The defining moment in the history of the fictitious city called Gotham is when a trembling young boy in a tuxedo — he’s dressed up for a night at the theater — kneels next to his slain mother and father as a gunman runs off into the night.
The gun-metal grimness of that scene in the 2005 film “Batman Begins” echoes in every part of director Christopher Nolan’s bleak and bruising franchise. And now, after the shooting at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., the record-breaking Hollywood franchise will be remembered in shades of funereal black and lurid tabloid red.
Police said the 24-year-old suspect had “painted” hair and told them after the shooting that he was the Joker, the warped murderer played by Heath Ledger in Nolan’s previous Batman film, “The Dark Knight.” According to reports from the scene, some moviegoers thought the man in the menacing gas mask was part of publicity stunt, a stand-in for the new movie’s florid villain, Bane, who wears a ventilator mask as he fills Gotham’s morgue with innocents.
The strange, macabre dance between violent reality and violent fiction will be pondered and debated in the days to come, and there will be jarring moments when they step on each other’s toes. Warner Bros. was scrambling Friday to refilter every advertisement and promotion, such as the one that had an unintentionally horrific Newsweek blurb: “Audiences will be blown away.”
Nolan and his cast and crew were in lockdown mode in Paris, where a red-carpet premiere was canceled and the collective mood was as dazed as a family gathering in which a wedding had been replaced by a wake. It wasn’t an entirely new sensation; the same team was caught in a different tide of emotion in January 2008 after Ledger was found dead in New York after a prescription drug overdose. To be indelicate, the grief and curiosity that followed Ledger’s death helped make “The Dark Knight” the highest-grossing film in 2008. The pendulum of fiscal fate may swing the other way with the very different headlines that pinged across the world on Friday.
At the Golden Globes, where Ledger won a posthumous supporting actor trophy, Nolan looked out on the faces of famous Hollywood and said he felt an “awful mixture of sadness but also incredible pride” when he thought of the late star. The words were perfect for that evening but, on Friday, the silence in the early hours of the tragedy from the ever-erudite filmmaker said even more about the impossible nightmare of the Colorado mayhem. When he did release a statement, it ended with an articulate man’s surrender to the horror of the moment. “Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families.”
“Horrible” was the one word that Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister could offer as the dispatches continued to come in from suburban Denver. Pfister is a former TV news cameraman and there’s a velocity and frenetic grit to his work that gives a “Fight Club” underbelly to Nolan’s operatic epic that is the superhero cinema’s equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” saga.
A decade ago, no one was comparing Batman movies to Coppola’s Corleone films, but perceptions shifted when Nolan took over the franchise. Now a two-time Oscar nominee, Nolan infused the comic book mythology with the asphalt snarl of “The French Connection” — as well as a James Bond budget for stunts and globe-trotting spectacle. Audiences responded not just to the films but to the filmmaker; reserved and cerebral, professorial in suit coats and vests, the auteur of “Memento” brought a brainy credibility to the masked-man business. Peers began to view Nolan differently, too, as he made his Gotham City an unlikely symbol of old-school craft; “The Dark Knight Rises” is the only big-budget studio release this summer that was shot on film stock (not digital) and the director has made public stands against the lucrative stereoscopic 3D format as well as industry over-reliance on CG effects.
With a deep cast of acclaimed actors (there are eight Oscar winners or former nominees in the trilogy’s finale) and fans all over the world, the franchise has taken on an aura that sets it apart from popcorn rivals such as the Spider-Man or X-Men films. That aura, however, will only amplify the morbid legacy in the seasons and years to come.
In a grim parallel, another 24-year-old man stood up in a movie theater in 2006 and opened fire. One victim died that night in Maryland where the movie theater was showing “X-Men: The Last Stand.” That spasm of violence was followed by the familiar topic-chewing — how do we separate convenient fashion from true influence when pop culture becomes hard-wired into the rampage of a sick mind? Batman is not the only haunted rage-aholic looking for a face to punch — Wolverine, James Bond, Jason Bourne, the Hulk, Anakin Skywalker and Magneto are some of the other PG-13 poster boys who spiritually have more in common with “Dirty Harry” than Superman.
Ledger’s death put “The Dark Knight” on the same shelf as “The Crow” — the title star, Brandon Lee, was killed on the set in a firearms mishap — and new fans embrace the lore with the same goose-bump satisfaction that keeps Ouija boards selling in the 21st century.
The list of the dead in Aurora will push this new film into uncharted territory as far as legacy. There is no comparable precedent.
“A Clockwork Orange” — a 1971 film with scenes of rape, murder and state-sanctioned torture — became such a flash point (after reports of copycat crimes) that director Stanley Kubrick withdrew the film from circulation in England for more than 25 years. The film was also nominated for best picture and, 40 years later, feted as a beloved classic at the Cannes Film Festival. But for Kubrick, the movie represented a smothering moment, one when the harsh gears of history began to chew up a piece of fiction that had let its nightmare slip off the screen somehow.
“It created a kind of craze,” “Clockwork” star Malcolm McDowell said of the ban in England. “People would fly to Paris and buy these awful videos made by people aiming cameras at some movie screen. Stanley moved on. He just didn’t think to go back to the whole thing.”
A more recent example, “The Matrix,” created a contemporary alphabet for pixel-era fantasy violence but (like Nolan’s Batman films) the 1999 sci-fi classic had deep-thoughts aura and gravitas that inspired almost tribal affinity among young moviegoers. That led to a melee of generational debate when the police tape went up at a high school called Columbine in Littleton, Colo., where two students became predators dressed in trench coats.
“The Matrix,” also released by Warner Bros., became a touchstone of entertainment-as-incitement, somewhat like the music of Judas Priest in an earlier era. In 2003, the Boston Globe noted that a Virginia teen who was wearing combat boots when he killed his parents was “the third killer in the U.S. since the release of the original movie to consider pleading not guilty by reason of ‘The Matrix.’”
That’s the sort of madhouse threat now facing Gotham. The city was built (in the comics) in the FDR years but the skyline changes every few years, depending on the architect of imagination — Tim Burton and Anton Furst, Frank Miller or Marshall Rogers, Bruce Timm or Adam West, etc. The city has come to us in the past as Saturday-morning safe or groovy 1960s camp, but Nolan’s version sits closer to “Mean Streets” than Metropolis. After the events in Colorado, the question is which Bruce Wayne we see now when we close our eyes — is it the dangerous man in the dark or that lonely young survivor in Crime Alley with hot tears of confusion.
– Geoff Boucher
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