The Importance of Ra’s al Ghul and Why He’s Batman’s Greatest Enemy
Batman vs Joker. Joker vs Batman. Their rivalry is as old as the two of them. Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 back in 1939 and Joker followed him just a few months later in Batman #1 in 1940. Although the two appear as opposite as they come, they really aren’t that different. Certainly, Batman wants justice and Joker desires chaos but the methods in which they operate, are eerily similar.
Batman operates in the shadows and utilizes fear as a mechanism for justice. Joker operates in the wide open spaces but also uses fear, albeit a different kind, as a mechanism for chaos. To command respect and get that which they want, both make the world fear them.
Please don’t think that this simple explanation casts a shadow over what each character is. It’s not even close. However, for the purpose of this, it’s all I need.
If polled, nearly 1000 out of 1000 people will say that the Joker is Batman’s arch-nemesis. After all, their war with one another receives more publicity and print time than any other in comics.
Knowing this, knowing their relationship I can’t help but wonder if the Joker is actually Batman’s greatest enemy. If it seems like a stupid question, I’m sorry. I’ve just spent a lot of time lately wondering about Batman’s Enemies…
The importance of Ra’s al Ghul
“When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural. Tomorrow the world will watch in horror as its greatest city tears itself apart, through fear. The movement back to harmony will be unstoppable this time.”
Ra’s al Ghul first appeared in Batman #232 back in June of 1971. Right away it was apparent that this villain was unlike anybody in Batman’s long history. He was brilliant, tactical, rich, powerful, and employed a strategy that Batman hadn’t seen before. The importance of Ra’s al Ghul as a character is so much that if Batman was a villain, I’d argue he’d be Ra’s al Ghul.
Ra’s al Ghul is over 700 years old…although that’s hotly debated. He once belonged to a tribe of Nomads who had wandered through the Arabian Desert. Although fine for some, this sort of life didn’t sit too well with Ra’s. So, at a very young age, he left the Tribe, moved to the city to satisfy his scientific curiosities, and began life as a physician.
Shortly after he began practicing medicine, he stumbled across a pool of chemicals. The pool was different from anything else he had seen before. This pool, dubbed the Lazarus Pit, had restorative properties. As any good physician would, he immediately put the Lazarus Pit to the test and used it to save the life of a dying Prince. What he didn’t foresee, however, was that after submersion, the Prince lost his mind and killed Ra’s’s wife, Sora (another sad victim of the women in refrigerators movement). Ra’s was blamed for the murder, taken to the desert, tossed in a cage with the corpse of his rotting wife, and left to die.
Luckily, he was rescued by the Grandson of a former patient. Now free, the two left in search of his former Tribe. Once the two found the Tribe, Ra’s returned to the city, where he infected the Prince with a deadly virus…the first of many inklings of Ra’s’s environmental understandings. The Sultan, the same one who punished him for Sora’s death, pleaded to Ra’s to cure his son. Ra’s happily accepted but instead of curing him, he murdered the two.
Now feared by many, Ra’s al Ghul uses his extraordinarily long life to amass power, wealth, and knowledge beyond measure.
Over his many years, Ra’s has become a master of combat, both armed and unarmed. He’s fought in more wars and studied enough combat to fill nine lifetimes. He’s so proficient that he and Batman often fight to a stalemate.
His Lazarus Pit has given him an opportunity that most only dream of…near immortality. For everything it has given him, however, it hasn’t come without a cost. The Lazarus Pit, while giving life, also takes life away. Each time he bathes in it, he’s driven a little more insane. If you’re wondering why he simply doesn’t stop and accept the fact that he will die, it’s because the Pit is addictive. Think of it like a shot of heroin. The more he uses it, the more addicted he becomes. After 700 years of use, he simply can’t stop.
The importance of Ra’s al Ghul as Batman’s enemy is unique in the sense that he and Batman have a respect for one another. That is, while they both have opposing agendas, both respect what the other does and is capable of doing.
Let me explain.
As one of the smartest and most educated characters in comics, Ra’s figured out what very few could…Batman is Bruce Wayne. This doesn’t mean that he walks around broadcasting it to the world. No, instead he keeps this knowledge to himself. And why? Why wouldn’t the enemy of Batman tell his enemy’s enemies who he was? Simple. Ra’s Al Ghul has such a respect for his opponent that he dares not tell anyone.
But it doesn’t end there.
If Ra’s were to pick a successor…one to take over the League of Assassins, his wealth, and his life’s work, Bruce Wayne is it. His respect for Bruce Wayne runs so deep that he refers to him as “Detective”. He doesn’t do this to insult Bruce or bring him down but rather he does this as a sincere compliment. His respect runs so deep that he refuses to acknowledge him as Batman or Bruce. Instead, he calls him by a title. None of this, however, means that he isn’t planning his next move while showering Batman with compliments.
As Bruce Wayne, Batman has a deep-rooted attraction to his daughter, Talia…an attraction that Ra’s has used time and again against him. His attraction to Talia is so strong that 1) the two share a son together and 2) after he proposed to Selina Kyle, he made sure Talia knew. If Ra’s’s place between the two seems odd, understand that he completely agrees with their relationship. Remember, he is one of the most intelligent characters in comics. Due to this, he’s always thinking multiple steps ahead of his opponents. While Bruce assaults Talia with his friendly weapon, Ra’s is thinking ways to exploit his connection to the Wayne Family.
Conversely, Batman’s respect for Ra’s al Ghul is much the same. He knows that the two are, as they say, cut from the same cloth. Due to the respect he has, Batman knows exactly what the importance of Ra’s al Ghul is.
