The Darkest Knight: James Holmes and the Choice of Destruction Over Ethos

Russell Morse


From New America Media:


When I learned of the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, I immediately thought of the chilling and explosive climax to Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds. In it, a team of Jewish American soldiers in occupied France manages to infiltrate the glittery premiere of a Nazi propaganda film and lock the doors from the outside, firing down on the audience from a balcony with machine guns. I had similar flashes when I was in high school and two young men shot up Columbine less than 20 miles away from Aurora. I thought of the movie Heathers, in which Christian Slater and Winona Ryder murder their most popular classmates and orchestrate an explosive showdown at their suburban high school. I also remembered a scene from Basketball Diaries in which Leonardo DiCaprio dreams of entering his school in a black trench coat with a shotgun, gleefully killing classmates and an instructor.


At the time, I was invited to speak on a panel exploring the phenomenon of the school shooting. I worked with a friend to compile a short video incorporating scenes from Heathers and Basketball Diaries as part of my presentation. People were shocked. They asked me, “What does this mean? Are you saying the shooters saw these movies and they were performing a re-enactment?” I hadn’t really prepared an answer to that. I thought the scenes stood alone as a curious and shocking revelation: these ideas existed long before the shooting. Now, I might offer a little more nuance: darkness exists in the human psyche. It is reflected in our art and in tragic events like the shootings at Columbine and Aurora. Sometimes, these dark acts are a sort of performance, an imitation of what we see in our most popular stories. Other times, movies and books seek to explain or explore the darkness that leads to these tragedies.


I made another short video after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, including a scene from Escape From New York in which Kurt Russell enters Manhattan by crashing an airplane into a towering modernist skyscraper downtown. This was followed by a sequence from the alien attack film Independence Day, in which several American skyscrapers are destroyed from above. People who saw the video were shocked, many of them offended. I asked if they were upset when they initially saw Independence Day and they said that it was “different now.” Four months after the attacks, a 15-year-old boy in Tampa stole a small Cessna and crashed it into a downtown office building, killing himself and damaging an office. Had he seen Escape From New York? Was he emulating the spectacle of September 11? Had Bin Laden ever seen Independence Day?


Movies reflect, predict and process the violence and ethos of a generation. And in the case of the recent shooting in the movie theater in Colorado, The Dark Knight Rises became the setting for a real-life tragedy. It's worth considering that if the shooter had actually seen the film, things might have turned out differently. Maybe.


There has been much discussion about the social relevance of The Dark Knight Rises film. Independent of the theater shooting, some have interpreted the film as a violent actualization of the Occupy movement. Bane, the film’s primary villain, takes over the New York Stock Exchange, holding everyone hostage while chastising a young, suspendered broker for his “criminal” behavior. As Bane’s plan unfolds, we see “the people” dragging the one-percenters from their high-rise apartments and claiming them as their own. The Catwoman in the film thinks of herself as a class warrior, stealing from the mega wealthy and selectively re-allocating the wealth (mostly to herself).


Christopher Nolan, the film’s director, denies any connection between the film’s plot and the Occupy movement, pointing out that the screenplay was written long before the events of 2011 and citing A Tale of Two Cities as the source material. Charles Dickens’ account of the French Revolution is rife with warnings about the consequences of class realignment: there is much exploration of the savagery committed by the French peasantry toward the aristocracy. The book ends, though, with Sydney Carton stepping behind the rest of the elite in line for the guillotine and saying, “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.” A less eloquent person might say, “Sometimes you have to break a few eggs . . . .” This is certainly Bane’s position.


A largely overlooked fact in the aftermath of the shooting in Aurora is that James Holmes didn’t actually see The Dark Knight Rises. If he had, he might have found a place to direct his ire, a group ethos to identify with. Bane’s henchmen in the film are young, disaffected white men with scraggly (but trim) beards, dressed in Libya-chic clothing (also the outfit of Occupiers): camoflauge pants, keffiyehs, baseball hats, sneakers, t-shirts. Some of the film’s visuals are indecipherable from footage of last year’s London riots. These young men found purpose in Bane’s chaotic plan of reallocation.


The odd danger here might be that, unlike Timothy McVeigh, James Holmes wasn’t politicized.



The last time young white men found an anarchic outlet for their angst on film was in 1999’s Fight Club. In fact, Bane’s plan is almost identical in tone to “Project Mayhem,” the acts of vandalism and destruction in Fight Club that sought to undermine a conformist stranglehold on society. Ed Norton’s character feels emasculated by modern culture, an office drone defined by his IKEA furniture and daily Starbucks consumption, so he develops a plan to band disaffected young men like him together in a campaign of chaos.


The difference, of course, is the status and outlook of young white American men in 1999 and in 2012. In Fight Club, the source of their emasculation was their success: they had become defined by what they consumed because they could consume so much. Young men have a different set of concerns now, defined by a series of broken promises: a generation that will never have a pension, never pay off their student loans and can’t imagine owning a home outright. Unemployment for young people James Holmes’ age is over 20 percent. His massacre may have been a twisted vision of power for the powerless.


Midway through Fight Club, Brad Pitt delivers a speech to his followers, saying, “We have no great war, no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.” In the years since 1999, we’ve gotten our great war and our great depression, but haven’t been able to extract any meaning from them. James Holmes is a disturbed product of this era, a man who gave himself over to his darkest impulses, choosing destruction over art or ethos.


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