On the morning of July 20, I was preparing to post a list of my favorite movie villains in conjunction with the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises when I discovered that a real-life villain had emerged during a midnight showing of the same. A new Batman movie debuts, and, chillingly, James Holmes and I had the same thought: the villain is the draw.
Three of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy villains had made my list. Nolan’s villains have proven to be particularly memorable, not exactly because they are physically intimidating but because they are enigmatic mad geniuses driven by the idea that only chaos can wipe the slate clean. Emphasis on genius. Part of the fear and fascination with Heath Ledger’s Joker, for example, lies in the way he manipulates his cronies in the bank-robbery scene, ending in a school-bus get-away camouflaged upon its impeccably-timed exit by a line of other school buses.
The “top of the top” of his class. Six foot three. Armed to teeth. Covered in anti-ballistic gear and a mask. Roughly fifteen minutes into the film, Holmes had slipped out the exit feigning a cell-phone call, propped the door, gathered his gear, and returned with an attack that began with the theatrics of hissing tear-gas cans tossed into the auditorium while only a few miles away his apartment was rigged in a lattice-work of booby traps and a blast of techno music designed to elicit a noise complaint call and a subsequent officer trying the rigged door.
I’ve read speculation that Holmes chose the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises because it was the pop-culture event of the summer sure to draw the most people and the most attention. That may be true, but it also seems obvious that he chose The Dark Knight Rises because he imagined himself to be a Nolan-variety, ingenious villain. I’ve also read speculation that Holmes informed the police about his rigged apartment because he was perhaps beginning to feel some contrition. My guess is that he wanted everyone to admire the intricacy of his handiwork in the event that no one had phoned in that noise complaint and everything was still in place.
These things have a set course. It’s a movie we’ve seen before. Gun violence erupts on a mass scale. The media unpacks the sketchy details first. Some of the victims’ identities. Then the name of the assailant. Pieces begin to fall into place. He was a quiet guy. Smart. Never bothered anyone. A picture. A video. The first court appearance. The first glimpse that unnerves in all the ways in which that glimpse doesn’t square with the geeky clean-cut yearbook snapshot. And then we all turn to debating the politics, the gun laws, the ties to violent imagery in video games and movies, the ties to who we are as a culture. Then we leave it all behind until the next time. And there will be a next time.
I didn’t post the top villains piece because 12 fatalities and 50-plus injured later I’m not only horrified at the events that unfolded in the Aurora theater and heartbroken for the families but horrified at the idea that I’ve ever been entertained by the sort of villain that may have inspired the perpetrator. I’ve long been a fan of film. I’ve long been a fan of violent films. Taxi Driver. Reservoir Dogs. Bronson. And I’m familiar with all of the arguments that say film isn’t to blame, that some unstable person hell-bent on killing doesn’t need a movie to lead the way. My logical mind agrees with that, but the emotional me wants to explore what it all means when the L. A. Times’ early reporting reads, “It’s unclear which of the film’s shootout scenes was playing when the violence broke out at the Century 16 Movie Theaters in Aurora,” because there were so many shootout scenes.
Offering one perspective on the matter, Sharon Waxman at The Wrap writes:
Movies are not the cause of real-life violence. But that does not mean they have no impact on us. We love the movies because they affect us deeply – often to the good. But if that is true, than so must be the reverse.
We should not pretend that films do not move us. That fans sometimes become obsessive and live in worlds that can be all-enveloping. That playing shooter games touches some primal urge in the human psyche, not necessarily our most civilized impulse.
And since Columbine, movies and videogames and television shows have only become more violent.
It is fair to ask that moviemakers and their studios, that game developers and their distributors, take some accountability for the impact of their work.
Dana Stevens makes a similar case at Slate, adding:
To discuss the meaning and motives of his crime, of course we have to at least talk about why he might choose The Dark Knight Rises as a backdrop (and possibly a template) for whatever private fantasy he was enacting. And maybe there should also be conversations about what it means that the economics of the film industry are driven almost entirely by the fantasies and desires of young men, and what effect that kind of over-representation in pop culture might have on … the fantasies and desires of young men.
I agree, and I disagree. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of artists censoring their work in deference to those few unstable viewers who would twist what they see on the big screen into a real-life nightmare. I’m also uncomfortable with the likelihood that the big screen reflects our violent tendencies as a society and vice versa. I don’t know what to do about these things. I don’t know how to undo the pain of the tragedy in Aurora or how to prevent another massacre. All I can tell you is that I went to see The Dark Knight Rises yesterday in defiance of a man who, in Nolan’s words, sought to “violate that innocent and hopeful place [of the movie theater] in such an unbearably savage way,” and it didn’t change anything.