Does Batman have blood on his hands?

The "Dark Knight" shootings are sure to reignite debate about violent media, but the real problem is bigger

Topics: Aurora shooting, The Dark Knight Rises, Movies, james holmes, dark knight shooting, , ,

Does Batman have blood on his hands?

We still don’t know enough about the shootings during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in suburban Denver to say much about the motivations of the gunman, who has been identified as a 24-year-old man named James Holmes. What we do know is that at least 12 people who went to the movies on Thursday night, no doubt excited to be among the first paying customers to see the biggest Hollywood spectacle of the year, are never going home again. At least 59 other moviegoers were reportedly injured, some of them seriously.

We also know that the reputation of Christopher Nolan’s dark and violent blockbuster has been marred, perhaps permanently, by its association with these senseless murders. I can guarantee you that some of the more hardheaded executives at Warner Bros. are already wondering (in private) how this incident will affect the global box-office take, which is likely to exceed $1 billion. No one is ever likely to forget that “The Dark Knight Rises,” a movie in which a masked supervillain imposes his will on ordinary people through violence and terror, apparently attracted the attention of a real-life masked villain who inflicted violence and terror on a theater full of total strangers. (To be clear, it seems unlikely that Holmes modeled himself after Bane, the villain played by Tom Hardy in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Multiple news reports have indicated, however, that he identified himself to police as the Joker, the villain played by Heath Ledger in Nolan’s previous Batman film.)

Whatever unknowable personal and private factors may have driven Holmes to commit these crimes — let’s emphasize that he hasn’t been convicted of anything — he has successfully elevated his empty and vicious actions to the level of grand spectacle. That’s a dreadful thing to say, but it’s true. What happened in the small hours of the night at that shopping center in Aurora, Colo., has become worldwide headline news and will be chewed over ad nauseam by TV talking heads and newspaper columnists in the weeks to come. Whether or not Holmes had any particular interest in “The Dark Knight Rises,” he saw correctly that in our increasingly fragmented culture it was the biggest mass-culture story of the year and one of the biggest news stories of any kind. Shoot up a Ken-Taco-Hut or a Dunkin’ Donuts, in standard suburban-nutjob fashion, and you get two or three days of news coverage, tops. Shoot up the premiere of a Batman movie, and you become a symbol and provoke a crisis of cultural soul-searching.

I know that’s an awfully coldblooded analysis to offer in the immediate wake of a real-world event that has left families grieving for their loved ones, and severely injured people in hospitals clinging to life. Amid the sadness and anger and bewilderment that all decent people feel after something like this is the sense that mass killings of this kind are far too common in American life, and that our struggle to find explanations is not satisfactory. Within the first hour after the story of the Aurora shootings was posted on the New York Times website, several commenters suggested that violent Hollywood movies like “The Dark Knight Rises,” or violent entertainment more generally, bore part of the responsibility for inspiring such theatrical acts of real violence. We are sure to see that long-running cultural issue — which goes at least as far back as the spread of literacy and the “penny dreadful” novels of the 19th century — discussed a great deal in the days ahead.

Does Batman, broadly speaking, have blood on his hands for what happened in Aurora? I’m a film critic and a hardcore civil libertarian who has spent much of my career defending free expression even in its nastiest and most disturbing forms. I do not believe that symbolic or fictional violence leads to real violence in any direct or causative manner. If it did, we would have seen rising crime rates in recent decades rather than the opposite, since violent entertainment has clearly become more realistic and more pervasive. So it may surprise you to learn that I think the question is a legitimate one and that, considered properly, it lacks a clear yes-or-no answer.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that so many factors are involved in crime and violence in America — easy access to handguns, social inequality, the sweeping failures of our educational and healthcare systems — that “Call of Duty” and Christopher Nolan movies are pretty far down the list of potential suspects. Most efforts to associate killing sprees with some fictional source, like the specious allegations that the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 had been inspired by the Korean action film “Oldboy,” are transparently ideological and lack solid evidence. Nonetheless, any time defenders of free expression respond to such charges by arguing, in essence, that art and culture have no discernible psychological effects, my B.S. meter starts clanging. If that were true, we wouldn’t argue about them so much! We wouldn’t even be interested.

You can find academic specialists on all sides of this issue, which may reflect the fact that violent entertainment has complicated and perhaps contradictory effects, which vary widely from individual to individual: It could be neutral for most people, for instance, desensitizing for some, and even beneficial or cathartic for others (as libertarian scholar Jib Fowles has argued). For a few unhealthy people on the margins of society, it could certainly provide unfortunate role modeling or inspiration. Again, we know almost nothing about James Holmes at this point, and I don’t want to augment the tide of unfounded speculation. But eyewitnesses have apparently said that he began shooting during one of the movie’s early action scenes; some people in the theater assumed the gunshots were a highly realistic sound effect.

Both literally and metaphorically, Holmes inserted himself into the spectacle at that moment, with a lovingly crafted soundtrack to match. By “spectacle” I don’t just mean “The Dark Knight Rises,” although it’s the biggest Hollywood tent-pole production of the year. I mean the larger sense of the term, pioneered in the ’60s by situationist philosopher Guy Debord, who argued that our entire culture and indeed all of Western society had become a form of performance (or “representation,” to use his word), in which the distinction between the symbolic realm and the realm of reality had been erased, and all social life was mediated by images and commodities. We live in “The Society of the Spectacle” far more today, in the age of the 24/7 news cycle and ubiquitous hand-held electronics, than Debord could possibly have imagined in 1967, when he published his prescient little volume under that title.

Debord’s metaphor is a brilliant philosophical structure that can sometimes be taken too literally. Even the most cynical among us (I hope and believe) understand the real and terrible difference between ordinary people being killed for no reason in a movie theater and actors pretending to be killed on-screen in a superhero movie. But here’s the point that got Jean Baudrillard and Karlheinz Stockhausen in such trouble after 9/11: Consumed via electronic media, as spectacle — and within the spectacle, to use Debord’s language — they look about the same. What happened in Aurora, like what happened at Virginia Tech or what happened in Manhattan in September 2001, “seemed like a movie,” as we so often say. Which may be why we’re so eager to blame the movies — a corner of the spectacle we can cordon off and pretend to understand — instead of looking at the bigger picture.

Part of our outrage at the Aurora shootings, as my colleague Mary Elizabeth Williams has suggested, stems from the fact that the shooter has poisoned the collective joy of the moviegoing experience, one of the last widespread group activities in our segmented society. And another part of our dismay comes from the realization that Holmes’ evil acts resemble a performance meant for mass consumption, a petty and despicable analogue to the movie itself, but nonetheless successful. It would be more decent, perhaps, to mourn the dead and ignore the killer, but we’re not made that way. James Holmes has become the latest villain in a long-running violent movie for which we are all responsible and from which we can’t turn away.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>