Category Archives: Modern Mythology
If you’re like me, growing up in the 90’s you probably first encountered the Batman villain Bane in one of two ways; either you saw that masterwork of modern cinema Batman and Robin (originally subtitled: Rubber Clooney Nipple-o-Rama) with this incarnation:
Or in this iconic image:
Win. Wherein your childhood hero gets snapped in half like a twig by a ‘roid-raging Strong Bad.
In either case, the visual story is simple: big, scary, muscle-head with tubes in his neck and a Mexican Spiderman mask. Batman and Robin: Rubber Clooney Nipple-o-Rama confirmed this idea by portraying Bane as a skinny little prisoner guy who gets jacked up on Venom (Bane’s ‘legal in the MLB’ drug of choice) and becomes a hulking moron with such feats of brilliance as the following dialogue exchange:
POISON IVY: Step on it, Bane.
BANE: (Inexplicably wearing a jaunty chauffeur’s cap) STEP!
So this is the man that Chris Nolan is bringing us to end his superb Batman trilogy, following up Liam Neason’s Ra’s Al Ghul, Aaron Eckheart’s Two-Face, and Heath-fucking-Ledger’s Oscar winning Joker?
Well, not exactly.
Because despite how Bane is often portrayed (in video games, the aforementioned movie, and several comic books since his debut), Bane is actually a bit of a perfect storm for Batman: he’s a genius-level criminal mastermind WITH superhuman strength; essentially mixing the two most common villain types into one bad-ass problem for the Dark Knight. Essentially, consider Batman himself; he’s got the intelligence covered and is trained to the point of perfection, but he lacks super powers (other than the never explained one to be able to engineer every imaginable tool into the shape of a bat). So now we’ve got a problem: Bane is both a mental and physical challenge for the Bat. Neat.
Nolan clearly understands this, as he cast his favourite ever Tom Hardy to play him. At first I was confused by this, as the intellectual Hardy would be perfectly suited to any number of Bat villains (early rumours pegged him as Hugo Strange, a psychiatrist obsessed with Batman’s identity) but then Hardy apparently started in on a Popeye approved all spinach diet and bulked up into a beast as seen in Warrior and the first promotional shot from the film, where Hardy’s back looks like an infinite desert of awfulness.
Jawas are a big problem for Tom Hardy. He gets them out with a tiny comb.
This leaves us with an incredibly capable actor who is the size of a bus. Perfect fit for the intelligent Bane of the early comics and much more suited to be the final boss of the Bat-trilogy.
Bane’s history is pretty neat, though like most characters there have been a tonne of ret-cons (retro-active continuity for the uninitiated, wherein a past story is re-written in a new one) and is now a bit of a mess. It’s also important to note that the Bane stories need to be read with your 90’s craptitude filter on high, as there is a lot of weird stuff that just doesn’t fly today (like his costume, which really makes no sense at all…and how he randomly watches TV with it on…Weird.)
Essentially, Bane comes to us from the lovely island prison of Santa Prisca where he was born and forced to live out his father’s life sentence. Through a series of (what I can only assume to be Oliver Twist-style Dickensian) adventures, he ends up running the joint as head criminal badass. Soon thereafter, he gets jacked up on Venom, puts a crew together and decides to go prove to Gotham who is the baddest ass motherfucker in town (clearly failing to realize that it’s Shaft, no matter where you are) and thus hatches a scheme to set all of Batman’s villains against him all at once, observe his technique, and then take him out. Batman is under the weather the whole time (chronicled in the occasionally awesome Knightfall arc) and finally ends up fighting Bane in Wayne Manor.
“But wait a minute, Tom, no one knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman!”
You know how everyone makes jokes about how Superman really just adds glasses and slicks his hair back and it’d be soooooooo obvious…? Yeah, Bane thought so too. He just followed home every rich guy in Gotham, staked out their house, and finally caught Batman leaving the Wayne Manor grounds. Awesome.
It’s this kind of thing that makes Bane so interesting; he’s got the brute force to back up smarts, meaning the hero can’t just defeat him by targeting one or the other (in Knightfall, Bane is ultimately defeated by lame stand-in Batman, Azrael who simply cuts his Venom cords with his razor arms…yeah, the Bane character pretty much loses all the awesome as soon as he breaks Batman due to some wildly inconsistent writing and a need, I suspect, to give us a reason to like 90’s surfer-dude hero Jean Paul “Azrael” Valley:
This is around the point where the Bane angle falls off a bit, but judging from Nolan’s previous films, the character of the early work is the kind of thing we should expect, especially given the Hardy casting choice.
