The CW has announced that Australian actor and former rugby player Matthew Nable, who American audiences may know best as Boss Johns from the movie Riddick, will play Ra’s al Ghul in the upcoming third season of Arrow, starting with the fourth episode, “The Magician.”
Created by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul is one of the few Batman villains who is an intellectual equal to the great detective, and occasionally a physical one as well. The schemes of Ra’s are among the most deadly of all the Dark Knight’s foes, and that his daughter Talia and Batman have been in love and even had a child together only heightens the dramatic importance of Ra’s al Ghul in the Dark Knight mythos. He’s also one of the few major DC Comics characters of color — specifically, a Middle Eastern character.
In the comics, Ra’s — whose name is Arabic, meaning “the head of the demon” or “devil” — has always been depicted as distinctly Middle Eastern, with references made to an Arabian homeland and an East Asian ancestry. Like many people from that region and such a background, his skin is commonly olive or dark brown. Like other people from the same region and background, he has also been depicted with pale white skin. Crucially, ever since his debut in 1971, he has been a distinctly non-European, non-western character, and culturally Middle-Eastern.
But in film and TV, Ra’s al Ghul is has pretty much been exclusively depicted as a white westerner.
The only Asian actor to ever play Ra’s al-Ghul was Ken Wantanabe in Batman Begins, and (spoiler for a 9-year-old movie) that was a fake-out. The real Ra’s of the Nolan films was the very white, very Irish Liam Neeson.
In Batman: The Animated Series, Ra’s looked like he did in the original O’Neil and Adams comics, but was voiced by English actor David Warner. In Arkham City, he was voiced by American Dee Bradley Baker.
One notable exception to the extra-comics whitewashing of Ra’s al Ghul is Young Justice, the Warner Bros. Animation series in which Ra’s was voiced by Israeli actor Oded Fehr. African-American actor Lance Reddick voiced the character on WB’s Beware the Batman.
Arrow has been building up to Ra’s al Ghul appearing for nearly an entire year, with appearances by the League of Assassins throughout the second season. Last season, the character of Nyssa al Ghul, Ra’s daughter appeared for several episodes, played by actress Katrina Law, who is half Taiwanese.
Perhaps Arrow‘s producers just can’t get enough of season baddies coming from Australia and its neighbors. Manu Bennett, who played Deathsroke, season two’s big bad, hails from New Zealand.
As ComicsAlliance editor Andy Khouri — himself an Arab-American who grew up in the Middle East and Southeast Asia — observed today on Twitter, there is a kind of logic behind stripping Ra’s al Ghul of his ethnic identity in mass media portrayals. Inescapably, Ra’s is an Arab-ish villain who fanatically pursues the destruction of modern civilization, a sentiment that the American news media has effectively assigned to all foreign Arabs, Muslims, Persians and anyone else who’s conveniently conflated into a monolithic “Middle Eastern” identity in post-9/11 America. To put forth a villain with superficial similarities to that prevailing stereotype could be seen as offensive on the part of DC and its parent Warner Bros., particularly during the time Batman Begins was in production, when America’s war in Iraq — ostensibly over weapons of mass destruction — was relatively new.
But as fellow ComicsAlliance writer Zainab Ahktar also pointed out, Ra’s is a multi-faceted villain, particularly in Batman Begins. Unfortunately, Andy argued, there is such a small Middle Eastern visibility in American entertainment that fear of stereotypes takes even villain roles away, like the great Ra’s al Ghul from Middle Easterners (just like the the Mandarin was taken away from East Asians in Iron Man 3). Meanwhile, in Andy’s words, regular old racism keeps the hero roles away, leaving cable news as the one place Americans see Arabs, Muslims and other Middle Easterners regularly — which is a very terrible thing, and causes the cycle of underrepresentation in entertainment to perpetuate itself.