Bane dominates every scene in which he appears. Tom Hardyís appearance and acting reveal his irresistible power.
Though Bane is physically strong, his power actually resides in his voice. The voice is detached from the body as an object that reveals the repressed.
Baneís voice is the hero of the film. It speaks the truth that canít be said and functions as the source of his power.
Jacques Lacan describes the voice as one of the versions of the objet a, objects that organize our desire through their irreducibility to the field of signification.
At the end of Psycho, the detached voice finally becomes linked to a body, though the voice and body still fail to match, which creates the sense of the uncanny.
James Gordon lies about Harvey Dentís heroism. But Baneís voice brings this repressed truth to light.
Nolan crosscuts between Baneís dramatic escape and Gordonís lie. This makes evident the link that exists between Bane and the repression that governs Gotham.
Even the voice of the young boy becomes haunting when Nolan depicts it without any musical accompaniment. Baneís voice echoes through the boyís.
Bane easily defeats Batman the first time that they battle. He spent years in the darkness of prison and thus is immune to Batmanís trickery.
The shattered mask of Batman at the conclusion of the first battle indicates that Batman must take up a new identity in order to defeat Bane. He must cease to confront Bane from the position of mastery.
The superhero, like Iron Man, is often wealthy, or at least has enough income to ensure the leisure time necessary for crime fighting.
When Bane attacks the city, he has the underclass working with him. This gives him an advantage over Batman.
Batman can only save the city. He cannot lead an emancipatory struggle.
Alfred reveals his deception to Bruce, that he destroyed Rachelís letter proclaiming her love for Harvey Dent.
Baneís attack on the stock exchange reduces Bruce to one of the people and deprives him of his immense wealth. This is the beginning of the end of his mastery.
Hegelís most famous discussion is that of the struggle between the master and the slave. He saw that though the slave submits, the slave is the ultimate winner because only the slave experiences absolute negativity through fear of death.
While ensconced in Wayne Manor with his servant, Bruce remains a master, and as a master, he remained too invested in the prevailing situation to defeat Bane.
By imprisoning Bruce in the prison where he spent many years, Bane frees Bruce from his position as master. During his escape, Bruce experiences the absolute negativity of the servant.
The prison offers prisoners hope for escape through its opening to the outside world, but this hope exists to ensure a most complete despair.
When Bruce attempts to escape the prison with a rope to save his life, he fails because he does not experience the absolute negativity of the dread of death.
Bruce finally escapes when he abandons the rope and jumps to freedom without any safety net. This is the way that Miranda Tate had earlier escaped.
Even though Bane is not an authentic revolutionary or even the film’s central antagonist, he is nonetheless a compelling villain. His attractiveness derives from his effect on other characters in the film—the devotion he inspires—and from his physical presence within the image. Nolan films Bane in a way that accentuates Tom Hardy’s oversized and muscled body. He physically dominates all characters in the scenes where he appears. When he kills someone, he does so effortlessly, like when he steps on the throat of a federal agent or snaps the neck of Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul) at the football game. No other character, not even Batman, seems to be able to coexist with Bane on the screen without appearing both physically and psychically small in comparison.
Bane’s dominance finds its perfect expression in his voice. If Alfred is the film’s true villain, then Bane’s voice is its genuine hero. Due to the mask that he must wear because of damage to his face, Bane’s voice undergoes a distortion when he speaks. The fictionality of the mask is the source of Bane’s power. As he tells a CIA agent at the beginning of the film,
The power of the mask manifests itself in a vocal distortion. This distortion separates Bane’s voice from his body, and this separation constitutes the voice itself as an object. Bane terrifies and attracts us through this voice as much as through his physical presence.
In his Seminar XIII: L’objet de la psychanalyse, Jacques Lacan explains the voice as one of the lost objects—what he calls versions of the objet a—that function as sites of the subject’s enjoyment and thus arouse desire. As Lacan puts it,
This desire of the Other appearing in the voice arouses the subject’s own desire. Even though the subject hears the voice, the voice transcends the field of the audible through its association with the Other’s mode of enjoyment. This is why it has a profound effect on the subject, as the voice of Bane clearly shows.
The voice appears in what exceeds signification in a statement. It is the object form of the subject’s enjoyment, the enjoyment that drives the subject to speak and that the subject derives from speaking. As such, the voice, like the other forms of the lost object, is the site of the truth of the subject. The voice reveals how the subject’s form of enjoyment that escapes even the subject’s own self-knowledge. Even though spoken by the subject, the voice is a foreign intruder that accompanies the subject’s words, a detached object that reveals that the subject can’t know about itself.
