Ra’s al Ghul occupies an interesting place in the DC villains vault. Primarily a Batman villain, he was far from the best-known of the Gotham bad guys until 2005, when Liam Neeson brought him to life for Batman Begins.
Casual fans could be forgiven for not connecting him with Batman, though, after the CW made the interesting decision to include the leader of the League of Assassins in their TV series Arrow. This latest live-action take on Ra’s places him firmly within the realms of Green Arrow mythology – a fairly major deviation from the comics. (On the plus side, they do pronounce his name properly, which Batman Begins didn’t.) Both portrayals have sent the popularity of the character skyrocketing, but even long-time fans might not know everything there is to know about this enigmatic warrior. So let's get to it.
Here are 15 Facts You Didn’t Know About Ra’s Al Ghul.
Many comic book characters have very different stories in alternate realities, and that includes Ra’s al Ghul. Between 1989 and 2003, a DC imprint printed stories that took place in various non-canon times and places, called Elseworlds (which was also the name of the imprint). Starting with a Victorian Batman fighting Jack the Ripper, the Elseworlds comics are an interesting side note in DC history.
Ra’s makes an appearance in Elseworlds as Cat-Man, a very different head of a shadowy organization. In this version, he is the head of the House of Selene, not the League of Assassins, and has cat-like powers. He is still near-immortal, but in this universe his immortality takes the form of nine lives (because he’s a cat… geddit?), and he loses his ninth life during the story. In a mirror of the main DC continuity, his daughter takes his place at the head of the House of Selene after his death.
Batman’s secret identity is one of the best-kept secrets in the DC universe, and few of his foes have ever discovered his connection to Bruce Wayne. Ra’s al Ghul is one of those few. Ra’s discovered Bruce Wayne’s secret when his daughter, Talia, fell for Batman. Considering Batman as a potential suitor for his daughter and heir to the League, Ra’s investigated his identity (and even offered Bruce his position in the end). Since then, he has refused to use this information against Bruce, even going as far as to attempt to kill Vicki Vale to prevent her from revealing the secret.
This is a hugely significant element of the relationship between Ra’s and Batman. Although they are often enemies, they often respect each other and have worked together in the past. Ra’s often refers to Batman as “the Detective”, and seems to have quite a bit of affection for the Dark Knight – affection that is reciprocated, to a degree. It is this respect that makes their interactions so fascinating, and gives their relationship real depth.
Liam Neeson’s performance as Ra’s in Batman Begins is incredible (even if it convinced people that the name was pronounced Razz, and started countless arguments as a result). However, he was not the first villain considered as the featured bad guy for the project. According to The Art and Making of the Dark Knight Trilogy, Christopher Nolan and David Goyer wanted to use a "new" villain for the film – one who had not been seen in previous movies. Before settling on Ra’s al Ghul, the duo considered Calendar Man (who kills people based on his associations with the date and holiday), Killer Croc (who we eventually saw come to life for the recent Suicide Squad), and Clayface (a shapeshifting evil mud puddle).
With these options turned down as too wacky, they decided on Ra’s. The Demon’s Head was suggested by Goyer, as Ra’s is one of the writer’s favorite characters in the Batman mythology.
Although Ra’s is plotting for the eventual eradication of the human race, he has surprisingly noble motives for this evil plan – he’s an environmentalist. It’s just that, instead of recycling, he views humanity as a planet-destroying parasite that must be stopped. His hatred of mankind is tied to his long life – he has watched the world become increasingly industrialized, seen areas of pristine natural beauty destroyed, technology take over, etc etc. The industrial revolution, when humanity started flocking to cities and pumping the air and water full of poisons, was presumably a tipping point for a man raised in much simpler times.
His adherence to tradition and the more primitive amenities at Nanda Parbat are also a result of his desire to stop damaging the Earth and go back to older ways of life. Of course, his good intentions have sent him off the deep end a little bit, and a desire to wipe out humanity is extreme villainy, but it’s interesting to consider that his motivations are good.
Where Bruce Wayne has his loyal manservant, Alfred, Ra’s al Ghul has his own right-hand man, Ubu. There are quite a few differences between the two, though. Ubu, while also used as a name, is actually a title. There have been multiple Ubus serving Ra’s (as Ubu is not immortal like his master), and as each gives up his life for the Demon's Head, a new Ubu takes his place.
