Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Bane"

“I will observe the Bat in action. And when I understand how he thinks and fights, I will break him.”

After Batman closes down another of his illegal operations, Rupert Thorne (John Vernon) decides he’s had enough and hires the assassin Bane (Henry Silva) to rid Gotham of its Dark Knight. As brainy as he is brawny, Bane studies his opponent carefully, knowing that defeating Batman could be the key to taking the city for himself.

At a brisk twenty minutes, this episode feels much like a whirlwind. “Bane” introduces us to the eponymous criminal mastermind (himself only introduced a year and change earlier in the comics). The show largely preserves the character’s visual design from Graham Nolan’s original concept – the massive bulk, the stylized luchador mask, and the tubes of Venom running into his skull – but I feel it shortchanges the character by making him a gun for hire, twice removed from the ostensible main villain of the episode. “Bane” is an episode that could have really benefited from the two-parter treatment, giving the titular villain room to breathe in a plot that does him fuller justice. One could imagine, for example, a “Bane, Part 1” in which Bane roundly thrashes Batman and defeats him in a cliffhanger ending before the Dark Knight recovers and gathers himself for a second chance against his adversary. 

There’s a persistent internet rumor that the producers of Batman: The Animated Series didn’t much care for Bane and regarded him as gimmicky. I’ve never been able to source that claim, but there’s circumstantial evidence in that he only appeared once more, on The New Batman Adventures (and, to be fair, once on Superman: The Animated Series), and never again as the lead villain. It’s possible that this lack of enthusiasm for the character speaks to the disappointing way he’s depicted in this episode. There is much about the character that is, however, the direct opposite of gimmicky; he’s a far cry, for example, from Doomsday, who was created roughly around the same time and for largely the same reason (to incapacitate his heroic rival for a time). Bane is among Batman’s smarter adversaries, able to plan methodically his nemesis’s downfall, but he has a specific code of honor that prevents him from becoming a wanton force of destruction. For my money, turning Bane into a contract killer cheapens him, because I like the idea that Batman represents not a job but a personal challenge for Bane. This episode approaches that concept, but it’s again devalued when Bane takes the idea from Thorne’s assistant Candice, herself caught in a halfhearted seduction plot. (And if you want to talk about characters who never got their due, let’s hear it for the ever-capable, ever-cunning Candice, who matched wits with Two-Face and Bane and still came out on top.)

It’s a shame that this episode didn’t hew closer to the “Knightfall” storyline from the comics, particularly since it’s quite obvious that writer Mitch Brian had read them. Brian includes the obligatory “Bane lifts Batman over his knee” shot, maintains the language of “breaking” him, and even pits Bane against Killer Croc as a first foray into Gotham’s underworld. Hats off to Croc, by the way, for a great first act in which he, astonishingly, does not attempt to throw a rock at Batman and Robin; he does, however, become the butt of a surprisingly effective Bat-joke when Batman dismisses him with a droll “Later, gator.” What’s missing, though, is the sense that Bane is a player in his own game; here, he’s just a pawn in someone else’s.

I’ve spent the bulk of this week’s review diminishing the episode for what it isn’t. In the moment, however, “Bane” is exactly the whirlwind I mentioned earlier. The episode proceeds briskly and ably, doing well what it sets out to do – tell a kid-friendly version of the “Knightfall” story inside of twenty minutes and within the constraints of the universe established by BtAS (that is to say, in deference to the mobster underpinnings of Gotham’s underworld, never wholly supplanted by the more theatrical supervillains). It’s only on further reflection that the episode emerges as something of a disappointment, because in the moment it was enough to make me want to dig out my Bane action figure, who could hoist aloft another figure and (with the aid of a switch on his back) throw them to the ground. Luchadors, indeed – there is something elemental about a big guy taking on Batman, and this episode manages to walk the line between the philosophical weight of Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and the heroically lunkheaded version we got from the late Jeep Swenson in Batman and Robin

Original Air Date: September 10, 1994

Writer: Mitch Brian

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villains: Bane (Henry Silva), Rupert Thorne (John Vernon), and Killer Croc (Aron Kincaid)

Next episode: “Baby-Doll,” in which I recall Paul Dini turning in his first and only clunker.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

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