Noah J Nelson on Monday, Jul. 23rd
Advisory: While it is far from the most important thing at the moment, you should know it is possible to infer certain things about the plot of The Dark Knight Rises from this essay, including the film’s ending. Consider yourself warned.
I’m not entirely sure I want to write this. My reaction to what happened in Aurora has been visceral. Alternating waves of revulsion, grief and anger. Not only over the events themselves, but over the reaction to them. It seems that every time our nation is visited by this kind of tragedy a thousand voices leap into the void and offer up their own agenda. Even when I’m in full agreement, I always find myself disgusted by the process.
There are those whose silence would be the wrong kind of speech. In this case our politicians, the filmmakers, and a few others that we look to in times of crisis would be found lacking if they refused to speak up. I’ve seen some great insight that put into words why this event cuts so deeply into our collective hearts. Alyssa Rosenberg and Roger Ebert’s pieces come quickly to mind. They are heartfelt and lack the grandstanding nature you would find if you switched on CNN say, right now.
What I have not seen, and the one thing I feel I can add, is something that I’m not quite sure the time is right for. It has helped me deal with my feelings around this event. Not only the immediate issues but the long standing ones that stretch back for me to Oklahoma City, Columbine, and 9/11. So at the request of my editors I offer this up now, even if I think it would be better suited to be said later.
There is a dark irony that a mass murder would happen at this particular film. Not for the reasons that some are eagerly suggesting: that the Batman films glorify violence and wanton destruction. While they do depict violence in a hyper-real fashion, I hold that it is not to glorify it, but to illustrate the toll that the cycle of violence has on us both as individuals and as a people.
The Dark Knight trilogy takes as one of its central questions the nature of true justice. Through the course of the series the protagonist transforms from a man who seeks vengeance into one who ultimately lets go of his pain and abandons a life of violence. Albeit not before one last final orgy of destruciton. This is an American action movie, after all.
While there are countless comparisons to other trilogies in the film canon, the Dark Knight trilogy can trace its ancestry back to the Oresteia- the cycle of Greek plays that dramatizes the story of how Western civilization abandoned the cycle of vengeance killings for a system of laws. These Batman movies manage to be something unique: they are comic book melodramas, Hollywood action films, and neoclassical tragedies all rolled into one.
The purpose of tragedy as a dramatic form is to move the audience to a point of catharsis. That moment where the horror on stage, which is meant to stand in for the real horrors the audience has endured as a society, is purged through an act of sacrifice. Self-sacrifice being the best kind.
Christopher Nolan takes that structure and gives it a decidedly American twist. We get catharsis and hope delivered at the end of this trilogy.
The movie series as a whole stands as one small community’s– the filmmakers as lead by Nolan– attempt to give the larger community a tool by which to process the horrors of the past decade. That a fresh horror would be visited upon a screening of the film itself is a sign of just how deep we’ve let terror set in our bones.
The great argument for the ownership of automatic weapons, for the ability of a lone individual to buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition and large clips to hold them in, is that the people should fear their government. That they should have the right to arm themselves against a potential oppressor. Set aside for a moment the practical considerations of escalation: if the day came that the federal government chose to impose a military dictatorship on the citizens of the United States, assault rifles would be no match for tanks and drones.
Focus instead on the spiritual rot at the heart of that argument: the fear that has driven us apart. The feeling that we are powerless to stand up as individuals and as communities against corruption and terror. That even one of our most joyous cultural traditions– the midnight movie– can be a locus of real horror.
There are those who would have us believe that the tragedy in Aurora proves that we should be afraid. I see it quite differently. I find in it hope.
Hope in the sacrifice of those who shielded their friends and loved ones from gunfire. Strangers who helped each other escape the line of fire. Teenagers who performed triage on the wounded.
In the movies the character of Bruce Wayne makes a point that Batman was meant to be a symbol. “Batman could be anyone,” he says. Anyone can take a stand against corruption, terror, fear.
There was one villain in Aurora that night. One villain and dozens of heroes. Don’t let those who profit from terror make you forget that.