I’ve been waiting a while to write anything about The Dark Knight Rises and the tragedy in Colorado, simply because I wasn’t sure if I had anything productive to add to the conversation despite this being in my topical wheelhouse. Indeed, this great piece from The Onion really encapsulated my intense frustration at the fact that the hyper-political histrionics around the sacrosanct status of the great and glorious gun in our society makes it impossible to have a civil conversation about it.
I guess all I have to say to the conversation around guns in light of what happened is around the ridiculous “slippery slope” argument. Decrying sensible measures to make guns in our society safer (mandatory safety locks, tracking bulk ammo sales, assault weapons ban, barring straw purchases) as a back door effort to “take my guns away” is akin to saying that mandatory seat belts and air bags is obviously a path toward the government trying to ban the automobile. The vast majority of we who do not like guns get the fact that many good, upstanding Americans do like them, and consider them an asset. I strongly disagree, but respect the fact that I am in the minority in this country. So can we just get past the “cold, dead hand” crap and have an honest conversation about how we can just make these things safer? I really wish we could.
Now let me pivot and leap into the cultural abyss here, as of all the pieces I’ve read on all this, Peggy Noonan’s piece in the Wall Street Journal is to me the most provocative. In it, she makes an interesting case for Hollywood’s cultural demise putting Batman front-and-center:
Did “The Dark Knight Rises” cause the Aurora shootings? No, of course not. One movie doesn’t have that kind of power, and we don’t even know if the shooter had seen it. But a million violent movies have the cumulative power to desensitize and destabilize, to make things worse, and that’s what we’ve been seeing the past quarter century or so, the million movies. Each ups the ante in terms of carnage. Remember Jack Nicholson’s Joker, from 1989? He was a garish, comic figure and he made people laugh. He was a little like Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook in the old TV version of “Peter Pan.” You knew he wasn’t “real.” He was meant to amuse.
Compare that with Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Night.” That Joker was pure evil, howling and demonic, frightening to see and hear. If you know what darkness is, you couldn’t watch that Joker and not be afraid. He looked like the man who opens the door when you get off the elevator to enter Hell; he looked like the guy holding the red velvet rope. That character was so dark, and so powerful, he destabilized the gifted actor who played him. Ledger died of a drug overdose six months before the movie opened.
Okay, so let’s dismiss the irrelevant and unsupported claim about TDK’s Joker being part of Heath Ledger’s demise. Noonan makes a great relation on the two iterations of Batman’s most iconic enemy. For while I recently allowed Gus to watch Batman Begins, as desperate as he is to see the sequel, I said that he’d need to be at least 13 before I even considered letting him watch the Bat battle the Clown Prince of Crime. Indeed, while I believe TDK is a fantastic movie, it is so incredibly dark that I still believe it merited an R-rating. I would personally rather my son see a movie like Jaws at his age, as what makes something adult is not just about the body count or the blood. To me, more importantly, it is about the underlying psychology of where that blood fits in.
My plan is actually to allow Gus to see Dark Knight Rises in a year or two and skip over the second film. Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is really two stories with a middle chapter which doesn’t have all that much to do with the book-ends. The villains’ intent, motivation, and execution in films 1 and 3 are intertwined, and while the scenery is more realistic and intense than you see in most Super Hero films, both are still very big and broad action films at their center. Destroy Gotham. Big, strong villain in a rather goofy mask doing dastardly things. Hero comes in to save millions. Been there, done that. Frankly, I thought Noonan’s reaction to TDKR is more a hangover from film 2, which is, indeed, a different animal.
Ledger’s Joker is to the Super Hero genre what Jigsaw is to Horror. As the Saw films started a trend in horror toward the “torture porn” films from the more over-the-top slashers like the Jason Voorhees’ and Freddy Krueger’s I grew up with. It turned the violence from silly to celebratory; from an cathartic romp with the Id into a vivid guidebook down the inky pit of our own souls. To me, Saw and its copy-cats crossed a very real line.
Nolan did the same thing with his Joker—making The Dark Knight more of a noir, psychological thriller like Se7en than it was like Batman Begins. It was a fascinating premise and really the Joker at his most frightening, pulled from comic classics like the Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. How do you handle a villain who’s only motivation is, as Alfred says “to watch the world burn”? It was a brilliant and terrible walk down a morally ambiguous path. And, as Noonan points out, the more realistic flavor of the madness could feed the motivation to those souls where the darkness is already seeping in.
I feel like Noonan is overplaying her hand a bit, as the incidents like those in Colorado are sporadic and, frankly, pale in comparison with gun deaths by suicide, drug-related homicides, or accidental shootings as we consider which cultural issues are of priority to tackle even within the sub-category of gun violence. And within the Super Hero genre, for every Joker, we have a Red Skull, Loki, and Lex Luthor that are played purely for the same kind of campy, diabolical fun as Ming the Merciless was generations ago.
But I do think it merits consideration for Hollywood and the MPAA, not to mention the video game industry, to put a new prism on evaluating the content not just for the events as they transpire on the screen, but the context. Because just because the blood doesn’t splatter, that doesn’t automatically make the violence “harmless.” For films, games, and TV shows–especially the Super Hero (and Super Villain) genre—really do have the power to tap into the American psyche, for good or for ill, like no other.
And, I think I’ve read somewhere, that with great power comes great responsibility.