Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight (Hopefully) Endures

You don't come to this blog for keen social commentary, I'm guessing, and that's not the content I aspire to provide, anyways.  I'll let other people argue about whether the Aurora, Colorado incident is a call for stricter gun legislation, or proof of the necessity for the continued right to bear arms.  I've got my thoughts on the subject, but they are murky and somewhat contradictory, and this isn't the place for me to expound on them.

This IS the place -- if such a place exists at all -- for me to expound on the reasons why I think we shouldn't allow this crime to damage the reputation of one of our most well-known fictional characters, Batman.  That probably seems like a trivial thing to worry about, in the light of the people who were murdered, those who were injured, and those who have been psychologically traumatized by the acts of a madman.

Comparatively, it is trivial.  But there is a reason why we, as a people, pay money and spend time to engage with fictional characters.  Doing so helps to satisfy a deep need within ourselves, and also within the collective psyche of our culture.  We should not, and must not, lose sight of that fact.

There is obviously still quite a lot that we don't know about the motivations of James Holmes.  Some reports have insisted that the gunman was dressed as Bane, the villain in the new film; others have said that Holmes had his hair painted red in an apparent imitation of The Joker, but those reports appear to be sheer speculation (and also seem to ignore the fact that The Joker typically sports green hair).

It is unclear at this time whether Holmes' actions were motivated by the film in any way.  Obviously, he targeted the theatre itself, but -- and bear in mind that this is sheer speculation on my part -- the fact that he picked a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in which to stage his assault may have had less to do with the movie itself than with the likelihood that the theatre would be well-attended.  Alternatively, it is just as possible that Holmes felt some sort of bizarre kinship with the content of the series of movies, and decided to act upon those feelings in a public manner.
For now, we simply do not know.
However, it seems to be the case that Holmes' crimes have scared some people away from going to see the movie this weekend.  It's understandable; there is no proof that similar acts will not happen elsewhere in the country, so some people are afraid to take the chance.  Others simply do not have the ability to remove the massacre from their minds for long enough to enjoy the movie that served as the staging area for the criminal.
In the short term, that seems like an appropriate reaction.
In the long term, however, I think it is important to remember several things, regardless of what we eventually learn about Holmes' motivations.  For one thing, he is, evidently, a homicidal psychopath.  There is simply no accounting for crazy.  Psychopaths are a bit like tornadoes: you don't have any control over what they do, or when they occur.  If you see one coming, you can take steps to ensure your safety, but the fact is that you're powerless to keep them from showing up, if the forces that create them have mixed in such a way as to put them in your vicinity.

This is a frightening fact, but it was true a week ago, and it'll still be true a week from now.  Nothing has changed; we still live in a world where a tornado might tear us to pieces, and we still live in a world where a lunatic with a weapon might show up and kill us for no reason.  Both of those things we also true a thousand years ago, and they'll probably be true a thousand years from now.

Part of the downside to being alive is that sooner or later, something is going to put an end to us, or to someone we care about.  It's unavoidable.  Might be a tornado, might be a psychopath in body armor, might be cancer; might be an asteroid, or a nuclear bomb, or a spider, or a black hole, or a fall in the shower, or a heart-attack.  You generally cannot control what will ultimately undo you; all you can do (to paraphrase Gandalf) is decide how you are going to live.

