces: the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, the Mad Hatter, the Scarecrow, Mister Freeze, Clayface. It’s a crowded field. Writers and artists are constantly trying to add to that, to add their own new characters to the mix. Very few actually catch on, with arguably only Bane and Harley Quinn managing to reach the top tier within the last thirty years. This makes Ra’s Al Ghul all the more impressive.

In the past few years, Ra’s Al Ghul has been cemented as an essential part of the Batman mythos. Both Arrow and Gotham featured the character as a major antagonist, anchoring season-long arcs, played by Mathew Nable and Alexander Siddig. (Liam Neeson reportedly even considered reprising the role for Arrow, even if he couldn’t make the schedule work.) The character has also been a staple of animated adaptations, going back to Batman: The Animated Series and continuing through Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Young Justice and Beware the Batman.

Ra’s Al Ghul has become such a fundamental part of the larger Batman universe that it is hard to imagine it ever existed without him. Nevertheless, he stands as one of the enduring creative legacies of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, who first introduced him to the Caped Crusader in the early seventies. In hindsight, as with Bane, it’s easy to see why Ra’s Al Ghul has endured in the way that he has. He fills an important gap in the larger Batman mythos. However, it was the genius of O’Neil and Adams to recognise that gap in the first place.

That’s what makes the character so fantastic. Despite being a relatively late addition to the Dark Knight’s collection of foes, he seems like he always belonged there.

In practical terms, Ra’s Al Ghul serves to greatly expand the range and tone of Batman stories. By his nature, Batman is an urban vigilante who works in and around Gotham. Without superpowers, his focus tends to be quite narrow and quite specific. Most the threats that Batman encounters are (at worse) to Gotham, rather than to the larger country or indeed the world. This serves to distinguish him from heroes who routinely deal with threats of a much greater magnitude, like Superman or Green Lantern.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Batman has spent much of his publishing history fighting characters like the Joker or Two-Face in Gotham. However, after so many decades of those stories, it is handy to expand the scope of a Batman story, to push the boundaries of what it can be. Ra’s Al Ghul handily serves that purpose. He is radically different from villains like the Riddler or the Penguin. He operates on a global scale, plotting to wipe out humanity while commanding a legion of ninja assassins.

It’s notable that Denny O’Neil was one of the writers who really pushed for a broader approach to Batman, who worked rather hard to get Bruce Wayne out of the familiar surroundings of Gotham. The story that introduces Ra’s Al Ghul very pointedly forces Batman out of his comfort zone and has the Caped Crusader embark on an adventure across the world to track the supervillain. While not citing a direct influence, O’Neil has acknowledged that discussions of Ra’s Al Ghul “have pointed out similarities to Fu Manchu and even to James Bond.”

Ra’s Al Ghul adds a globe-trotting element that is distinct from what other foes add to mix, offering something just as pulpy as the Caped Crusader’s horror-themed rogues, but branching in a different direction. The original Ra’s Al Ghul story features some of the most iconic imagery in the history of Batman, as Bruce strips down for a sword fight with an immortal megalomaniac. This is a different side of Bruce – what writer Grant Morrison called “the hairy chested love god” – which was both fresh and rooted enough in the character’s pulpy sensibility not to appear incongruous.

As editor of the Batman line during the eighties, Denny O’Neil oversaw a variety of stories that emphasised the idea that Bruce travelled the world as a young man before returning to Gotham to wage his war on crime. O’Neil edited Year One, which picked up with Bruce after he returned from that trip. He also edited Blind Justice, which introduced the character of Henri Ducard, the French detective who taught Bruce everything he knows and the persona that Ra’s employs in Batman Begins. He also wrote The Man Who Falls, which detailed some of those global adventures.

This was undoubtedly part of what drew Nolan to the character of Ra’s Al Ghul. Nolan has talked about the influence of blockbusters on his desire to make films. “Going to see them with my parents would give me the feeling of the potential for geography, for landscape, for scale and escapism,” he explained. Specifically, discussing Batman Begins, he added, “I really wanted to give it that scope which was so important to me in the blockbusters I watched when I was very young.”

The character of Ra’s Al Ghul, who operates a secret cult of ninja assassins from a remote hideaway in the Himalayas, allowed Nolan to do this. In keeping with the obvious comparisons between Ra’s Al Ghul and the classic James Bond villains, it is notable that Nolan has long expressed a fandom of those globe-trotting adventures. Indeed, the training sequences with Bruce and Ra’s in the Himilayas resemble nothing in Nolan’s filmography as much as the extended tribute to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service at the climax of Inception.

