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.

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

15 responses to “On Violence, Villains, and The Dark Knight Rises

  1. Matt says:

    Yes.

    I opted for Moonrise Kingdom on Friday evening, as I needed a little mirth after watching the news of the shooting unfurl all day. Went to see The Dark Knight Rises yesterday. Glad I waited. I don’t think I could have sat through the film on Friday night, even with Batman’s explicitly stated “no guns, no killing” policy.

  2. James D. Irwin says:

    I only heard the news story after I got back from seeing the film myself.

    It is horrible. It is horrible for many many reasons, from the obviously tragic loss of innocent life to the entirely trivial overshadowing of an incredible film. I think it is almost certain that The Dark Knight Rises was chosen to mximise exposure. Calculated murderers tend to be on the more egotistical side. It’s hard to imagine a shooting at a matinee screening of an indie rom-com having the same impact in the press— and nobody would be crying ‘do indie rom-coms make us kill people?!’

    Personally I don’t think violence in film or video games causes violent behaviour. Most films I watch have an element of violence, and I enjoy it. I know it isn’t real. I abhor violence in real life. Violent urges are natural, and things like film and video games are an excellent, non-violent way of satisfying those urges. i.e. instead of lashing out at an irritating co-worker, you go home and beat up homeless people on GTA.

    I’ve done some research, and it turns out violent crime actually pre-dates cinema… you can even read about it in books from the 1890s. The constant factor in all violent gun crime throughout the history of violent gun crime is the gun. You can’t shoot someone without a gun. The more readily available guns are, the easier it is for dangerous people to get hold of guns, and the more likely it is that violent gun crime will happen.

    The thing that shocked me most about this shooting was how easily Holmes got hold of his weapons. No background checks, nothing. No ‘so why exactly do you want high powered semi-automatic weapons, sir?’ Just… here you go… fire away… DESPITE the fact he was banned from the local shooting gallery because of his behaviour and attitude.

    I’m not attacking the right to bear arms, however anachronistic it may be. People should have the right to be able to defend themselves. But surely there’s a sort of middle ground, where people are allowed to have guns, but those people are checked first and maybe just given a pistol.

    I don’t think violent films can really be blamed— they’re a handy scapegoat that stops us from having to examine our own society too closely. I imagine the number of people who have watched violent films outnumbers the amount of violent crimes committed by several million. There’s at least one violent action film on cable every night, usually one new cinema release every week. It just so happens that violent criminals are likely to be drawn to violent fantasy in fiction.

    The truth is if Holmes hadn’t had such easy access to guns there’d be less dead bodies in Colorado today. He was not a master criminal in the vein of Bane or the Joker. He was an arrogant cowardly pyschopath who shouldn’t have been allowed near so much as a water pistol. The only influence The Dark Knight Rises had over the tragedy was the ‘draw’ of hundreds of victims in a enclosed, high profile space.

    • True, violent crimes aren’t new. Violence as entertainment isn’t even new. Le Morte D’Arthur may be one of the most violent things I’ve ever read, and it’s 15th century. Many good and thoughtful points here, Irwin. Thanks for adding your perspective!

  3. Dana says:

    I hope eventually we get to see your villain list, Cynthia. These are some strange times we live in. When I saw the movie on Saturday, I got very emotional during the first “open fire on a crowd” scene.

    I know you’re right, “And there will be a next time.”

    Something that shocked me was the coverage in my local paper that listed mass shootings in the US that have happened since Columbine… and there were some on the list that I didn’t recall, at all. Some of the ones that I don’t remember were geographically close to me.

    When an avowed hypersensitive, gun hating, mush ball like me can completely block out mass shootings that take place within a couple hundred miles, I’d guess that most of us are becoming inured to violence.

    • That’s really depressing that there are so many it’s hard to keep track/remember unless the numbers are particularly high & warrant more coverage.

      I’m sure you’ve read that they pulled the Gangster Squad preview with the image of people being mowed down in a theater. I was so thankful they had because the previews that remained and the film itself, as you noted, were a little emotional or difficult at certain points given the recent events.