Cats and otters and pandas and whatnot don't have to worry about this.  They merely live, presumably free of the knowledge of their mortality.  Humans are more advanced creatures than that; unless we are stunted somehow, we know our time is limited, and this is a psychological problem each of us has to wrestle with individually.  One of the ways we cope with that problem is to tell ourselves stories that serve as limited stage-rehearsals for our eventual demise.  Stephen King knows all about this; he'd probably tell you that one of the reasons he's written all of those scary books is to exorcise some of his personal demons on the subject of what scares him (which, as he's admitted, is pretty much everything).
Some people find it peculiar, or even deviant, for others to "enjoy" horror fiction or cinema, but the truth is that it's completely normal.  Virtually all storytelling deals with the fear of mortality in some way, even if it is to ignore the fact of it; it's merely a matter of degrees.  (This is nothing new; many scholars consider the epic poem "Gilgamesh" to be the earliest known work of fiction, and it is very much concerned with issues of mortality.)  A simplistic adventure story like a '50s-style shoot-'em-up Western touches on some of the same themes as, say, Hostel; it simply takes a wildly different path to get there, and delivers the message in a softened -- and therefore more palatable -- fashion.
Standing somewhere in the middle in terms of the degree of severity in the message is a movie like The Dark Knight Rises.  This is a big, loud, entertainment for the masses; it isn't an empty-headed one (like, say, Transformers is), but it is certainly designed to entertain the maximum number of people.  However, it also aims to illuminate, and to reinforce, our ideas about heroism and villainy.
As a character, Batman has been doing that for decades.  Many people have written about how comic-book characters like Batman and Superman and Spider-Man are modern incarnations of heroic figures such as Hercules, Odysseus, and Jason.  I can't add anything to that conversation here except to note that they are totally correct in that assessment.  Batman, specifically, is a character who, as he has evolved over time, has become a means for us to explore (among other things) how we respond to the fear associated with the violent death of loved ones.  Bruce Wayne, as a child, witnesses his parents' murder at the hands of a thief; he and his parents are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There have been incarnations of the Batman story that seek to alter that somewhat, but in the end it typically comes back to that simple fact.

Sadly, we now have what appears to be a brutal intersection of that story with real life.  It may seem as if the Aurora massacre now makes it more difficult to enjoy a Batman story, but I think it would be a genuine loss if we allowed a psychopath's actions to deprive us of a character who has proven to be well-suited to explore methods by which we can respond in the face of crime and terrorism.  The truth is that we need Batman.  Maybe not individually; the character may not speak to you in any way.  But culturally, as a society in which violent crimes occur on a daily basis and seem destined to continue to do so for the foreseeable future, we need to be able to safely explore what that means from time to time; doing so helps us cope psychologically with the knowledge that something similar could theoretically happen to us someday.

Batman Begins was released in the summer of 2005, not quite four years after 9/11.  It seemed to have resonance in the shadows of those events.  The previous Batman film, 1997's dreadful Batman & Robin, had been a campy, nonsensical bit of noise; relaunching the cinematic version of the character in a changed world, the filmmakers made the correct decision, which was to go back to the roots of Batman and redefine what makes him tick.  In that movie, young Bruce Wayne is traumatized by the murder of his parents, and he initially retreats into himself in fear.  This is consistent with what we've seen of him prior to the murders; he reacts with fear to falling down a well, and to being swarmed by bats.  Later, as an adult, he confronts all of those fears, and forces himself to conquer them as much as it is possible to do so.  In one of the movie's best scenes, he is again swarmed by bats, and forces himself to stand calmly among them.

The Dark Knight, released in 2008, reintroduced Batman's most famous nemesis, The Joker.  Played brilliantly by Heath Ledger, The Joker is a symbol of anarchy and destruction.  He is a psychopath who seems at some point to have undergone a brutal disfiguring at the hands of ... who?  We don't know.  He may always have been a criminal, or he may at some point have been a good person to whom a bad thing happened, who then decided to punish the world rather than to help protect it.  We simply don't know.  What we do know is that one way or another, Batman and The Joker are opposite sides of the same coin, a mirroring which is furthered through the use of the character Two-Face.  Two-Face demonstrably IS a normal man who allows pain and tragedy to warp him into something vicious and evil.  Batman defeats The Joker, and defeats Two-Face as well, but only at a cost: he loses the woman he loves, and he also loses the support of Gotham.  He ends the movie by abandoning his calling.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up that thread, and deals with the necessity for continuing to fight, to the end if that is what is required.  I won't say much more about the movie than that, but that's the theme in a nutshell.

It's a good movie, one which brings an end to a trilogy of good movies, and does so in fairly spectacular fashion.  Overall, one of the things the trilogy has to say to us is this: the world is undoubtedly sometimes a terrible place, but by persisting in our beliefs and by being kind to one another, we can each make it considerably less terrible.

