In the DC Comics universe, he is known as the “The Man Who Broke the Bat,” and in the recently released teaser trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, Bane appears to be up to his old, violent tricks. The popular villain’s exact role in the film is a highly guarded secret but the first official image of the character (plus the teaser trailer) show Bane with his trademark Venom-injecting mask, meaning the fictional drug will likely be in the film as well.
We are a curious group over here at The Exchange, so we could not help but wonder about the real science behind Bane and Venom. Could Venom be backed up by science? To answer our question, we contacted Jessica Cail, a professor of psychology with a research focus in the pharmacology of addiction, for insight into the science behind the super villain Bane.
Which Came First: The Drug or the Villain?
Though Bane gets his super-strength from Venom, the drug made its first appearance in the Batman: Venom story arc in 1989. Four years later, Venom resurfaced as Bane made his debut in the Knightfall arc. Since then, the drug has been mostly associated with Bane – though forms of it have show up from time to time, such as the powerful drug Titan in the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game.
So what is Venom and what does it do? It’s widely thought to be a super steroid, which makes sense scientifically speaking. “Anabolic-androgenic steroids are hormones that increase overall muscle mass and have a testosterone-like effect,” said Cail. “Once a steroid is in the system, it activates a receptor that exists in muscle tissues. This activated receptor complex then travels into the cell’s nucleus and turns on genes that grow more muscle tissue.” The end result is muscle growth and increased strength, the exact outcomes of the drug in the comics.
A major difference between steroids and Venom though is the time the drugs take to build muscle. Venom is strong enough to work in a matter of minutes but steroids require weeks of use to gain the desired effect. But that is a fictional stretch we are willing to overlook – it makes for some very cool scenes in the comics and film.
Steroids and Addiction
Venom is a highly addictive drug – Batman suffers withdrawal symptoms after becoming addicted to the substance in the Batman: Venom arc and in later comics, Bane struggles with his addiction as well. But are steroids addictive too? “We don’t traditionally think of steroids as addictive,” said Cail. “Because laboratory animals will not work to give themselves these drugs, we always assumed that people became psychologically addicted to the drugs by the improvements in body appearance or sports performance.”
But a recent study found this might not be true. “We’ve found that rats will grow to ‘prefer’ an environment associated with steroid use, spending more time in it over a similar [environment],” explained Cail. “Clearly this is not because they are admiring their new rat physiques!” The environmental conditioning also works better when the steroid is injected directly into the nucleus accumbens part of the brain, which Cail explained is a major player in moderating the rewarding effects of stimulants. “Although lower doses do not seem to trigger the addiction circuits, there is reason to believe that repeated, high-dose injections [ahem, Bane] may be enough to trigger the same circuits as cocaine or meth,” said Cail.
Venom has some pretty nasty withdrawal symptoms (as does steroid use), which Bane avoids by taking the drug every 12 hours via a delivery system of a mask and tubes (which pump Venom directly into his brain). Even Bane’s mask and tubes make scientific sense for administering steroids. “When taken orally, these drugs tend to be broken down rapidly by the liver before causing the desired effects,” Cail explained. “For this reason, injection or inhalation would be better routes of administration.”
It seems Venom has a lot of scientific backing, which is not too surprising once you learn the inspiration for the fictional drug. “It was based partially on my own struggle with addictive behaviors. Also, one of my brothers had a brush with steroids and I knew they had a lot of side effects,” said Dennis O’Neil, creator of the Batman: Venom story arc.
Not that O’Neil meant to adhere to the scientific facts too closely. “My primary job is to tell a story and not get bogged down with the facts,” he said. “This is why we make it Gotham City, not New York City. You don’t want to have to explain, ‘No, this is not Mayor Bloomberg.’ [In the Venom arc,] I never said steroids or barbiturates. I didn’t want to get bogged down with details.”
But science is a part of comic books and superheroes, which O’Neil admits gives some credibility to the stories, “Stan Lee once said, ‘It works because we say it works.’ In DC Comics, we’d try to put scientific footnotes in. I’ve had people tell me that was the first they’d heard about [a science topic]. We did it to lend a little respectability to the form.”
Well, however science gets into comics and films, we are happy it is there – plus, understanding the real science behind Bane makes the super villain even cooler in our eyes.
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