The Bane of My Existence: How Ethnicity Is Lost In Translation From Comic Book To Film

By Ariel Arnau, published in the National Institute for Latino Policy's newsletter

When Channing Kennedy's January 2011 Colorlines article about the whitewashing of ethnic characters in film was circulated on The NiLP Network on Latino Issues last year, it only piqued my interest even more to see the final film in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. Not only am I a life-long fan of comic books, but I have a deep admiration for the way that Nolan has treated the source material. As a Puerto Rican, I was even more interested in how the character of Bane, the most prominent Latino character in comic books today, would be treated by this group of filmmakers. Would they maintain his ethnic identity or would he be, in the words of Channing Kennedy, "airbent"?
 
The character of Bane has been depicted a number of times in both the cinema and television. Who can forget, although die-hard comic book fans would love to, his appearance in 1997's Batman and Robin. While Bane's appearance in this film was a disgrace (they took an articulate character and made him into a villainous incredible Hulk), the character had better fortunes on the small screen. In Batman: the Animated Series it was stated outright that Bane was from Cuba. In the newer television show Young Justice, Bane is voiced by none other than Danny Trejo of Machete fame. The score card thus far is Television 2 - Movies 0.
 
The choice of Bane as the primary antagonist of Christopher Nolan's film, The Dark Knight Rises, is a bold one in light of how fans took to Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker. After posthumously winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, anyone who took on the role of the main villain in a Batman film would have a tough act to follow.
 
Many people complained that they could barely understand what the Bane was saying at all through that mask. I listened intently on how Bane spoke English hoping to hear a Spanish accent. No such luck. Having parents who speak English with an accent I suppose has made my ears a bit more sharp to speech nuances, but even I had difficulty understanding one or two of Tom Hardy's line. Blame the sound editor, not the actor. On the subject of Tom Hardy ... I have to admit I was one of those who cried foul when I learned that he had been cast in the role of Bane. I thought "Here we go again. Another non-Latino being cast as a Latino a la Al Pacino".
 
Upon careful reading of his comic book origin it turns out that while Bane was born and raised in Santa Prisca (a small island nation in the Spanish Caribbean that first appeared in the DC Comics series The Question), his biological father was a British mercenary. Ok, malo mio. Maybe it is alright that Hardy play Bane after all ... a Brit playing a Brit. My initial concern over casting was based in a history of changing ethnic characters in comic book and casting them with non-ethnics. To be fair, the reverse is also true. After all the only redeeming factor of that god-awful movie Daredevil was Michael Clarke Duncan's portrayal of the Kingpin (a black actor playing a white character from the comic books) and some of you may remember Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film.  

[ WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD ]
 
We are treated to an interesting interpretation of Bane's comic book origin in the Dark Knight Rises: a young child born and raised in a prison who eventually escapes. DC Comics is known for creating analogs for real-world locals, Gotham City for New York for example, and Santa Prisca could very well be an analog for the Dominican Republic or Cuba but fusing elements of history that reference other Latin American nations in Central and South America. Santa Prisca is known for its prison Peña Dura (the birthplace of the character Bane), the creatively named Punto de Tiburon, the geographic separation between the island's elite and the poor, and the drug trade dominated by various drug lords. Santa Prisca has endured many revolutions during its appearances in the comics (which Latin American nation hasn't?) and has featured a wide variety of groups vying for power from anti-Communist rebel groups hiring foreign mercenaries to corporate-sponsored revolutions (Zesti Cola as United Fruit). The island later falls under the dominion of a character known as "El Jefe del Pais" (possibly a stand-in for the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo who was also known as El Jefe). In the Nolan film, the prison is never even named. It isn't even in the Caribbean. During a flashback sequence, the child we think is Bane escapes the prison into a landscape that resembles the Middle East. In one fell swoop, the entire ethnic background of perhaps the greatest Latino comic book character is gone. Pobresito Bane.
 
Nolan, whatever you may think of the overall film itself, gets a mixed review for the way he and his writers treat the character of Bane. Part of the Nolan aesthetic in these last three Batman films is that they have been grounded in a gritty reality. This film was no different in displaying this strength. Selina Kyle's "cat-ears", for example, are simply a nightvision eyepiece that is folded back on top of her head. Bane, in the comic, is given super strength by his use of a steroid called Venom that is pumped directly into this blood stream. This causes his musculature to increase to obscene levels. This effect would be out of place in Nolan's Batman universe, so he cleverly replaces the use of Venom with a mask that constantly allows Bane to breathe in pain killers that make him fight harder and longer than he normally would. In addition Nolan restores Bane to his comic book roots by making him intelligent and articulate, despite the muffled voice, and the breaker of Batman's back. In sharp contrast to the comic book however, it appears in the film that Bane is a terrorist and villain that is trying to create what he feels is social and economic equality in the city of Gotham. In doing so, Nolan gives Tom Hardy's character a socially conscious motivation ... or so it would appear.
 
Nolan sets us up with what we think is a perfect foil for Batman: Batman is wealthy while Bane was born in prison. They both were trained by the League of Shadows so they are well matched in battle. Batman has gadgets while Bane has painkillers. They both are very intelligent. Then Nolan pulls the rug from under our collective feet as we fall on our face in confusion. Days later I'm still rubbing those bruises. The great reveal in the third act is that Bane isn't the intelligent mastermind behind the heinous plot after all. Its Talia al'Ghul, a character who up until this point of the movie we thought a philanthropic member of Wayne Enterprises' board of directors. She is the true mastermind while Bane is revealed to be her love-struck protector when she was the child prisoner who escaped in the flashback sequence. This is perhaps the greatest flaw in the depiction of Bane. While Bane is portrayed as the caring protector of his female teammates in Suicide Squad comic book, the reveal that Bane is not the mastermind guts this version of the character completely. You can't change the motivation of the antagonist two thirds of the way through your film.
 
Why would one of the few noteworthy Latino characters in comic book lore be stripped of the very thing that distinguished him from the rest of the Batman rogue's gallery ... his ethnicity? In an era of increasing Latino presence in comic books (Jaime Reyes as the Blue Beetle, Anya Corazon as Spider-girl, various members of the Ayala family as the White Tiger, and Rene Montoya as the Question among others), it saddens me to see how Christopher Nolan's latest film treats Bane. I understand ethnicity had no place in the story he was trying to tell, but this is perhaps my biggest gripe. By ignoring his ethnic heritage, the prominent presence of Latinos is also ignored. This happens all too often in the national dialogue of race and ethnicity as expressed through the melting pot metaphor. In becoming part of American society, ethnic people are forced to abandon what makes them distinct.
 
Some might argue that Nolan's depiction of race is more progressive than other comic book movies: he has a Latino mayor and judge and an African-American as police commissioner in the earlier Batman films. Their presence as background characters alone should remind us that we still struggle with racial and ethnic perception problems since that is all they are ... background characters. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan missed an opportunity to have a Latino character in a prominent position. In an age when the Latino population of the United States is growing and the portrayals of Latinos in the popular media have become slightly more nuanced, I longed to see an articulate Latino antagonist that could best Batman not only with his fists but with his wits. In the end, the depiction of Bane in the latest Batman movie left me wanting more.
 
Ariel Arnau teaches a course at Temple University called "Race and Poverty in the Americas." He is most recentky the author of "The Evolution of Leadership within the Puerto Rican Community of Philadelphia" appearing in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography Vol.CXXXVI, No.1 (January 2012). He can be reached at furioso2@temple.edu or on his Facebook page.