  4. My brother-in-law had part of his family murdered a few years ago in the Appomattox shootings. Eight total killed by a paranoid lunatic and gun fanatic. Unless there is serious discussion–without the political hyperbole attached–in this country, this will continue to happen. I’ve said this before on this site and others, but Virginia and Colorado share a lot in common including some of the dumbest gun laws in the country. It’s sad what happened at the viewing of this film and it’s sad it will happen again, and we’ll hardly bat an eye when it comes to doing anything to help prevent or lessen the fatal outcome.

    http://www2.newsadvance.com/news/2010/jan/22/gunshots_heard_as_authorities_investigate_appomatt-ar-214469/
    http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-18560_162-4931769.html

    • James D. Irwin says:

      The BBC have been comparing Colorado and Virginia, for the very reason that they have probably the most lax gun control in the US.

      Obama clearly isn’t going to address the issue before November, but he probably won’t after either because everyone will have forgotten by then. It’s an issue that probably won’t be addressed for a long time because of factions on both sides who make debate impossible. ‘You’re all rednecks!’ ‘CONSTITUTION!’ Round and around, over and over like deranged monkeys in a faeces flinging fist fight. The loudest tend to be more interested in point scoring than any real change…

      There is a difference between having a right to bear arms, and having instant access to automatic rifles hours after being banned from a shooting range.

      Guns are dangerous. Some people are stupid and careless. Some people are dangerous. Stupid, careless, or dangerous people should be thoroughly checked for criminal background and mental health. Gun laws should be federal, so there is no confusion, loophole, or room for illegal cross state arms dealing.

      It wouldn’t catch everyone, and a lot of people who are going to kill people either aren’t thinking rationally, and if you’re intent on breaking the ‘no murder law’ I can’t imagine you giving a shit about the gun control laws… but it’d be a start. The harder it is for someone to get hold of a gun, the harder it is for them to commit gun crime.

  5. J.M. Blaine says:

    It’s one of those things
    where there’s so much to
    think I don’t know how to think it.

    Thank you for writing
    a well -thought out piece
    about it, we need it.

    Haven’t seen the movie yet
    but I do hope for the next re-boot
    to be a campier, more fun Batman.

  6. Erika Rae says:

    I’m with JMB – we needed this one. There are so many angles, that there just isn’t anything simple to say on any one topic, so I’ll refrain for now. Nice work, Cynthia.

  7. Seth Pollins says:

    Thanks, Cynthia. Good stuff, as always.

    “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.”

    This is a simple and elegant idea, and I hadn’t ever really put it to myself in this way.

  8. This debate enters a new cycle every few years or so, the massacres reappearing like sequels. A few years ago it was a killer in Belgium in Joker makeup, this time a guy in a gas mask in a CO theater with assault rifles. Each time, it’s not the movies’ fault, but each time I find myself siding more with the squeamish.

    Of course, I just went to see The Dark Knight Rises. The thought had crossed my mind that the shooting gives the film added cultural relevance, so I should probably check it out. I have the feeling I’m not the only one giving the film more import because of the tragic headlines associated with it.

    While it’s finely made, I can’t help but thinking Nolan is working on a mix of entertainment and commentary on contemporary madness that is careless. That the film’s content and, more so, its mass marketing has lead down a predictable path. And his public letter on the tragedy saying that movies are a place for innocence and hope is, as I see it, belied by the thrust of these last two Batman movies, which are as grim as autopsies and rely on the charisma of their psychos to deliver the real thrills and the hint of end-times cultural insight.

    So the onscreen dread and the gunfire and the necks twisted off before an audience of gasping civilians is something we have to work against once we’ve watched it. Then when a real-life tragedy occurs we have to ignore, repeatedly and with more and more sincere consternation every time, the parallels.

    This is not a polemic against Nolan or Batman or Sam Peckinpah or the Romans at the colosseum cheering as the lions mauled the athletes to death, but for me, I always just wind up longing for something life-affirming in the public consciousness.

    Since censorship is never the answer and only draws attention to the material, the hope is that we can make more active choices in seeking out stories out that go for life-affirming instead. A truly great film has to have this. And for me, so many talented mainstream directors seem too afraid to be truly hopeful.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful piece on the subject, Cynthia, and for opening a space for me to ramble and vent about it.

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