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Batman, America and Violence: Considerations

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This is not a movie review. Although aspects of the movie The Dark Knight Rises will be appraised herein, this article is intended as a cultural snapshot. And like a snapshot, its angle is necessarily limited -- in no way comprehensive or intended to be considered as such. This piece is only intended as potential fodder for the discussion regarding the relationship between popular culture and the general reality we humans actually inhabit.

Warner Bros. Pictures makes some terrific movies. I like a lot of big studio movies -- for my childlike self because they shine that magic lantern; and for my adult self because I know that studio movies mean jobs and pay and personal satisfaction for a lot of people. Thus, this piece is not a rejection of any specific entertainment entity or its productions.

It is, however, a criticism of a general entertainment zeitgeist.

I was admitted to the then-called USC School of Cinema-Television (now the School of Cinematic Arts) based partly on an essay I wrote as a teenager, paralleling popular culture and day-to-day reality, and the influence these related but different perceptions have upon one another -- and upon all of us. It's a topic I find fascinating. As briefest examples: How people go to movies to "escape." Or how people increasingly make movies (which inherently are not reality) in order to depict "reality." It's a two-way street, and an extremely busy one. Again: fascinating.

When I was studying abroad, under somewhat provincial conditions and receiving the best education of my life, I made a friend, also American, based on an enthusiastic conversation we had regarding the popular character of Batman -- and movies about the character. This was highly incongruous, talk of this "Caped Crusader" in an otherwise slightly-dusty academic environment. Again, disparate worlds influencing each other.

A different friend suggested that we attend a midnight screening of the movie The Dark Knight Rises, and I accepted. I like midnight movie screenings! I attended a similar one for Tim Burton's Batman in 1989. The enthusiasm of the crowd is fun.

A few hours later I learned what was already hot news all over the world: that a similar screening in Colorado had ended in almost incomprehensible tragedy.

Incomprehensible, yes. But unfamiliar (especially to Americans), no.

I am not going to engage in any debate about weapons, because any debate about weapons is going to invite people who like them. Right away, that's a problem.

Rather, I'm going to discuss my entertainment experience. If this article proves useful, very well.

I'm not a fan of director Christopher Nolan. Met him once at the Saturn Awards, have nothing against him personally, but I don't like his movies -- which I find pretentious, pointlessly complicated, often sadistic, and weirdly dull and joyless. Hey, work it out, boy -- that's what art is for. However, this boy's art is also commerce, and obviously also highly influential, and so it begs closer scrutiny than many people's personal art projects.

Put very, very simply, I find his experiment with the massively-popular Batman franchise impressive and noteworthy but not enjoyable. To me, the whole point of a superhero movie is to take implausible characters (can fly; spin webs, etc.) and put them into plausible conflicts (good vs. evil; avarice vs. altruism, etc.) The larger-than-life characters duke it out onscreen, and we, as actual human beings, observe big archetypes in motion. Excellent!

However, what Nolan seeks to do is the converse: He wants to put plausible characters (i.e., real humans with real flaws) into implausible conflicts (i.e., an absurdly-besieged composite-American city, with crazy contraptions and impossible coincidences which simply would not be possible in real life). As such, I do not feel that his three-picture Batman experiment works. As crime drama and melodrama, possibly, but in his false depiction of real American cities (Chicago, Pittsburgh, L.A., plus of course Manhattan), he creates a psychological rift which feels, to me, queasy rather than exciting. Add in the outrageously-heavy sense of sociological righteousness plus bizarrely-ecstatic violence, and I emerge feeling "shocked and awed" -- but not entertained. Come on, Chris! Even Ian Fleming openly admitted that his James Bond novels were the stuff of adolescent fantasy!

Okay, so aesthetically and philosophically, I want a hyper-stylized Batman. The last thing I want from the character is some freakish attempt to render him a "real person." He is inherently an archetype: the character epitomizes loss and sadness evolved into action. That he struggles with his sorrow and rage makes him fascinating. That he adamantly and absolutely rejects all taking of human life is wonderful. ("No guns, no killing!" Batman exclaims in this latest movie. Best moment, best line.)

But what is this stuff we're calling "entertainment"?

Well, for one, The Dark Knight Rises is, like its predecessor The Dark Knight, a bald 9/11 allegory.

That's fine. I don't consider that very interesting, and it's not why I go to the movies -- but as previously considered, movies and life influence each other. There are a lot of feelings to be explored. Popular arts are a great way to explore them.