Ubu also serves primarily as a bodyguard to Ra’s (as compared to Alfred Pennyworth, who is primarily butler and medic to Bruce Wayne), protecting him from any attack. Ubu was featured heavily when Batman and Ra’s teamed up to investigate the (fake) kidnap of Talia al Ghul, and has reappeared in several more storylines over the years. Ubu has also served as bodyguard and protector to Talia al Ghul, both as Daughter of the Demon and in her own right as the leader of the League of Assassins.
As a functionally immortal villain, Ra’s has been involved in multiple periods of our history, and has fought in many wars over the years (much like Wolverine, over on the Marvel end of the spectrum). We do not know his full history, so it is impossible to tell exactly how many times he has fought, but he has mentioned a few specific instances over the years. He has fought in both the Napoleonic Wars (for the British) and the French Revolution (suggesting that he spent a significant period of his long life in Europe).
His most famous connection to a war, however, is to World War II. During this time, he allied himself with the Nazis – not because he believed in their ideology, but as an attempt to utilize their power for his own ends. However, he also abandoned his daughter, Nyssa, in a concentration camp, where she lost the rest of her family. It was this that started her on the path which eventually led to Ra’s al Ghul’s death.
Although most fans will know that Ra’s is a father, few think of him as a husband. However, when Ra’s was still young and mortal, he was also married. His wife’s name was Sora and she was the love of his life. Of course, few comic book villains are complete without a tragic past, and Ra’s al Ghul is no exception.
As a young man, Ra’s was happily married and an eminent physician. When the prince of his land was dying, Ra’s attempted to save him using the Lazarus Pit (which he had recently discovered). He wasn’t aware of the nature of the pit, and although it saved the prince, it drove him mad. The Prince strangled Sora to death, and in a particularly brutal punishment for driving the prince insane, Ra’s was sentenced to starve to death in a cage with his wife’s corpse. He was freed from the cage (and returned to exact vengeance on the King), but the tragedy twisted him in many ways and affected his view of the Pit.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that someone who is centuries old has popped up at many significant events of our time. That said, picturing him at the hippy love-in that was Woodstock doesn’t exactly fit with the image of a cloaked assassin. It does, however, fit with his obsession with the environment and eco-terrorism.
In any case, Ra’s attended Woodstock, and while there he met a woman. Melisande is described as Chinese/Arabic, and after Ra’s met her at the music festival, they fell for each other and conceived a child. That child is Talia al Ghul, the Daughter of the Demon. Melisande remained with Ra’s, but fared no better than his first love, Sora. She died soon after her daughter was born, leaving Ra’s to raise Talia on his own. Originally, Melisande died of a drug overdose (makes sense with the Woodstock connection), but a later story shows her being killed by a former servant to Ra’s.
The League of Assassins is Ra’s al Ghul’s organization; a vast, sprawling group of assassins, martial artists, and terrorists led by Ra’s. Ra’s is best known as the head of the League, and the League has appeared alongside the character in almost every iteration. However, The League of Assassins is technically a branch of a larger criminal organization, known only as The Demon. Ra’s created the demon centuries ago, and it appeared briefly in early Justice League stories. The League of Assassins was a faction of killers within the Demon, and only one of many. The League was also called “Demon’s Fang”, a reference to its purpose as a home and training ground for killers.
As the DC universe evolved, the Demon seemed to disappear, and Ra’s became the head of the League of Assassins only, although the group served much the same purpose as the original Demon. The League of Assassins has also been called the League of Shadows (Batman Begins), The Society of Shadows (Batman TAS), and The Society of Assassins (Batman Beyond).
As well as being immortal and one of the most highly trained fighters in the world, Ra’s is also a scientific genius. (He’s the complete villain package!)
Before he found the Lazarus pit, Ra’s left his nomadic tribe in order to become a physician, and developed medical techniques and theories far in advance of the rest of the human race. He understood germ theory centuries ago, and used it to get revenge on the royal family that wronged him. He contaminated fabric with a disease, and sent it to the Prince. He knew that the King would come to Ra’s when the Prince became ill, and when he did, Ra’s slaughtered the King. Later, he continues to use disease as a weapon, and releases a virus into Gotham City (unsurprisingly, Batman saves the day). Throughout his history, he uses science and biological weapons as well as his better-known martial arts skills, and although Ra’s stays true to his traditions, his grasp of technology should not be underestimated.