However, Ra’s Al Ghul is more than just a gateway to a certain kind of story. Comic characters tend to calcify over time, with dynamics solidifying over decades. It is very hard for a new character to break into the “A-list”, particularly in a crowded field. It is hard to imagine a world where Superman’s primary foe isn’t Lex Luthor or that Batman’s best enemy isn’t the Joker. Writers might introduce and feature new characters – like Grant Morrison with Professor Pyg or the Flamingo, Scott Snyder with Thomas Wayne – but they often fade to the background after the writer leaves.

Those characters that stick around tend to endure because they fill a particular niche and serve a particular purpose. Bane is one of the more successful recent additions to the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery, having been invented specifically to break Bruce’s back in Knightfall. However, the character caught on quite quickly. He was ported over to The Animated Series while the saga was still ongoing, and featured as one of the villains in Batman & Robin. Over a decade after that cinematic disaster, Nolan would bring the character back to the screen for The Dark Knight Rises.

Bane fills a particular role in Batman’s rogues’ gallery. He is effectively the anti-Batman, a character defined quite clearly and quite explicitly in opposition to the Caped Crusader. The “dark mirror” is a common comic book trope: the Green Lanterns have the Manhunters and the Yellow Lanterns, Superman has Bizarro, the Flash has the Reverse-Flash. Batman never really had a villain who managed to sustain that role for an extended period of time.

Looking back over Batman’s history, there is a sense that the writers recognised the gap. There are countless attempts to fill that void in his rogues’ gallery. As early as the fifties, the villainous Killer Moth positioned himself as the “anti-Batman”, down to building a “Mothcave” and a “Mothmobile.” In the seventies, Frank Robbins, Neal Adams and Julius Schwartz attempted the most literal inversion with the villain Man-Bat. In the nineties, after Bane’s debut, Grant Morrison even created the character Prometheus as an extrapolation of Batman’s core themes.

However, it was Bane who endured. Bane caught on. It’s difficult to know why some characters catch on and some don’t, why Bane worked in a way that Killer Moth or Prometheus did not. It might simply be that Bane was a more subtle variation on that core theme, that he didn’t feel as consciously or as overtly designed to fill that space as the other candidates. Nevertheless, it seems safe to consider Bane as one of the most iconic and distinctive Batman villains out there.

Ra’s Al Ghul filled a similar niche. He represents a figure that became increasingly important in pop culture during the sixties and seventies. Ra’s Al Ghul was the corrupted father figure. Most other Batman villains were around the same age as Bruce, and dealt with him as an equal. Due to both his immortality and his tremendous power, Ra’s Al Ghul is immediately dominant over Bruce in a way that no previous Batman villain had been.

In his introductory story, Ra’s is defined by this weird paternalistic relationship to Bruce. He kidnaps Dick Grayson, the closest thing that Bruce has to a son. He constructs an elaborate test for Bruce, in the hopes that Batman will prove himself worthy. When Bruce proves himself to Ra’s, the villain reveals his real goal. He wants Bruce to succeed him. Ra’s even wants to step into an overtly paternal role to Bruce, hoping that Bruce will marry his daughter Talia. Ra’s is the grandfather to their son Damian.

This warped parent-child dynamic is at the heart of many classic superhero stories. Norman Osborn is the father of Peter Parker’s best friend Harry, but he is also the villainous Green Goblin who battles Spider-Man. This dynamic anchors Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man film. Superman is constantly fighting other survivors of the lost Krypton, and thus contemporaries of his father, most notably General Zod in both Superman II and Man of Steel. In Wonder Woman, even though Ares is technically Diana’s half-brother, he still represents the world of her father.

Of course, this tension runs through literature and art to time immemorial. It’s a major part of Hamlet, to pick the most obvious example. This conflict is one of the core components of the Campbellian mythic structure. While it is too much to claim (as Campbell did) that every story adheres to that structure, it does occur frequently enough to merit acknowledgement. A core part of the hero’s journey involves the “atonement with the father”, effectively a reconciliation with the parent. This is often filtered through a lens of conflict and tension.

Notably, this conflict and tension would emerge as one of the default themes of blockbuster entertainment in the seventies. Part of this was likely cultural, carrying over some of the generational clash of the late sixties, as teenagers railed against their parents after betrayals like Watergate and Vietnam. It was also reflected in the films of the most influential auteurs of the era, with Steven Spielberg’s interest in absent fathers and George Lucas’ work on the original Star Wars trilogy.

Ra’s Al Ghul is an early example of this trend, providing Bruce with a surrogate father figure against which he might rail. After all, Bruce is a character defined by the loss of his parents. For better or worse, Bruce’s loss is often (but not always) framed in terms of his father rather than his mother. As such, Ra’s Al Ghul provides an opponent who can act as a stand-in, as an undying villain whose mere presence provides a counterpoint to the deceased and idealised Thomas Wayne. (Denny O’Neil even established Ra’s as a healer in Birth of the Demon, cementing those ties to Thomas.)

