Is Batman to Blame for the Colorado Cinema Slaying?

Is Batman to Blame for the Colorado Cinema Slaying? July 20, 2012

You’ve probably heard by now of the mass murder at a Colorado cinema showing “The Dark Knight Rises” that has left at least 13 people dead and 38 injured.  The gunman, reportedly clad in a black flak jacket and gas mask, entered the theater through the exit door, tossed out one or two canisters that exploded and emitted some kind of gas, and opened fire on the moviegoers.  Twenty-five miles from Columbine, the moral monster (I will not use his name) gunned down those who tried to flee, and after police apprehended him in the parking lot he revealed that he had thoroughly booby trapped his apartment with explosives.

The madman staged a movie scene and cast himself in the role of super-villain.  Like several of the villains in the Batman franchise — The Joker and Bain immediately come to mind — he created havoc for the hell of it, chaos for its own sake.  Local news stories are reporting that he is a drop-out former medical school student.  Some media entities are already dropping their coverage of The Dark Knight Rises, and Warner Brothers canceled tonight’s Paris premiere.  So what do you think?  Are the filmmakers in any way responsible for this?  Is Batman to blame for the killings in Colorado?

First, before we go any further, we should note that this is not merely more grist for the mill of blogging and commentary.  Lives have been lost, and we mourn with the families, we pray for those who are clinging to life, and we are thankful for policeman and firemen and doctors and everyone who responded with bravery and service.  More details will emerge that will shape how this conversation unfolds, but it’s an important conversation.  In many ways, from the best reviews I have read (here and here), this film, like others in Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful but ill-fated (remember Heath Ledger?) Dark Knight trilogy, raises potent questions about violence, class envy, the struggle to see order prevail over chaos, and the danger of giving violent outlet to our resentments and jealousies and hatreds as old as time.

The Dark Knight

So this is not a theoretical question.  The sources of violence, the whence of the forces of evil and destruction and social disintegration, are not questions the Dark Knight series takes lightly.  Christopher Nolan has long been one of my favorite directors in the industry today because he creates movies on a vast and epic canvas, movies that are entertaining and engaging and awe-inspiring, and yet movies that deal with enormous questions.  Yet there’s also no question that the villains, though presented as evil, are highly stylized.  What Heath Ledger’s Joker did with a pencil in the second movie in the trilogy was meant to be impressive, even “cool” in a sense.

For too long, we’ve been dismissive of the notion that entertainment shapes attitudes and attitudes shape behavior.  Even as news broke of the slaying in Colorado, I was preparing to write about a recently-released study on how watching sexual promiscuity on television leads teens to greater sexual promiscuity in real life.  Conducted by researchers from Dartmouth College, the study found, in the words of Dr Ross O’Hara, that “Adolescents who are exposed to sexual content in movies start having sex at younger ages, have more sexual partners, and are less likely to use condoms with sexual partners.”

To which I must add: OF COURSE.  Of course they do.  Anyone who refuses to acknowledge that constant bombardment with sexual imagery will shape your actual behavior is in deep denial.  Anyone who refuses to acknowledge that constant exposure to forms of entertainment that glorify violence and glorify the people who commit violence will tend to produce more violence is, again, in deep denial.

We want to think that people are capable of distinguishing between the gleaming world of entertainment and the gritty world of our everyday reality, between a fantasy world where we can imagine and explore vicariously our sexual and violent impulses, and a real world where we will keep those impulses firmly in check.  The truth is, the celluloid membrane between these worlds is porous, perhaps increasingly so.  The more we reside in virtual worlds, the more constantly we are enveloped in worlds thrust forcefully upon our imagination and our sensibilities, the more difficult it may become to distinguish between what is appropriate in the world of pixels and what is appropriate in the world of flesh and bone.

