See, I was meant to write about the film The Dark Knight Rises and how it reflected and refracted the book I read this week, the excellent and elegant poetry chapbook Bat & Man; something about the durability of the Batman character, the way he is mutable enough to invite and support a variety of allegorical readings, the way his myth can be expressed in comics, films, and even a sonnet cycle.
But there are as many as fourteen people dead now in Aurora, Colorado, shot dead in the dark by a gunman whose true motive we will not, cannot ever understand, because we are sane and rational and fully human — maybe not fully functional, all of us, but able to get along in society — and he is hideously broken inside, broken enough to think it is a fine idea to set off tear gas in a packed theater and start firing randomly into the suddenly panicked crowd.
That’s an alien notion to me, and to you, and I pray God it remains so. Or maybe it’s not so alien. Maybe all it takes is the wrong circumstances and a run of rotten luck to rewire your head that way — your head, or mine. That’s what scares me.
In any case, although the shooting has nothing to do, really, with the movie itself, it taints the thing for me. And I find I cannot write about the movie — or about the book, for which I apologize to my editor at Kirkus Reviews, the estimable Molly Brown, and to the author of Bat & Man, Chad Parmenter. Maybe one day, but not today. Today, I cannot assume the necessary critical distance. Today, I cannot pretend this horrible goddam thing did not happen.
They’re saying that the killer took advantage of the audience’s confusion by opening fire during a sequence in the film that featured gunshots. That would be most of the film, then. But presumably not the scene where the Batman shouts to his reluctant colleague Selina Kyle (known to comics readers as Catwoman), “No guns. No killing.” I hope not, anyway. That would be an irony too rich to swallow, too rich and too bitter. It would only make us throw up. And I feel like throwing up anyway.
The thing is, even though I know that the film itself is irrelevant to the murders, that a crowded theater is simply a target of opportunity, whether it be showing a Batman movie or Mary Poppins, I cannot stop drawing patterns. The critical part of my brain will not stop working, not entirely.
Because what Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies have done, all three of them, is present competing points of view regarding contemporary society, using Gotham City as a stand-in for the Western world; competing diagnoses, and competing prescriptions. The League of Shadows believes Gotham is hopelessly corrupt, and must be destroyed altogether so that the world can move on. They plan to use the citizens of Gotham itself as the engines of its destruction — employing a psychoactive “fear gas” in Batman Begins to turn the people against one another, and a Year Zero-style reign of terror to accomplish the same end in Rises — and build a finer world from the ashes.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker, ever the nihilist, doesn’t give a fig for any greater good. But, like the League, he believes that even the “upstanding” people of Gotham will turn murderous and savage if given the push; and he will destroy the city simply to prove his point. Nolan shows us enough abominable behavior to make us think that maybe — maybe — the League, and the Joker, are on to something. It takes a lot of hard work to be decent and upstanding in a rotten environment, and it seems like a thankless task.
The Batman is not afraid of hard work, and he does not ask to be thanked. While never soft-pedaling the ills of Gotham City — corruption, indifference, despair, inequality — he is ultimately motivated by hope. He sees in Gotham something worth redeeming. And because of that, he is willing to do the hard work to save his city, rather than succumb to the temptation of the League’s easy, quick fix — the temptation to burn it all down and start again.
Bruce Wayne’s father — the man he idolized, the man whose singlehanded charitable efforts saw the League of Shadows kept at bay, who kept Gotham afloat for years, the man he saw shot dead in the dark — was a doctor. A healer. And the son is, at heart, a healer too. Batman’s violence is the violence of the surgeon; cutting the cancer from the guts of his city, while helping the healthy tissue to grow and thrive as the philanthropist Bruce Wayne.
But healing is a long game, and frustrating, and the work is endless. Every day, every night, you cut out the bad and you feed the good. And there is always more evil to be expunged, and always more good who need and deserve assistance. And always your hope is growing thin, and your patience is waning, and maybe you start to think how simple it would be simply to let it all go, to wipe out the good with the bad and start fresh. Or to simply stop caring, and sink back, and let the world take care of itself.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan visualizes the battle within oneself, casting Bruce Wayne into a literal pit of despair, where a distant circle of sunlight is a tease and a torment. He tries to climb, to rise, and fails. And he grieves. The other prisoners in the hole with him have long ago given up hope. But stubbornly, perhaps foolishly, he tries again, and fails again. And again.
For plot purposes, of course, it is vitally important that he escape from the pit. But his ultimate victory is already won — simply because he is still trying. The villainous Bane crows triumphantly, “I have broken you.” But he hasn’t. Inch by agonizing inch, by sweat and hardship, he rises. And falls. And grieves. And rises again. And again.
And that’s the war that we wage every day, you and I and all the other sane and rational and human people of the world. We keep hope alive, and hold out for one more day, and take our small victories where we can find them. We keep our eyes on that circle of sunlight and rise, again, and again. What’s the alternative? To stay in the dark forever, broken and lost, and think, in our despair and brokenness, that it is a fine idea indeed to drag the world down into darkness with us?
We are not afraid of hard work. We grieve, and we are not broken. One more inch towards the light.