The great theorist conceptualizing the voice as an object in the cinema is Michel Chion, who notices how the voice can become disconnected from a body. This disconnection, as Chion sees it, arouses the spectator’s desire for the body to whom the voice belongs. The paradigmatic case is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960): we hear the mother’s voice but don’t see it linked to her body, and then at the end of the film, we witness its traumatic connection to the wrong body, that of her son Norman (Anthony Perkins). Though Bane’s voice is Dark Knight Rises seems removed from Bane’s body (in part through the mask that he wears), it does not arouse desire. We don’t seek the place where the voice belongs. Rather than indicating a lack, it bombards the spectator with an excess. Bane’s voice testifies, in other words, to overt presence of his enjoyment, to the passion with which he makes every announcement. This is why his followers are so ready to sacrifice themselves for him.
This voice—voice as an excessive object—is the vehicle for truth in the film. Bane’s voice is the return of the repressed, and thus one of its primary targets is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent is the signifier of repression in Dark Knight Rises. His name preserves an ideal of justice even though at the end of his life he transformed into the murderous criminal Two-Face. With the elevation of Harvey Dent into a heroic figure, Gotham and James Gordon perpetuate a fundamental lie. Harvey Dent Day and the Dent Act have their genesis in the lie that Batman killed Dent and committed the murders that Dent actually committed in the previous film. The city of Gotham celebrates Harvey Dent Day to honor the ideal that he represents, and the Dent Act enables extreme judiciary measures for the police to keep certain criminals jailed when they would otherwise be entitled to release. In these two concrete senses, Harvey Dent is the marker of repression, the repression that concludes the previous Batman film and that opens Dark Knight Rises.
Dark Knight Rises begins with James Gordon speaking publicly on Harvey Dent Day. Gordon praises Dent by repeating the lie of his heroism. This allows Nolan to display through a crosscutting sequence the role that Bane will have in relation to the signifier “Harvey Dent.” As Gordon repeats the lie and praises Dent, the film cuts to Dr. Pavel and other hooded prisoners being taken aboard a CIA plane for transport to the United States. One of the prisoners is Bane, and he stages his own rescue along with the kidnapping of Pavel, who has knowledge of how to weaponize the fusion reactor developed by Wayne Enterprises.
The crosscutting from the ceremony honoring Dent to Bane’s heroic escape from the CIA establishes visually the connection between the two characters. The sequence ends with the mayor of Gotham (Nestor Carbonell) praising the virtues of the Dent Act and arguing against those who would repeal it. The intervening shots of Bane’s heroic actions reveal the hollowness of these remarks and the ultimate inefficacity of the Dent Act. Against someone such as Bane, the Dent Act would be completely useless.
At this point, the mayor then introduces Gordon to speak further about Dent. In his prepared remarks, Gordon writes the truth, that Dent was a murderer who would have killed Gordon’s own son without the intervention of the now-vilified Batman. At the last moment, however, Gordon decides against lifting the repression and instead repeats the lie of Dent’s heroism. But he does not destroy the written text of his speech, and it ends up in Bane’s hands after the latter’s followers capture Gordon.
After he obtains the undelivered speech, Bane reads the text aloud to the people of Gotham and exposes the lie of Harvey Dent. Before freeing the prisoners from Blackgate, he announces publicly,
What Bane says here is important and gives the lie to the apotheosis of Harvey Dent, but it is Bane’s voice that communicates the truth of the indictment. The voice that emanates from the mask refuses repression.
This revelation has a dramatic effect on social authority, which is always constituted on deceit. After he hears Bane’s statement, Detective Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) confronts Police Commissioner Gordon about his involvement with the cover-up of Dent’s crimes. Gordon defends himself by claiming that Batman dirtied his hands so that Gordon could keep his hands clean, to which Blake replies,
Though up to this point in the film Blake has viewed Gordon as an ideal to follow, he immediately loses faith in him. His loss of faith in a trusted figure of authority stems directly from the power of Bane’s voice.
This voice exposes the lie behind the state of exception (the Dent Act) that Gordon has used to rid Gotham of crime. Gotham is a peaceful city at the beginning of Dark Knight Rises solely through the success of the Dent Act, a law that suspends the normal functioning of the juridical order. As Giorgio Agamben points out,
The existence of the exception—and Bane’s act of pointing it out—threatens the law because it exposes the violent basis of the juridical order. The mastery inherent in this order requires an absolute silence concerning this violence. Bane’s voice as an object is the reverse side of mastery and constantly undermines mastery’s illusory authority.
But just before Bane’s revelation, the film depicts the voice in another form. As Bane prepares to collapse much of the infrastructure of Gotham (including the professional football field), we hear a young boy on the field singing the “Star Spangled Banner” without any musical accompaniment. The child’s voice should be a representation of innocence, but its presence in the film and juxtaposition with the voice of Bane gives it a threatening quality. The child’s voice approaches the quality of Bane’s because it portends the danger that we know rapidly approaches. Nolan highlights the eeriness of the voice by emphasizing the silence that surrounds it. In addition to the absence of instruments playing, the huge crowd is completely silent and not singing along. This scene shows the voice as an excessive object, just as Bane’s voice is, and this excessive object marks a disturbance within the social structure, even when it is singing the anthem that defines that structure.
