Not long after I heard about the so-called ‘Batman Shooting’ at the Century Theater in Aurora, Colorado, I remembered a similar incident from Frank Miller’s seminal Batman comic, The Dark Knight Returns. A single page depicts Arnold Crimp, an obvious schizophrenic, opening fire on the audience at a porn movie. I am hardly the only person to notice this odd coincidence. A number of people on-line and in traditional media have offered their views, many of them radically misinterpreting that single page. Miller’s intent seems pretty clear to me. Crimp’s interior monolog cites ‘Father Don’ and backward-masking on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as motives for the shooting, but says nothing about Batman. In fact, the shooting is only linked to Batman by a newscaster shown in the final panel of the page. Miller seems to be saying that the media is eager to blame Batman for violence he did not inspire.
With an introduction like that, you might reasonably expect me to spend the rest of this post defending Batman and his most recent cinematic incarnation. I wish I could. I support free expression, and I’ve enjoyed Nolan’s Batman trilogy, both as entertainment and as social commentary. But there is something about Batman, particularly Nolan’s Batman, that seems to bring out the crazies.
First, there were the well publicized death threats against Marshall Fine, whose largely negative review of The Dark Knight Rises led Rotten Tomatoes to unplug its comments feature for the first time ever. Next came the shooting itself, about which a great deal has already been written, none of it very enlightening.
If that had been all, I would be left with little more than an uneasy feeling in the back of my skull and very little to add to the conversation. But three or four days before either of these incidents, I read an unusual article in Film Comment, one that adds a new dimension to argument over Batman as a public touchstone. J. Hoberman’s “Cine Obamarama” deals mainly with black Presidents in film, but devotes a small section to the Caped Crusader. Specifically, he describes how various political candidates have responded to Nolan’s movies. To quote from Hoberman’s article:
“The summer of 2008 also belonged to the being that Senator McCain was eager to identify as his favorite superhero: Batman… The Dark Knight was rich with 9/11 references but even more insistent was the movie’s ongoing meditation on civic responsibility, due process, and the legitimacy of torture. The Joker was Bin Laden in greasepaint. Batman, not coincidentally the richest man in Gotham City, was understood as our leader against the master terrorist–and Batman recognized no limits. Right-wing pundits gratefully embraced the movie as a glorification of their fantasy.”
The idea that any presidential candidate would so eagerly identify himself with Batman, a vigilante law-breaker and (in some versions) borderline fascist is frankly disturbing. It would be like admitting to an admiration for Richard Nixon. As if that weren’t bad enough, Hoberman closes his discussion of The Dark Knight with this horrid little factoid:
“A poster applying Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup to President Obama began appearing at Tea Party rallies during the summer of 2009.”
And then there’s Christopher Nolan himself. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Nolan had this to say about Bruce Wayne:
“I find him a very aspirational figure… the ways he tries to push himself, physically and mentally, and dedicate himself ruthlessly to a cause… there’s something obsessive about that. Even disturbing. But there’s something admirable about it, too.”
Or is there? Is it right to admire a figure, even a fictional one, that arouses so much bizarre public behavior? I enjoy Batman as a character, but the more popular he becomes, the more I begin to fear what he stands for, what people might decide is acceptable because of his example.
Frankly, I’m not sure what I’m trying to say with all of the above, except that I’m worried. I’m worried as a citizen and as a father. I’m worried about a world where Batman is the best hero we’ve got. For a few minutes in a theater in Colorado, I’m sure there were people who devoutly wished that Batman was real. But on the whole, I think we’d be better off without him.