It used to be that the motivation of super villains was easy to figure out: greed.
They robbed banks for money. They stole priceless diamonds from museums. Maybe they were power hungry and wanted to take over Metropolis, or New York City, or the world. Maybe they thirsted for revenge against a hero who had beaten them previously, and wanted an eye for an eye.
This is reflective of the times in which these characters were created. The world was drawn more simply then, in stark black-and-white terms. Everyone in American society knew who our villains were and what they wanted. Organized crime. The Nazis during World War II.
Later, comic books were influenced by attitudes toward issues like the spread of Communism during the Cold War and man’s venturing into outer space (you saw a lot more aliens bent on conquering the Earth starting in the “Space Age”). Americans knew that you were to abide by the law, and if you didn’t, you became a criminal and were punished. It’s just the way the world turned.
Evil appears to have changed since then, however, or at least the way we perceive it. These days, it seems more random, more senseless. We’ve seen planes crash into the World Trade Towers. We’ve seen school shootings. We’ve seen bath salt-fueled “zombies” eating off other people’s faces. We look at these things and say we don’t understand. Why did these things happen? How could they be allowed to take place? Rather than seeing clear good vs. evil, we question everything.
Largely because, perhaps, the motivations have changed. The above atrocities were not committed for a simple, rational reason (e.g. steal the diamond, hold it ransom for money, live comfortably on your ill-gotten wealth). They were done for religious fanaticism. In a chemical-addled stupor. For the sake of sheer chaos. Because one day, someone woke up and said, “Why not?”
We see this reflected in Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed trilogy of films reinventing the classic comic book character Batman. Our on-screen visions of the Caped Crusader have changed drastically over the years — from the goofy world of high-concept heists splashed in primary colors in the Adam West TV series of the 1960s, to the surrealist fantasy and Prince soundtrack of Tim Burton’s films two decades ago, to Nolan’s current gritty, realism-driven take.
Here, the Joker doesn’t transform into a grinning ghoul because he fell into some kind of imaginary acid, leading to his decision to dress in purple and run around town enacting elaborate schemes. The Joker from 2008’s “The Dark Knight” was more John Wayne Gacy-meets-Columbine shooter, smearing clownish paint on his face to go wreak havoc simply because he’s mad at the world and wants to watch it burn.
Nolan’s Joker wasn’t a creation pulled out of thin air. It was a reflection of the times. Today, we don’t fear rational, greedy criminals. We fear unpredictability. We fear insanity. We fear those who act without fear — of the law, of repercussions, of losing their own lives.
That’s exactly the kind of evil we saw this past weekend in Aurora, Colorado, where viewers of Nolan’s final Batman film, “The Dark Knight” rises, were confronted with an agent of chaos in all-too-real a fashion. A dozen theatergoers were killed and scores more injured after suspect James Holmes, seemingly a harmless fellow by most accounts, allegedly opened fire during a midnight showing of the summer blockbuster. As of yet, his motivation remains an enigma.
At the time the above incident was happening, I was sitting in a similar theater right here in Somerset, as were a number of people I call friends. It’s hard not to wonder how easily that could have been me, could have been any one of us, had fate not chosen Colorado as the place of destruction but instead southern Kentucky.
It wouldn’t be until the next morning that I learned of what had happened over 1,200 miles to the west. Next to me, someone asked, “Why would they do this?” I could only reply, “There’s no good answer to that.”
And it’s the truth. The reality is, bad things just happen. Without rhyme or reason, without explanation or preventative measures. We can take all the precautions in the world to protect ourselves, but evil finds a way. It always does, and always will. This is the nature of being human, since the days of Cain and Abel.
The trick, then, is not to shield ourselves from the world, but to live and be ready to handle bad things when they happen — and should worse come to worse, be happy with the life you’ve lived to that point.
Unfortunately, we face another kind of villain in our society, one born out of both power-lust and a craven need to be comforted. We are opportunistic, jumping on incidents like the one in Colorado to create sensationalism, to push agendas, to sacrifice perspective for self-preservation.
You will hear — indeed, you’re already hearing, depending on the TV you watch or articles you read — a renewed call for gun control laws. You will hear people blaming depictions of violence in media such as the Batman films themselves for influencing the suspect’s actions. You will hear of movie theaters asking patrons not to celebrate their love of superheroes by dressing up in costume (as Holmes allegedly did during his rampage), or even installing metal detectors in movie theaters; how about a police state to go with your popcorn?
There is no doubt room for discussion and debate about things like guns, media imagery, etc., in our society, but we must be careful how and when we do it. To simply rush to pass laws or policies in response to a random act of evil is reactionary and poorly conceived. If we are to solve problems, we should do so with cool heads, not when emotions are running high. That way lies oppression.
Yet our political leaders are often all too eager to use headline-making tragedies to justify their own existence, to pass laws to make it look like they’re doing something useful. When 9/11 occurs, we get the Patriot Act; closer to home, stories of Kentucky children harmed by meth-making parents were used to push laws restricting Sudafed sales. It is easy to grab onto a hot-button issue and use it as a tool for a legislative free-for-all, but we must fight the temptation and stand against those who would give in to it.
In a way, it shows that traditional, greedy motives for bad behavior are still around. Not exactly a comforting thought.
Ironically, “The Dark Knight Rises” showcased this kind of “villainy,” showing how the death of district attorney Harvey Dent is used to justify a sweeping organized crime law that allows Gotham City’s slimier politicians to stand at podiums and boast about what a good job they’ve done — despite the fact Dent’s legacy is built on a lie (as Dent actually became the murderous criminal Two-Face in the previous film, choosing the fates of his victims on the random flip of a coin). What’s more, the wicked deeds of Bane loom on the horizon, unpredictable acts against which the city is powerless.
There is no need to blame the big-screen stories of Batman, the Joker, et al., for one gunman’s horrific crimes, as many rush to do; only a day after the shooting, I was already reading op-ed columns asking if Nolan’s creative vision was to blame, particularly since Holmes allegedly identified himself as “the Joker.” Evil has existed long before the cinema; if the Colorado killer had not found motivation from a comic book-based movie, he would have found it elsewhere. Disaster is inevitable, and will always find the right crack through which to slip into existence.
No, it is not life that depends on art for inspiration, but rather art that draws inspiration from life. Nolan did not create terrorists acting on irrational impulse; he created a vision of a 70-year-old literary bad guy who acted in a way that reflects the world we live in now. The Joker did not give birth to James Holmes, but those who came before Holmes gave rise to a filmmaker’s interpretation of the Joker.
Bad things happen in life. We are not served by pointing fingers and casting blame and rushing to seedy politicians for a false sense of security. We would do well instead to hug our loved ones and never take them for granted, to enjoy our favorite films, and go about living the kind of lives we would want to have in ideal conditions. If we give in to fear and hate because of our cultural villains, those villains ultimately win. If we continue to celebrate the good things in life — like movies about Batman, for many of us — then life is worth the pain.
There are no good answers for what happened in Colorado, but be sure that nobody who would use that evil to drive home a political agenda is the hero of the story. We all have to be our own heroes — for our own lives.