That our forms of entertainment can shape our behavior should be obvious — and yet this general principle does not mean in this specific case that Christopher Nolan or the Dark Knight series are guilty.  Here are several questions to ask:

  1. Does the film keep a firm grasp on right and wrong, good versus evil, hero versus villain?  In this case, the answer is yes.  The Joker tells Batman that they are eternally linked, but only as opposites.  Batman stands for order and noble self-sacrifice, while the Joker stands for disorder, murder and theft.  While the films are willing to explore the complexities in these areas, Batman’s actions, and the actions of Joker or Bane, are not made into moral equivalents.  There are countless movies out there with a much more questionable moral compass.
  2. Does the film promote a morally indiscriminate violence?  I say “morally indiscriminate” here because not all violence is equal.  It’s one thing to promote or glorify violence against children, or innocent bystanders, or against anyone and everyone — and another to glorify violence performed in defense of the innocent.  Again, the answer here for the Dark Knight trilogy is no.  Batman himself is a vigilante, but he goes to great lengths to protect the innocent, to do violence only to those in the commission of evil acts, and for the most part he does not kill them but disables them and leaves them for the police.  That’s pretty tame.
  3. Does the film glorify those who commit morally indiscriminate violence?  This is a tougher question to answer.  We want cooler and cooler villains, people who are more impressive and more inventive in the terrible things they do.  Ra’s al Ghul in the first film (played by Liam Neeson) was slick and intelligent, filled with a kind of Taoist “wisdom” and mystery.  The Joker was an awesome villain.  Bane is profoundly impressive in his own way.  In the end, however, I would again answer no, because all three were thoroughly repudiated.  They are not only defeated, but they were shown to be animated by a false vision, false “truths” and false values.

I admit that I still struggle with the answer to #3.  When we make wreaking havoc — even murderous havoc — such fun to watch, is that a problem?  When we show a rock-em, sock-em shoot-up on Wall Street, will someone out there be inspired to give it a shot?  And are the makers of such entertainment responsible if they do?

If they were actively promoting violence, then I would say yes.  Not because the madman is not fully responsible for his actions, but because we are all responsible for our actions and if we promote violence then we bear some responsibility for the result.  But if the filmmaker takes a clear stance against evil and against the kind of violence that tears a society asunder — and the Dark Knight trilogy inspires me to stand against injustice and for the good of my fellow man — yet someone out there is still inspired to do precisely what is condemned, then the responsibility rests entirely on the madman.

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  • E L Frederick

    Very disappointing post. This is the kind of populist crap I would expect form the Obama campaign. Blaming the film and the filmmakers for the madman. I expected better from you.

    • E L Frederick,
      Did you read the article. He explicitly states that he does not think the film is to blame for the perverse acts of the madman. In his three-question analysis of the film, he answers “No” to all three questions, meaning that the film is not guilty of promoting or inciting violence of any kind. While depicting evil, the film at least condemns it and shows it to be evil.
      It seems that you didn’t finish reading.

    • Mike H

      how did you come to your conclusions about the post? He specifically mounts an argument against blaming the film and the filmmakers. Unless you are arguing the opposite, and you believe that it is “Dark Knight Rises'” fault. Read a little more carefully buddy.

      “the responsibility rests entirely on the madman.”

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I actually came to the opposite conclusion.

  • DZ

    E L Frederick, what a sad comment. Even this tragedy – which is real – makes you think of how much you hate President Obama. Wake up. There’s more to life than that.

  • Josh Encinias

    See ABC’s report that the gunman called himself “The Joker”:

    • They are now saying that the “Joker” claim is false.

      We are all responsible for our actions, and we have free choice whether to view violent movies/tv, etc or not to. We pay oodles of money to movie makers who create such movies, and for that yes, I say we as a society are to blame for glorifying violence. But it comes down to people have to start taking the blame and stop blaming things, others, situations, parents, etc.

      My heart goes out to all of those dealing with the trauma.

  • I agree these questions need to be asked. It’s my view, however, that it could have waited 24 hours.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I wondered about that. Some are already blaming the movie, however, and I thought it sufficient to start the post with the proper posture of grieving and support. But I can see how one would differ…

  • Kristina

    Walter Wink’s critique of the “Domination System” and the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” is especially pertinent here and deserve to be quoted in extenso:

    “…the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The Gods favor those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favor of the Gods…Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is a theater of perpetual conflict…we need a messiah, an armed redeemer, someone who has the strength of character and conviction to transcend the legal restraints of democratic institutions and save us from our enemies…”

  • jay

    The trouble is, I’m not sure what he IS arguing here. While the highly stylized Batman is off the table (it’s more of an epic myth than violent film) he jumps into the subject of entertainment which he seems to suggest promotes violence or sexual activity even suggesting ‘we are all responsible’. The words almost sound like the Christian moralists who would love to gain control again of entertainment to make sure it portrays the ‘right values’ on sex, or homosexuality, religion, patriotism or violence, or drugs.

