The summer cineplex has been bursting with comic book characters like Men in Black, John Carter of Mars, and others, but its the superhero that commands as blockbuster summer zeitgeist. The SPIDER-MAN reboot to Sam Raimi’s celebrated films was a darker re-telling of Peter Parker’s origins, but the runaway summer hit was Joss Whedon’s AVENGERS that parlayed Silver Age superteam fun into record-breaking success. Yet its an exception that proves the dark-and-gritty rule that has been etched into public consciousness by Christopher Nolan’s brooding Batman franchise. THE DARK KNIGHT received both critical acclaim and box office bonanza, but it also generated controversy over its political allegory that evoked heated debate about Bush Doctrine practices and vigilante violence. Nolan’s trilogy finale THE DARK KNIGHT RISES continues this trend of modern myth-making even before its premiere.
Radio hyperbolist Rush Limbaugh blovates that the supervillain Bane is a liberal conspiracy to smear Bain CEO and presidential candidate Romney even as supporters cheer Bat-Romney, likely because Nolan’s ambivalent allegory evokes themes and anxieties over economic inequality that fueled Occupy Wall Street. But discussion of our capitalist superheroes and political supersaviors was quickly eclipsed by a Colorado rampage at the movie’s premiere. The shooter remains a mystery, but already media wonders “Does Batman have blood on his hands?” While the predictable hysterics blaming Liberal Godlessness or parents or lax gun control rage, there’s little doubt that Nolan’s film (inspired by Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities“) is intentionally both provocative yet ambivalent as our best mythologies are. Andrew O’Hehir at Salon nails the stakes:
“Whether or not Holmes had any particular interest in The Dark Knight Rises, he saw correctly that in our increasingly fragmented culture it was the biggest mass-culture story of the year, and one of the biggest news stories of any kind. Shoot up a Kentaco Hut or a Dunkin’ Donuts, in standard suburban-nutjob fashion, and you get two or three days of news coverage, tops. Shoot up the premiere of a Batman movie and you become a symbol, and provoke a crisis of cultural soul-searching… James Holmes has become the latest villain in a long-running violent movie for which we are all responsible, and from which we can’t turn away.”
To dismissively label an enemy or individual as “evil” (or “crazy”) often dismisses an account of motives, causes, and indeed our societal culpability in making it easier to attain guns than adequate health care, compassion, and counseling. Most frightening is the predictable regularity of such sprees.
As we’ve explored in class, the redemptive violence in this Superhero Monomyth necessitates that we examine our cultural ideology and deliberatively reflect upon its causes and consequences, its payoff and price. While American filmgoers flock to consume this vigilante crusader, previews of the upcoming Superman film elicited snickers, taunting profanity, and cynical snark. Darker SuperAntiheroes reign, yet THE AVENGERS also suggests audiences are hungry for superheroes who can overcome and inspire during uncertain times, to show us how we might rise from our existential ennui. Like Nolan’s film, we must look into the dark night of our collective soul to contemplate the heroes we need… and the monstrous villains we may unwittingly help create.
For those searching for meaning and consolation in the horrible wake of such tragic violence, we can do no better than revisit the incredible eulogy for MLK Jr. given by Robert F. Kennedy on the evening of King’s assassination. This message is eternal, and needed now more than ever.