Nihilistic characters of fiction have real-world counterparts
The villains in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy are distinctive, even by the standards of summer-movie bad guys, in that they seek nothing but destruction. Money does not sway them, political power does not interest them, and any ideological posturing – Bane, the villain in “The Dark Knight Rises,” poses for a time as a left-wing revolutionary – is a flag of convenience, a mask to be worn and then discarded. Some of these villains are lunatic moralists, for whom Armageddon is the purifying punishment that modern civilization deserves. Some of them are lunatic nihilists, men who (as Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred, says of the Joker) “just want to watch the world burn.” Either way, they cannot be bargained with or reasoned with, and all they want from us is death.
Now Nolan’s fictional villains and a very real one will be forever intertwined, after a gunman massacred moviegoers at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Mass murderers usually seek the spotlight, and by exploiting a cultural phenomenon that trades on our fears of precisely the kind of evil that he represents, the killer fastened on a horrifyingly resonant way of solidifying his own notoriety.
In the process, this crime has probably also solidified the Batman movies’ status as a cultural touchstone for our era of anxiety. Every human society has feared the anarchic, the nihilistic, the inexplicably depraved. But from the Columbine murderers to the post-9/11 anthrax killer, 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.
Indeed, even when there is some sort of ideological cause involved in these irruptions of evil – as there was in the Oklahoma City bombing, and of course in 9/11 itself – the main objective often seems to be destruction for destruction’s sake. Calling Osama bin Laden’s terrorism “Islamist” or Timothy McVeigh’s terrorism “right wing” is accurate, so far as it goes. But the impulse that brought down the twin towers or blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building feels more anti-civilizational than political – and thus closer to the motives of a group like the League of Shadows, the secret society that seeks Gotham’s destruction throughout Nolan’s Batman trilogy, than to the enemies America confronted in the past.
Those older enemies – Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Mao’s China – represented a different form of evil: institutional rather than individual, strategic rather than anarchic, grasping and self-interested rather than unpredictable and nihilistic. However brutal and depraved their systems, they embodied alternative models of how a political order might be structured, rather than a rejection of political order itself.
By vanquishing or outlasting them, we won a great victory for civilization. But we ushered in an era in which evil seems to take on a more elusive, almost elemental form. Instead of goose-stepping Nazis, it’s technology-hating recluses or furious young men with machine guns. Instead of supervillains seeking money or world domination, it’s the Joker with his head leaning out of a police car, howling as a city falls apart.
Nolan’s films are not the great art that some of their admirers imagine them to be, but they are effective dramatizations of the Way We Fear Now. Their villains are inscrutable, protean, appearing from nowhere to terrorize, seeking no higher end than chaos, no higher thrill than fear. Their hero fights, not for truth, justice and the American Way, but for a more basic form of civilizational order: He knows his society – his Gotham, our America – is decadent and corrupt in many ways, but he also knows that the alternatives are almost infinitely worse.
The great allure of the superhero, of course, is that he has the tools necessary not only to fight the more elemental forms of evil, but also to pre-empt them: to sweep down, cape flying, whenever ordinary law enforcement fails to anticipate or reckon with a threat. Indeed, for all the famous grittiness and violence in the Batman movies, very few innocents perish on screen.
In real life, matters are tragically different. Yes, sometimes vigilantism saves the day; sometimes people working on the outskirts of the law can protect those of us who live within it; sometimes the law itself can prevent evil men from gaining the tools to wreak destruction.
But often, the most important defense of civilization takes place only after tragedy has struck, and innocents have perished. And the real heroes are neither police nor politicians nor an imaginary batsuited billionaire, but the people – whether in Columbine or Lower Manhattan or now Aurora, Colo. – who carry one another through the valley of the shadow of death, and by their conduct ensure that the Jokers of the world win only temporary victories.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.