With the very real death of “The Dark Knight” star Heath Ledger, the Batman movie franchise was destined to find itself at the center of speculation and controversy linking fictional content to real life consequences. Unfortunately for the films and for the victims of a shooting in Aurora, Colo., the line between fantasy and reality blurred again as a gunman opened fire on a crowded theater of buzzing fans at a midnight screening of the third and final installment of the Nolan Batman trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Sources report that gunman James Holmes told authorities he “was the Joker,” and the suspect “had died his hair like the Joker,” the fictional villain of the trilogy’s second piece. With a military-style AR-15 assault rife, a shotgun and two handguns, the article reports, Holmes committed the massacre after months of planning in a fashion not dissimilar to the Joker’s senseless assaults on Gotham City.
The media has pounced on the shooting from all angles, with full pages dedicated to the event, the victims and the effect on “The Dark Knight Rises.” Media voices have been quick to defend the film, a violent action movie based on a comic book, against blame for having influenced or caused this senseless massacre. And though in the end, the film truly can’t be blamed for recent events, the relationship between the shooting and the violence depicted in the film certainly needs to be examined.
The film takes a hard-line stance against violence and organized crime, particularly weapons dealing and acts of terrorism. But as the principal character straddles his roles of hero and vigilante criminal, and as virtually all media consumers continually glorify the Joker, perhaps the movie’s anti-violence message falls on deaf ears. The films’ overarching attitude against crime and violence recedes in the frames of cinematographically grand visuals.
What’s more–and this is no fault of the audience–the movie takes an often-ambivalent approach to portraying violence. In this third installment, mercenaries (the bad guys) wear costumes reminiscent of media portrayals of Middle Eastern militants; they don khaki cargo pants and military vests, strap huge bullets to themselves and tote chunky weaponry suitable for guerillas. They are even swathed in scarves with scruff and suntanned skin as if they have been roughing it in a desert, despite the snowy setting of the film and the mercenaries’ access to resources. Google “Iraqi militant” and you’ll basically find the Gotham mercenary, only with a pulled-down headscarf. Watching this, one cannot help but consider the thinly veiled association of these bad guys with depictions of Middle Eastern “rebels,” the American media version of comic-book bad guys.
By contrast, the police officers wear navy caps and uniforms, pristine and complete despite having lived in a cave for three months. Not a scratch or stain mars the look of the American “hero.” They courageously wield civilized pistols against brute force.
The film may not be outwardly pro-violence or racist, but leaning on these stereotypes to conjure a sense of fear and antagonism towards these “foreign” mercenaries invading Gotham City is not only simplistic profiling, but poor storytelling. Even out of the context of the violent shooting, these stereotypical tropes of good and evil contribute to a subtle form of ideologizing not unlike the racist and sexist ideas Disney princess movies have suffered criticism for.
But beyond even this perhaps esoteric reading of the film, and regardless of my personal opinion of the movie, even an uncritical viewer will notice the militarization of Gotham City–a central tenet of the plot–as an all-too-real parallel to events that have occurred in America and American-occupied states, though this is perhaps out of the mind of most of the film’s audience. Even if Batman saves the day and the film’s point is to stamp out the evils that cause these wars, the victory the audience savors is not the moment a mayor reveals an honorary statue or bestows a military medal. They cheer and clap when big guns fire and missiles explode like Fourth-of-July fireworks and heat-seeking missiles in enemy territory. Violence that plays on stereotypes and big bangs is easier to digest than a lofty moral message against that violence that entertains so engagingly.
The fact that we as a society are entertained by watching events of suffering speaks volumes about the state of our country. But good art, like Nolan’s films, holds a mirror up to nature, and unfortunately our nature is one that has grown increasingly obsessed with violence.
I saw “Rises” at 12:15 a.m. Friday and didn’t sleep for two days. Of course there are the “What if there had been a shooting in my theater?” thoughts, the concerns for Coloradan friends I have, the simple sadness for the lives taken and mourning families and bystanders. But even after all the criticism I could hurl at the violence depicted in “Rises,” the way that the media and even fans have drawn conclusions that a movie could cause someone to do this is both immature and offensive. In Christopher Nolan’s official statement on the shooting, the director laments that someone would “violate” such an “innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way.” And just so, those who accuse a film, a piece of literature that at most reflects our society, of creating a massacre, violate the sanctity of the theater.
What happened in that theater was truly a tragedy, but we are blind to blame our societal problems on the creative stuff of Hollywood.
Yes, we should turn a critical eye to our gun laws and our entertainment. But, no, “The Dark Knight Rises” cannot be blamed for the violence caused by a killer. This is not a time for blame or accusation, but for mourning and reflection. And perhaps audiences absorbing the film’s grandiose violence will consider the troubling stems in reality.