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Dark night at the movies

When news first filtered out that a gunman had shot up a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the first thought that sprang in my mind was: “Oh, crap, there goes my column for Sunday.”

I had sat through the nearly 3-hour press preview of the movie on Thursday, and was planning in my mind a column in appreciation not just of this third installment in the “Dark Knight” trilogy but also of the entire Batman oeuvre, from the cheesy, colorful TV series to the satirical Tim Burton movie revivals, and to Christopher Nolan’s masterful—but dark and more cynical—reworking of the story of the man in the bat suit.

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You could say we had all grown up and grown old with Bruce Wayne/Batman. From the light-hearted “good vs. evil” premise of the TV series (“snap!” “bang!” “pow!”), to Burton’s tongue-in-cheek representations of the more memorable Batman villains, to Nolan’s explorations of the dark side of the Batman legend, the show and movies had grown in gravitas and meaning, matching, it seems, the audience’s own maturing from cheery adolescents to older if not senior citizens much too acquainted with the workings of the human mind and heart.

But none of us reckoned, I guess, with someone like James Holmes, a 24-year-old honor graduate in neuroscience from the University of California, Riverside and a former PhD student at the University of Colorado in Denver, just a few minutes’ drive from the suburban town of Aurora. Here, inside a theater in a local cineplex, Holmes, armed with what police said was an arsenal consisting of an “AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 12-gauge shotgun and a .40-caliber Glock handgun,” let loose what is believed to be canisters of tear gas before trolling up and down the aisles, shooting randomly.

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In all, some 12 people were killed and 58 wounded, including young children brought to the theater by their parents.

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A theme that comes up time and again in the “Dark Knight” movies is how the “public” can often turn, on a dime, against its “saviors.” One day, Batman is hailed as a superhero, a lone fighter against the forces of evil ranged against all that is noble and good; the next, he is denounced as a “vigilante,” if not a “terrorist” for unleashing his powers against the villains and provoking them into even more mayhem and criminality.

None of us know, and will not know, I guess, for a few years more, precisely what turned Holmes into the homicidal maniac who strode into the theater in an all-black outfit, a gas mask and body armor, determined to kill as many people as his stash of bullets would allow him.

Some witnesses, said a report in The New York Times, saw him sporting red hair, or at least a red wig, and announcing, “I am the Joker!” This was in reference to the primary villain in the second installment of the trilogy, the Joker, played memorably by the late Heath Ledger.

But the legacy of violence and cruelty left behind by the first two “Dark Knight” movies was enough, it seems, to turn a scholarly, mild-mannered young man, as attested to by neighbors in his “booby-trapped” apartment complex, into a mass murderer. Was it the movies that warped the mind of the shooter? Or was his planned last stand simply timed to coincide with the midnight showing of what had been anticipated as the “movie of the year”?

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I remember that during the press preview of “The Dark Knight Rises” at the SM Mall of Asia IMAX Theater, one viewer entered the venue clad in full Batman costume. As we exited the premises at movie’s end, we also espied another viewer clad in a Superman outfit.

This has come to be par for the course, in this age of cos-plays and fervid fan groups, whose members make up a solid, fanatic base that supports any exploration of their superheroes’ persona, be it on the Web, on TV, in comics, on comicons or films.

But the appropriation of the “Joker” personality, to bring to awful reality the fantasy of mindless anarchy and bloodlust that the comic writers had first conceived, is too painful to contemplate. When reality bursts the bubble of audacious imagination, we are left with nothing but the debris of our fantasy.

In light of the events in Colorado, the producers of “The Dark Knight Rises” said in a statement that they were canceling the movie’s premiere in Paris and condoled with the families of all the victims. But it may be too late to withdraw the movie from all the territories where they had already released it, including Asia. In fact, the film was released a day earlier than it was in the United States. The midnight showing in Colorado was much anticipated because of the all-too-human desire of fervid fans to be “first at the gate,” first with the bragging rights and first with the anecdotes.

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Now, in addition to their enthusiastic plugs for the film—and in my opinion they are indeed well-deserved—the Aurora viewers will have stories to tell, as well, of a night of innocent diversion turned bloody and tragic by one man with dark, unknowable motives but with plenty of arms.

The shooting in Colorado has once more ignited debate about arms control and responsible gun ownership. This is a debate made more painful and ironic in Colorado, which is still living with the horrors of the Columbine school shooting, when two students, said to be seeking vengeance for incidents of bullying directed at them, trolled the corridors of Columbine High School, shooting at their schoolmates.

But the Aurora shooting is not just about gun control, in the same way “The Dark Knight Rises” is not just about the return of Batman after years of hibernation. We must think, as well, about human nature itself, and about the resiliency of society, and the possibility of salvation.

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TAGS: At Large, Batman, crime, James Holmes, Movies, opinion, Rina Jimenez-David, Shooting, The Dark Knight Rises
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