Less than forty-eight hours after the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, I found myself eavesdropping on an enthusiastic discussion in a college-town sandwich shop about The Dark Knight Rises, the movie that had provided the occasion for the shootings. “Is it as good as the last one?” asked a young woman who had not yet seen the film. “How was Anne Hathaway?” To which I would have replied, had I been the one asked: no, terrific and what difference does it make?
Let me be clear: neither The Dark Knight Rises nor the previous episodes of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy can be blamed for the slaughter in Aurora. To say otherwise would be to diminish the culpability of the killer on the one side, and on the other of his enablers: all the well-organized forces that keep weapons in such ample circulation. To refuse simplistic notions of cause and effect is the necessary, responsible way to look at this catastrophe, but it’s also a daylight answer to a nighttime horror. In Aurora, at the midnight show of an action movie about indiscriminate, irrational violence, a man masked and armored like an action movie character wreaked indiscriminate, irrational violence. Some survivors recalled that when the killer burst through the door, they thought at first he was part of the show.
This is not the sort of thing that people in the industry want to think about, and they sure didn’t. “The mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater on Friday dented ticket sales for ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ but not by much,” Brooks Barnes reported in the New York Times on July 22, adding that the $162 million brought in over the weekend, although “huge,” fell below prerelease expectations. (Mulling over the possible causes of this disappointment for Warner Brothers, Barnes speculated that “some moviegoers were either not in the mood to watch a violent comic book caper or worried about theater safety after the carnage”—an acute analysis, which cannily dismissed other possibilities such as a plague of locusts.) The online publication The Wrap, edited by the former New York Times Hollywood reporter Sharon Waxman, showed even more exquisite sensitivity: “Will Oscar Voters Look Past the ‘Dark Knight Rises’ Tragedy?” it asked, six months before the announcement of the Oscar nominations for 2012 and several days before the last of the funerals.
If the art of violent, horrific films involves allaying our worst fears by playing them out, then there was something artless in this rush to normalize the release of The Dark Knight Rises without any lingering over the aspect of Aurora that ought to terrify the industry: the perfect fit between film and massacre. The valiant Roger Ebert was virtually alone among the commentators I read in acknowledging the likelihood that the killer wanted, in some way, to insert himself into the movie world, or at least into its aura of celebrity—but even Ebert did not contemplate what the audience had been expecting to receive from this particular movie, and how this time they really got what they paid for.