No one expected it to be Bane. In retrospect that is a bit odd since, generally speaking, when most comic book nerds think of the villains who pose the greatest threat to Batman, Bane always rounds out the top five or 10 by virtue of being the one baddie to “Break the Bat.” Yet after Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight thrillingly ended on the noble rush of Bruce Wayne riding into the night, accepting he was not the hero Gotham needed, no fan (nor apparently many Warners executives) anticipated the villain of Nolan’s inevitable sequel to be Bane, the beefy steroid-juicer with an affinity for Lucha libre masks.
Anecdotally, I recall that in the early days of social media, there was a lot of chatter among comic book fans that the villain should be evil psychologist Hugo Strange, who could’ve picked up where The Dark Knight left off, with the Gotham Police Department turning to a man they didn’t fully understand to catch the Bat. More often, however, fans seemed to support the industry trades who openly speculated on who should play the Riddler and Penguin in the next Batman movie, following up on a line Heath Ledger’s Joker espoused: “This city deserves a better class of criminal.” And as it turns out, WB agreed with that sentiment, as the studio apparently pushed Nolan to use the Riddler in his third Batman movie.
Warners and fans would more or less get that film when Matt Reeves rebooted the Batman mythos 14 years after The Dark Knight. But as for what became The Dark Knight Rises? Nolan chased other muses, imagining a supervillain of immense physical menace and restrained cunning, the likes of which the Caped Crusader had never before faced in a movie. Nolan wanted Bane and, more surprising still, he wanted his newfound pal from 2010’s Inception, the five-foot and nine-inch Englishman Tom Hardy, to play that looming adversary who’d tower over Christian Bale’s Batman.
It’s a casting choice that likely wouldn’t be made today, partially because comic book fans would demand a more accurate page-to-screen Bane, and partially for the justifiable skepticism toward the British Hardy playing a character who is Latino in the comics.
With that said, Nolan wasn’t necessarily adapting the Bane of the comics, who up to that point arguably had only one great story to his name, Knightfall, where he stalked and broke the Bat. Instead, the Memento filmmaker was using that elemental concept of the intelligent villain who physically dwarfs Batman to craft something more primal and terrifying for moviegoers in the early 2010s.
In this way, Nolan and Hardy created one of the great big screen villains of the last decade and one of the best the superhero movie genre has ever seen, period. He’s not the comic book Bane, nor is he a replay of Joker’s now legendary “agent of chaos” routine from The Dark Knight. The latter fact was held against Hardy’s performance in 2012. But 10 years later, it remains a highlight of Nolan’s trilogy and comic book movies in general.
A Menace That Actually Menaces
In a recent interview with Collider, Hardy’s The Dark Knight Rises co-star, Christian Bale, made an intriguing admission about his experience of walking across the proverbial street and playing a supervillain for Marvel Studios a decade later. While discussing his turn as Gorr the God Butcher in 2022’s Thor: Love and Thunder, Bale said the following:
“There’s an awful lot that I wish was in this film… [because] there’s so much gold that’s on the cutting room floor, hilarious stuff, and creepy as hell stuff, but that was perhaps pushing it to a realm where maybe it wouldn’t have been able to be family friendly, which we always wanted to do.”
Admittedly, as Bale also points out, it was always his and co-writer/director Taika Waititi’s intention to make Thor 4 a family friendly movie, as well as an outright comedy. For that reason, even though Bale infused his scenes with a genuinely threatening energy, the Gorr character had to still be handled with a light touch.
In the case of a Waititi comedy, such an instinct makes sense. But within the larger framework of the superhero movie genre, this desire to not rock the boat has been the dominant mission statement of superhero movie villains ever since Joss Whedon’s The Avengers grossed more than The Dark Knight Rises. They need to be bad, but never too “creepy,” and rarely ever scary. (There is also a nigh reactionary impulse in a few less popular superhero movies that pushed PG-13 productions to hard R ratings for grimdark variations on characters who once appeared in Saturday morning cartoons.)
