From the mind of Dr. Michael Arntfield

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Why the ‘Dark Knight’ Matters More Than Ever

dark-knight

The last 24 months have spawned crimes in North America that—as desensitized it would seem we as a society have become—truly defy explanation and can still shake us to our core in terms of their inexplicability and barbarity. But the shooting spree, or, as some European newspapers have described it, the ‘latest’ shooting spree in America, truly stands apart and is likely unrivaled in recent years in terms of the scale of the tragedy.

The shooting at theater 9 at the Century 16 cineplex in Aurora Colorado, just minutes into the much hyped midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises has—in what would seem has emerged as the age of the mass shooting and spree killing—eclipsed even the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre of 1984 in terms of the depth of grief and anger. As the details emerge about the exact MO of the deranged gunman and his arsenal of weapons, anti-social disposition, floundering academic career, and possible motives—if any—the stories of the victims it would seem are, in a rare departure from conventional crime reporting, also getting a lot of ink. This is in part because our ability to empathize, versus sympathize, with these victims is enhanced by the context of the killings. It is in part because of this context, regardless of where we live or what we do, that this crime will inevitably feel too close to home for most.

As the film’s director Christopher Nolan described in a poignant and tactful public statement upon receiving news of the mass murder:

I would not presume to know anything of the victims of the crime but that they were there last night to watch a movie…an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating.’

Nolan’s description of the movie theatre as an ‘innocent and hopeful place’ is very much apropos of the unsettlingly personal nature of this crime. Notwithstanding the fact that it may end up being the worst mass shooting in US history, beyond the grim numbers lies much broader implications for the collective psyche of society at large. Movies are inextricably tied to the very social fabric of our culture. Movies are not just a form of escape and entertainment, they serve as important rites of passage in life; movies are where we take our kids, friends, spouses, and first dates, where we celebrate milestones, where we go to reminisce, reflect, and be inspired.

The movie theatre, by extension, as the tangible place where we watch a story unfold, seated beside both loved ones and strangers alike, offers an experiential dimension to movies that intensifies their meaning—a place where people from all walks of life come together and become communities unto themselves. As Nolan describes, there is something very much ‘innocent,’ perhaps even sacred about this phenomenon. Any public shooting is horrific, senseless, and outraging. The thought of such a cold and calculated ambush targeting people—couples young and old, fans in costume idealistically clinging to their childhood memories, military servicemen taking a much-deserved respite, and, most horrifically, children there to affirm their faith in superheroes saving the day—in this sanctuary is nothing short of emotionally and culturally scarring.

The stories of the victims and their anticipation to see the film, their celebratory mood ahead of attending the screening as described in their final social media posts, and the people they chose to share the experience with are all things we can relate to on a personal and emotional level, and allow us to picture ourselves actually being there. Everyone of the hundreds of millions of movie-goers intending to see this film—any film—or anyone who has ever saved a ticket stub, bought a souvenir, lined-up for an opening night premiere, or who, like Nolan, has ever called the movie theatre home, has had something taken from them through this tragedy.

In spite of the cache of military weapons used, including aerosol weapons, the tactical attire of the shooter—a gaunt looking grad school dropout and involuntary celibate whose name I won’t even mention—and the explosive-laden death trap left at his apartment, the FBI was quick to re-assure the public that this was notan act of terrorism. While perhaps not fitting the post-9/11 definition of terrorism per se, or the narrowly delineated public understanding of terrorism as having a discernible political or ideological agenda, the reality is that this was without question an act of terror in terms of how it has affected us psychologically. That said, like all acts of terrorism, we must respond to it like we do any other terrorist act, and resolve to not let it define us or change our daily lives. Easier said than done.

With such resolutions in mind, the fact that this tragedy unfolded at the screening of a Batman film—perhaps the most anticipated film of all time and featuring the most relatable and admirable of fictional heroes—should not go unnoted. While the shooter purporting to be the Joker is more likely to be a convenient and cowardly way of either deferring personal responsibility, or rehearsing an insanity defense than it is evidence of any real link between motive and the Batman franchise, we can look to The Dark Knight Rises as both the site of a tragedy and a cipher for how to respond to it—how to try and make sense of it and not have our faith in people and our way of life undermined.

