The Dark Knight Darkens

Last night, 1800 miles away from where I was slouching on my right elbow at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, a crazed gunman opened fire on a showing of the same film in a movie theater in Aurora, CO. Twelve people were killed, almost 40 injured. The nation mourns, the two presidential candidates agree to not bullshit each other for a day, and everyone takes a second to stop and look at their hands, or maybe, up at someone they think about when they think of mortality.

When I first came across this story, the previous nine hours of my life had been spent taking in the Dark Knight trilogy, a three-film marathon starting at 6:00 p.m. that screened the first two films before the premiere of the climax movie at midnight. At 12:30 a.m. Mountain time—the time of the shooting—I was rounding the corner of Rises’s slushy plot into a violent, dramatic payoff battle. By the time it arrived, the sound of deafening gunfire was more normal to me than a real human voice would have been. If (accused) killer James Holmes had wanted to truly jolt the audience he was about to point his weapons at, he could have cut the sound and started speaking normally in the front row. Instead, he imitated a maneuver seen often in these Batman movies: he sprayed gunfire wildly. (Except Holmes was using an assault rifle, which no movie henchman would be caught dead with. Strictly submachine guns for them.) Multiple reports from the scene say that many moviegoers didn’t know that anything was wrong, or even real.

Clicking links first thing this morning, it was only after reading a bit into the articles that I registered that what transpired was an actual massacre, that this was going to be remembered alongside Fort Hood and Gabby Giffords and, of course, the Rose Bowl of senseless killings, Columbine. That this was real.

After all, I’d already seen a number of colorful Batman villains shooting loudly at people on the screen. I can imagine being in that theater, seeing Holmes squeezing off rounds, and taking a few moments longer than healthy to recognize that this was no longer pretend. In fact, the thought occurred to me sometime in the middle of a fight scene in the third movie, likely within an hour of the end of twelve fans’ lives: this is probably the ideal crowd to defend against a crazed gunman. Any moviegoer near him would instinctively twist the gun from his hand, disarm him with a roundhouse, maybe throw in a pithy line. I would!

The Dark Knight trilogy is the opus of writer/director Christopher Nolan, one of the most cerebral, deliberate, humane directors active today, certainly the lone such figure in the Summer Epic phylum. His films brood over complex psychological and philosophical inquiries; his Batman story arc is a study in chaos, not evil, being the foil to justice. In the middle film in the series, the best one, Gotham City is terrorized by the Joker, a maniac with no agenda and no motive, only a desire to violate the best laid plans of mice and men. He is referred to explicitly in the film as a terrorist, and of course, he is. His only goal is to terrorize. From what we can tell, James Holmes was of a similar mind. The particular context of these films made it deeply ironic that the White House declared that the attack had no “relation to terrorism.” I know what you mean, Jay Carney: he wasn’t al Qaeda, he wasn’t one of the guys we’ve supposedly feared for the last decade. He nevertheless shot a theaterful of people with an assault rifle. The Joker didn’t have a turban either. Even Holmes’s arrest was uncannily Joker-like. He submitted quietly, with no fight, only so he could inform the authorities of explosives stashed in another building. Again: reading it all this morning, bleary-eyed and still full of Dark Knight’s loud, beautiful fantasy violence, it all just seemed natural.

This third movie wasn’t particularly great, by the way. I thought it slogged in plot, had too many characters, was actually too real in long stretches. Not gritty-real like The Hurt Locker, but rather that the film took about as long to get up and at ‘em as I do in the morning. There were times when Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack was valiantly trying to communicate that drama was happening without me really understanding why. But I digress. I do not believe in the tendency to dime-store analyze why the criminally insane snap, and I loathe the instinct to blame the media they consume. There are more plausible, neurochemical explanations for mass murder than life imitating art. I only wish to comment that it took me a little while to understand that this particular shooting was a real, big deal. It unsettles me.