Personally, Nolan remains one of the few filmmakers to find a visceral sweet spot between keeping his comic book villains terrifying and accessible for most audiences. That obviously includes Ledger’s definitive interpretation of the Joker, but it also applies to Hardy’s Bane.
Functionally, the two Batman villains are quite different, with the Joker being intentionally modeled after the shark in Jaws by Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother, Jonathan. The Joker moved through that film like a force of incomprehensible nature. Conversely, Hardy’s Bane is more outwardly calculating and reserved. Rather than shiver with seemingly uncontrollable tics like licking the corners of his mouth, Bane stands like a statue until he’s ready to make sudden, deliberate movements. If Joker was the attention-seeking rockstar of the Gotham underworld, Bane is the music executive behind the scenes playing a quieter long game… until he needs to get loud.
Bane is also immense. Despite being a full three inches shorter than Bale, Hardy’s presence looms over both the protagonist and the whole film. Every scene he’s in has an immediate, intrinsic menace. Some of this is due to camera tricks that literally make Hardy appear taller than all other characters; and some of it is due to prerequisite popcorn movie scenes where the villain pulls a Darth Vader and strangles a disappointing subordinate. But Hardy funnels both visual and narrative tricks into a real, total transformation of his body, with the actor reaching close to his muscular size in Bronson (2008).
It’s both the performance and how it is used by Nolan’s visual storytelling that makes Bane such a formidable presence. In the movie’s centerpiece sequence, Bale’s Batman finally comes face-to-face with Hardy’s Bane, and Hans Zimmer’s otherwise propulsive and omnipresent score drops out entirely. When Bane and the Bat first trade blows in the tunnels beneath Gotham City, the only noise in the sound mix is the relentless and indifferent flow of running water—that plus the sounds of Bane’s fists against armor, and Batman’s muffled cries.
It’s easy to isolate fight choreography without sound or context and note that this isn’t exactly the most kinetic fight scene in superhero cinema in terms of movement. But within the darkness of an IMAX theater, the ceaseless soundscape of Batman’s slow and steady defeat, and Bane’s implacable confidence and dominance is still one of the most disturbing scenes in the genre. Most antagonists borne out of superhero comics tend to monologue, but Bane’s ability to do so while the camera holds an extended close-up of Batman’s mask being shattered to pieces by his fists—and right before Nolan replicates the iconic shot of the villain breaking Batman over his knee—gives the scene an overwhelming quality of despair rarely seen in Hollywood tentpoles.
Throughout the movie, Bane hovers above the other characters like a boulder waiting to drop. That sensation is a common trope of big screen villainy, of course, yet rarely is it dropped so decisively and overwhelmingly on top of the hero.
Tom Hardy Ham Served to Perfection
Bane proved to be more than just a physical crucible for the Batman to overcome though. Functionally, he plays that role and plays it well—not unlike Mr. T’s Clubber Lang did in Rocky III. That is his basic purpose as a narrative obstacle put in the path of Bale’s Bruce Wayne, who in order to claim his own internal reclamation must also overcome this big bad.
But the other primary reason the performance has lingered so long in the memory is that Hardy is so much damn fun to watch as he chews the scenery.
In the years since The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy has cultivated a reputation for eclectic acting choices that, at a glance, can be counterintuitive. This is especially true of his big budget blockbuster movies, such as when he mumbled his way through Mad Max: Fury Road as a jittery road warrior, or those times he went full ham in the less-rewarding Venom movies. But that habit of indulging his weirdness for the most conventional audiences really began in Rises where he made the bizarre choice to play a potentially brutish heavy raised in a nondescript Arab prison as if he were a 19th century English gentleman who’d just returned to the club after years abroad in the Royal Navy.
