[NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for Batman #16]
These days the Dark Knight is fighting battles on every possible front, be it a big screen solo film in extended development, teaming up with the Suicide Squad to battle the Justice League, or helping Batwoman launch her very own series against mutated soldiers. But in the pages of his very own Batman comic book, Bruce Wayne is up against a threat more dangerous than any other. A threat that isn't supernatural, magical, or alien in nature, but raw, hateful, and devoted... and its name is Bane.
After spending several issues tracking down the cure to save the life of Batman's newest ally, Gotham Girl, it was discovered that saving her mind meant stealing Bane's most prized asset out from under him. Batman pulled off the task, but in the process, gave one of his most prolific and savagely dangerous enemies a new reason to settle the score. In Batman #16, Bane's mission to exact revenge upon Batman begins... and if its final page is what it seems, then the darkest days of the Batman Family are upon us.
The Bat & The Cat Break Bane's Back
Tom King's "Rebirth" has twisted and turned its way through half a dozen villains and adversaries, but it was all leading to the one best known for breaking the Bat - literally. Plot twists aside, the premise is simple: Bane made a deal to acquire Psycho-Pirate, a supervillain able to create desired emotions or mental states through use of his signature mask. It wasn't clear at first just why Bane needed such a power, having assembled a new army and empire centered on his island prison/stronghold of Santa Prisca, but Batman needed Psycho-Pirate all the same (to help undo the terrors that the Pirate had previously inflicted upon an ally). It was a suicide mission if there ever was one, and Batman recruited his own Suicide Squad to pull it off.
When Catwoman flipped on the team, it appeared the plan had been shattered along with Bruce Wayne (again), but re-setting his spine was just the beginning of Bruce's genius. Fighting his way through an army to get to Bane, he discovered nothing but another beating - paired with his take on a motivational speech on the risk of Venom addiction, and the path to true peace. Catwoman waited to attack at the perfect moment, allowing Bruce and Selina to break Bane's back, completing the mission and making their exit with Psycho-Pirate in their possession.
Ever one to get the last word, Bruce urged Bane to ignore the rage and anger at being beaten, and not seek one more rematch. Repeating the words that Bane had commanded the Psycho-Pirate to use on him (minus the mental and emotional effects), Batman seemed to put this chapter to bed. Until the final page of the issue.
Bane is Reborn
What made this incarnation of Bane interesting in the DC Rebirth era, and a fitting 'big bad' for Bruce Wayne in both athleticism and conviction was the absence of Venom. Not just in a literal sense, but the fact that Bane, having poisoned his mind and body with Venom to amplify his strength and aggression now saw it for the pollution it really was. Embracing his own strength, Bane had become more powerful than ever before, commanding an army, a nearly impenetrable base, and with Psycho-Pirate, the comfort needed to deliver peace from his past (similar to Bruce in pain and darkness). Standing before Batman believing himself to be mentally and physically enlightened - without any need for clothing, let alone toxins - his defeat came at a heavy price.
Left silent on the floor of his skull-filled throne room, faced with not just the physical defeat, but the added humiliation of Bruce mocking his need for kind words to find contentment, Bane found his old self. At least, that's the implication left in the final panels. As Bane's men reach their commander, naked, beaten, and broken, he has one word for them: VENOM. It seems that Bane has accepted no happy ending is coming, and enlightenment is nothing if Bruce Wayne can humiliate him. Bane's ready to become the monster he had been, and Bruce Wayne is most definitely aware that he may have just waken a monster determined to destroy him... and as it turn out, everyone he loves may face the same risk.
Bruce Wayne Scatters The Troops
The story picks back up in Issue #16 as Batman and Bronze Tiger successfully intercept one of Bane's men trying to sneak into Arkham Asylum and stage an escape for Psycho-Pirate. They know it won't be the last attempt made to regain the Pirate, and with Tiger still experiencing Venom withdrawal (after using it to help bring Bane down) he knows that if Bane is in a similar state, it's only a matter of time before he comes for the target himself. And when he does, nobody close to Batman will be safe. That fact urges Bruce to do what any responsible leader would do: gather his former and current partners at a nearby Batburger.
We don't have time to delve into the logistics or inspirations behind the Batman-themed fast food restaurant, so we'll stick to the heroes assembled: Bruce, Damien Wayne (the current Robin), Duke Thomas (Batman's current partner), Dick Grayson (Nightwing), and Jason Todd (Red Hood). It's not every day that every instance of Robin (minus Tim Drake) gathers in one place, let alone enjoys burgers together. But it isn't a reunion Bruce is after - in fact, it's the opposite. Knowing how brutal an enemy Bane is under normal circumstances, an enraged, Venom-refueled version will simply kill them... and stands a good chance at killing Bruce, too.
Ordering them to leave town lest they wind up in Bane's crosshairs, the Robins immediately confirm that they're not going anywhere, but standing beside their mentor in his hour of need. Duke is the exception, as the only one of them who has never been pronounced dead, and is in no hurry to join the club. It's a decision that may be seen as less than heroic by some, but with Dick aware of just what's coming, compliments Duke as a "smart kid."
The wisdom in Grayson's words escapes even himself, since the next plot beat sees Bruce and Alfred make a chilling discovery...
Bane's First Move is a Killer
As Bruce and Alfred escort Gotham Girl to the Batmobile for her first therapy session with the Psycho-Pirate, they enter the Batcave and lay their eyes on the above image: Robin, Nightwing, and Jason hanged in a group bearing the same message as the story's own title: "I Am Bane." The sight stuns Gotham Girl and Alfred into silence, while Bruce Wayne's worst nightmare is made real, three times over,
Or is it? It's possible that Bane would actually make as bold a move on Gotham City as wiping out all three of Batman's still-loyal Robins, since that wouldn't rule out their inevitable resurrection sooner rather than later. But the sheer enormity of that task, and the fact that the three aren't actually visible to Bruce (masked and in shadow) has us suspecting some other plot is at work. Are these actually the three men who failed to retrieve the Psycho-Pirate, posed to mock and terrify Batman by revealing that Bane knows his weakness?
Even if that's the case, it's a statement from Bane that can't be misunderstood: it isn't just about getting Psycho-Pirate back anymore. Bane is back on Venom, and out to kill more than just Batman for his theft and insult. Duke's looking smarter and smarter by the second.
Batman #16 is available now.