We are still trying to come to terms with the mass shooting at the Dark Knight Rises premiere in Colorado. All of us will spend the next few weeks stumbling around trying to find reasons and answers for the tragedy and the senseless loss of life, and none of us will come to any satisfactory conclusions.
My friend Todd on Facebook made the point that neither the fantasies of the right (a well-armed citizenry), nor the left (an unarmed citizenry), will completely stop madmen from killing other people en mass. If guns won’t do the trick, cars, knives, and improvised explosives will.
I met Todd in Alaska last year during our camping tour. Alaska is a stockade. I’ve never seen so many people with guns, and I grew up in the South. Every fisherman on the river has a pistol strapped to his or her chest, and I’ll never forget the image of our horseback riding guide cocking her pistol (“my engagement ring,” she called it) when she saw signs that a grizzly was nearby. That, of course, is why the fishermen are armed, too. The forests of Alaska are fairy tale forests. They are dark and full of monsters. But unless you are an expert marksman, a gun will not stop a grizzly bear. If it wants you dead, you will die. Shooting it will probably just piss it off and hasten your demise.
I see madmen like the Columbine murderers, or the Aurora murder, as something like an angry grizzly. There is not much you can do to stop them if they are determined to kill. There are precautions we can and should take, and we can minimize the danger through smart policing and policy, but we will never be free of these threats. Now, an angry bear probably has its reasons, whereas these shooters are just the world’s worst assholes, who deserve no sympathy or excuses (due process, on the other hand, yes).
I think we all know this. So, why are we all so shaken by this incident? Probably because previous shootings were limited to places most of us do not spend a lot of time: schools, post offices. Horrifying as those shootings were, they weren’t terrifying for most of us, since we don’t spend every day at school. But most of us go to movie theaters. Millions of us were in Dark Knight Rises premieres at the same time. It could have been any of us. Even those of us who fantasize that, “If I’d been there and had a gun, I would have stopped it.” Because, no. You would not have. If anything, in a dark, tear gas-filled theater with people running everywhere and screaming and gunshots coming from the screen and an unseen madman, you would have just shot innocent people. Nobody could have stopped what happened. Nobody except, maybe, Batman.
And perhaps that’s another reason why this tragedy hits a nerve more than similar shootings. By taking place during a Batman movie, during a film about the nigh-mythical badass of badasses, it exposed our fragile fantasies. We are all vulnerable. We are not superheroes. We are not badasses. We are not Batman.
We know we are not, but part of us likes to think we are. I do. Our pop culture is full of stories of accidental gods. Ordinary people who discover they are, or accidentally become, powerful. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Spider-Man, Superman. These are powerful wish-fulfillment fantasies. And there is nothing wrong with them. The problem comes when we buy into it, when we believe that with the right combination of mysterious parentage and radioactivity, we might become invulnerable and right the wrongs of the world.
Freud theorized that every kid at some point fantasizes that someday they will discover that their boring parents are not their real parents, and that their real parents were royalty and that they then will be whisked away to their kingdom, their true home. It’s a theme echoed again and again in our culture, from Oedipus to Oliver Twist. Now, of course, we’ve added superpowers to the bargain. You’re not just a prince, kid, you’re the Wizard-prince. It’s a powerful fantasy, and one we no longer leave behind with other childish things. We carry it with us even into adulthood. It’s the wish, the fantasy, at the heart of so much of our pop culture.
Of course, Batman is one of our few modern myths that inverts that trope.* Batman is born a prince and never leaves his kingdom. He just loses his parents. He doesn’t just discover his powers, he earns them with blood, sweat, and tears, through years of torturous training. We all want to be Batman, terror of the night, but none of us want to be Bruce Wayne, despite his wealth. None of us want to be the man so lonely and broken that he becomes a dark knight. If anything, Batman demonstrates the high cost of becoming a hero. Still, we fantasize, we live the adventure vicariously, on page and on screen.
We are not Batman. We never will be. We shouldn’t try to be. Instead, we should try to be more like his father, Dr. Thomas Wayne. A man who can’t stop bullets, but who heals those who are hurt. A man who, when his son falls into the darkness, reaches down and picks him back up.
*This is why the Star Wars prequels were so disappointing. The idea of taking the Family Fantasy/Man with a Thousand Faces tropes that the original Star Wars helped popularize and subverting them so that the orphan who discovers he’s special ends up becoming the Dark Lord is awesome. But instead, they just sucked.