    That’s where the discussion seems to trail off. One either supports ‘controls’ or one does not.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      My contention was that film and entertainment can indeed inspire us to be more violent or more promiscuous (or promiscuous earlier, etc.), and there is a kind of limited responsibility, but that the Dark Knight trilogy is not one of those cases where blame should be placed on the piece of entertainment, because it actually takes a strong stand against precisely the kinds of crimes committed in Colorado.

      So, can films bear some responsibility for encouraging violence? Yes.
      Does *this* film series bear responsibility for *this* act? No.


  • While Dartmouth may be right in its implications, no one film will drive a person over the edge so much as a person’s circumstances in life. Entertainment may make us more or less permissive to commit violence, just as it may make us more lenient toward promiscuity, but so may our upbringing, choice of friends and social circles, and/or religion, among a huge multitude of factors. Correlation does not equal causation, and there are many factors at work here that we probably do not know.

    We simply do not know enough about the murderer at this point, and what drove him to the decision that he chose. This is speculation at best.

    Even if a movie, or an entire series of movies condones violence in all its forms, that does not release a person from personal responsibility. America is a violent culture in many more ways than merely our entertainment, and it is quite unfair to merely point the finger at media when much of our culture is engaged in reckless violence of various forms. From the rampant imperialism inflicted on the world by our military in some tortured notion of promoting worldwide peace, to the self-violence that is promoted by far too many in a war on our own bodies, America is awash in violence and much of it is self-inflicted. Media is part of this culture of violence, to be sure. Infotainment news distracts rather than informs, and many forms of media glorify violence for its own sake. On the other hand, there are news outfits that keep us informed of world and local events, and many forms of media glorify the attainment of peace, the furthering of hope, and the questioning of our many conditions we find ourselves in. Patheos, as much as any exploitation film, as well as Batman, has a bearing on this world in terms of media.

    I find that Nolan’s Batman movies are powerful in just the way you describe: there is an underpinning of moral ethic, and the ‘ethics’ of whatever villains he comes across are shown as false or at the least, greatly lacking.

    The membrane between the world of entertainment and the real has never really been far off, in any case. For pretty-much the whole of humanity, we have been inspired by stories, from campfire stories to the most lasting of myth and legend. We look to our myths and legends to inspire us to be more than what we are, even if that myth or legend we choose to follow is one that is immoral. Some will choose to be the Joker, and many more will choose to be the Batman.

  • ron cohen

    great post until the final conclusion, seems like your also in denial because you love Nolan and batman.
    i mean how did you end up not thinking that batman has some sort of responsibilty?
    they not only glorify violence and made the joker “cool”, they gave us his perspective, we got to identify with the joker. allot of the people (completely normal non violent people) that i know was rooting for the joker in the movie, many people dressed up like the joker because its cool. so if the movie causes people to identify and idealize with a mass killer, how can you say it had no effect and only because in the end the cool vilian that everyone liked is somewhat defeated.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I get your point, Ron. Works of fiction in all genres, though, have been developing compelling villains for as long as there has been fiction of any kind. And what I found remarkable about the depiction of the Joker in The Dark Knight was that there was virtually no backstory, no attempt to excuse what he had become. In The Dark Knight Rises, you do learn a very small bit of backstory for Bane (you learn more about another villain in the movie, which you’ll understand by the end, if you’ve not seen it already), and they humanize him with a single relationship he cares about. But this isn’t any different than countless stories with villains who are more than paper-thin.

      Jack Nicholson’s “Joker” was also entertaining.

      I guess my point is a relative one. Nolan never lands on moral relativism. Batman refuses to shoot a gun, for goodness sake. “No guns, no killing,” he says. Nolan’s villains are evil and he presents them as such. Having seen The Dark Knight Rises now, I’d have to amend one of my comments: it’s not even fun to watch the acts of violence perpetrated by Bane. It’s horrific. Your heart is clenched the whole time. As opposed to any number of Quentin Tarantino movies, where the “fun” is the accidental shooting of a guy in the face, or wanton slaughter, the evil in The Dark Knight trilogy is really not fun to watch. Are there some people out there who might find a dark thrill, in the same way that they would watching snuff films? Perhaps. Is Nolan responsible for that? Reasonable people can differ on that, but I’d have to say no. He’s an astonishingly gifted storyteller, his stories bring out powerful themes, and people can be inspired in all sorts of directions (think of The Catcher in the Rye) by powerful stories.

