Breaking Muse

Mass killers no supervillains

By Rebecca Fitzgibbon

WITH all their childhood trauma, mental health problems and sociopathic behaviour, movie superheroes are a mirror for modern society. But are we looking?

The contemporary Batman is “a messed-up individual with all sorts of issues,” actor Christian Bale said in promotion for the previous film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight.

"He’s just as twisted and messed-up as the villains he’s fighting, and that’s part of the beauty of the whole story." 

Where there’s a superhero, there’s a “dash of crazy,” according to Marvel Comics maestro Stan Lee (Spider-ManIron Man). From Kick-Ass and Watchmen to Superand Griff the Invisible, it’s what makes a hero more relatable.

"If you can have a good guy who’s got hang-ups and flaws and failings, he’s more interesting because he not only has to defeat the villain, but he has to defeat and conquer his own flaws and inabilities," Lee says.

It works for Batman. He is driven by two traumatic childhood experiences: falling into a deep, dark well, surrounded by a swarm of bats; and witnessing the murder of his parents outside a movie theatre.

The success of The Dark Knight Rises, debuting with $US249 million ($241 million) in worldwide ticket sales and one mass killing at a Colorado midnight screening, is tragically ironic.

Gotham City’s social collapse, economic dystopia and class politics directly reflect the real world, but director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is also notably a study of terrorism and what drives people to terrorise others.

Bane, the The Dark Knight Rises' supervillain, is described as having been “born and raised in hell on earth”, announces his arrival by growling “speak of the devil” and threatens that his will be “torture not of your body but of your soul”.

He’s a sociopathic terrorist and his motives are typical; to plague the public with random, unexpected violence and then watch with relish when they turn on themselves in the resulting dystopian chaos.

The glorified terrorism is a juxtaposition; of an angelic voice singing the Star Spangled Banner followed by the utter collapse of a civilised city, from the sports arena caving in, to the bridges collapsing over rivers.

The attacks are a test of our humanity; both individually, and en masse. They illustrate how quickly we succumb to the relative moral simplicity of dividing the world into “good” and “evil” people, rather than examining behaviour and addressing its cause.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper described the Aurora, Colorado, shooter with a typically knee-jerk statement that distances good people from bad. “He was diabolical, demonic,” he said.

This sentiment creates a super-villainous arch nemesis for our era, and it is the worst approach to take.

Back in 2009, forensic psychiatrist and criminologist Dr Park Dietz appeared on Charlie Brooker’s BBC seriesNewswipe to dissect how the media deals with mass killings such as this.

"We’ve had 20 years of mass murders throughout which I have repeatedly told CNN and our other media: if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders … [do] not make the killer some kind of anti-hero," Dr Dietz said.

The international media has done exactly that in its depiction of the Aurora theatre shooter, who wore a Bane-style gas mask and allegedly told police he was The Joker, the villain in the previous film, The Dark Knight.

Headlines of the past week have read “Batman Madman”, “Dark Knight killer”, “Killer: I’m Joker”, “Batman Psycho”, “Dark Knight Massacre”, “Smirk of the Batman monster” and “The Joker who killed 12”.

Painting this person as a superhuman villain not only potentially propagates other mass murders, but it feeds cultural revenge fantasy, driving the justice system further away from prevention and rehabilitation and further towards retribution and revenge.

In the movies, triumph over childhood trauma is the ultimate psychological struggle for heroes and villains alike, but the desire for vigilante revenge will be their ultimate undoing.

Perpetuating a divide between good and evil people leads us to view a person’s character or core being as “bad”, rather than confronting their behaviour and what drove them to action.

However heinous and monstrous his behaviour may have been, the man who shot people in the cinema is not a monster.

He is still human. He may be a human catalyst for North America, experiencing a perfect storm with a culture of violence, mental instability, unemployment, and easily accessible firearms.

In the wake of the Colorado tragedy, Cinemark theatres, which owns the Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, has outlawed masks in their cinemas (guns were already outlawed).

Many other cinemas still allow “concealed carry” and “open carry” firearms into film screenings.

And still, when mass murders occur, they ask why?

There are 123,000 licensed firearms dealers in the US, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, meaning there are roughly as many gun dealers as there are petrol stations, and that gun dealers outnumber McDonald’s restaurants nine to one.

Policy advocates tout fewer guns. Others argue for more guns. And others play the blame game, demonising the perpetrator’s parents or the National Rifle Association or Hollywood for its glorification of violence.

The justice system and the public demand vengeance, eye-for-an-eye style.

But none of this will make the next tragedy any easier to survive or heal from — it will only justify revenge on the perpetrator, who has already been condemned as less than human, has been labelled evil, a demon and a monster, and therefore not entitled to basic human rights, such as dignity and life.

How will his death sentence change America’s culture of violence? How will it prevent another unhinged individual from an act of unmitigated violence or terrorism?

There are three people awaiting execution on death row in Colorado. Their executions, no matter how heinous their crimes, will be heinous acts also.

Who will be the villain then?

First published in the Mercury newspaper on July 25, 2012.