That said, The Dark Knight Rises is also a jumble of found parts, cobbled together from the likes of Sam Raimi's awesome Spider-Man 2 (potentially-revolutionary-fusion-reactor-turned-bomb), John Carpenter's awesome Escape From New York (references obvious), Ridley Scott's awesome Blade Runner (retiring hero plus cool flying-car zooming over post-Apocalyptic cityscape), plus any number of James Bond movies, particularly the recent not-fun-anymore ones. (Another fantasy franchise infected with "reality.") And it's nearly a remake of The Siege. Also: Tom Hardy's born-in-a-dark-cave-of-absolute-evil villain here dresses here like a silly pro-wrestler instead of a Goth-glam extra from the third Matrix, but is otherwise essentially the same as his villain in the underrated and really rather great Star Trek: Nemesis. So there's that. I know movies.

What was very noteworthy about our midnight screening, however, was the sheer volume of extreme violence heaped into our ears and eyeballs. For about half an hour before the actual feature began, our audience (of mostly teenagers, probably seeking a bit of summer fun, as they should) was blasted with previews for one rather shockingly violent movie after another. There was a trailer about cops and gangbangers yelling at, hitting and shooting each other. There was a trailer about people who know Jason Bourne yelling at, hitting and shooting each other. One about Colin Farrell not going to Mars but nonetheless yelling at, hitting and shooting a lot of people. Will Farrell punched out an infant, and some chuckleheads kept firing rounds into a clearly-dead alien.

The preview I found most troubling, however, was for Gangster Squad, a really ugly-looking new movie which depicts mobsters opening fire on a cinema-going audience from behind, then through, the movie screen. Hello! While we were watching that self-reflexive horror (and frankly I was exhausted by all the ugliness onscreen before The Dark Knight Rises even began), a cinema-going audience in Colorado was literally being fired upon by a young man who decided, and first planned, to do such a thing in real life.

We have a disconnect here.

My point -- and I'll get to it quickly, as my word count is fast expiring -- is that much of the population of the world is obsessed with Batman. Batman the hero, but also Batman the severely-damaged American psyche. Batman the icon. I have a friend whose little brother's first word was "Batman." The character and his issues are indelibly stamped on the American experience, and also the highly-lucrative pop-culture version of the American experience that is exported around the world. But what, exactly, is the core of the obsession?

Although I respect but don't like Nolan's faux-"real life" aesthetic and his faux-cerebral approach (and the two make bizarre bedfellows), I'll award him intense provocation (plus the moving subplot about saving disadvantaged children actually feels earned). The Dark Knight Rises features excellent performances from its supporting cast, and engagingly showcases a very unfortunate guy struggling with his fouled identity and purpose, but visually it's mainly an extremely unpleasant and convincing depiction of large-scale terrorism. In heightened superhero movies (how many times have Superman or the X-Men "saved the world"?) this conflict usually comes across as entertainment. Nolan, however and despite his huge budget, wants to make it personal, and rub our faces in it -- and mysteriously (to me), lap it up the world certainly does.

Me, if I'm going to the movies for a heightened experience, I'd much rather watch characters in funny costumes zinging each other with one-liners. Or better, astonish and inspire me with wonders! But the extreme (and, while mostly PG-13-bloodless, extremely realistic-looking) violence of Nolan's choices clearly resounds with audiences. On opening night, a young man in Colorado chose to take that general tidal-wave of media violence literally, and people out for a spot of entertainment -- entertainment! -- died. Died!

My point is this: Challenge us at the movies. Delight us. Enlighten us. Tickle us. Scare us. Even make us uncomfortable if the drama calls for it. But if our society is as screwed up as to allow tragedies like the recent one to continue happening (which is not acceptable), then doesn't the incessant barrage of extremely violent imagery contribute to that problem? I think it does. Its very existence posits that it's somehow normal or even cool to inhabit a war-zone. Not very appealing. But I'm not talking censorship; I'm talking being reasonably responsible in what we load into people's minds. Personally, I've paid my dues with all those cinematic lethal weapons: I won't even go to movies anymore if the "hero" on the poster is wielding a gun. To me, that's not a hero.

But Batman is a hero. The morose, angry character is highly stylized (or should be), but is essentially heroic. Yet his milieu is a violent hell. By mirroring that hell back to audiences (in this movie, and many others), are we approaching understanding and solutions to real-life problems -- or are we exacerbating them? Both? Via our long-term collective obsession with Batman, what are we struggling to understand, and heal -- and better sustain -- in our problematic, provably violent, society? Clearly, it's not "just a movie." I would love intelligent answers to these questions.