Ultimately, Bane was chosen as the villain to pretty definitively beat Batman (though Bruce did recover because of his psychic girlfriend frying her brain with a magic healing blast while fighting her evil brother in England…seriously, look it up LINK). While many others have since in a variety of ways, that image of Bane breaking Batman ranks right up there with the death of Gwen Stacey and Cyclops holding dead Jean Grey as a definitive image and moment for the character.
As a result, I think we’re in for an awesome villain…although if at any point he wears a chauffeur’s hat I’m going to demand my money back.
And for those in the know…
Strong Bad only later realized that Homestar Runner was not the Batman.
For Bane: Essential reading.
For Batman: Interesting; iconic moment; non-essential.
These books are a major moment in the Batman mythology, but ultimately there’s a lot of rubble to sort through first; the 90s aesthetic hurts the books quite a bit, as does the narrative voice and style (particularly in the second and third volume) largely due to the fact that these stories are collected from across multiple Batman series with a multitude of writers. Bane, though a fantastic character also has “bright shiny object syndrome” where suddenly key villains like Joker are regulated to minor threat status, which I found troublesome. Ultimately, they aren’t easy reads, though interesting ones. The most important moment is the one featured in the panel above.
I am greatly indebted to IGN’s Bane profile of a few months ago for filling in some backstory gaps that weren’t included in the Knightfall and KnightsEnd collections (the storyline falls in the middle of a run, so there are some uncollected loose ends on either side). (Additonal background from the character profile in Batman: Arkham Asylum)
Knightfall vol 1: Broken Bat
Knightfall vol 2: Who Rules the Night
Knightfall vol 3: KnightsEnd
These collected volumes build up the bulk of the article above; Volume 1 deals with Batman running Bane’s gauntlet (though Bane himself was introduced a few issues beforehand) and then fighting Bane himself (including the iconic image used above)
Volume 2 deals with Jean Paul Valley’s assumption of the Bat-mantle and his gradual slide into violent vigilante, most notable for the reactions of Robin (who actually justifies why Batman needs a Robin pretty succinctly but pointing out that without a comic foil to lighten the mood, the Batman can get pretty scary dark pretty fast) and Nightwing. Valley basically kicks Robin to the curb “Go home, Sam.” styles and Nightwing is pissed that Bruce doesn’t pick him to assume the mantle which is particularly interesting in light of the recent Battle for the Cowl arc in which Nightwing (the original Robin, Dick Grayson all growed up, for the uninitiated) refuses to assume the mantle despite everyone’s desires that he does (he thinks he can’t live up to the legend). This culminates in a suit of badass bat-armour that is basically made of weapons (ever wondered what a killer Batman would look like?) and the disappointing rematch with Bane. The writing drops off pretty hard in this volume. Just a head’s up…
Volume 3 skips ahead in time, avoiding the disastrous KnightQuest arc with the aforementioned psychic healing thing and Jean Paul seeing visions and killing criminals (he was brainwashed by a religious order some time ago). Volume 3 is all about Bruce struggling with super hero rehab (he inexplicably becomes a ninja who wears a bat mask for half of it. Yay 90’s logic!) and is kinda useless until the final battle between Wayne and Valley, which culminates in Wayne justifying exactly why Batman doesn’t wear twelve tonnes of body armour all the time and defeats Valley by evoking the very origin of Batman. Awesome. Otherwise it’s kind of poorly written.
Batman and Robin: Rubber Clooney Nipple-o-rama: The final death rattle of the original Batman series, Batman and Robin amped up everything wrong with the Joel Schumacher films, making the Bat-gadgets farcical (Batman and Robin have frigging Bat-skates built into their shoes??? Ugh.) The film is hilarious (though not as it intends to be) highlighted by Arnold Schwartzeneger’s absurdly awesome Mr. Freeze yelling such gems as: “Evybudy FEEEESE!” and Clooney smirking his way though everything including delivering news about Alfred’s terminal disease. The film’s so bad, Schumacher himself apologizes on the DVD commentary track, admitting that at some point it was just about selling toys and taking responsibility for the film’s failure (good on ya, Joel!) It also included Bane.
KnightsQuest: The uncollected chapter of the Jean Paul Valley Batman saga, it chronicles Wayne’s trip to England to find Robin’s kidnapped father and Valley killing criminals. Robin got a spin off series when Valley kicked him out and Alfred quit when Wayne insisted on continuing to endanger his life despite being so injured. In it, Wayne is healed when his doctor/love interest engages in psychic combat with her evil psychic brother, the result of which heals Wayne’s broken spine and reduces her intellect to that of a child. Yep, psychic McGuffen. Thanks to our friends at Wikipedia from filling in the gap!
