Although any movie would find it difficult to impress in the shadow of a movie like The Dark Knight, its sequel and the end to the current Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, is just as impressive as its predecessors. Under normal circumstances, this would propel it to jaw-dropping box office numbers, and probably a couple note-worthy Oscar nomination (if only to make up for Dark Knight’s unforgivable snub). But in the far-from-normal circumstances initiated by James Holmes firing into an unsuspecting Aurora, Colo., theater showing the movie on July 20, how much can we expect that to change?
After judging for inflation, it becomes clear that no movie will ever sell more tickets than Gone With the Wind. So all these headlines that pop up every time The Hunger Games makes the most money of any non-sequel or Dark Knight Rises tops the box office income list of 2D movies are basically a load of hokum. But still, Dark Knight Rises made a lot of money, setting a box office recod with $161 million in its opening weekend, even with such a disaster striking on its opening night.
Several explanations jump to mind for the movie’s box office resilience in the face of tragedy. A few of them are practical, such as the sudden police presence at movie theaters following the incident, which undoubtedly helped erase fears of copycat murderers. But even with that aside, there are larger, cultural reasons for the tragedy’s low impact on The Dark Knight Rises’ ticket sales. As The Onion pointed out, as insightful as ever if not quite as humorous, we’ve seen this before. As more and more details on Holmes and his motivations came to light in the days following the shooting, it became clear that this was yet another variation on the all-too-familiar Columbine script: the plot months in the making, the perpetrator nondescript and unthreatening by almost all accounts. There was no precedent for Columbine, and America flipped out. But in a post-Columbine world (and perhaps even more importantly, a post-9/11 world) we are unfortunately accustomed to the possibility of random acts of senseless violence. That doesn’t make what happened in Aurora any less tragic, just less likely to shake people from the rules of their day-to-day life.
Another side effect of life in the post-Columbine world is an increasing understanding of psychopathy and influence. As Dave Cullen writes in Columbine, journalists didn’t know what to make of the tragedy, and so national media jumped from scapegoat to scapegoat. It took everyone a while to realize that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were psychopaths, and that neither Goth culture nor violent video games had anything to do with his decision to massacre his fellow students, but now we know, and that knowledge has informed the discussion of Holmes and his crimes. The media coverage of the Aurora disaster has become a debate about American gun laws rather than a hellfire and brimstone lecture on the evils of Nolan’s Batman movies. Approximately a billion people saw The Dark Knight, and only one of them chose to shoot up a movie theater. The problem lies with Holmes, not with the fictional character who he says inspired him.
Holmes’ act was one of terrorism. This makes The Dark Knight Rises’ success a good thing, because it proves he failed to scare people into doing something. Regardless about where the gun control debate he reignited goes from here, the important thing is making sure that his failure continues. Warner Bros.’ decision to edit their movie Gangster Squad in response, while well-intentioned, is a step in the wrong direction. When President Obama visited Aurora on Sunday, he didn’t even mention Holmes by name, instead focusing on mourning and celebrating the lives and heroism of the victims. That is the important thing to do; mourn the loss of 12 innocent people, and do not give Holmes the satisfaction of knowing that he had the impact he desired. So far, ticket sales indicate that is what’s happening.