That, to me, seems like a vital message in general, but it seems even more vital in the wake of the Aurora massacre.  I think it would be a lamentable shame if that message were trampled underneath the insane feet of James Holmes.  In the coming weeks and months and years, I'm sure these movies will be examined in a different light than they would otherwise have been; pop culture in general may well come under the same type of scrutiny.  Some, I have little doubt, will take issue with what they find while carrying out that scrutiny.  But as that process develops, I'd argue that we need to keep in mind a simple fact: we tell ourselves these stories because we need to tell them.

Batman is fiction, but as Stephen King once pointed out, fiction is the truth inside the lie.  Batman is fiction, yes; but he's also a type of truth, and we can learn from him in addition to be entertained by him.  He's not alone in that regard; we can also learn from and be entertained by Superman, or Luke Skywalker, or James T. Kirk, or Tom Sawyer, or Sherlock Holmes, or Harry Potter, or Edward Cullen, or Katniss Everdeen, or Roland Deschain, or Forrest Gump, or Buffy Summers, or Ellen Ripley, or John McClane, or Jack Sparrow.  The list is nearly endless, which is as it should be.

So in the light of this fresh atrocity, I'd like to remind you that dreaming is a human necessity.  Our dreams teach us, and motivate us, and, yes, (sometimes) frighten or confuse us.  Continuing to dream is not an affront to those who have been harmed by a killer; continuing to dream is a response to the fact that such a killer exists at all.

In the end, dreaming is our only power over someone like James Holmes, and we, as a people, must continue to exercise it.


  1. Bryant, my beloved Stephen King buddy, I gave you a little bloggy award:

    1. I shall love it and pet it and call it George. :)

  2. In not setting out to start social commentary, you seem to have done just that. Oh well, no problem there. To be fair, I'm sort of not sure of what to think in the aftermath of these events.

    I do know that I found it hard to go near the Arkham video games for a while.

    I say I'm almost not sure, I do have some ideas about the event and the movie, who doesn't. I think folks like Holmes can be explained, and it might help in my regard inasmuch as I've got OCD, for all it's drawbacks, one thing it does is sharpen concentration and make you take an active interest in psychology.

    As for Holmes, I believe in the idea expressed by a writer, Milton, not King that such people are born from a sense of "Injured Merit." That might sound simplistic, however sometimes the simplest explanation if often the correct one.

    As for the films, well, there's irony inasmuch as the whole Batman universe seems designed to deal exclusivly with events like the one in Colorado. On the optimistic side, this might be the time for the comic writers to contribute in some positve way to the diologue, use the character to try and adress this situation in some fashion. I don't know, maybe.

    As to the film as film, I'll admit one thing I knew before it was ever released, the movie needed the Joker, so that I think subtracts from this outing. I even mentally rewrote him (the Joker) into the film in my mind.

    Without giving anything away ( I hope) here's how the fan scenario plays out.

    The Joker is set free and enlisted in the action. He goes along willingly, yet all the time he sets villain against villain like Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars. His secret is he knows the whole enterprise is doomed to failure and will come to nothing. When Batman enters the scene, he goes into overdrive.

    To be continued.


  3. Continued from previous post.

    Now there is one related element I've worked into my ideal fan scenario. While Time Burton's take on the character was flawed, one thing that always seemed right to me was his idea that the Joker created Batman so in turn, vice versa.

    It just fit for me, somehow, and that's what I incorporated into my thinking about the movie. This is something that is revealed at some point and as guessed, it affects both characters. A huge difference from the movie and my idealized version is it's the Joker who makes a huge revelation pertaining to events in Dark Knight rather than Bane.

    This version of the story comes to a head when the Joker pulls a "Made You Look" on all the villains that sabotages and ends their plans in a second and proceeds to do away with Gotham city and Batman along with it.

    In their final showdown, it's revealed that the Joker made Batman and so on. for the first and last time, Batman shows Joker who he really is. True to form the Joker goes out litterally laughing.

    Well, there's my take on it, anyway, gotta admit it sure would have made things more interesting.


    1. Yeah, it's a real shame that Ledger isn't still around.