In October 2011, Phoenix Jones, a vigilante superhero, was arrested by Seattle police. His costume and crimefighting was not dissimilar to that of Batman: martial arts, body-armored suit, crime-fighting gear.
Most fans place Batman high on “all-time” lists partly because of his lack of superpowers. He has a lot of money, lots of training, and a brilliant mind. Like the sidekicks of the Silver Age of Comics, readers identify with him. We might not come orphaned from a distant world, meet a mysterious wizard who grants us powers, or suffer industrial accidents which trigger a latent genetic code, but we could, with enough time and money, become Batman.
So, while it might be a shock, in retrospect it might not be a surprise that someone would be inspired by the Joker, another character who ranks high on “worst villain” lists. His origin is uncertain… did his chemical bath trigger his insanity, or was it just an incident which pushed him over the edge? Yet, aside from a mis-wired brain, he has no superpowers, and even fewer devices than Batman. (Although his Golden Age and animated versions do have schemes which rival those of Rube Goldberg and Wile E. Coyote.)
As always happens when something like this happens, the police, media, and society always search for influences and triggers. What media did he enjoy? What paper and electronic trail did she leave? Where there psychological symptoms? Was there an inciting incident which pushed the suspect over the edge? Did the individual retreat to a fantasy to cope with reality? Did they have multiple personas, either online or on the street? What caused them to do what normal people would never do? (Thankfully, our definition of “normal” hasn’t changed, and we are still sensitized to horrific tragedies.)
In this situation, fantasy did have a large influence. He seems to have been inspired by “The Dark Knight”, even in his random actions shooting some theater patrons, but not others. Of course, given his mental state, if he had not been inspired by the Joker, he most likely would have found a different locale or method.
Criticism will be placed on Hollywood and how it influences society (Money Train, Scarface, The Matrix). Rarely is it praised for influencing society, except, perhaps, when an action hero celebrity saves someone in danger. Will there be discussion on how art reflects life, how art comments on society, how art can influence society? Most likely not… that’s boring Ivory Tower philosophical talk. Talking heads prefer to talk about more interesting things which entice viewers to watch and comment.
I don’t know if this marks the end of the grim reality which has infected superhero comics since 1985. Antiheroes have existed for quite some time. Is Travis Bickle a hero or a villain (or is he just crazy)? Paul Kersey? Harry Callahan? Is Batman a hero when he breaks the law to engage in vigilantism? Is Ernesto Miranda, arrested for kidnapping, rape, and armed robbery; a hero or a villain? (Possibly both, since he was retried and convicted after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, which forced police departments to inform suspects of their civil rights.) Realism is a requirement for effective storytelling, although sometimes, there can be too much realism. Sometimes, there’s not enough idealism or heroism.
I stopped listening to grunge music at work in my Twenties when I noticed it subliminally influencing my emotional state. Has the Nolan trilogy done the same with viewers, many of them young and open to suggestion? How influential can media be, especially if the viewer is open and receptive to a fantasy which allows them to redefine their own reality? Even if they are not susceptible, does the repetitive message eventually enter the subconscious? Does a well-crafted fantasy, one which builds a suspension of disbelief, affect a person’s perception of reality? Religions would agree… parables and story can change the world. Politicians do the same, with idealism. Of course, in politics, dark themes, demagoguery, fear, hatred, prejudices can be used to tell a story, to demonize an opponent, or to give the populace something to fight against, a physical representation (or an excuse) of the problems they face. Sometimes it’s a distraction. When the lie is exposed (and all fictions are lies, even when they also contain truths), it can tear-apart society, as the populace mistrusts themselves and those in power.
I read a lot. I remember a lot. My mind is constantly wondering and brainstorming. “What if…” “Why not…” “Has anyone ever…” I’m influenced by so many things, and there are many long, dark tendrils which deviate throughout my memory. I could create some very disturbing scenarios, if so inspired. But I deny that dark nature, as I deny many hungers simmering inside me. But if I had money? Power? An excuse (either to justify, or to avoid accusation)? Would I? What would you do if you could get away with it? (Or if you had nothing to lose?)
Comics books are filled with possible answers to this question. “100 Bullets” is one well known example of individuals given sanction to kill people without government punishment. We know why Superman and Lex Luthor do what they do. We generally know why we do what we do, although we rarely question it, since that behavior has been instilled in us since childhood. But we never question how Altruism exists as a concept, especially under the Theory of Evolution. Why do we help others, when Survival of the Fittest suggests that we’d be more inclined to rob your neighbor instead of watching their house while he is on vacation? Kinship, vested interests, reciprocity, costly signaling (I share my wealth with others, and thus signal my worth to possible partners), and group altruism (my team has better teamwork than our opponent) are some explanations.
Is altruism considered a weakness? “Nice guys finish last.” Superman is labeled “the big blue boy scout”. “Nice” is boring. Stories written for “all ages” are considered childish. We crave the unusual, the extraordinary, the taboo. In moderation, that might be acceptable, even healthy. Too much, and it might become addictive and unhealthy. Many balance their recreation with Real Life. Others become unbalanced. Some tie a towel around their neck, and break a leg jumping off the garage roof. Others put on a mask and break the law. Both believe in what they do, and are either ignorant of the outcome or ignore the consequences.
I live in the City of Dreams. People move to New York City to become famous, to become rich, to become successful, to become someone else, to start over. Sometimes those dreams become broken, or shattered, or twisted. But that happens everywhere to everyone. How we adapt to disappointment, to ennui, to tedium, to God laughing at our plans defines whether we are heroes or villains in our own story. When we feel like a spectator, that’s when trouble occurs. “Look at me,” becomes a plea, and usually leads to unhealthy behaviors.
There are a lot of questions being asked in the wake of this tragedy, and while not all will be answered satisfactorily, it is hoped that some understanding can be achieved, and that this understanding can help others in the future.