Violence in Gotham, Pittsburgh, and Aurora: Breaking the 4th Wallby Bryan J. on Jul 23, 2012 • 11:12 am 1 Comment
This post is not a review of The Dark Knight Rises, but a bit of therapeutic reflection on the massacre that occurred in Aurora Co. during the midnight showing of the movie. So consider this piece to be spoiler free and a bit more vulnerable than the average Mockingbird post. For those who are interested in the film itself, Mockingbird’s two official reviews of TDKR are WB’s “The Dark Knight (Dies and) Rises: Sacrifice and Freedom in Gotham” and Jeremiah Lawson’s three-part “A Path Through Three Prisons: Bruce Wayne in Nolan’s Batman Trilogy.”
Mockingbird has often discussed the drama concept of “breaking the 4th wall” before, especially in the context of preaching. In traditional, live audience sitcoms, a set would have three walls erected, with the audience, cameras, and staff composing an invisible “fourth” wall of observation and recording. Normally, actors would pretend this “fourth wall” was a real wall, portraying their characters, as all good actors do, apart from the audience’s influence. But occasionally, a character will “break the fourth wall”: he or she will directly address the crowd, wink at them, interact with them, or monologue with them. The audience, as a result, suddenly becomes a participant with the story, one of the characters in the drama as it unfolds.
On Mockingbird, “breaking the fourth wall” is a metaphor for the proclamation of the gospel. But with this recent installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the fourth wall has been broken with suffering. Allow me to share two reflections that have weighed heavily on me since seeing the movie:
1. As with any Hollywood action blockbuster, there’s lots of destruction, explosions, and death, and Batman is no exception. What I’ve never experienced before is such destruction, explosions, and death being filmed in my back yard. Perhaps if you’re in New York or Los Angeles, you’re used to this, but TDKR was filmed on location in Pittsburgh, where I’ve been living for the past seven years or so. And at first, watching TDKR fight crime in my hometown with a bunch of Yinz’ers at midnight was kind of cool. City landmarks, prominent structures, the local Episcopal Cathedral, all these sites elicited cheers from the proud Pittsburgh crowd assembled.
But when the fighting started, the mood of the theater changed dramatically. Watching Heinz Field (where the Steelers play) implode along with the hometown football team (dressed in Black and Gold) was like a kick to the gut. My fiance leaned over to me, whispering pleadingly, “that’s my friend’s house in Lawrenceville” while the fighting intensified. The gun battle in the garage where I park at whenever I’m downtown, the missiles flying by the prominent skyscrapers, the police officers being shot in the streets, the sinking feeling that at any moment Pittsbur–I mean Gotham–could be annihilated by a masked man and his small army… the fourth wall had been broken, and I, like Gotham, was at the mercy of violent men.
2. As a midnight movie pilgrim, I arrived home at 4am, exhausted from Nolan’s three hour adrenaline rush, but not so exhausted as to neglect pulling up twitter to share my initial reactions. Even then, news of the Aurora Co. massacre had hit the social media world, and the knots began to tighten in my stomach. The violence had already leapt off the screen once that night, but as the reports of senseless violence and dead moviegoers filled the twitterverse and 24 hour news outlets, the violence was once more present. The fourth wall had been broken again.
What makes Nolan’s Batman Trilogy so powerful, in the estimation of many reviewers, is its ability to channel post-9/11 emotions–moral ambiguity, terrorism, freedom, and safety–into the comic book genre. So all of a sudden, here’s a beloved comic book character from our culture’s collective youth asking heartbreaking questions about the nature of good and evil, while trying to do the right thing in morally ambiguous and dangerous situations. Sound familiar? Not only do Nolan’s movies channel post-9/11 emotions, but also post-9/11 violence. In The Dark Knight, the previous installment of the trilogy, Nolan intentionally uses the firefighter/rubble/smoke/steel beam imagery of 2001 to drive home the chaos of the story he’s telling. Nolan’s violence is either senseless and insane (see The Scarecrow’s Toxins or Two-Face’s murderous rampage) or ideology driven to the point of madness (see The Joker’s commitment to anarchy or Ra’s al Ghul’s radical commitment to graceless justice).
It’s not a spoiler to suggest that TDKR again employs both types of violence, nor is it a spoiler that this world experiences anything any different. Nolan’s violence is an accurate portrayal of the world’s violence, and it shouldn’t surprise us that life has imitated art in Aurora. Nolan gave that violence a name and a face, and it appears as if the theater gunman dyed his hair and wore that face of violence last week. Ross Douthat wrote similarly in the New York Times on Saturday: “But from the Columbine murderers to the post-9/11 anthrax killer (a literal mad scientist, most likely), from the Virginia Tech shooter to Jared Lee Loughner, our contemporary iconography of evil is increasingly dominated by figures who seem to have stepped out of Nolan’s take on the DC Comics universe: world-burners, meticulous madmen, terrorists without a cause.”
So what did I experience as I woke up Friday morning and headed back to work? Batman’s world and my world aren’t any different. The villains of my world are not as exotic, but they’re just as dangerous. The technology isn’t as advanced as that of the Applied Sciences Division at Wayne Enterprises, but we still manage to kill one another just fine. The heartache of a weeping butler is no different than the heartache of the grieving in Aurora. In some horrid, grotesque way, Gotham, Pittsburgh, and Aurora overlapped between 2 and 4 AM last Friday morning. Except Gotham has Batman, and Pittsburgh and Aurora don’t.
So where do you turn when there’s no Batman to save you? Where do you go when diagnosis is accurate but the prescription is nowhere to be found? Who will save us when our proverbial city erupts in flames because of our own doing? I think if I’m honest with myself, and I trust that “what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies,” my heart flees to its only hope. Christ is our deliverer who, though we’re part of the system of violence in our world, does not count our complicity against us. It’s trite to suggest that “Jesus is my Batman,” because Batman never died for my sins, nor is he an agent of grace and forgiveness. Instead, I will simply suggest that, unlike many philosophers with book deals, suffering and violence in my world actually drives me to the crucified savior, not from him. Deliverance will come when Jesus, like the walls of Jericho, makes our fourth walls “come a tumblin’ down” with grace, love, and deliverance. May he return soon and do so, that such violence as we have seen this week might never weigh down our souls again.
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