Originally posted 7-23-2012
Last week the unthinkable happened and our country was forced to confront another mass shooting. James Holmes, a 24-year-old PhD student in neuroscience, attended a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. After the movie began, he put on riot gear and opened fire at the audience, killing 12 people and injuring another 58. Holmes was arrested outside the theater and reportedly identified himself as “the Joker.”
In years gone by, there would have been an immediate backlash against the film, Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Entertainment and pretty much everyone else associated in any way with The Dark Knight Rises. Pundits would decry the violence as one more example of how violence in the media leads to violence in real life. There would be boycotts and maybe even protests outside of theaters.
I remember the backlash against Marilyn Manson following the Columbine shootings in 1999. It seems J.D. Salinger’s book, Catcher in the Rye, will forever be tainted by Mark David Chapman’s possession of the book at the time of his arrest for the murder of John Lennon. A fact used, directly and obliquely, as a justification for repeated attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, to ban the book. Given our cultural history of using tragedy as excuse to vilify books, music and films, one might expect The Dark Knight Rises to receive similar treatment. Yet, any outcry has been muted enough that it doesn’t even register on the cultural radar.
Maybe that means that, finally, we’ve evolved enough as a society to distinguish between artistic works and the sickness of minds that use those works as excuses for violence. I’d like to believe that is the case, but I don’t. I believe that Batman, generally, and Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Batman story, specifically, have taken on an iconic status in our culture. While we may be willing to savage our icons, as a society we tend to draw the line as defiling our icons. Blaming Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises for the action of James Holmes would be too much like defiling Batman.
It seems equally probable to me that, had Holmes identified himself with some more obscure and less-beloved film property, the film and its filmmaker would be standing in the center of firestorm of blame and vilification. Pundits would decry, boycotts would start, and protests would ensue. Defile an icon, no, destroy a minor filmmaker we don’t know by name, sure.
The irony is that Batman, for all our adoration of the character and the films, is not a warm and cuddly figure. If you were going to choose a figure from the world of entertainment to scapegoat for inspiring violence, you’d be hard pressed to find a more suitable candidate. On the surface, he appears to have more in common with those he opposes than with those officially sanctioned to protect the public. He intentionally operates outside of the law and in secret, like a criminal.
He doesn’t drape himself in the colors of the American flag while rescuing women and children from burning building, as Superman does. He doesn’t fight for truth. He isn’t gifted with great power, so we can dismiss the notion of great responsibility. He doesn’t even fight for justice. Batman’s mission is plain and simple; vengeance against a criminal underworld that stole his family.
He is a fundamentally dark figure. When you strip away the cool gadgets, what you have left is a man whose primary tools are fear and violence. More to point, all those cool gadgets serve not to limit his use of fear and violence, but to make his use of fear and violence more effective. All in all, Batman looks like the poster child for media-inspired violence. But, the analogy does break down.
Unlike James Holmes, Batman follows three simple, but absolutely inviolate, moral rules:
- Protect the innocent.
- Do not kill.
- No guns.
It is these rules that allow us to embrace Batman and his mission. We know, at the end of the day, that Batman may beat an enemy into unconsciousness. We also know that if he beats someone unconscious, that person probably did some pretty awful things first and they will ultimately wind up in police custody. Batman will never get fed up one day and pick up a sniper rifle. Most importantly, he would never intentionally put the innocent in harm’s way.
While whatever sickness afflicting James Holmes’ mind may have latched onto the Batman films as an excuse for his terrible acts of violence, the association is incidental, not causal. If it hadn’t been The Dark Knight Rises, it would have been something else. I am sympathetic to Nolan and everyone else involved in this incarnation of the Batman franchise for having their hard word tarnished by association with the Aurora shootings. Yet, I also find myself a little grateful that Batman and The Dark Knight Rises are big enough and iconic enough that people are unwilling to reflexively blame the work of art for the act of violence.
The families of the dead and injured victims of this horrific act deserve something better than cheap, pot shots at a movie as an explanation for what happened. They deserve our sympathy and our empathy, but what they need from us all, as a culture, is a willingness to examine how a bright, seemingly well-adjusted, graduate student could get so far gone without anyone noticing.