If you somehow haven't heard, 12 people were killed last night at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, just outside of Denver. Forty other people are estimated to have been wounded, and nobody knows why. Much will be written about the victims, though probably less than will be written about the accused killer, 24-year-old James Holmes.
One thing, however, is clear: The Dark Knight Rises, the capstone to the most talked-about trilogy since the original Star Wars franchise, was ruined on its very first night in theaters.
It's the worst mass shooting since 32 people were killed in April 2007 on the Virginia Tech campus. Almost exactly three years after the shooting, I got a chance to speak with the man in charge of Virginia Tech freshman orientation -- he said administrators were concerned, going into fall 2007, about how enrollment would be affected by the tragedy. Plenty of students offered spots in the freshman class choose to attend other colleges, but that year, the school didn't know how many people would.
VT ended up being absolutely inundated with matriculating high school graduates -- of those accepted, he told me, 99 percent showed up. That's one of the most beautiful stories I know.
But there's no defiant way to watch a movie. There's no way to say "fuck the haters" and enjoy something out of spite. There's no way to get to that first shootout scene and not imagine that shooter, walking up the aisle in a gas mask, executing people.
There's not much that's inherently interesting about Batman -- he's a rich orphan with great gadgets and laryngitis. The Dark Knight movies are so compelling because of their villains. Health Ledger's portrayal of the Joker included him saying that Gotham deserved "a better class of criminal," which is exactly what the Nolan brothers gave us: For the first time in the modern comic-book movie craze, we had villains whose motivations were absolutely captivating. "I'm just a bad, bad dude" was no longer good enough -- and if it takes almost three hours to explain that to viewers, so be it.
The Dark Knight was thrilling because its villains were so bad. Our worst nightmares, wreaking havoc without any special powers, any special gadgets. The Joker was a human -- but when the credits roll, we know he's fictional. The people in Aurora's theater nine didn't get to see the credits roll on their third Dark Knight film, because that evil is real, and it's got guns. And who could see a movie after that?