It’s an inexplicable decision that appears to mix the vocal inflections of Sean Connery with the muscular physicality of a silent film star. And it works beautifully. Yes, Hardy is wearing a mask over most of his face throughout the movie, but he also completely vanishes into a performance every bit as audacious as Ledger’s. The character can at times appear more cartoonish in that comparison given the paradoxical sophistication of a character who likes to beat underlings to death with his bare hands. But works, quickening to life one of the more quotable supervillains this side of, well, Ledger’s Joker.
When Hardy gently places a hand on a cowering Ben Mendelsohn’s shoulder—and then cradling his head like a lover—he asks, “Do you feel in charge?” It’s both goofy and terrifying. This discordant sensation occurs again when he later purrs to Batman during an epic beatdown, “Ah, you think darkness is your ally.” The perversely dry humor of the character is as irrepressible as the chilling realization Batman is doomed.
Ten years later, folks are still keen to murmur Bane quotes into their coffee mugs. That counts for something.
A Villain Who Seems More Relevant Now Than Then
When the brothers Nolan first began discussing The Dark Knight Rises, it was Jonathan who handed Christopher a copy of A Tale of Two Cities and said they should lean into that Charles Dickens classic which offered a literary veneer to the horror of the French Revolution. That, too, qualifies as a counterintuitive choice for a superhero movie, and one which is almost unfathomable to think would happen now.
Indeed, during its own day in theaters, audiences wanted another Joker from Rises. By design, the Clown Prince provided a potent, allegorical way to talk about the mounting dread of lone wolf shooters and nihilists in modern American life who “just want to watch the world burn.” Yet in hindsight, audiences probably just really wanted to watch him because Ledger’s performance was magnetic and summarized every edgelord’s fanciful self-image. Bane, on the other hand, sought to tap into a different type of dread for modern Western civilization: a demagogue and populist who would rally forces of justifiable malcontent—a la Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman—and harness them into a mob that could tear down our civic institutions like so much broken glass.
When the film was released in 2012, more than a decade after the terrorist attacks of 2001 that all three of Nolan’s Batman movies echoed in their imagery, and well into the fourth year of Barack Obama’s presidency, many audiences scoffed at the impossible sight of a mob dragging the powerful before a kangaroo court headed by Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). Others more inaccurately mused that Nolan’s film was a conservative screed against the then-boiling Occupy Wall Street movement. In truth, the Nolans finished the Rises screenplay months before the first Occupy Wall Street protest, and Hathaway herself participated in some of those rallies during breaks from filming Bane’s own rage-fueled stump speeches down the street.
Nonetheless, audience tastes change, and the use of loaded War on Terror iconography in The Dark Knight lacked the same resonance four summers later when audiences wanted more “good vibes” than scenes of Bane hanging Navy SEALs from the Brooklyn Bridge in a manner that intentionally mirrored scenes out of Fallujah.
And yet, a decade later Nolan’s allegorical elements feel eerily vital instead of hopelessly dated—prescient rather than reactionary. How could they not when the grim presidency begun four Januarys after The Dark Knight Rises’ release saw Donald Trump herald his inauguration with a speech that unintentionally quoted Bane’s pieties about giving Gotham back to the people. That same presidency ended in infamy another four Januarys later when the demagogue directly echoed Nolan’s Bane again, this time by whipping up a mob to storm the Capitol—even as that crowd chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.”
The Dark Knight Rises’ political coating is of course thick and even more outlandish than its 2008 predecessor. This is a movie where a storyteller imagines a glorified terrorist could take over a major American city and essentially hand wave away the local police force. But as with all three of those Batman movies, elemental anxieties for modern liberal, democratic societies were made accessible and commercial via comic book drag.
And it is through this prism that Bane remains one of the most relevant comic book baddies put to screen. He is a cartoonish metaphor of the insidious, existential threat presented not by external forces or aliens, or even comic book riffs on terror. Rather he’s a palatable, blockbuster cinema-contained personification of the rot which, via demagoguery and cynicism, can inspire a social collapse far greater than any single act of villainy.
A decade onwards, it’s chilling and makes The Dark Knight Rises still one of the true standouts in the modern glut of superhero cinema.