At the forefront of the campaign to bolster Batman’ darkness in the early 1970s, Ra’s al Ghul has taken a journey to the core of the Dark Knight’s story befitting the Demon’s Head himself. In fact, as Batman turns 75, could he have possibly become the indispensible Batman villain? Spoilers guaranteed for those not up-to-date with Ra’s on screen and page…
HE’S NOT QUITE THE HOUSEHOLD NAME, BUT TAKE A MOMENT TO CONSIDER THE TALENT WHO HAVE PORTRAYED THE ENIGMATIC VILLAIN ON SCREEN IN THE LAST TWO DECADES…
David Warner, Peter Woodward, Oded Fehr, Lance Reddick, Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe (well, yeah), Jason Isaacs, Giancarlo Esposito, Don Leslie, Dee Bradley Baker, Steven Blum…
A mixed bag, but one stashed on the shelf of extreme quality, and he only made it out of the comics in 1992… 22 years on and it’s difficult to envisage a new iteration of Batman that doesn’t feature Ra’s al Ghul – from Christopher Nolan’s box office stomping Dark Knight trilogy to cash cow Arkham videogames. So, who is he and why has his media career mirrored his fictional rise?
Origin of the Demon
A villain every bit the Caped Crusader’s equal…
Ra’s first appeared in 1971, the creation of legendary creative team writer Denny O’Neill and artist Neal Adams and a reaction to the campery of the Batman TV series that had finished just a few years earlier.
Master criminal Fu Manchu, who had also recently completed his peak run on screen and 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – arguably the highlight of Blofeld’s cinematic exploits – fed into the creation of a villain every bit the Caped Crusader’s equal. Ra’s was a globe-trotting tour-de-force, albeit one who could engage all the key levels of Gotham’s first son. Ra’s ongoing mission was one that could reawaken Batman’s deduction, increase his international exploits, gift him a physical match and necessarily darker those shades of grey.
That creative dynamic duo not only succeeded in creating an effective and distinctive character, but one who quickly headed to the top tier of threat in the DC Comic Universe. In the pantheon of super villains he was soon established as a global threat who could not only hit Batman on multiple levels but also the Justice League of America.
In many ways, despite the lack of innate supernatural powers, he provides similar opposition to the Justice League of America as immortal mutant Apocalypse does to the X-Men, soon to be seen as the X-Men ‘s greatest cinematic threat yet. The 1996 Amalgam project even fused them into Ra’s Al-Pocalypse.
And in 1971 it all started with a girl…
The Demon’s Daughter
..>When he’s not dead or stark raving mad or both.
Batman’s girl that is. Ra’s first appearance, Batman 232’s Daughter of the Demon was a complicated trap to test the Dark Knight as a suitable suitor for his daughter Talia. Well, it was more a test to see if the man Talia was infatuated with was worthy. He was, earning Ra’s ongoing respect on the way. It’s no coincidence that this original plot was seized on at the start of the arc that ended Batman’s pre-New 52 run (RIP). Through strenuous canon-or-not debate, Talia and Wayne’s relationship resulted in a son, Damian, who in a few short years has become a well regarded part of the DC universe. On the al Ghul side, Talia wasn’t the subject of a forced or false marriage; the attraction was mutual, and so any machinations on Ra’s part were replaced with the fact that he had a point and was essentially open to logical reason.
And he often is, when he’s not dead or stark raving mad or both.
Ripped straight from the pages of Dorian Gray…
That would be the supernatural coming in to play. There is the inherent mystery of the ill defined Arabia he hails from of course, and the inbuilt Bond villain / Fu Manchu army that comes as the head of the League of Assassins. Christopher Nolan would take this as an additional, or main, motivation for the Mantle of the Bat in his Dark Knight trilogy. But then there’s the immortality. He may be over 600 years old, but it’s actually a cheat. Ra’s rejuvenation comes from Lazarus Pits, chemical wells laid out on the ley lines of the Earth that grant the Demon’s Head life extension, at the cost of temporary insanity. A short spell of enhanced strength encourages the idea that these Pits are rabidly crazy ways to extend one’s life. There is also the hint that over use could lead to the gradual mental instability. Ra’s long life is ripped straight from the pages of Dorian Gray.
That gifts Ra’s not only a supernatural stint by default, tied into his motivation, but also a reason for his sporadic appearances. The New 52 played soft boot with the DC universe, changing the use of Lazarus Pits but retaining story points such as Ra’s apparent death in the 2004 storyline Death and the Maidens.
Tied into the fabric of Gaea, rightly or wrongly…
Ra’s is therefore mortal, and possibly couldn’t be ‘more of Earth’. From the off, his motivation has been humanity’s cradle itself; the achievement of balance that often necessitates the eradication of the majority of humanity. Unlike fellow ‘immortal’ Vandal Savage he does not seek mastership particularly, simply that balance. Often Ra’s methods are biological. Plagues and viruses in particular. When the concisely named DC Universe Animated Original Movies Doom replaced Ra’s with Vandal Savage as villain of their adaptation of the monumental Tower of Babel storyline it just didn’t feel as wholesome.
Of course, Batman himself meant that genome and lineage was tied into the Ra’s story from the start, and that has an overall impact. He’s tied into the fabric of Gaea, rightly or wrongly, and that can only reflect well and to the credit of Batman, the man suitable to be his heir. Just as the League of Assassins can be seen as a splinter of The Demon movement, the lineage of al Ghul or his children is utterly unknown. Recent years have seen the introduction of Talia’s older sister Nyssa Raatko and their White Ghost brother. Ra’s adds inflation to every storyline he’s brought near. World danger elevates any story and what is Gotham but a microcosm for the world?
