Jacob Eisenberg compares two of the most captivating and terrifying villains in postmodern fiction . . .
Like many villains in literature and Hollywood, Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Bane from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises are both supremely evil. However, what separates these two villains from all of their contemporaries make them perhaps them the most malevolent characters ever known to fiction. Beyond their strikingly similar physical resemblances, both antagonists have strikingly similar villainous philosophies. From sharing existential knacks for anticipating the future to creating uniquely comprehensive understandings of the way a true monster can control power, Judge Holden and Bane revolutionized the postmodern criminal.
In Blood Meridian, Judge Holden stands for all that is evil. As a chief mercenary in John Joel Glanton’s gang, Holden is the most feared outlaw in the most feared group of the entire southwest. Holden’s physical appearance stands out to anyone and everyone who comes in his way. Towering over his peers at a height somewhere between six and seven feet tall, Holden physically imposes his inferiors and disturbs them with his seemingly perpetual nudity. Holden is also easily identifiable for his hairlessness. Beyond serving as a force of intimidation, Holden’s hairlessness could also be a way of McCarthy symbolizing that Holden is a more evolved human than the rest of his peers. One scientist notes, “… naked skin itself played a crucial role in the evolution of other characteristic human traits, including our large brain and dependence on language” (Jablonski). Perhaps Holden’s most extraordinary physical trait of all is his ability to seemingly never age. At the end of the novel, the story’s protagonist, The Man, notes that Holden looks: “little changed or none in all these years”(325). In the decades that had passed since the enemies’ last encounter, Holden’s physical attributes had resisted father time. Both Holden’s hairlessness and timeless appearance suggest that he could very well be immortal.
Meanwhile, in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane (Tom Hardy) is the brains and muscle behind a mastermind plan to destroy Gotham. Bane, like Holden, is a towering brute with size and agility that make him an extremely imposing figure. Moreover, Bane also intimidates his opponents with his godlike muscles. Unlike Holden, who draws physical distinction with his hairlessness, Bane’s bizarre physical distinction comes from a mysterious mask that muffles his voice and seems to feed him additional strength and power. In fact, Bruce Wayne’s (Chrtistian Bale) only success in combat with Bane comes when he strikes Bane directly in the mask. Bane also successfully transcends time with his physical appearance, as proven through a series of flashbacks. One specific flashback from Bane’s past shows that he looks identical over a twenty-year span. The deeper indication behind the flashback hints that Bane has existed for several generations and will never age.
Beyond Judge Holden’s supernatural physical appearance, his consistently successful anticipations of the future make readers suspect he is supernatural. Not only does Holden always seem to know where The Kid is going, The Judge also appears, without fail, whenever something momentous is about to occur. From arriving in time for an Apache battle to reappearing for combat with the Yumas on a ferry, Holden consistently shows up right when the scenes get bloody. Disturbingly, Holden always smiles throughout these bloody scenes. While watching a hotel burn down in the beginning of the novel, the reader is first introduced to Holden’s smile: “When the kid looked back the judge smiled” (14). Holden’s smile shows that he embraces violence and bloodshed with great excitement. Holden is also displayed to be exceptionally smart. From speaking several languages to knowing how to make gunpowder out of the earth’s raw materials, Holden has the mental capacity of a true genius.
Bane’s supernatural ability to strategize, manipulate, and execute a plan is displayed in the introduction of the film. In the opening scene, Bane masterfully gets himself captured by a rival group of underground traders. While he is being transported as a prisoner, Bane reveals that he has scheduled and accounted for every second of his capturing. Soon after the flight reaches its maximum altitude, a CIA Agent asks Bane, “Was getting caught part of your plan?” Bane replies, “Of course… Dr. Pavel refused our offer in favor of yours; we had to find out what he told you.” The CIA Agent looks puzzled and says, “Well, congratulations! You got yourself caught! Now what’s the next step in your master plan?” Bane, without hesitation says, “Crashing this plane… with no survivors” (Nolan). At this moment, Bane’s accomplices hijack the plane from the exterior and dismantle it. Bane, meanwhile, escapes the dismantled plane and takes shelter by climbing a rope to a separate plane flying overhead. From the outset, Bane is introduced as a character who is always thinking several steps ahead of his enemies.
What makes Judge Holden such an unrestrained villain is that he is motivated to completely disregard codes of morality within society. Holden, as a true anarchist, believes that laws should be dismissed because they prevent the world from running its natural course. Holden tells Glanton’s men, “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn” (250). Holden utilizes this philosophy as a pillar throughout the novel as he murders, sodomizes, terrorizes, and robs hundreds of innocent victims who were unlucky enough to cross his path. Without any regard for human life, Holden is completely unabashed to commit any form of savagery that he desires.
Bane’s danger comes from his anarchic belief that power should be achieved through violent revolt. Knowing he will not be able to successfully take over Gotham on his own, Bane convinces the prisoners of Blackgate Penitentiary to follow him as he gives control of the city to the criminals. Bane announces to the civilians of Gotham that his motives are Robinhood-esque: “We take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity, and we give it back to you… the people. Gotham is yours. None shall interfere. Do as you please… This great city, it will endure. Gotham will survive” (Nolan). Because Bane’s warped view allows him to believe he is doing what is necessary for Gotham, Bruce Wayne cannot talk him out of his plans.
