When I saw The Dark Knight Rises, it was with a far different mindset than I had expected in the weeks leading up to the release. The terrible opening night events at the theater in Colorado immediately cast a pall over the entire experience, affecting everything from how I spoke about Batman (who is my favorite superhero) to others, to how I read about the film in the media, to how I interpreted the previous film The Dark Knight, to how I dressed for my viewing (I was initially going to wear a Joker-esque outfit I’d been happily compiling for a couple weeks, and ultimately scrapped the idea). As the opening night draws further off in the movie’s run, I find myself pondering other worrying questions.
When a person goes into a theater on the eve of a film about such an iconic pop culture character as Batman and massacres prospective viewers, undoubtedly a connection will be formulated between the attack and the franchise it seems to revolve around. To add to that, the attacker in question deems himself “the Joker” to police in the aftermath. We the public have no way of knowing if he actually thinks he’s the Joker or if it’s a play for attention, and perhaps we will never know. But the connection has been made regardless, and conclusions, however on or off target, are being drawn.
The Joker of Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight is, to me, the quintessential Joker: Heath Ledger’s performance embodied the depravity and the inconceivable psychosis of a villain born out of such a world as the Dark Knight comic line offers. He is fascinating because of how he both engages and repulses the viewer/reader in equal measures. The filmic reaction to him by the mob bosses of Gotham is the artistic portrayal of everything he is meant to incite in the real world viewer: amazement, fear, even amusement… for a time. And then the gradual realization that the mob bosses have no idea how to deal with the monster they have released, and no manner of coming up with a solution, as he exists on a completely separate level from the “evil” they are familiar with. They are out of their depth here, and so are most viewers of the film. As such, the Joker is a character that I, a viewer, recognize as insane— a character whose crafting I admire and am in awe of from a writing standpoint— but a character I do not wish to emulate.
Clearly, that is not the case for everyone.
Blaming the character of the Joker and all his creators seems to be the next logical step, and probably is for many people. For my part, I believe firmly that the nature/nurture arguments, while certainly valid points of view, only go so far, and that people ultimately make their own choices concerning what they do in response to stimuli from the outside world. I recognize there is a great deal of gray area as well: mental faculties, mental health, and basic perception of the world vary from person to person, often due to things none of us can control. But it is extremely gut-churning to contemplate standing in front of someone who has lost as much as the friends and families of the Colorado victims, and making that case aloud.
Who am I to make a call either way? Who am I to speak at all? And what does the creator of a character like the Joker do when something like this happens?
The above statements are not at all meant as judgments. Each person must figure out the answers to these questions him or herself. But as a writer, it definitely makes me pause on another level, because I create stories. I create characters that I hope people will read and enjoy, hate and love, empathize with and push as far away as they possibly can. I especially create characters that I hope will evoke an uncomfortable, thought-provoking mix of the above reactions. At this very moment, the writing project I’m working on involves a number of psychotic characters, and while I’m pretty sure my approach does not push an agenda of support for their abominable actions… neither did Nolan’s Batman. It’s pretty clear who the villain is in The Dark Knight, and while Batman may share some crucial similarities in terms of world view, the ultimate difference lies in the fact that even Batman could not stoop to the Joker’s lowest level, to Two-Face’s lowest level, to Ra’s al Ghul’s lowest level, and god knows they all tried as hard as they could to shove him down there.
In the face of something like this, when a creator’s character is (on the surface) taken as the basis for such an act, how does the creator respond? I ask not to pass judgment, but to bring up a question I struggle with myself. How can we artists bring these characters to life when we know there is the possibility of such a horrible result? Can you, readers, say you’ve never read a book that got blamed for something and thought, “Yeah, I can see that”? Can you, writers, honestly say you have never looked at a character you are creating and thought, “I should just stop”?
Again, to make it clear: I am not saying we should stop, or that we are ultimately responsible for the interpretations formed by consumers. I’m saying the question haunts.
So then the question becomes: What are we meant to take away from characters like the Joker? It will be different for everyone depending on their experiences, their emotional states, their plans for the future. I certainly do not create my psychotic characters with the intention that one day someone will jump on that bandwagon in the real world. I personally feel the viewer is meant to be amazed and intrigued by villains like the Joker, to fear them in a manner that involves a certain amount of awe, but to decide in the end that actually being that person is not the way to go.
But what are authorial intentions anyway? I know from my Lit Theory classes (particularly the study of Shakespeare) that whatever the author intended is regarded, at best, as marginally important once the product makes its way out to the public. Rampant analysis ensues on multiple fronts, often along threads the author never once considered. The same must be assumed for creators of movies and, more generally, the characters that populate all pieces of art. To complicate the situation even further, as artists, by definition we strive specifically to influence consumers with our work. The flip side is that, try as we might, there is no possible way to dictate the interpretation of said consumer.
To say that art in all its forms has a responsibility to toe a line (to keep from planting harmful ideas, to avoid introducing conceptual violence to minds that may be ripe for influence) becomes ludicrous when it is clear that art echoes the world around us. How can it possibly do both at the same time? Even the best of censorship intentions on this front gives me images of 1984 and Equilibrium, realities that look good at first but simply cannot stand while taking into account individual human rights.
We know what the public does for pop culture. What duty does pop culture have to the public? Is there a duty at all? Is there a line of responsibility drawn somewhere, or is that consideration just as far out of its depth?