Life Imitating Art: Sowing and Reaping Batman
By writer in residence Blair Brennan
“The Amsterdam Bat-man” by Ryan Wolters
The San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre in a McDonald’s restaurant in San Diego, California on July 18, 1984. (21 dead and 19 injured)
The École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, Quebec on December 6, 1989 (18 dead and 10 injured)
The Waco siege of the Branch Davidian ranch at Mount Carmel, Waco, Texas on February 28, 1993 (86 dead)
The Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 (168 dead and more than 680 injured)
The Columbine High School massacre in Columbine, Colorado on April 20, 1999 (13 dead and 24 injured)
The September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and the crash of the fourth hijacked jet on September 11, 2001 (approximately 3000 dead)
The Beltway sniper attacks in several locations in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia during three weeks in October 2002 (11 dead and 6 injured)
The Fort Hood shooting at Fort Hood military base, outside Killeen, Texas on November 5, 2009 (13 dead and 29 injured)
The 2011 Norway attacks which included a car bomb explosion in Oslo (8 dead and approximately 209 injured) and a mass shooting at a summer camp on the island of Utøya on July 22, 2011 (69 dead and approximately 110 injured)
The Aurora shootings at a midnight screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012 (12 dead and 58 injured)
These are dangerous times. Now, more than ever, the danger can come from within and carnage that, not so long ago, could only be witnessed by battle field soldiers can now be visited upon any of us at any moment. This would be the argument for those making and selling violent movies and video games. “Art imitates life” they might say.
What ammunition is available to those of us arguing the opposite, that life imitates art, that violent art will feed this extraordinary introductory list?1 Is this a place for statistics, I wonder? The release dates of ultra-violet movies and video games contrasted with black gun sales or rates of violent crime. Or perhaps box office receipts compared with the dates of the above events. They won’t all sync up as nicely as the last item, the shootings at a midnight screening of The Dark Night Rises, but that is precisely what got me thinking about the violence in our world.
I don’t dislike action-adventure or horror movies and I am certainly not suggesting that they should be censored in any way. I’m not a movie populist nor do I consider myself a cineaste. I may have been at one time but a demanding job, children, other obligations and, in truth, high ticket prices for a product that was so often unquestionable crap have kept me away from many first-run Hollywood movies. I often show up at action-adventure movies without the requisite scar tissue that other movie-goers seem to have built up. I remember feeling this exactly when I saw Batman Begins in 2005. I could not tell you whether I liked the movie or not. I was positively numbed by that explosive and expensive (real and cinematic) trail of debris. Seven years and three movies later I felt the same way after seeing The Dark Night Rises.
Movies based on baby boomer comic book heroes are an important source of income for the Hollywood dream factory. The benefits are obvious – characters that are well known (and often loved) by the potential audience; a built-in secondary market for related toys, books, games and gewgaws and original source material that can function as the storyboard for the movie or, at least, a definitive setting of tone and visual style for a film (an obvious advantage for any artistic director or designer). As a genre, comic book hero movies reveal something of our time. In the 1950’s a comic book code was introduced as a sort a self regulation (effectively censorship) that most publishers willingly subscribed to. Among other conditions the Comics Code Authority stated that “in every instance good shall triumph over evil”2. The hero triumphs over adversity. That much has not changed, however, the adversity ante must be upped with every new film and certainly every sequel as we’ve seen in the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman series.
Current action-adventure films reveal how skilled we have become at creating a fictional world of pure chaos and absolute evil. We created antagonists, criminal masterminds who were obsessive-compulsive and, as ironic as it seems, methodical agents of anarchy (and the Batman franchise provides some of the best: Ra’s al Ghul, Joker, Two-Face, Bane etal). We inserted the heroes of our childhood to oppose and triumph over the villains. Qualitative judgments about the story-line, character development or theme of these films seem ridiculously inadequate. I know this is imprecise and will sound absurdly new age-y but here goes: No critique of these films seems relevant when you consider that the principle function of these movies is to create the sort of metaphysical stage upon which the kind of massacres listed above can be played out.
The consciousness of a generation was formed by violent movies and video games. I’m not, however, suggesting that these movies encourage direct imitation nor do they entirely normalize violence. This is the kind of superficial analysis that gets dragged out every time a mass shooting occurs. This may, in some small way, be accurate but, overall, it is too simplistic and short sighted a theory. My belief, that these movies clear a psychic space for widespread and indiscriminate slaughter and destruction, is far more difficult to articulate and, perhaps, impossible to substantiate.
The events on that opening list trouble us and why wouldn’t they? SPOILER ALERT – More, not less, violent extravaganzas are on the way. Planes will crash, numerous people will be killed with military-style assault weapons, the death count will be higher and the explosions bigger. The eyes and voice of previously perky newscasters will lower. Everything about their delivery and body language will exude a “how could this happen?” attitude (even when they are reading David Hasselhoff’s tweet about The Dark Night Rises shootings3). How could this happen? How could this not happen! It is simply our fictional world leaking into the real world. And it can be no other way.
An “off the top of my head” list. Details – dates, dead and injured stats – were quickly added from Wikipedia (it is somehow fitting that Wikipedia has a section entitled “List of massacres in the United States” conveniently sorted by state and listed by date.) ↩
I’m not making this shit up! http://www.mylaredofox.com/noticia/2012/07/20/396280-the-dark-knight-rises-theater-shooting-stars-show-sympathy-on-twitter.html accessed on August 21, 2012 ↩