Should the Studio Have Pulled “The Dark Knight Rises”?

(This post is co-authored with my eldest son, Trevor, who is a graduate of Capilano University’s film program and Simon Fraser University and about to complete–with a screenplay–his master’s degree at Regent College in theology and the arts.)

A recent column in Canada’s prominent newspaper, The Globe and Mail, chides the producers of “The Dark Knight Rises” for not taking the film out of circulation out of respect for the shooting victims and out of fear that the film will prompt more violence. Stanley Kubrick’s pulling “A Clockwork Orange” out of London cinemas several decades ago is cited as setting a fine example. Peter Stockland, former publisher of the Anglo-Canadian edition of Reader’s Digest and now on the staff of Cardus (a Christian think tank and activist organization in Canada), strongly affirms this position–which brought it to our attention.

We think pulling the film would have been, and is, a bad idea.

First, a simple matter of chronology: the film itself was the occasion for the killings, but not the cause, since the killings happened at the premiere showing. The shooter might have been influenced by the character of “the Joker” in the previous film–although the motivations of the suspect are currently far from obvious. But then the argument is with “The Dark Knight,” an Academy Award-nominee that was released four years ago and has, maybe, inspired only this one person to violence. Over the last four years, no one has pointed to any kind of wave of public violence inspired by any Batman film.

Second, blaming the film because the suspected shooter somehow resembled “the Joker” would be like blaming “The Matrix” for the Columbine shootings because the perpetrators wore long, black coats. All these movies do is provide the cultural symbols for a certain kind of “coolness.” A maniac bent on mass murder will dress to conform with whatever symbols available at the time express the statement he wants to make. To blame the symbols or the symbol-makers themselves is to misunderstand where causation lies–in the heart of the murderer and in whatever key influences helped to prepare him for his evil.

Third, calling for the withdrawal of this film seems a classic case of mistaking what is currently prominent with what is in fact influential. Hollywood produces a dozen movies a year–a month?–that clearly promote cynicism, violence, disrespect for the human body, despair, and arrogance. And in terms of promoting bad behaviour, why not insist on the withdrawal of “Drive” or the “Fast and the Furious” series since reckless driving takes far more lives than mass shooters do? Why not denounce any one of the steady stream of romantic comedies that get “sex” and “marriage” in the wrong order? Where is the call to withdraw “50 Shades of Grey” from the market–or, at least, not feature it at the very entrance to the bookstore (as I encountered it last week at Indigo) because it promotes a terribly tawdry view of romance? And have we simply stopped caring about “tweeners” being told what it means to be a successful teenager by the latest “pop tarts” such as Katy Perry? Let’s put that outrage to use on targets that demonstrably matter.

Fourth, withdrawing the film wouldn’t help the victims—who are already receiving plenty of public attention and respect—and it certainly wouldn’t punish the shooter. It would, however, punish a lot of innocent people without provably being able to save any. It would punish the filmmakers who have worked hard the past several years to produce what they hoped would be an entertaining film. It would punish the studio for spending a huge amount of money to make this film (and others) on the expectation that this film would do well at the box office. And it would punish the audience–apparently, a very large audience indeed–by making the fans wait even longer and then forever tainting their enjoyment of the film by strengthening its ties to the shooting.

Furthermore, such a drastic action would cast a chill over film-making generally. Are film-makers now to buy horrendously expensive insurance policies to protect against someone, somewhere doing something horrific such that someone, somewhere can blame it on the film? Are studios supposed to produce only films that cannot possibly be accused of promoting bad behaviour? Are all artists in all media now to pull in their horns for fear of a liability suit from the decency squad?

Finally, the character of the Joker in the previous film is in fact a cinematic masterpiece of acting, directing, and screenwriting. He is one of the most convincing and accurate portrayals of the demonic in contemporary culture, a figure who confessedly has “no plan,” but simply wants to mess things up, “insert a little chaos” into the order of the world. He also clearly enjoys at least a half-dozen other devilish traits: he lies even when he doesn’t have to (as in providing various versions of “how I got these scars”); he prefers others to do his dirty work; he sets people against each other unnecessarily (as in lethal “try-outs” for his criminal crew); he betrays a feverish love of destruction and suffering, even his own; he is toweringly self-righteous; and he is utterly, bleakly narcissistic. Contemplating the Joker–and I mean that seriously–would do lots of us a lot of good, and particularly those of us who have Jesus as an example of humanity to set against him.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Salvador Dalí, Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett–all have needed protection from censors who, rightly appalled at what they beheld, wrongly concluded that no one should suffer being appalled when beholding art. There is, indeed, a lot of crap being sold as art these days, and critics rightly denounce it even as patrons rightly refuse to pay for it. But the critics are picking on the wrong artists this time. Sometimes art is telling us the truth about a horrible part of reality, and to do that it has to be horrible. Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences–not known for its philosophical acuity or sensitivity to the Great Questions–recognized “The Dark Knight” and particularly Heath Ledger’s “Joker” as serious art.

It would be a much different case, then, if the shooter clearly had been inspired by this Batman movie: but he wasn’t. It would be a much different case if there had been multiple events of violence relating to this film series: but there aren’t. The Globe columnist and her fans seem to be in the grip of a knee-jerk reaction to a truly horrifying incident and they seem to be taking the influence of these Batman movies ‘way more seriously than they should. “Why so serious?” indeed.