First, a confession: the Platonic ideal of the X-Men for me has and will always be the 90’s cartoon version (inspired and influenced heavily by the iconic Chris Claremont/Jim Lee run, X-Men: Mutant Genesis). No matter what else I read, see, or what kind of action figures I’ve got (and trust me, there are lots) the X-Men who live in my head are the colourfully costumed team of Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Beast, Storm, Rogue, Gambit and Jubilee (yep, even Jubilee…)
My power is failure!
Now despite falling in love with these iterations of the X-Men, I was always conscious (in a hilariously limited pre-Internet age way) of the greater mythology; through assorted comics, books about the X-Men, that awesome arcade game, Wizard and ToyFare magazines, and trading cards, I came to know Colussus, Shadowcat, Nightcrawler, and all the rest (most of whom also showed up in the cartoon) even some who were made-up for the show…
Don’t forget Barkley from Star Trek: The Next Generation! …I mean, Morph!
What I didn’t realize at the time, was that a man named Chris Claremont had essentially defined the X-Men books for all time with his iconic run, including above all else The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of the Future Past, two stories that still resonate heavily in comic mythology. But ultimately, there is one story that really sums up the greater themes of the X-Men, themes I was absorbing sub-consciously as a kid, but which now read very clearly in the films as well as comics; namely, the X-Men are closeted outcasts trying to save the very people who hate and fear them. This set-up has been used at various times and various writers to handle everything from racism to homophobia (even going so far as to tackle -with decidedly mixed results- AIDS with the mutant Legacy virus story arc; a disease that targets only mutants and affected their ability to produce healthy cells, with both heroes and villains being affected and often hiding their positive status from each other, using terms such as LV Mutants)
Little known fact: Pyro originated the role of Roger in RENT.
So what story sums up all these disparate elements? God Loves, Man Kills is a graphic novel built by Claremont to be the definitive X-Men story, one that would read as true about the nature of these characters and their situation in the future (pretty much now, according to the 80’s original printing) as it did at the time. While the characters have all changed and grown (and died and been revived a bunch of times), this story managed to capture the very essence of the X-Men and as such is required reading for understanding why this particular myth is important. The question is, why?
The basic premise of God Loves, Man Kills has been reintegrated into a variety of mediums, most notably Bryan Singer’s excellent X2: X-Men United: the graphic novel follows the disturbing rise to power of the anti-mutant Reverend William Stryker, who is on a personal crusade to wipe out these ‘abominations’ called mutants. His rhetoric and argument are disturbingly familiar, evoking a lot of the hate spewed by the Westboro Baptist Church about…well, pretty much anything.
Yep, they’re an X-Men villain too.
The basic argument being, since mutants are homo superior rather than homo sapien Styker argues that they are not human and thus deserve no human rights. From the murder of his infant son (who is born a mutant) to the betrayal of his most loyal support when it is revealed that she is a mutant, Stryker is hate and bigotry incarnate, but worse still, he’s popular. In a notable scene early on, Charles Xavier debates Stryker on TV and the X-Men, watching from home, can’t help but note that although Xavier’s arguments are sound, Stryker is calm, charismatic and playing off people’s fear -sound familiar in today’s media? Claremont has given us a villain Wolverine can’t punch, Cyclops can’t blast, and Xavier can’t outsmart. He’s not a super villain, he’s a real life villain, which is perhaps even more terrifying. His defeat at the hands of a regular cop, trying to prevent a murder and a riot, is perfect. An ordinary monster can only be stopped by an ordinary man.
Then he brings the violence. God Loves, Man Kills opens with one of the most poignant and heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a comic: two children are running, the older one telling his little sister to forget about their mother and to keep running. They make it to a playground before the little boy is shot. Then as the little girl holds her dead brother, with tear-stained cheeks she asks her assailant, “Why?” to which the attacker, part of Stryker’s mutant hit-squad responds by shooting her and saying: “Because you don’t deserve to live.”
The two children are then strung up by swings in the playground with signs around their necks reading “MUTIES” to greet the students coming to school in morning. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of Matthew Shepard in Laramie (dramatized in The Laramie Project).
And then, Magneto, the arch villain of the X-Men and a Holocaust survivor, finds them and gently brings their bodies down and delivers the respect and horror the event evokes. I’ll be covering Magneto in a few weeks in more depth, but suffice to say that this one moment sums up why Mageneto seeks to rule the earth more than any other: he experienced one genocide and seeks to prevent another by seizing control. This theme runs throughout the book, right up to the grand reveal of Stryker’s final solution, which is to use Xavier’s massive psychic powers to kill every mutant on earth (also used in X2). This is Magneto in fine form, a complicated, sympathetic, and ultimately correct villain, whose only defeat in this book comes from Cyclops reminding him, “We’re humans too.”