As one fan in New York City commented to Reuters, if there is anything this film accomplishes—all of the trilogy’s films for that matter—it is to inspire good in people, not evil. The films are designed to prompt people to close ranks, set aside differences, and fight crime, not succumb to it. The historical origins of the Batman character certainly indicate that as a cultural archetype, this has been its purpose from inception. Like in Nolan’s films, Batman is less a person as much as he is a persona, an elusive symbol. Even if felled in action, that symbol lives on in other people who pick up the cause and carry forward.

Thus, as we continue to reel from the events of July 20, 2012, consider the origins of Batman as a character introduced in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. At the precipice of global war and in uncertain and tragic times, the introduction of [The] Batman reflected the need for a hero in a turbulent era. Conceptualized as a regular human, who though the will to act where others would not, he would be poised to become more than any detective, more than any man for that matter, and could fight injustice on a whole new level. The Batman would in short order become a symbol that Americans—and the people of the world—would look to and draw inspiration from as the horrors and atrocities of WWII came to the fore, and soon transcended the Detective Comics line to become a global multimedia phenomenon all his own.  Since then, Gotham City—as a metaphorical and allegorical New York City—has similarly relied on the Batman lore to pull itself up during periods of social unrest and tragedy. During Mayor Giuliani’s reforms of the 1990s, for instance, the re-branding of the expanded and professionalized NYPD as ‘crime fighters’ in various media campaigns proved to be a morale boost for both the department and the recovering city, as the connection—even if only semantic—between New York City and the Gotham City home to Batman seemed to make heroes something worth believing in again.

In the wake of this horrific shooting, the social construct of a Batman—a Dark Knight—as a hero who is not a specific entity but an idea, should serve as the inspiration for how we must overcome this tragedy and how, like the film that served as the stage for such real life horror, the good guys must prevail. The stories of individual acts of heroism by regular everyday people during this incident are both sadly ironic but also inspiring given the film’s larger message. It is one that the victims of this crime believed in when they sat down in their seats that night—the will to act in the face of fear. These are the stories that must be told as news of the shooting continues to unfold: the ticket holders, some as young as high school students, who risked and in at least one case sacrificed their own lives to help a stranger out of the auditorium; the police officers who were at the scene in less than 90 seconds and ran into theater 9 against a tide of fleeing and horrified moviegoers to face uncertain danger; and the citizens of Aurora who have been galvanized in the wake of the massacre, rallying behind the victims, their community, and their emergency services who continue to work tirelessly to preserve evidence in this case. These are the people whose actions will ensure that these victims did not die in vain, living reminders that such unthinkable acts will always prompt the good people into action.

The fact that this tragedy occurred not only with the sanctuary of the movie theater, but in a theater screening a film whose message was played out in real-life within just minutes of the opening frame, is no coincidence. The sicko freak and social pariah who carried out this massacre no doubt targeted the midnight screening to maximize casualties, knowing full well that the auditorium would be sold out and the audience members immersed in the fantasy of the film and even more vulnerable and slow to react. The fact that the shooter also rigged his apartment to detonate and kill all of its other inhabitants, neighbors, and any first responders attending there speaks to the fact that mass murder for mass murder’s sake, and not this film, is what inspired him. What needs to inspire others is that this all happened during the innagural screening of a film about redemption and overcoming adversity. The victims who were there that night believed in the principles of justice imparted and extolled by The Dark Knight Rises and we owe it to them to maintain our belief in these principles as well.

Those who talk of boycotting the film in the wake of the shooting have a point—it would be difficult to watch the opening few scenes knowing that they foreshadowed a real life fate far more horrific for those who happened to be in theatre 9, and who spent their final moments watching those same frames go by, totally unaware of what was about to happen. A decision to see the film now, later, or ever will be a personal one that filmgoers will have to make on their own. However, I think we can look to the parallels between the film’s message and the brave and selfless actions of those who prevented this tragedy from being worse. They are actions that define why we go to the movies in the first place. They are actions that serve as evidence that the construct, whether real or illusory, of a Dark Knight—a superhero as simply an ordinary person doing extraordinary things—is more important, more meaningful and provocative now than ever.