Fantasy, masks, and James Holmes, the ‘Dark Knight Rises’ killer

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Don’t blame the movie.

Don’t blame director Christopher Nolan or star Christian Bale.

But maybe it’s worth having a discussion about an entertainment culture that excels at selling violent power fantasies to people who feel powerless.

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Initially, little was known about the Aurora, Colo., gunman who killed 12 at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” We knew his age (24) and his name (James Holmes); the latter fact is irrelevant, the former maybe less so. The audience that has been the most breathless in its anticipation of the third and final film in the “Dark Knight” series — the audience for whom it’s not just a movie but the pop culmination of their lives — is young. But motive is as yet unknown, despite unconfirmed reports at press time that Holmes told police he was “the Joker.” He could indeed be a fan who lost touch with reality. He could be political. Or maybe he just saw the release of “The Dark Knight Rises” as his best potential stage. Where was all of America (or all of America that mattered to him) at midnight on Thursday? At this movie. Where was the place for him to finally be seen, be heard, make an impact? Nowhere else.

The gunman planned his attack for the first local public screening of the film, and it is almost certain he had not seen it himself. Let’s be clear about this: James Holmes is not the poster child for anything but the sickness in his head. Yet it’s difficult, at this point, to fully separate the act of a single deranged man from the all-encompassing mania this series engenders in a surprising number of people. For millions, “The Dark Knight Rises” is just a movie (and, to this critic, a very good one). For a vocal contingent on the fringes, it’s much more — a film that has to be perfect for the world to make any sense at all.

Earlier in the week, the popular movie review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes suspended user comments for “The Dark Knight Rises” because fans were directing multiple death threats and rape threats at critics who had dared to give the film less than a perfect grade. Reviewers like the Associated Press’s Christy Lemire and movie blogger Marshall Fine were promised physical extinction for daring to not like a movie that those posting the threats hadn’t even seen.

There is something truly awful going on here: an entitled fanboy mentality, enabled by the anonymity of screen names, that moves and thinks as a mob and that reacts to any deviation from unanimous praise with the fury of a spoiled child. Of course there were plenty of level-headed responses on the Rotten Tomatoes boards and elsewhere; of course not all fanboys (and girls) are immature dolts. But enough of them are to dominate the discourse, and their assumptions are frightening to contemplate: If someone does not like this movie, he or she deserves to die. Oh, wait, you were kidding? They’re just words, pixels on a screen? How does that absolve you? When you threaten real human beings with violence while hiding behind the wall of DrkKnghtFan, what consequences does that have for the intended victim, for society, for your soul?

More pressingly, it needs to be asked, why does fantasy in general and this fantasy in particular mean so much to so many people? Why does a negative review for a movie strike some as an attack on their own identity? When the second film in Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, “The Dark Knight,” came out in 2008, it was remarkable to see so many members of a generation that had no cultural focal point discovering theirs in this, the way previous generations had rallied around the Beatles or “Nevermind” or “Titanic.” Even more so; I recall (and wrote about at the time) a young man I met who likened the impact of “Dark Knight” to the Kennedy assassination and the Challenger disaster as events that unified young people and gave them their defining moment.

Really? A movie? (And I say this as someone who has devoted a lifetime to seeing, writing about, and thinking about movies.) That’s a sign of several things, one of which is that Nolan is extremely skilled at making films that seem to matter — that move with a beautiful bigness and that ask big questions about where the world is going while knocking us silly with action and explosions and agonized superhero drama. His movies don’t explain our confused world, but they mirror that confusion with cathartic skill, in a way that can feel absolutely right if you don’t know how to find the words for yourself. They’re hardly political, but they reflect a helplessness we feel about politics and society — about our lives — that resonates with force. Unsurprisingly, then, the online fan-mob seems more viciously protective of Nolan’s superhero films than “The Avengers” or “The Amazing Spider-Man” (although they can be loutish about them, too). And is it a coincidence that the Aurora gunman showed up at this movie rather than a different summer blockbuster? Maybe he wanted to mean as much to us as “The Dark Knight” means to him.

Or maybe not. He may be just another nutcase, with no ax to grind regarding this or any movie. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was responding, in his psychosis, to the tortured fantasy of power that this movie — and so much of the popular culture aimed at young men in particular — trades in. That fantasy is now everywhere. It is possible for any of us, of any age or gender, to avoid reality all day in America by keeping our eyes fixed on our screens. They’re on our walls at home and in restaurants, in our living rooms and bedrooms, toted around in our knapsacks, fitting neatly into our hands. The screens sell us many things: video games both benign and ultra-violent, empty “news” about celebrities, Facebook posts from our most intimate 2,864 friends, trailers for the latest Hollywood blockbuster in which men fly through the air and blow up everything bad in their lives. The screens tell us that we matter, each and every one of us. To look away from the screens is to confront a world that says, in most cases, no, you really don’t.

That’s hard, especially if you’re still figuring out who you are and a beautiful, conflicted superhero (or supervillain) mirrors your self-image. Our entertainment culture’s dreams of power are a drug that keeps us rapt in a cloud of promises: that we can win and that winning is everything; that we’ll be seen and heard for who we are if we’re thin enough or strong enough or have the coolest toys or the biggest guns. The fantasies lie, because the people who make the fantasies know we’re desperate to be lied to and willing to pay for it. And every so often, when we’re sold a fantasy that is so well made, that seems to tap so deeply into our very real sense of imminent catastrophe, and that seems so self-aware about the fantasy itself, certain people respond to it as if it’s the Truth. “The Dark Knight” movies are such a fantasy, and if they matter to you as anything more than extremely well-made and provocative entertainment, you really need to interrogate yourself (and maybe your friends) as to why.

A final thought: The idea of the mask matters quite a bit in this. The superhero movies that dominate our box offices are all about mild-mannered secret identities and the power that comes with donning a facial covering. We live each day through digital masks: screen names, online personas, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and on and on, each an attempt to show the world the face we want to be, rather than the face we fear we have. The gunman in Aurora wore a mask, too, to protect himself from his own tear gas, or to avoid being seen, or to play to the pathetic fantasy in his head that he was Doom personified instead of an angry 24-year-old.

In reality — real reality, maybe you’ve forgotten? — no one wears a mask. Someday a lot of people are going to have to face up to that.

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