Watching the World Burn

Once again, the Batman has created a controversy. This time, however, the reality is hitting too close to home. Early this morning, at a midnight premiere of the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy in Aurora, Colorado, an apparently lone gunman opened fire on the audience, killing 12 and injuring 38 others. Eyewitnesses said they were confused at first, thinking the gunshot sounds were a part of the onscreen action. Once viewers began scrambling and screaming though, it became  obvious that the massacre was not a dramatized one.

As horrific as this whole episode is, it reveals a much deeper secret, hidden within the hearts of men. Much has been made of Heath Ledger’s “accidental” death during post-production editing of Nolan’s second film in the Batman series, The Dark Knight. It was speculated (never much confirmed) that Ledger was affected deeply by his dark portrayal of the infamous Batman nemesis, The Joker. Ledger’s performance in the film is legendary, despite the clouds of controversy surrounding it. What made Ledger’s Joker so ominous though, was not so much his brilliant acting (although it was that), but the plain outward depiction of the sinful heart of man. Batman’s right-hand-man in the film, Alfred, puts the situation in plain language when he says: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Ledger’s Joker didn’t try to hide his love of pandemonium and chaos, assuming he was simply “ahead of the curve” in his love of depravity. So it is with the movie theater gunman. Going through great theatrics to accompany his entrance into the Colorado theater—he used smoke bombs and wore a bulletproof vest—the killer was putting on his own sick type of performance art. It is not politically-correct and it is probably in very bad taste and poor timing, but it simply must be pointed out that the patrons entering the theater this morning knew they were paying to watch violence, guns, and death unfold before their eyes, but they were not anticipating becoming part of the action.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am NOT blaming the film for the massacre; I am NOT saying the viewers deserved it; and I am NOT saying the gunman is not responsible for his actions. What I am saying is that, to some degree, we ALL want to watch the world burn. We enjoy the chaos and explosions of a superhero film, especially when the villains are made to pay in the end. We are happy and gratified when the “good guys” win because we identify with them. And we should. But the reality is that we have far more in common with the villains than we do with the heroes. And this is why Nolan’s Batman films are so popular: they really aren’t about Batman, the Joker, Catwoman, or Bane at all—they are about us. Every one of us has the potential to be the next mass murderer, but thankfully few will be.

Alfred’s observation about watching the world burn is both empirical and prophetic. It is rather ironic that his line is delivered during a film where we are watching the world burn on the screen. We like our dramatized world-burning as long as it remains on the screen, but when the evil enters the theater with a real gun and real bullets and real malice, the entertainment value is immediately forgotten. No longer are we watching a “psychological thriller,” but a psychopathic killer. And with every passing day, the line between the two becomes thinner and thinner. Gutless killers ARE out there and it is up to us to protect ourselves and others.

We don’t know the full story of the Aurora killer yet, perhaps we never will, but one thing is certain: the killer went unchallenged. If more individuals were carrying guns of their own maybe this would never have happened. If sociopathic freaks knew that more than a few of the rest of us were packing heat, they might rethink their sociopathic behavior.