Defining “The Bane Problem” in ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’

When superhero stories try to address real-life social and political issues, conflicts of interest may occur.
The Flag Smashers Bane Problem

Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a series that really immerses itself in contemporary sociopolitical issues, namely racism and American policing. As superheroes have become increasingly ubiquitous as a genre and directors seek to fictionalize complex and multifaceted real-life matters, “The Bane Problem” is something that media-savvy viewers will want to keep in mind, from the narratives it cultivates to the eerie convergence of factors that brings it about.

Christopher Nolan’s 2012 Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises provides the nominal example of this very issue, thanks to its usage of literary reference alongside its contemporary imagery. The Bane Problem is named after the sequel’s villain, a revolutionary extremist called Bane, played by Tom Hardy, whose on-screen aesthetic is very informed by the late-2000s and early-2010s political image of a Middle-Eastern terrorist.

Before Bane appears in the movie, The Dark Knight Rises spends quite a bit of time comparing Gotham City to the Paris of Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities. In the lull of crime following the prior franchise installment, The Dark Knight, the affluent citizens of Gotham have become even more wealthy, decadent, and corrupt. The movie takes time to depict the class tension between the elite stockbrokers and the working class, whom the former group treats with disdain.

After Bane bursts onto the scene with his mercenary crew, and they shoot up the city’s stock exchange, the subsequent street myths that surround him paint the figure as a populist who intends to redistribute the city’s wealth. And the language of the movie seems to suggest that this would be a good thing. After all, he’s right! Bane was brought to the city by a corrupt business executive with intent to commit corporate sabotage, and that executive lives in luxury, taking advantage of mercenary criminals who have no choice but to accept dangerous jobs given to them lest they be sold out to the police.

One of these criminals is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who has aligned herself with Bane’s populist movement, whispering into Batman (Christian Bale) alter ego Bruce Wayne’s ear at an extravagant masquerade: “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

Selina’s alliance with Bane falls apart, however, when she betrays Batman and Bane breaks the Caped Crusader’s back — an “Act Of Heinousness” by which Bane is established to be irredeemably evil, and by dint of this, ideologically corrupt. Here, the emotional stakes and plot take over for the rest of the movie, until the end when the credits roll, and one wonders, “What about all the poor people?”

Batman sacrificed himself to save Gotham, but many of the systemic issues that plague the city still remain. The movie tries to answer this symbolically with Bruce Wayne’s posthumous acts of charity, but a statue of Batman won’t help feed the orphan boys living in Wayne Manor when the money runs out. The Bane Problem remains, an uncomfortable feeling that the hero has saved a lot of people but solved very few problems.

As such, “The Bane Problem” can be formally defined as a situation where the villain, depicted as some sort of extremist, is repeatedly shown as being correct in ideological conflicts with the hero… until the villain performs an “Act Of Heinousness” to prove themselves ideologically corrupt. However, the ideological question itself — whether the hero or villain was right — is left unresolved. This is the crux of why the Bane Problem can be so frustrating. It leaves loose threads of story, horrible dangling floppy bits that are small but impossible to ignore, like bits of spinach caught in the teeth.

Like The Dark Knight Rises, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier dresses its villains as masked terrorists who call themselves “The Flag Smashers.” Depicted as the protectors of a small community of people who just want to be left alone by the government, their leader, Karli, is shown as noble and idealistic, a kind soul who wanted to be a teacher. That is, until she blows up a building full of incapacitated soldiers to prove how Heinous she is. The Flag Smashers then become more and more archetypally evil, with Karli descending to greater acts of cruelty as her own henchfolk look at her with visible discomfort.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t shy away from criticism of American geopolitics, or even the United States’ own bloody racial history. But the bad guy who dies in the finale is still the girl who wanted a home for herself and her refugee friends, not the super soldier who kills one of those refugee friends in broad daylight (that guy actually gets a promotion). The politicians who drove her to extremism are still making decisions, even if they’ve been shamed into walking back a few callous relocation programs.

Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a.k.a. the Falcon, a.k.a. the new Captain America says that he believes we can do better, and the series ends on a hopeful note, but an exhibit about Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) in the Captain America museum does not undue existing systemic issues, such as the banks finding ways to deny the Wilsons a loan.

The Bane Problem is not limited to superhero or even live-action narratives. For example, the first season of The Legend Of Korra features an antagonist who demonstrates a completely in-universe example of the Bane Problem.

But Marvel also already has a working-class Bane Problem in both its Spider-Man movies starring Tom Holland — Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home have villains whose grudges against billionaire-philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) echo much of the modern discourse surrounding the real-life ultra-wealthy. Both villains then casually perform acts of psychopathy against their own compatriots, as if to invalidate the legitimacy of their grievances with Stark.

Outside of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the Bane Problem appears most obviously in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, where the drama between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a.k.a. Captain America, bulldozes over the central question about political agency in a single scene.

But the secret to why the Bane Problem is so prominent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe lies with Captain Marvel. The movie doesn’t actually have the Bane Problem, as its titular superhero makes a decisive choice to fight against the system, whereas most Bane Problems leave that system’s legitimacy unquestioned. But then there’s the issue of how much the actual US Air Force was involved with the movie. The production had unprecedented access to USAF bases.

Hollywood has been working with the Army since World War II when the original studios like Columbia, United Artists, and MGM made war movies like Casablanca, Sahara, and The Purple Heart to get that patriotic spirit going, at home. The Department of Defense Film Liaison Unit was established to provide military advice, resources, and assets in exchange for script revisions. Top Gun is another example of a film made in collaboration with the Pentagon, getting access to planes from the US Navy.

So, does all that make The Falcon and the Winter Soldier military propaganda? Not necessarily. No more than Hello Dolly, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, or The Silence Of The Lambs — all films made with US Department of Defense cooperation. Marvel’s series makes some absolutely searing statements about the military, in fact, which evidently passed muster, seeing as the end credits list the Department of Defense.

The Bane Problem is not about any specific shady government agency or anything. Rather, it occurs when the interests of a film’s financiers, who could range from the USAF to any number of private investors, conflict with statements that the movie makes about them. That could mean the foreign policy interests of the US, certainly.

Or, it could mean the private corporate interests of Raytheon, an aerospace weapons company that has partnered with Disney as early as 2016 when they sponsored a ride at Epcot Center called “The Sum of All Thrills.” Raytheon’s other biggest contracts are with the US military, for weapons research and development. It could also mean the interests of Disney themselves, a company whose global reach means they have a lot of political friends to keep happy.

All this is to say, it’s important to pay attention to what you’re watching — not just to the overt messages the story wears on its sleeve, but to the questions it leaves unanswered. And then, maybe… think about what the answers could be. Get curious about the loose threads the Bane Problem leaves.

It’s important to know how the media you love gets made, and in a world increasingly dominated by Disney, upcoming Marvel releases like Loki, Black Widow, and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will bring with them their own share of villains, ideologies, financiers, and Bane Problems.

Hans Qu: Hans Qu is an animator with Strong Opinions about animation. Along with said opinions, his art and animation can be found on his Bird App account: @NerdyChineseBoy