‘Dark Knight’ embodies humanity, not violence

In the trailer for the upcoming movie “Gangster Squad,” there is (or was) a scene of men with machine guns firing through the back of a movie screen, into a theater.

In the recent indie “God Bless America,” an incensed gunman shoots and kills people for talking during a movie.

These are the sort of violent images that pay the bills in Hollywood and, of course, leave the industry open to charges that its imagery contributes to violent behavior in society at large.

Such discussions are bound to attend the horrifying murder of movie-goers in Aurora, Colo., where apparently a lone gunman targeted the audience in a packed theater at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

In this case, however, there is a cruel and perverse irony to the shooter’s choice of movies. For while Hollywood is not above violence that is depraved, gratuitous and corrosive, the “Batman” franchise, in the hands of director Christopher Nolan, has argued explicitly AGAINST the sort of grotesque act committed early this morning.

The contest in both movies, between Batman and his adversaries, is a clearly defined contest between civilization and nihilism, humanity and depravity. In both movies, Nolan’s protagonist listens to and rejects cynical arguments that the teeming masses of Gotham are not worth caring about, not worth saving.

So, by the way, do the people of Gotham.

A key sequence in “Dark Knight” finds two boats, each rigged with explosives, and the passengers are told they can only save themselves by blowing up the other boat. It’s a cruel ploy, designed to play to people’s worst instincts, but the passengers pointedly refuse to turn on each other.

The sequence is echoed in “Dark Knight Rises” when police under orders to shoot anyone fleeing the quarantined city of Gotham decide they simply cannot obey shoot-to-kill orders involving fellow citizens.

There is no way of knowing whether one depraved and possibly deranged individual in Colorado saw something in Heath Ledger’s arresting portrait of terror in “The Dark Knight” that lodged in some dark corner of his mind, or whether he just targeted a crowded theater. But we do know that Nolan’s franchise does not invite identity with The Joker. We know the movies have consistently argued against fear, factionalism and the sort of cynicism that turns individual human beings into faceless targets.

Moviegoers have made Nolan’s franchise one of the most popular of all time by embracing these movies, and one would hope, the humanity they espouse.