This makes a great deal of sense in the context of Batman Begins. Most obviously, the film is structured as an origin story, so it makes sense that the first villain that Bruce should have to face is a surrogate father figure, given how much emphasis the film places on the way in which the death of his parents shaped and defined Bruce. The presence of Ra’s anchors the story in that formative trauma, meaning that his death at the end of the film feels like something of an emotional catharsis for Bruce.

Bruce seems to actively resent Thomas. When Alfred insists that Bruce should maintain Wayne Manor, Bruce responds that “this place is a masoleum.” Ra’s is initially alluring to Bruce because he offers a stronger alternative to Thomas. “You are stronger than your father,” Ra’s assures Bruce as they sit by the fire. During on training bout, Ra’s assures Bruce, “You parents’ death was not your fault. It was your father’s.” Ra’s argues that Thomas “failed to act.” This establishes a clear contrast between Ra’s and Thomas; Ra’s is strong and decisive, while Thomas was weak and feeble.

Naturally, over the course of the film, Bruce comes to understand that the opposite is true, that Ra’s cynicism and violence does not make him stronger. Through that journey, rejecting Ra’s plan to destroy Gotham, Bruce comes to a have a newfound respect for Thomas. Indeed, Ra’s later admits that Thomas actually managed to help save Gotham in his own way, to prevent it from sliding into chaos during the recession. “We underestimated certain of Gotham’s citizens,” Ra’s admits, “such as your parents.”

This characterisation of Ra’s also helps Nolan to position Batman Begins as a loving homage to seventies blockbusters by building the film around some of the core themes of the era. It’s notable that Batman Begins is arguably the only film in Nolan’s entire filmography that is more concerned with the child’s perspective of the parent-child relationship than with the parent’s. Nolan’s movies are populated with absent fathers, but the story is often told from their perspectives as with Dom in Inception or Coop in Interstellar. Even The Dark Knight Rises roots itself in Alfred’s perspective.

More to the point, Inception implicitly anchors this narrative perspective as a hallmark of classic old-fashioned filmmaking. As virtually every film critic has observed, Inception is a movie that can easily be read as a metaphor for making movies, with Dom effectively directing an incredibly emotionally manipulative feature film for Robert Fischer, one designed to subtle change the way Fischer thinks. Inception does this by offering Fischer the illusion of reconciliation with his father, as if honing in specifically on that that theme as a stock Hollywood trope.

This is interesting in light of how straight Batman Begins plays this journey for Bruce. Bruce comes to terms with the death of Thomas Wayne by rejecting the dark surrogate father represented by Ra’s Al Ghul. It’s an approach that is both simple and elegant. It dovetails nicely into the themes of the movie, and provides a clear emotional journey for Bruce. Ra’s Al Ghul serves to provide a narrative framework that no other major Batman villain could offer. Batman Begins demonstrates how shrewd an addition Ra’s Al Ghul was to the Batman mythos, and how perfectly he fits.

It’s impossible to completely sum up Denny O’Neil’s contributions to comics. He was one of the great writers and editors, one of those individuals who profoundly shaped the medium in a wide variety of ways. In the grand scheme of things, introducing a new A-list villain to Batman’s already overstuffed rogues’ gallery is a minor accomplishment. However, it says a lot about Denny O’Neil that Ra’s Al Ghul is both one of his smaller contributions in general and also had such a massive impact in particular.

3 Responses

  1. Ra’s al Ghul was probably the very first adversary who could match Batman physically, intellectually and financially. In a way Ra’s is like a twisted mirror image of Batman. He is someone who is attempting to reshape the world in his own image, supposedly to make it a “better” place.

    I like the triangle between Batman, Ra’s and Talia. It works to well because Batman and Talia care for each other, and Batman is probably very tempted to accept Ra’s offer to become his heir, because then he would have Ra’s resources at his disposal to fight crime & injustice on a global scale. But in the end Batman always rejects Ra’s offer because he’s seen what it’s done to Ra’s, how it’s turned him into an utterly ruthless fanatic who believes the ends justify the means. Batman is aware that if he takes Ra’s place the same thing will happen to him.

    I think Ra’s al Ghul works so well as Batman’s adversary because he’s a warning of what Batman could easily become, something Batman himself is aware of.

    • Yep. I think Morrison’s use of Talia as a mirror to Bruce was quite a clever play on this, and feels like a nice progression from his use of Thomas-Wayne-surrogate-Doctor-Hurt in the first stretch of his turn.

  2. It’s funny that Ra’a al Ghul was originally created to widen Batman’s universe. In the Dark Knight trilogy it feels like he (or his corner of the universe) actually restricts it. TDKR takes you right back to the League of Shadows from BB and makes Bane a pawn of Talia who in turn is trying to avenge him. Instead of just letting Bane be himself, or throwing in other villains like Jean-Paul Valley.

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