In addition to covering religious and sexual intolerance, Claremont manages to hit the racism issue too, in a series of three perfect panels, in which young Kitty Pride (a closeted mutant and the Jubilee of the 70’s, the young person we’re supposed to identify with…although she’s a helluva lot cooler than Jubilee…) gets in an argument with a fellow dance student who fires off some anti-mutant slurs before calling her a mutant-lover. After her black dance teacher Stevie and Colossus break up the fight, Stevie tells Kitty not to sweat it, that they’re just words; to which the wounded Kitty responds, “Suppose he’d called me a nigger-lover, Stevie? Would you be so damn tolerant then?!!” A few panels later, we have Stevie alone, shaking and crying, admitting to herself that Kitty is right.
This scene kinda floored me; it just beautifully summed up how this series explores issues (much like the unbelievably awesome Battlestar Galactica abortion episode). A racist probably won’t read an anti-racism comic, but a kick-ass story about a guy with built-in claws and another dude who shoots lasers out of his eyes? Hells yes.
Racist Thinking 101: Well, I won’t watch Crash, but this is awesome!
Now, that isn’t to say the comic doesn’t have it’s issues, it does: most notably, the style of comics at the time is very different from what we read now (the team spends a lot of time explaining what their powers are and how they work; think anime-style “My optic blast has stunned him! That will give Colossus enough time to grab him!” “Using my strength, I’ll grab this bad guy, who Cyclops stunned with his optic blast!”) and there’s a hilarious focus on reminding the audience how young these characters are supposed to be (they’re just like us!). It’s not bad writing, by any stretch, it just takes a bit of mental adjustment.
So if like me, you’ve cared about these characters since you saw them fly around the X-Men logo randomly every Saturday morning (or now, late at night, several drinks in on Netflix) this is an incredible window into the very heart of the mythology. It’s also just an incredible story by a master of the franchise and can help fill in that little gap on your soul left by watching the horrendous X3.
God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson
Recommendation: Essential reading. Sums up the entire franchise and the reason this myth is important. Surprisingly relevant today.
Dark Phoenix Saga, the definitive story of the Claremont arc. While this sums up the mythology, Dark Phoenix shook comics to their core and permanently changed the X-Men. I will be covering it in an upcoming post.
Days of the Future Past: Also set to be covered in an upcoming post, this story covers a horrific future where Sentinals have killed most of the X-Men. Think the kickass opening sequence of Terminator 2, but John Conner is Wolverine. Awesome.
X-Men: Mutant Genesis: The end of an era and the beginning of another, this was the end of Claremont’s X-Men run, and the aesthetic picked up by the cartoon. (Anyone else remember when Pizza Hut had an X-Men promotion? They were giving out the first issue of this run. Never ate at Pizza Hut more in my life…)
Battlestar Galactica “The Captain’s Hand” s 2 e 17: An incredible episode that managed to strike at the core of the show’s premise: with the remains of humanity in the 10,000s, the President, a former pro-choice proponent before the war, has to put aside her beliefs to outlaw abortion to save the human race. Rarely does a show manage to use it’s premise to explore an issue in such an interesting way.
X2: The definitive X-Men film, but ultimately hindered by not having a proper follow-up (imagine if Peter Jackson had handed Return of the King over to Michael Bay). The film deals with Colonel William Stryker (Brian ‘I was the original Hannibal Lector’ Cox) using his mutant son to orchestrate a mutant/human war and then kill all mutants. Also lays the groundwork for Dark Phoenix and features the most awesome Nightcrawler scene of all time. Alan Cumming 1, White House 0.
X3: Uh oh, someone told Bret Ratner he could make a movie…pretty much throwing subtly under a bus, X3 is a mess involving important characters (that Cyclops guy I’ve heard about once or twice) getting killed off-screen, Dark Phoenix being Jean Grey in a dress. AN EVIL DRESS! Professor X being a douche for no reason (surprise! I’ve secretly been giving Jean Grey psychic lobotomies this WHOLE TIME!), and about the most generic ‘we didn’t get this hyper specific maneuver right at the beginning of the movie because we didn’t work as a team…but wait, here is the exact circumstance again…only now it works! Yay!’ moment I’ve ever seen. It’s not all bad (Wolverine kills a tonne of people in a forest. Awesome) and has a beautifully sad moment with Xavier-less Magneto as a sad old man playing chess alone in a park, trying to regain his powers. Fantastic. Not sure how these two great scenes managed to sneak in; maybe they were deleted scenes from X2…
X-Men cartoon: Take it with a grain of salt, It can get kinda silly and convoluted, but ultimately, a fantastic microcosm of important X-Men stories and characters. And it’s all on Netflix. Hells yes. Not nearly as coherent or polished as the Bruce Timm, Paul Dini Batman,Superman, Justice League, and Batman Beyond series, but still worth a watch, for the epic theme song, if nothing else.
*Please note, not all images are taken from God Loves, Man Kills