Judge Holden is not only motivated to disregard humanity; he desires to continue the traditions of war that have transcended generations of people. Holden believes war is necessary to continue the world’s path. In a revealing soliloquy, Holden shares, “War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be…. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god” (248). This philosophy explains why Holden carries his smile throughout the novel: he is convinced that the world was created to house violence for generations of men and he deems himself as the only man capable of making sure the havoc continues.
Bane, like Holden, believes that evil and war are inherently necessary in society. Without revealing why he believes evil is important, Bane shares, “I am Gotham’s reckoning. Here to end the borrowed time you have all been living on… I am necessary evil” (Nolan). Bane believes the world needs to see tragedy and suffering to progress. In Bane’s mind, the people of Gotham have grown too privileged and greedy; Gotham will only recover once he brings the city its proper punishment of destruction.
While Holden believes war is necessary in the world, he believes his own existence is equally necessary. In perhaps the most disturbing and revealing quote of Blood Meridian, Holden shows his self-perceived association with either the gods or devil: “Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent” (248). Holden believes he is an almighty presence in the universe. Holden also reconfirms his understandings of death later in the novel when he tries to persuade The Man to join his dark side: “What do you think death is, man…What is death if not an agency? And whom does he intend toward?” (329) By rationalizing that death is merely an agency, Holden tells The Man that life should not be regarded with as much value as it receives and that death should not be as feared as it is.
Bane, meanwhile, also takes pleasure in associating himself with the devil. In one scene, Daggett, a greedy businessman who has hired Bane to take down Wayne Enterprises, asks his cohorts of Bane’s whereabouts. Bane, without skipping a beat, appears out of nowhere to scare Daggett and responds, “Speak of the Devil and he shall appear” (Nolan). Bane continues to assert his perceived association with the devil when he taunts an incarcerated Bruce Wayne. Bane tells Wayne of his plans: “You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny… We will destroy Gotham and then, when it is done and Gotham is ashes, then you have my permission to die” (Nolan). By telling Wayne that he needs consent to die, Bane presents himself as a demonic decider of Wayne’s fate.
One of Judge Holden’s most disturbed views is his belief that children should only be privileged with life should they survive severe hardships as children: “At a young age, said the Judge, “they should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions… If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?” (146) This philosophy of barbarism hints that it is possible Holden, himself, may have endured such severe circumstances in his upbringing. This would explain why Holden makes it his mission to ruin and corrupt any child he sees.
As for Bane, it is revealed in the film that he developed his severely pessimistic view of the world while serving his father’s life sentence as a captive in the treacherous prison of Pena Duro. Bane’s upbringing, in the harshest of all prisons, explains his deep anger and desire to terrorize. After incarcerating Bruce Wayne in Pena Duro, Bane refers to the prison as, “Home, where I learned the truth about despair, as will you. There’s a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth… Hope. Every man who has ventured here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy… And like shipwrecked men turning to seawater from uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope” (Nolan). Bane understands man’s inherited will to survive. Bane’s ability to slowly destroy this will through torture and eroding hope makes him purely monstrous.
At the end of Blood Meridian, Holden hints that he always expected The Kid to one day become his apprentice. In his last attempt to convince The Man to switch over to Holden’s dark ways, Holden reveals, “I recognized you when I first saw you and yet you were a disappointment to me. Then and now. Even so at last I find you here with me” (328). After The Man tells Holden that they are completely different people with different philosophies of how society should work, Holden grows intimidated and resolves to kill The Man only moments later. The last depiction of The Man shows a perverted and monstrous Holden having his way with him in a saloon’s outhouse: “He was naked and he rose up smiling and gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden bar latch home behind him” (333). The Man’s death is confirmed by the horrifying words of an onlooker who witnesses his corpse, “Good God almighty, he said” (334). As seen here and in several instances prior, Holden always gets what he wants.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane reveals that one of his motives for conquering Gotham is to make Wayne regret leaving The League of Shadows. In the enemies’ first fight scene, Wayne detonates all of the lights in Bane’s underground chamber. Bane, undeterred by darkness responds, “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents to the uninitiated… but we are initiated, aren’t we Bruce? Members of the League of Shadows! And you betrayed us” (Nolan). The sense of betrayal Bane feels propels him to take Bruce Wayne and make him pay for his alleged mistreatment of Ra’s al Ghul. Despite planning to string Wayne along in prison with the mental torture of watching Gotham crumble, Bane eventually realizes that Wayne will only continue to disrupt his plans. Bane decides to kill Wayne once and for all at the end of the film: “We both know that I now have to kill you. You will just have to imagine the fire” (Nolan). Luckily for Wayne, Bane is shot and killed just seconds before the execution would take place.
Though Holden and Bane are villains in severely different settings, both use their abnormal physical strengths and exceptional minds to reign terror on their respective societies. While both villains are rightfully feared for their unparalleled brute power, they are even more dangerous because of their unrivaled intellectualism. As villains, Holden and Bane transcend the stereotypical psychopath villain who is fit for a straightjacket. The two know exactly what they are doing and, for the most part, execute their plans to perfection. As observers of fiction, we will be hard pressed to find more interesting and captivating villains than Judge Holden and Bane for a long time.
Bailey, Rachel. “Five Reasons the Judge From Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian Will Keep You Up at Night.” Pastemagazine.com. 1 Feb. 2010. Web. 22 Nov. 2012.
The Dark Knight Rises. By Christopher Nolan. Perf. Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, and Christian Bale. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012. Film.
Jablonski, Nina. “The Naked Truth: Why Humans Have No Fur.” Scientificamerican.com. 20 Jan. 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.
“Memorable Quotes for The Dark Knight Rises.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.