Bane’s voice is the synecdoche of his character. Though he credits the mask with his power, the distortion in the voice that the mask creates is what grants him such disruptiveness. He is a figure of pure voice, and as long as he remains so, Batman cannot defeat him. When Batman finally confronts Bane midway through the film, he does in the sewer system, which functions as a form of Bane’s home turf. Because Bane spent much of his life in the dark of a prison, Batman’s use of darkness and deception have no effect on him. Unlike Batman, Bane fights with nothing to lose and thus is able to defeat Batman handily. Defeated and unmasked, this leads to Bruce’s condemnation to the prison where Bane himself spent many years. Bane sentences Bruce to this prison so that he can helplessly watch as Bane destroys Gotham with Bruce’s own nuclear device.
From master to slave
One of the severe limitations of the superhero as a figure of revolution is his or her class status. Though some superheroes have a clearly demarcated middle class status (like Superman working as a journalist, Daredevil as an attorney, or Spider-Man as a photographer), most have enough wealth to create the gadgets that their superheroic feats require. This is the case with both Iron Man and Batman, who live a life of opulence when not working to save civilization. At the very least, the superhero must have the leisure time necessary for crime fighting activity, a leisure time not associated with the working class (though always granted to the superhero’s nemesis as well, which is why the villain’s plan rarely involves just stealing money).
This limitation would not be decisive if it did not manifest itself in the acts of the superhero. Like the western heroes on whom they are implicitly modeled, superheroes inevitably act alone. They are incapable of leading or participating in a collective action. In the superhero film, collectivity is usually the province of the villain rather than the superhero, as is the case with Dark Knight Rises, where Bane has Gotham’s underclass and newly freed criminals working by his side.
This limitation of the superhero comes to a head in Dark Knight Rises. The film casts Batman as the defender of class privilege. While Bane threatens to topple the entrenched class structure of Gotham, Batman works to sustain it. His initial defense of the people of Gotham is just an attempt to sustain the status quo. But Batman himself undergoes a fundamental change as the full extent of the threat becomes apparent.
Alfred’s departure from Wayne Manor is the first step toward Batman’s changed status. Not only does Alfred’s role as a servant attest to Bruce’s position as a mastery, but Alfred constantly addresses as “Master Wayne.” When Alfred reveals that he destroyed Rachel’s final letter to Bruce proclaiming her love for Harvey Dent rather than Bruce, this precipitates a break and necessitates Alfred’s departure. After we see Bruce say “Goodbye Alfred,” the film cuts directly to an image of Bruce sleeping in his bed while the doorbell rings. When Bruce finally answers the door, Lucius Fox expresses surprise at this fact. Bruce now has to perform the tasks of everyday life that were formerly done for him. He has ceased to be “Master Wayne.” But the loss of his servant is only the beginning of the transformation for Bruce.
Bane’s attack on the stock exchange has the effect of defrauding Bruce of all his millions. He is left without the immense resources that had been at his disposal, and he even loses his seat on the company board. As he walks out of the board meeting, a reporter asks him, “How does it feel to be one of the people, Mr. Wayne?” Bruce doesn’t respond, but it is clear from the look on his face that he recognizes a change in his class position.
Batman’s status as a master does not simply derive from his wealth or the fact that Alfred constantly refers to him using this appellation. He is a master in the Hegelian sense of the term as well, and this version of mastery erects a barrier between himself and the people he saves. In the struggle to the death with the other, the master asserts mastery through the refusal to relent, even if this refusal entails death. The slave, on the other hand, agrees to submission and servitude in order to avoid the horror of death. Though Hegel briefly celebrates the master’s courage in risking life for the sake of pure prestige, he quickly recognizes that the truth of the struggle exists on the side of the relenting slave rather than the courageous master.
In one of the most poetic passages in all of his writing, Hegel describes the transformation that the slave undergoes through the fear of death, a fear that the master does not experience. He writes,
The master’s bravery allows for the avoidance of the absolute negativity that defines subjectivity, which is what the slave experiences at the moment prior to capitulation. Without this negativity, one remains tied to what one is and remains incapable of any act of transcendence. The problem with Batman as a hero lies in his failure to experience the absolute negativity of the slave. He is a superhero of mastery who neither fears death nor takes life.
But in order to become a superhero capable of countering the false revolution that Bane leads, Batman must abandon his position of mastery. And ironically, it is Bane’s punishment of Batman that enables this transformation. The key scene in Dark Knight Rises shows the evisceration of Batman’s mastery. After defeating Batman in hand-to-hand combat, Bane condemns him to the prison where he spent his childhood.