The name Ra’s al Ghul is taken from Arabic, and means “head of the demon” or “head of the ghoul”. The name breaks down quite easily: "Ra’s" is Arabic for "head". "al" is a general connector meaning “the” or “of the”. Finally, "Ghul" translates to "ghoul", although it can also refer to a demon, monster, etc. The more common Arabic word for "demon" would be "shaytan", the word for "devil", "satan" etc. Together, "Ra’s al Ghul" therefore becomes "Head of the Ghoul" or "Ghoul’s Head", but can also be translated to "Head of the Demon" or "Demon’s Head".
The pronunciation, however, isn’t Arabic. Although Liam Neeson chose to go with the more Arabic pronunciation "Razz", the official DC pronunciation of Ra’s is "Raysh". This is probably connected to the Hebrew letter "Resh", which can also mean "head" and "chief". (The Hebrew words for "demon" or "ghoul" are not similar to "Ghul", however.) Ra’s wl Ghul is therefore something of a hybrid created by DC. The words themselves are Arabic, but the pronunciation is more Hebrew.
Everybody knows that Ra’s is functionally immortal, thanks to his use of the Lazarus Pit to prolong his life and heal his injuries. He’s definitely been walking the earth for hundreds of years, and his origin places him in the Arabian Desert with a tribe of Nomads. However, no-one knows quite how old Ra’s is… not even the man himself!
Generally, Ra’s Al Ghul is considered to be around six hundred years old. However, he has also been described as a seven hundred year old (international terrorist), suggesting that he’s been around for quite a while longer than most people think. The man himself has admitted that he’s forgotten his own age, though, so we’ll never know for sure. In Azrael #6, he claims to have been a physician for four hundred years. In the same issue, he says that while he appears to be around fifty, he says that he is actually “a very vigorous four hundred and forty eight… or is it four hundred and fifty-three? I lost count during the Black Plague”. Adding to the confusion is the ageless nature of comic book characters – Ra’s has been around for over forty years as a DC villain. What we do know is that he looks damn good for his age!
Just to complicate an already complicated relationship a little bit more, Ra’s al Ghul is not only an enemy of the Bat-Family, but a member of Batman’s literal family. At one time, Batman was working with Ra’s to take down Quayin, a terrorist and assassin. During this period, he and Talia al Ghul fell in love, got married (later retconned as drugging and date rape by Talia), and had a child – Damian. Batman didn’t know of Damian’s existence for some time, however, as Talia faked a miscarriage, leading Damian to be raised by the League in secret.
Damian was later given over to Bruce Wayne’s custody, and became the next Robin. After Ra’s al Ghul was killed, he needed a new body in order to return to the word – and wanted to use Damian for his resurrection. Trained by the League and with the blood of the Demon in his veins, Damian seemed like a logical choice, but Ra’s had his plan foiled by Batman (obviously). It’s certainly not a typical grandfather-grandson relationship!
Like most comic book characters, Ra’s has faced death in the past (and been resurrected at a later date). Unlike the majority, though, the Head of the Demon died at the hands of his own daughters. Ra’s has two daughters – Talia and Nyssa, both of whom became disillusioned with their father and his evil mission to wipe out humanity.
In Death and the Maidens, Talia and Nyssa join forces (with some brainwashing by Nyssa) to attempt to take down both Superman and their father. They fail to defeat the Man of Steel, but manage to mortally wound Ra’s – who explains that he intended for this to happen all along. Nyssa stabs her father through the heart, killing him, but his master plan worked. She and Talia come around to Ra’s’s point of view, and take over the League of Assassins after him. Although his body was cremated, Ra’s eventually returned in a new body, proving once again that he is a master of death.
In the Tower of Babel story arc, Ra’s al Ghul devises a plan to take down the entire Justice League. He finds out that Batman has been keeping data on the weaknesses of the other JLA members in case they ever turn against the side of good and need to be stopped – so Ra’s steals the data and uses it to defeat the Justice League.
In order to distract Batman in the meantime, he also steals the corpses of Thomas and Martha Wayne, knowing that Bruce will ignore all else in his attempts to get them back. When he discovers that it is Ra’s who has them (and who is behind the attacks on the Justice League), he is forced to make a decision. Ra’s offers to bring the Waynes back to life with the Lazarus Pit… but Bruce turns him down. He chooses to do the noble thing, and honor his parents’ memory by fighting against Ra’s and his plan to decimate the population.