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In Praise of Bane, Harley Quinn’s Softboi Villain

The more we watch Bane be ignored by fellow villains, indifferently addressed by the likes of Harley and Ivy, the more we see why he’d want to blow up any and everything in his path. Photo: HBO Max

When it comes to Batman villains, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more physically imposing one than Bane. Known as the sole Gotham adversary to have “broken the Bat,” Bane has long been depicted as brute strength personified. The combination of bulging muscles and perpetually masked facial features makes him all the more threatening, a cipher wrapped in a fist. In Joel Schumacher’s nipple-suited late-’90s camp fantasy of a Gotham, he was pure id, possessing all the charm of a swollen, veiny bicep. He got more lines and more airtime in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy capper, but he remained just as brutish.

In his animated form in HBO Max’s Harley Quinn series, Bane is still a physically staggering figure. Next to the titular anti-heroine — or even fellow lithe baddies like Joker and Riddler — this anger-prone villain looks positively outsize.

That is, until he opens his mouth.

For in the world of Harley Quinn, Bane is a mess of delightful contradictions. He’s got strength and enough pent-up anger to destroy anything in his path when he gets frustrated, but such frustrations often come from the pettiest of inconveniences. For much of the show’s third season, this A-list Gotham villain has concerned himself not with trying to bring down Batman or conquer the city, but with trying to get Harley and her new girlfriend Poison Ivy to give back the pasta-maker he bought for Ivy’s swiftly canceled wedding with Kite Man. His constantly foiled attempts to exact such revenge, including getting his credit card denied as he’s purchasing explosives (“I will take the full fury of my business elsewhere!” he bellows), compound over time to make him less a ridiculous figure than a tragicomic one. Add in James Adomian’s affected high-pitched yet guttural voice performance — with a cadence that gives Moira Rose a run for her money — and there’s no denying this version of Bane is a welcome twist on the decades-old DC character.

The incongruity at the heart of Harley Quinn’s Bane best captures why this animated iteration of Gotham’s most incorrigible villainess is so transfixing. For starters, the show is, above all else, a comedy. An absurdist one, at that. This season alone, Harley and Ivy have stolen Wonder Woman’s invisible jet and raided Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, would-be thespian Clayface accidentally had Billy Bob Thornton killed (and scored himself a lead role in the latest James Gunn–directed Thomas Wayne biopic), and various subplots have revolved around Japanese toilets, New Orleans beignets, and, yes, gifted pasta-makers.

Decades of increasingly self-serious live-action adaptations have made stories surrounding the caped crusader feel weighted with unnecessary gravitas. Not so in the candy-colored world of Harley Quinn, where no joke is too silly and no punch line too crass. Planting its tongue firmly in its cheek, this latest season has added Nightwing (What We Do in the Shadows’ Harvey Guillén) as a sullen, gravel-voiced former boy wonder whose brooding monologues are constantly mocked by those around him. In this world, you’re more likely to see Bruce Wayne (Diedrich Bader) anxiously leaving Selina Kyle (a silky-voiced Sanaa Lathan) needy voice-mails and unwittingly naming cats after his parents than capably keeping Joker’s mayoral whims at bay.

There’s a campy sensibility at work here; the Riddler, if you must know, is dating fellow Gotham villain Clock King, with whom he’d hoped to win the Villy Award for Best Couple. But within its quick gags (a pair of mice being killed in front of their kid, who mourns them as he holds his mother’s pearls in terror) and playful self-referential ideas (an entire episode devoted to watching the Waynes getting murdered more times than you can count), Harley Quinn seems intent on tackling serious issues —around intimacy and boundaries, parenting and politics, mental health and anger management.

It’s those latter two that play out most obviously in Bane’s development over the last three seasons. His fury, long deployed as a comedic kicker in many a scene where he promises to blow up whatever it is that has just enraged him, has slowly been peeled back to reveal a rather insecure figure. As a series squarely focused on villains, rather than the Bat-family they fight day in and day out, Harley Quinn isn’t particularly interested in offering a sympathetic vision of these evildoers, at least not in such simple terms. But it does want to interrogate and complicate them, such as in Joker’s attempts to become a better stepfather leading him to run for mayor, the better to have a stronghold on school-board decisions that will benefit his stepkids.

Straddling the line between humanizing its protagonist and letting her run amok with abandon, Harley Quinn finds new and surprising ways to have us empathize with those Batman would just as easily defeat. The more you watch Bane be ignored by fellow villains, indifferently addressed by the likes of Harley and Ivy, the more you see why he’d want to blow up any and everything in his path. Amid such a colorful gallery of Bat-foes, Bane is one of Harley Quinn’s most enchanting creations, precisely because he so deviates from the canny, strong-armed mastermind he’s long been. He’s a giant teddy bear of a villain you wish nothing but the best for — and in that respect, the show delivers.

Given that Harley is a trained psychiatrist who first fell into Joker’s orbit while studying him, it’s not surprising to see her eponymous show threading the benefits of therapeutic self-care into its story lines. It’s not just Bruce and Selina singing out their relationship issues, or the former Mrs. Freeze (Rachel Dratch) learning that cocaine benders and casual hookups with vine folk are not the best way to kick-start her life anew. It’s following Bane, over the course of the third season, as he grapples with his own anger issues, begins therapy, and works toward reversing his rote toxic outbursts.

Of course, this being Harley Quinn, Bane’s realization he needs professional help comes via a Sex and the City gag. After we learn the freeze on his credit card had been triggered by suspicious purchases including an iconic Carrie Bradshaw dress (“You can’t put a price on a bespoke Vivienne Westwood wedding dress!” he protests), Bane goes full Carrie: “Perhaps my identity had been stolen … by myself!” he muses before later adding, in voice-over of course, “I couldn’t help but wonder … did I need a therapist after all?”

If the Sex and the City reference, let alone the show’s central romance, hadn’t tipped you off, the other element that makes Harley Quinn a welcome evolution of Gotham storytelling is its unabashed queerness. Every character in the show feels like a loving homage and a keen deconstruction of their previous iterations in the comics and on screens. There are no bastions of masculinity in this ravaged city. Whether it’s calling out Bruce’s calcified childhood trauma or mining Joker’s crazed need to win through a suburban tête-à-tête, many of the series’ more exciting tweaks to these famous characters come from a desire to dissect their most natural instincts. It’s why it’s laughable that Nightwing tries to model himself after Batman and why King Shark regrets being pulled into a family blood feud that ends in too much bloodshed.

And, back to our favorite softboi of a villain, it’s why Bane emerges as such a perfect distillation of Harley Quinn’s sensibility. Here is strength filtered through vulnerability, self-actualization emerging out of actual self-help. Only we know that won’t make him any less of a villain, nor any less of a punch line to be deployed in the midst of, say, an impending zombie invasion.

In Harley’s world, everyone’s trying to break out of the narratives that have been laid down before them. For three seasons now, Harley has been successfully rewriting her own story as a domestic romance that involves Ivy and which demands the two of them give up grander ambitions, or at least make room within them to share a life together. Harley may be chaos incarnate, eager to cause mayhem for the sake of mayhem, but even she has found new ways of curbing her instincts to safeguard what she most loves. In the process, show and character alike have nurtured endless possibilities for a queerer “happily ever after” for all involved. Yes, even irascible and adorable Bane, who’s hard at work on himself for a change.

In Praise of Bane, Harley Quinn’s Softboi Villain