Ra's al Ghul
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Ra's al Ghul(pop culture)
Thirty years before Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda occupied the public consciousness, the first mention (in Detective Comics #411, 1971) of the international eco-terrorist Ra's al Ghul (pronounced “raish al gool”) warranted an explanatory caption from editor Julius Schwartz defining the villain's name (which Schwartz himself coined): “Editor's note: in Arabic, ‘the Demon's Head'! Literally, al Ghul signifies a mischief-maker, and appears as the ghoul of the Arabian Nights!” Batman first meets al Ghul in—off all places!—his secret Batcave, as the calm yet intense figure with “an icy, penetrating voice,” guarded by his Herculean manservant Ubu, slips out of the shadows in Batman #232 (1971). He explains to the dismayed Dark Knight that his own deductions and the subsequent investigation by his “organization” ferreted out Batman's identity and the location of his headquarters. Both al Ghul's fetching daughter Talia, whom Batman recently met, and the hero's own “son,” his ward and partner Robin, have been kidnapped by the same unidentified party, prompting al Ghul's enlistment of the aid of the masked man he calls “detective” to help find them. After a transcontinental liberation effort with enough exotic settings, leopard attacks, sniper assaults, and martial-arts skirmishes to fill a James Bond movie, Batman discerns that the dual abduction is a hoax. The astute hero is flabbergasted, however, by the reason for the subterfuge— “My darling Talia loves you!” admits papa al Ghul, who orchestrated this entire exercise as a test of Batman's mettle and personally anoints the “detective” as worthy of assuming his crime empire and his daughter's hand in marriage. In subsequent tales transpiring intermittently over the next few years, more about al Ghul unfolded, courtesy of writer Denny O'Neil, who cocreated the villain. Al Ghul had lived for centuries, periodically rejuvenating himself by dips into his restorative Lazurus Pit. His egressions from the Pit were accompanied by brief periods of insanity, with superhumanly augmented strength. He was a master fighter and swordsman, and he controlled the clandestine League of Assassins. Al Ghul believed himself a messiah, conspiring to purge the planet of the blight of humanity (often through releasing deadly viruses) and repopulate it anew, with himself at its fore. In pursuit of his vision, he sequestered himself in vast strongholds nestled in the most remote corners of the globe. O'Neil conceived the character along with artist Neal Adams, penciler of Batman #232, when editor Schwartz was looking for new villains for a new, post-television Batman age. “We didn't want just another street thug with a costume and a fancy name,” O'Neil recalled in a 2005 BACK ISSUE interview; “We were going for grandeur.” In his visual designs, Adams intentionally afforded al Ghul a pronounced brow, to suggest conceit: “I wanted to get across the idea that he was what he was, and he was confident in it, not ashamed or embarrassed like some teenager or matinee idol,” commented the artist in BACK ISSUE. Adams also gave Ra's al Ghul recessed eyes that, while not paranormal, appeared to glow supernaturally, increasing the character's mystique, a look exaggerated by his absence of eyebrows. With the creation of Batman's uber-villain, a character that, with minimal adaptations, could exist in the real world, Ra's al Ghul helped the hero transition from the corny Caped Crusader of the 1960s to the grim-and-gritty Dark Knight known by contemporary audiences. Over the years Batman and al Ghul have occasionally clashed, with Talia— a forbidden fruit Batman finds appealing, but can never truly “taste” due to their ideological divide— being the connecting corner in a compelling personal triangle that has long outlasted the original O'Neil/Adams adventures of the early 1970s. Talia's toehold in both characters' lives illustrates that Batman and Ra's are, in many ways, flip sides of the same proverbial coin: they each use violence in their quests to forge a nonviolent world, al Ghul trumping Batman with a marked advantage— patience, a virtue acquired from his Lazarus Pit–spawned immortality. While al Ghul's turgid worldview has put him into conflict with the Justice League (“Tower of Babel,” JLA #43–#46, 2000) and other heroes, he seemed to prefer his entanglements with the “detective,” although at one point he estranged himself from Talia at his insistence that Bane substitute for Batman as her mate. In the nine-issue series Batman: Death and the Maidens (2003–2004), writer Greg Rucka and artist Klaus Janson introduced another of al Ghul's daughters, Nyssa, a fellow immortal who, during the eighteenth century, renounced her father and rose up against him in the current day. Al Ghul set up Nyssa and Talia as duel heads of the League of Assassins, but Nyssa ultimately murdered her father. Ra's al Ghul's propensity for extending his life, however, suggests that his death may be far from permanent. The messianic Ra's al Ghul has upon occasion escaped the confines of comic books for screen depictions. David Warner voiced the villain in several episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995), and reprised the role in the “future Batman” cartoon series, Batman Beyond (1999–2001), as well as an episode of the animated Superman (1996–2000). In this “animated” continuity, al Ghul also has a malicious son, Arkady. In Batman Beyond, he appeared in a different form: the body of Talia, which he had possessed. Ra's al Ghul's widest claim to fame was his inclusion in director Christopher Nolan's relaunch of the Batman movie franchise, Batman Begins (2005). A cryptic figure named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson; Viggo Mortenssen had turned down the role, and Daniel Day-Lewis was also considered) recruited Batman-in-training Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to study with the League of Shadows (the movie version of the League of Assassins), led by the aloof, unblinking Ra's al Ghul (Ra's pronounced “ros” throughout the movie). The casting of Japanese- born Ken Watanabe, previously seen in The Last Samurai (2003), as al Ghul surprised comicbook purists expecting an actor of Middle-Eastern descent in the role—even MAD magazine took a swipe at his ethnicity in its parody, “Battyman Begone” (MAD #455, 2005)—but fans were surprised even more when (spoiler warning!) he was revealed to be a surrogate, with Ducard actually being al Ghul. Neeson's al Ghul was presumably killed in an elevated train crash in the movie's climax, but circumstances surrounding his death were vague enough to suggest a return in a future movie (perhaps joined by Talia, conspicuously absent from the film). Ra's al Ghul action figures were produced to coincide with both Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Begins.
The Supervillain Book: The Evil Side of Comics and Hollywood © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.