The horror of the prison, as Bane explains to Batman, does not consist in the impossibility of escape but rather in the hope that it provides for its inhabitants. The entrance to the prison is a deep well that seems to offer an opportunity for prisoners to escape. There is no true despair without the accompaniment of hope, which is why Bane spares Batman instant death and why he condemns him to this particular prison (where Bane himself was once a prisoner). It is the insistence on hope that also leads Bane and Tate to delay the destruction of Gotham with the nuclear bomb. Destruction without the possibility of escaping it, however remote, cannot produce the most devastating despair.
In this way, Dark Knight Rises also implicitly explains the bizarre behavior of filmic villains who establish elaborate deaths for heroes rather than simply shooting them in the head. Perhaps the most famous instance of this dynamic occurs in Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964), where Goldfinger’s laser that would slowly slice the captured James Bond (Sean Connery) in half offers Bond the opportunity to escape. Why does Goldfinger do it? Because the inclusion of hope, even if it provides a margin for escape, also enhances the despair of the hero and thus the enjoyment of the villain.
In Dark Knight Rises, we see prisoners attempt to scale the wall that leads from the prison to freedom, and in each case they fail, though Bruce hears from a fellow prisoner that one young child did escape. He strengthens himself in the prison and on two occasions tries to make the climb. But in each case, he fails at the same point near the top and falls with the rope around his waist saving his life. According to his friend in the prison, it is precisely Bruce’s mastery, his privilege, that ensures his failure. This contrasts him with the child who escaped. The friend claims that the successful escapee was “a child forged in suffering, hardened by pain, not a man from privilege.” Here, the fellow prisoner offers an explicit critique of the limitations of the superhero as such. Batman’s mastery induces a reflexive conservatism.
But another prisoner, a blind man, provides a possible solution, the opportunity for Bruce to transform himself from a master into a slave. In a remarkable dialogue from the film, this prisoner articulates the freedom that comes from, as Hegel puts it, trembling in every fiber of one’s being. The exchange begins with the prisoner’s critique of Bruce:
Nolan cuts from this exchange to Bruce attempting the climb for the third time, and the absolute fear that he experiences enables him to succeed.
Though Bane intends Bruce’s imprisonment to teach him the horror of total despair, what he fails to realize—and what the film shows—is that total despair or pure negativity is the form of subjectivity. The subject becomes a subject when it experiences this emptiness in the face of death, which is why Rebecca Comay, in her stunning book on Hegel, claims that for the subject
The despair of Bruce’s punishment allows him to succeed against Bane because he no longer has an attachment to his prestige as a master. Mastery doesn’t fear death, but it does fear the loss of its prestige. It is thus, even more than servitude, a fundamentally limited position, despite its lack of awareness of these limitations.
When Batman returns to Gotham as a slave rather than as a master, he is able to defeat Bane by damaging his mask during a fight. The mask that distorts Bane’s voice is the key to his truth as a character. During Batman’s final fight with Bane (after Batman’s escape from prison), he damages Bane’s mask and thereby alters the voice. This is the moment that Nolan uses to reveal the true identity of Tate as the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane’s total allegiance to her. In addition to changing his appearance and voice, Bane’s mask saves him from excruciating pain. Thus, with his mask broken and the distortion of his voice eliminated, Bane loses his ability to defeat Batman physically. Bane’s power resides not in his physical stature but in the distortion of his voice, a distortion that brings with it the return of the repressed.
But as Bane’s relationship to Tate becomes evident, his radicality also disappears. Even though Bane has been doing the bidding of Tate throughout the film (unbeknownst to Batman or the spectator), his voice has functioned independently. His actions were part of a plot, but his voice had a drive of its own. When he loses the voice as separate object, he also loses all independence as a character. As Tate’s follower, he is nothing but an instrument that would try to restore balance in the world, whereas his voice represents the impossibility of any balance. Though she feared him throughout the film, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is able to kill Bane almost nonchalantly after Batman breaks his mask. Without the voice, Bane is reduced to an ordinary criminal in the service of Tate and the League of Shadows.
At this point in the film, Batman changes as well. His defeat of Bane, unlike his defeat of Ra’s and the Joker in the earlier films, involves the creation of creation of a collectivity. He needs the assistance of the police, the orphan Blake, and the jewel thief Kyle in order to thwart the plans of Bane and Tate. This form of collectivity brings together legal and marginal forces to defeat the champions of harmony and balance (Bane and Tate). Through this ending, Dark Knight Rises glimpses an emancipatory collective, but the film cannot realize it without, in the last instance, exiling Batman from the collective. He must separate himself at the end of the film, expressing a need for individuation that is the superhero’s original sin. By opting for this ending, the film misses the radical possibility that it suggests in Bruce’s relationship to Selina Kyle.