It was my second time seeing The Dark Knight Rises and my first time with a paying audience. I had come back both so my wife could take it in and so that I could watch the film in IMAX, as director Christopher Nolan intended. But the bigger canvas was, of course, not all that was different on this second viewing. I had seen The Dark Knight Rises initially at a media screening, before Aurora. The filmmakers haven't changed a frame, but it's a very different movie now, and will be from here on out.
It was never just an escapist summer blockbuster, even before 12:38 a.m. on July 20. Much of the reason it is such a powerful film (a great one, I'd argue) is because Nolan grounds it so firmly in our real world instead of an imagined one, provocatively invoking 9/11 fears and imagery, Occupy and Tea Party rhetoric, and shades of the Patriot Act to make the Caped Crusader's world of a piece with our own. When I first heard the details of the shooting as they trickled out over Twitter and incomplete television reports that Friday morning, something hardened in the pit of my stomach. "They're gonna blame the movie for this," I told my wife, even as the shock and horror of what had happened was still sinking in. "There's stuff like this in it, mass destruction, calls for anarchy. It's the bad guy doing it, but still..."
The movie itself hasn't really been blamed, though. At least not explicitly. Instead, commentators have trotted out that old reliable bogeyman, the vague notion of "violent entertainment." Once-great filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich penned a mind-numbingly wrong-headed piece for The Hollywood Reporter, which segued smoothly from hyperbole ("Violence on the screen has increased tenfold. It's almost pornographic. In fact, it is pornographic. Video games are violent, too. It's all out of control. I can see where it would drive somebody crazy") to his particular stock-in-trade, pining for Hollywood's past ("What happened to pictures like How Green Was My Valley or even From Here to Eternity? They're not making those kind of movies anymore"). Meanwhile, the loathsome roundtable of Fox News' The Five watched clips from the film as co-host Eric Bolling (of "the Muppets are commies" fame) asked, with a straight face, the following question about alleged shooter James Holmes's apartment: "On one wall, the feds found a poster of Batman hanging. So we must ask, does Hollywood carry at least some of the blame?" (We must ask!)
This kind of hand-wringing seems particularly silly when revisiting The Dark Knight Rises, which is, in the shadow of Aurora, an even more somber and chilling film. The weight of what happened 38 minutes into that screening hangs over the film, heightening our sensitivity to now-eerie dialogue like Batman's stern "No guns, no killing" directive. But the viewer feels that weight not because The Dark Knight Rises somehow "caused" James Holmes to buy four weapons and more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition, walk into a theater, and murder 12 people. You feel that weight because The Dark Knight Rises takes place in a world where such things are not just possible, but expected. When I read about what Holmes had done, a piece of dialogue burrowed into my head that's stayed there in the week and half since. It wasn't from The Dark Knight Rises; it was from the previous film, The Dark Knight, and it was the simple but direct explanation of the Joker's actions by Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred: "Some men just want to watch the world burn." It was easier to hear a line like that back when we hadn't been so vividly reminded that it wasn't fiction.