      • ron cohen

        yep others have done this as well, Tarantino defiantly glorify violence and he is just as responsible. A Clockwork Orange made the villain and his crimes cool also, we can debate who does it worse but that’s not really the discussion.
        in a way its not fair to blame Nolan just because he is so good, that the villain and the movie he showed had so much impact. but the point is not to blame Nolan, but to open a discussion for future films and directors, to realize that if glorify violence, and making villains cool and get us to identify with them, making their crimes spectacular and impressive and show it from their perspective (talking about the second movie, haven’t seen the last) will have a negative impact that we should all be aware of.
        and after allot of people identify with the joker, and dressed up like him, and then a mass killer did it as well, to say that its just his psychopath interpretation when obviously millions of “normal people” interpate it the same, doesnt seem right.

  • DougH

    For me, it comes down to the portrayal of the protagonists, and the portrayal of the violence. Are the protagonists worth rooting for? Can you even pick a side? Is the violence of the protagonists preemptive, defensive, or retributive? When the protagonists do something morally ambiguous, are the results of those decisions shown? How are the antagonists portrayed? Are they shown to be wrong even if they are likable or their views understandable or goals admirable? How clear are the answers to any moral issues raised? Is an answer given, or is the purpose to raise questions?

    The answers to those questions are going to play into how much blame you might want to put on a movie for violent copycats. Yes, the Joker from the second of the latest trilogy is flamboyant and over-the-top, but in my personal opinion there is nothing morally attractive about him. If someone finds him attractive enough to emulate there is something seriously wrong with that person, not the portrayal of the Joker in the movie, and certainly not the violence the Joker inflicts on all around him.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Well put. I agree.

  • Basil

    I think you raise an interesting cultural question, but I have no answer for it. I don’t know anyone who does.
    As for blame and responsibility, I think we are all to blame because we refuse to press our legislators to stand up to the NRA and impose some modicum of regulation on gun ownership, and the supply of guns and ammunition. There is no reason it should be legal for people to have military style assault weapons, and high capacity magazines, and there should be no loopholes, via the internet or gun shows, for people to buy guns and ammunition without background checks. It is more difficult to get a drivers license, or to purchase sudafed, than it is to purchase a gun. That tells me our values are corrupted. We allow the insane few who fetishize weapons, to bully the rest of us, lest we be called “socialists” or “America haters” or some other claptrap, and as a result we have an virtually unregulated trade in the instruments of death. If we were not such cowards, 12 people would be alive in Colorado, and the hospitals there would be a little less busy treating the wounded.

  • Mark

    Here is the important point of the piece, in my view: “For too long, we’ve been dismissive of the notion that entertainment shapes attitudes and attitudes shape behavior.” The way people understand the world and the things they expect of it are increasingly defined by entertainment, with the result they will increasingly behave in ways that mesh with the form of the world described by those creating mass entertainment.

    I agree that to claim the Dark Knight movies comprise a direct causal link to mass murder is incorrect. It’s in the broader setting of our mass entertainment culture in which traditions and mores are increasingly rejected that any causal links might be found. Regrettably, it will be a tiny minority of the viewing public who put in the effort to reflect on the ideas about good and evil C. Nolan is exploring in these films, but that would be the type of result that might move the society as a whole in a direction that would be more supportive of life and of the good.

    As an aside, I find it intriguing that despite the politically charged atmosphere of the past several weeks, including the initial comment here invoking President Obama, no one has mentioned that the first mention of the villain (2nd paragraph, 2nd line) is misspelled, instead using the spelling of Gov. Romney’s former business. I hope I’m right to infer that it reflects both the readers’ attention to the point at hand and restraint from being over-wrought about a simple mistake.

  • Cynthia

    “I agree that to claim the Dark Knight movies comprise a direct causal link to mass murder is incorrect.” Of course, the Dark Knight Movie was not the single cause: the shooter’s failure at school, his apparant mental illness, and the ease with which he accessed guns and ammunition played a role. But, it’s not inconceivable that the story of Batman, a loner vigilante, with no family, and weak ties to the community, fighting against a nihilistic villian that revels in mayhem also played it’s part. For goodness sake, he died his hair red, called himself the Joker, and attacked people in a theater at the Batman premiere. Of, course there is a causal link. It’s not the single cause. But, very, very probably, it’s one cause among among several.