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Aurora and Batman

How startling to see the speed with which the film business can respond to audience taste. Within hours of the massacre at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, (far quicker than the removal of the Joe Paterno statue), Warner Brothers were in action. Premieres in Paris and Tokyo were cancelled. Most of the players in the movie—writer-director Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, and Anne Hathaway—issued statements of sorrow. Ms Hathaway, Catwoman in the picture, said, “My heart aches and breaks for the lives taken and altered by this unfathomably senseless act.” In short order, it was decreed that television advertising for the film would be halted. Then came the masterstroke of humbug: Over the film’s first weekend, the studio would announce no box-office figures. Not to be upstaged, every other studio assured us they would stay silent on their figures, too. It would be Monday before the unreliable numbers were whispered abroad, and records were sheepishly admitted.

Meanwhile, some members of the National Rifle Association said they were surprised that no one in the cinema in Colorado was armed and ready to fire back. Later still, it was reported that the gunman’s automatic rifle had jammed, thereby sparing a few lives in all probability.

I hope Anne Hathaway is mistaken—not about her heart (we all share that stricken mood), but about the “unfathomably senseless" act. I know no more about the shooter than has appeared in every newspaper and website. I daresay in time he will be assigned the label “insane” and everyone can say that insanity is an aberrational human condition, and nothing to do with the recklessness that permits so many weapons in the country. For the rest of his life before that midnight screening, the shooter was remarked on as a smart kid, albeit a loner. How many million young Americans does that describe, and how many of them have used the screen to exercise their hopes and fears? The mindset of that young shooter cannot be allowed to be “unfathomably senseless.” We need to ask why.

There’s no reason for Christopher Nolan and the actors to feel personal blame. Nolan and his cast are all talented, and The Dark Knight Rises has just a PG-13 rating. From Warners’ point of view that was a measure to increase the audience, so the immense violence in the film, which includes characters firing at the crowd in an enclosed room, is moderate by today’s standard, and in the brutal fistfights there is very little blood and every instinct for mythic virtue defeating the ugly figures of wickedness and disorder. The lead villain is called Bane, but it would be as absurd to charge Bane, Tom Hardy (who plays the part), or Nolan with responsibility for Aurora’s tragedy as it would be to say that the name Bane was meant as a jab at Mitt Romney and Bain Capital.

In a battering fistfight, where he is repeatedly hit in the head, Bane sheds no blood, despite the fact that he wears a grim metal mask throughout the film, a grill that would reduce his face to pulp. So the violence is compromised to a point of enjoyability in a rating system that would be content for you the parent to take your three-year-old child to see the film (and buy a ticket), so long as you had thought seriously about the matter in advance and been with the kid in the theatre. Has no one noticed how alone we are at the movies, or how unreal their violence is?

The only other thing I know about the shooter is that he told police when he was arrested that he was “the Joker.” That character goes back to Cesar Romero and Larry Storch, but it includes the lovingly spooky devil from Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989) and the haunting performance of the late Heath Ledger in the last film in the series.

The Dark Knight Rises is a very poor film, in my opinion, and I write as a fan of Nolan’s, especially of Inception which may emerge one day as a masterpiece about memory. The script is flat and verbose; the action is slow; and the pretensions towards intimations of modern doom are heavy-handed. The male performers seem stunned or weary, and it is a mistake to put Tom Hardy in that mask—his best sense of mischief is in his smile. On the other hand, Anne Hathaway is good to look at and fun to listen to, while Marion Cotillard, after two hours in which one wonders why she’s in the film, has moments in the last half hour that remind us of what a witch she can be.

So see the film, and chat away about the millions it earns. But ask yourself about “loners” in this best of nations, and why some of them need to fantasize over an on-screen power that has missed them out in real life. Look closely at the violence; see how excitingly it is shot and cut; and just listen to the souped-up impact of the blows struck time after time. There was a moment in film history, in the 1960s and early ’70s, when the often absurd discipline of censorship gave way and those old staples of movie dreaming, sex and violence, took on fresh energy and inventiveness. Nearly fifty years later, the sex has dwindled. There is just one kiss in The Dark Knight Rises, and no nakedness, no flesh, no eroticism. But violence has been a runaway train in our movies to the point where this film can get a PG-13.

I would no more censor The Dark Knight Rises than I wish to see it again. The coyness with its box office was fatuous and self-serving. The shooter may have been very disturbed and very unusual. But in Colorado he had unquestioned access to a small arsenal such as will be denied to him should he end up in a mental hospital. But when it comes to fathoming, that is supposed to be what human beings are good at, so let’s set aside the notion of senselessness and examine the matter as closely as we can. 

*Editor's Note: This article has been revised following publication.