His is not the equalling yang of Joker…
Perhaps most compelling is how Ra’s reflects the key facets of the man he honourably calls ‘The Detective’. He’s no slavish copy or inverted Man-Bat. Ra’s had soon deduced the Dark Knight’s true identity, although the secret could hardly be in better hands. While Batman’s alter-ego is to a degree open for exploitation, Ra’s own is lost in mystery and his relationship with The Detective based on a level of respect.
He respects Batman’s skill through the eyes of centuries of accumulated knowledge, which is no bad reference. And of course, he wouldn’t lead the League he does without considerable fighting prowess. His is not the equalling yang of Joker, the jealousy of Riddler nor the benchmarking of Bane. He’s a father-in law-in waiting and both have a grudging respect for the other’s methods and abilities.
As a Batman villain however, he requires a level of gothic grotesque. There’s no mistake he verges across his Arabic roots and British Empire, often portrayed by European actors. He’s a shadowy variant of Dickens as much as Wilde.
With every passing day since his conception he becomes more relevant
His motivation is one made for the modern age. No matter any other consideration, Ra’s could not have been conceived as a villain of the Dark Knight in the late 1930s, but with every passing day since his conception he becomes more familiar and more integrated to the Dark Knight’s agenda. And the veracity of that has been proved on film more than anywhere else.
A Theme for the Dark Knight
A major preoccupation for the trilogy
Following Batman and Robin, Ra’s was an eminently sensible villain for the Bat-franchise to pick-up. Untouched by previous films, breaking the TV series expectations of camp and classic villains, but also bringing a strong back story with good fan following but ripe for reinvention. Christopher Nolan fused him with Ducard, the French fighter who had trained young Bruce Wayne a decoy that totally threw me just as Ken Watanabe decoy fooled Bruce Wayne. It all worked rather well in a film I thought an otherwise underwhelming start.
It was a further surprise when it became apparent that Ra’s provided the thematic link of the Dark Knight trilogy. The surprise was lessened however, given Bane’s links to the al Ghul family in the comics and Marion Cotillard’s casting – just too perfect not to be Talia. The Dark Knight Rises had the pit, but there was no venom for Bane, no resurrection for Ra’s – except in the mind, a major preoccupation for the trilogy.
Chief educator of Queensbury Rules
An interesting offshoot was the need to retcon and revise Batman’s training. Post-New 52 there’s a clear tendency to build up Alfred’s role as Bruce Wayne’s chief educator of Queensbury Rules. Perhaps a natural conclusion as original fighting role model Wildcat and other Justice Society Members become increasingly less plausible 70 years on from World War II. In comics, this recently became apparent in Geoff John’s Earth One where Alfred Pennyworth is appointed head of security by Thomas Wayne. On the small screen, it will be pursued by Sean Pertwee’s role as Batman’s batman in Gotham, this time a former SAS officer.
It would also come to bear in Batman’s latest animated exploits, along with a certain mystical super villain…
Beware the Bat
Ra’s makes a significant contribution…
A sad legacy of Beware the Batman is that it appears to have been shelved in Batman’s anniversary year.
The first solely CGI animated series, Beware the Batman was designed as a more serious reaction to the marvellously joyful and successful Silver Age campery of Brave and the Bold. After many continuous years of Batman stories, a more serious soap storyline in Gotham necessitated a shift. Robin was out, but in was a Katana ready to reference her traditional Outsiders role alongside Metamorpho.
The CGI created crisp, dramatic, fight scenes but there’s always something a little flat to my taste as you can read here. Care was made to make villains as grotesque and over the top as possible, yet never quite hits the high it should despite the interesting run of lesser known villains. In Catwoman’s place is stolen by Magpie, filling in for the Joker’s anarchy is, well, Anarky. Recent additions are Grant Morrison’s Professor Pyg and Toad, bringing a demented Wind in the Willows to town.
Fittingly for a show that was itself a reaction, Ra’s also makes a significant contribution. Again, the supernatural is deflected. There is no talk of Lazarus Pits, but Ra’s is transported in cryogenic suspension. The MacGuffin of the Soultaker sword is the chief nod to the mysticism surrounding him and proves to be his, probably not ultimate, downfall. His chief underling is Lady Shiva, in the comics another trainer of young Bruce Wayne. Here it is an aging Alfred who trained Batman, a former Mi6 agent who interestingly had previous with Ra’s. It’s strange to hear The Demon’s Head refer to the butler as Agent Pennyworth as much as the flashbacks to Alfred in combat action.
Post Dark Knight, something different is expected and Beware the Batman doesn’t falter. Ra’s huge Gotham-centred plot picks up some comic exploits, especially Knightfall, and when foiled it leaves a vacuum that inadvertently leads to Harvey Dent’s arrival and decent to Two Face.
The battle concluded, it now looks unlikely that we’ll see the war continue on that show. But with the cinematic reboot underway, it’s unlikely we’ll have to wait long for the League and The Demon’s Head to reappear. Although it’s unclear how the cinematic and rapidly expanding televisual adaptations of DC will fit together, Nyssa al Ghul (Raatko) has recently made an appearance in The CW’s Arrow described as the ‘child of Ra’s al Ghul’.
It’s a considerable nod to Ra’s al Ghul that it’s difficult to envisage a new iteration of Batman that will be able to resist him.