If tragedy defines how Batman was born, Ra’s, in another Universe, could be Batman. No different than Bruce Wayne, Ra’s al Ghul was born from tragedy. Bruce Wayne lost his parents, Ra’s al Ghul lost his wife. Instead of merely accepting what happened, both take matters into their own hands. Yes, I know that Bruce Wayne becomes a hero and Ra’s becomes a mass murderer, but that’s not the point. They both, rather than sitting around sulking, opt to do something about their situations. Each chooses to use their intelligence before their fists. Bruce becomes Batman, the most prepared her in existence and Ra’s poisons a Prince. And once their tragedies had been taken care of, each then uses their resources to grow their considerable wealth and push their agendas.
What I’m saying is that if each looked in the mirror, they’d see each other looking back. I’d argue that Ra’s al Ghul and Batman are one and the same. If you don’t agree, look no further than a rivalry that has existed for decades in DC’s counterpart Marvel. Batman and Ra’s al Ghul mirror what Charles Xavier and Magneto are. The two have similar goals but try to achieve them by using very different methods.
What makes his character so remarkable is that he is a natural temptation for Batman. He does all that Batman wishes to do but is unable to do because he’s, well, Batman. Ra’s al Ghul doesn’t take prisoners. Ra’s al Ghul doesn’t hand over his enemies to the authorities only to have them escape the next day. And Ra’s al Ghul doesn’t have a Moral Code telling him not to kill. Batman has all of these things. Batman, love it or hate it, wishes he could be Ra’s al Ghul.
Like I said, at the end of the day, both want the same thing. Batman wants a world devoid of villains and Ra’s wants a world devoid of those who harm the environment…also villains. The problem between the two is the Ra’s is willing to go to the extreme to get what he wants and Batman can’t/won’t.
Real world issues
From a pure world issues point of view, Ra’s al Ghul does what many other characters and stories do…make the reader think about real-world problems. Wonder Wonder did it with feminism and equality. Warlock did it with religion. Black Panther did it with discrimination. And the importance of Ra’s al Ghul is that he’s doing it with the environment.
Living for as many years as he has, Ra’s has grown tired of the destruction caused by humans. He lived through the Industrial Age… the age where humans began taking in excess from the environment. He watched as trees were cut down, buildings erected, and clouds of smoke littered the airways. Due to this, he began despising humans. He wanted to live in a world of natural beauty and not one that the humans were creating. If Ra’s had his way, the planet would be left with only a few humans and ones that he could mold whichever way he desired.
I ask you, is he really all that wrong?
Is he really wrong to want to stop the death of the planet? After all, the world has seen more destruction in the last couple hundred years than it did for the millions before them. Ozone depletion. Deforestation. Extinction. And more. Although I don’t agree with his methods, I’d argue that he isn’t.
Ra’s has seen the worst of humanity. He’s witnessed countless wars, genocides, assassinations and more. Ra’s has watched what power does to people. He’s watched how corruption turns the strongest minds weak. And he’s watched as the world suffers the consequences of wars and weak minds. Ra’s, more than any other villain in Batman’s history, knows what humanity is capable of.
A different kind of villain
It’s this that separates him from the prototypical villain. Most villains reasons for villainy can be categorized in three simple ways. 1) Greed. 2) Power. 3) Chaos. Ra’s acts out of sympathy, frustration, and compassion. He doesn’t need any of the normal things villains seek. He has money, power and has no need for chaos. This leaves him in a category unique to him.
Ra’s wants compassion for the world in which he lives. He’s tired of trees falling and animals being wiped from existence because humans need a new road, building or city. He’s tired of watching chemicals bathe the rivers and streams with their poison. And he’s tired of the irreversible damage humans cause. The problem is that for Ra’s to get what he wants, humanity has to be wiped from existence.
Because he’s in a category all to himself, Ra’s can be considered an eco-terrorist. For reference, the United States F.B.I. defines eco-terrorism as “…the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.” If you didn’t catch that, think of it this way. Eco-terrorism is violence caused as a way to move a political agenda that roots itself in the environment.
Nearly everything that Ra’s does, whether it be comic books or movies, is centered around living at peace and in harmony with the environment. Ra’s believes that the world should be left to grow as it needs. He believes that humans are not above nature but rather one and the same with nature. And he believes that it is our job as humans not to destroy the planet but instead, to protect it.
While his methods are centered around eco-terrorism, Ra’s’s beliefs, those which force his methods, can be classified as biocentric.
Biocentrism states that the world is not meant to be used or exploited by humans. Instead, human are just one of many thousands of species that live within it. It says that humans are no more or less superior than any other species on the planet, and anything we do to negatively affect the environment, also affects us.
And it’s these two things, eco-terrorism, and biocentrism, that make him so interesting. Ra’s commands sympathy from his reader. Very few, if any villains do this. Most are illogical. Ra’s is logical. While his methods aren’t perfect, it’s tough to argue his reason.
“Only a cynical man would call what these people have “lives,” Wayne. Crime. Despair. This is not how man was supposed to live. The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome; loaded trade ships with plague rats; burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.”
For Ra’s al Ghul, it really is about balance. Don’t take more than you need. Don’t harm what needs not be harmed. And don’t live your life at the expense of those, people or otherwise, around you.
The importance of Ra’s al Ghul as a Batman enemy is immeasurable. Not only does he offer a complex backstory but his motives for action aren’t wrong. He wants what we all should want. Harmony with the environment around us. In a different time or universe, Batman, not Ra’s al Ghul could very well be the villain.