The Century 16 movie theatre is seen where a gunmen attacked movie goers during an early morning screening of the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises” July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Michael Phillips, movie critic

With a severity unusual for a summer picture, even one depicting the winter of Gotham City’s discontent, “The Dark Knight Rises” grinds the audience’s guts as it imagines a metropolis nearly beyond saving. It is a prime example of popular entertainment invested, wholly, in dread.

Those who emerge from “The Dark Knight Rises” mightily impressed speak of it as a strange sort of survival test. This is how it is in 2012, in a world without much job stability or stability of any kind. On our couches or out in the world, surrounded by others, we spend a lot of time and money and psychic energy steeling ourselves for the worst. We measure ourselves against dire apocalyptic scenarios invented for our enjoyment. We immerse ourselves in the war games of “Call of Duty,” wondering if we can survive to the next level.

Or we pay to witness mass dread writ large, on an IMAX screen, if we can swing the up-charge for “The Dark Knight Rises.”

The dread has now spilled over into the real world. “The Dark Knight Rises” opened to the public Friday just after midnight across the country, including those at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colo. This is where a gunman, identified as 24-year-old James Holmes, opened fire 30 minutes after the latest and most dire Batman movie began, first detonating some sort of tear gas or smoke bomb and then killing 12 moviegoers and injuring, some critically, 59 others.

Holmes wore black, a flak jacket and a gas mask when he entered the theater. Law enforcement officials, among them New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, confirmed Friday that, in Kelly’s words, Holmes also “had his hair painted red, he said he was ‘The Joker,’ obviously the ‘enemy’ of Batman.”

This will be enough, in itself, to reduce the tragedy to a tale of a sick mind with a thing for Heath Ledger. But was it really that simple? Was this a psychopathic act of homage to the previous “Dark Knight” film, released in 2008, which began with Ledger’s Joker detonating a smoke bomb after murdering his bank-robber colleagues and innocent civilians?

What happened in a movie theater just 15 miles from the 1999 Columbine High School massacre occurred in the midst of a film depicting—in lingering, protracted detail—a worst-case terrorism scenario. Director Christopher Nolan’s film has been praised widely for its depiction of Gotham City under siege. For some of us, though, what worked with sinister skill in “The Dark Knight” turned morbid, rancid, in the new picture, quite apart from the horrific events of early Friday morning.

As Joe Morgenstern wrote in The Wall Street Journal: The film “makes you feel thoroughly miserable about life. It’s spectacular, to be sure, but also remarkable for its all-encompassing gloom. No movie has ever administered more punishment, to its hero or its audience, in the name of mainstream entertainment.” Slate critic Dana Stevens noted its “repeated scenes of bone-crunching violence” and characterized it as “something of an ordeal.”

Law enforcement officials around the country are providing additional security for this weekend’s “Dark Knight Rises” screenings, in the wake of the Aurora killings. New York was doing so, Kelly said, “as a precaution against copycats and to raise the comfort levels among movie patrons.” A heavy irony, since the movie’s own comfort levels are set so low.

Warner Bros., the distributor of “The Dark Knight Rises,” on Friday pulled from theaters a coming-attractions trailer for “Gangster Squad,” starring Sean Penn as mob boss Mickey Cohen. In one scene, Cohen’s henchmen open fire with machine guns in a crowded movie theater. It’s a hideous sight in the shadow of Aurora. But we see that sort of carnage every day, on one screen or another.

No film, even one made by a talented director of serious ambition, can explain or capture a nation’s spreading nervous breakdown. We pay good money to watch that breakdown in fictional action, an hour or two (or, in the case of Nolan’s film, nearly three) at a time.

It’ll be a long time, if ever, before “The Dark Knight Rises” can be watched for what it is—grave masterwork or grim ordeal or both—rather than for what happened early Friday. I’m not sure why, exactly, but the saddest thing I read after the killings came from Tom Mai, a neighbor of the Holmes family in suburban San Diego. In an Associated Press interview, Mai described Holmes, who recently endured some troubles at school and, like millions, couldn’t find full-time work, as “a typical American kid.”


He “kept to himself,” Mai said.

And he “didn’t seem to have many friends.”

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