8 Responses to “Should the Studio Have Pulled “The Dark Knight Rises”?”

  1. Josue

    Neither well-written nor well thought-out.

    You say cultural symbols like the Joker are a necessary ingredient for would-be killers like Holmes to manifest their inner rage. Therefore, you seem to be saying the Joker character does bear some blame.

    On the “simple” matter of chronology you try to shift the focus away from the new movie (“since the killings happened at the premiere showing”) onto the Dark Knight, which couldn’t possibly be to blame you say because after all, it won Academy Awards! Wow! Appeal to authority/popularity. Nobody cares about stupid awards when we’re talking mass murder, comprende?

    That your being entertained by Batman is your real concern is evinced throughout your essay: The Joker character “is…in fact, a cinematic masterpiece.” And there you have it: the line between opinion and fact is obliterated because you declared it so! How many killing does a movie directly have to influence for you to be moved? Five? Ten?

    Why must there be a steady wave of killing over the last four years? Why are you surprised a bozo-haired attention-craver waits until the premier of the next movie to go down in infamy? He wouldn’t have a flair for drama if he did otherwise, say two years ago, am I right?

    The Matrix analogy doesn’t work either. The Columbine guys wore trenchcoats before the Matrix. The influences everyone pointed to when that tragedy occurred were Marilyn Manson, Doom, etc. Matrix not so much. Matrix has killings, but it is not an orgy of carnage, or as psychologically perverse the way the Joker is.

    @Your third point: Lots of people blacklist Hollywood movies and actors, its just that until Anderson Cooper and his partner Wolf Blitzer make a big noise about it, it doesn’t exist as a problem in society’s mind. Until then, people who do have a
    problem with Hollywood are mere conservatives, killjoys, prudes, etc. And until then, its ok to be a greedy capitalist 1%er as long as you’re reliably supplying the 99% with the violence and immorality they so crave.

    @Fourth: “withdrawing the film wouldn’t help the victims—who are already receiving plenty of public attention and respect.” What?? Boy you have a way with words. Poor choice and incredibly insensitive.

    • John Stackhouse

      Correction #1: The Matrix opened in March 1999: less than a month later, the Columbine massacre occurred.

      Corrections #2 … n: Ah, why bother…

  2. Josue

    1) Not sure what you’re correcting. Matrix indeed came out just before Columbine massacre but those shooters wore long trench coats way before Matrix movie and that was what I said.

    Like I said, the Matrix movie was never really one of the cultural influences implicated in the case of Columbine massacre, whereas the opposite is true with Holmes/the Joker: The Joker character was so real in his sickness (partially because Heath Ledger was “researching” the character so extremely well, in an un-well way) that its practically pornographic to watch. Holmes was psychologically broken just like the Joker and probably related to him a lot; he referred online to his new hair style as “Joker hair”; referred to himself as “the Joker” when taken into custody by police; killed a lot of people at the premier of the newest Batman installment…

    The connection is pretty clear and strong with Holmes/Joker whereas it really isnt in the case of Columbine/Matrix. I wikipedia’d “Columbine shootings” and I dont even see the Matrix mentioned. Doom on the other hand was an extremely violent video game (an orgy of carnage, as I referred to it above) and Marilyn Manson, well, you probably know his whole shock-rock shtick. These things were to Klebold/Harris what the Joker was to Holmes.

    2) No, please, go ahead if you like.

    • John Stackhouse

      Your style doesn’t encourage me to think we’re going to have a fruitful exchange, but I’ll try. My argument is that there is no good reason to view “The Dark Knight Rises” in such a strong causal connection with the shootings that pulling it from the theatres would be appropriate.

      That’s my point. What’s yours?

  3. Dan Och

    ‘He is one of the most convincing and accurate portrayals of the demonic in contemporary culture’.
    I remember being impressed by the how the Joker was portrayed when I first saw Dark Night, but was unable to articulate why, so your insight on that point was really helpful. Thank you.

  4. Josue

    My point which I thought I was pretty clear about is that while I ultimately agree the movie shouldnt be pulled, I had problems with the methodology by which you arrived at your conclusion.

    Why does there have to be an a priori, written-in-the-clouds causal relationship between the two (DKR and the shooter) before withdrawing the film is to be considered? In the wake of previous tragedies certain types of movies were stopped mid-production. What’s the diff? Why dont you take that up?

    Anyway, sure DKR isnt alone to blame (given the chronology), but perhaps it’s just bad taste to continue doing business as usual in light of such a tragedy. Isn’t our gripe against big businesses that all they do is take, take, take and to hell with humanity?

    Maybe the fact the portrayal of the Joker as evil was so convincing and real is precisely why the series does bear some blame. Maybe such images pollute the mind; maybe such characters are responsible, for they provide the necessary “cultural symbols” would-be killers need to feel comfortable in their madness and justify venting it violently.

    The relationship between the tragedy and DKR is wrapped up in greater contexts: DKR is the third installment of a series and the shooter was influenced by the previous installment (see post two); also, the company which produced DKR, Warner Bros, has a long history of violent, screwed-up movies and characters, and instigating violent rampages and even embracing “the art” of it all (see Natural Born Killers); finally, of course the obvious is Hollywood in general and its immorality.

    DKR is a part of all those greater contexts–that is undeniable –and so it bears some responsibility, and DKR would be the first in line to make some concession out of respect for the victims and also out of acknowledging the ambiguity of how film and image affects viewers.

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