I found out about the shooting in the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises about twelve hours after it happened. I overheard someone mention it on the local radio station, so I logged onto a news website, saw the story, and burst into tears.
Mass shootings are tragic, period, and some have touched my life in ways more personal than this: a friend lost his son in Virginia Tech, and I knew lots and lots of people connected to the Springfield, Oregon, school shooting more than a decade ago.
But this one struck me in the heart in an entirely different fashion. Movie theaters are places we go to escape our problems. And one of my biggest escapes has always been Batman. Of all the superheroes, he is—and probably always will be—my favorite. I remember reading Batman comics when I started reading. I had a crush on my decade-older cousin, not because he was handsome (he was) or because he was witty (he was) or because he was nice (he was), but because he gave me a book-length collection of Batman comics when I was seven. I still have that collection. I read and reread that book.
I scarfed up Batman comics like they were going out of style. I even remembered the cliff-hanger ending of one series for more than twenty years. Long after I had met Julius Schwartz, who ran DC Comics during my childhood years, I asked him how that cliff-hanger ended. I’m sure Julie didn’t remember, but he said, “Robin survived,” and that was all I needed to hear.
I had already been thinking about heroes when this summer’s crop of bestselling novels appeared. I read a few in June, and realized that most of the characters in these rather dispiriting novels were trapped in ugly lives, and let events happen to them. Between those books and a somewhat depressing run of Mad Men episodes, I realized just how much I expect my fictional counterparts to take action—even if they have no idea what the outcome to that action will be. I want characters who try to be heroes, rather than those who believe that heroes do not and cannot exist.
So the week after the horrible shootings, I read a box office report about declining theater attendance. One teenage boy who had looked forward to The Dark Knight Rises for almost a year decided not to go because the shootings confused him. A group of kids on our local NBC-affiliate spoke in short sound bites about the tragedy.
One little boy said it was clear to him now that there was true evil in the world, true villains, but there are no real heroes. Not like Batman.
I wanted to tell him how wrong he was. I wanted to point out how true heroics isn’t about donning a rubber suit and jumping off buildings or driving around in cool cars. It was about shielding the person next to you, a person you don’t know, with your own body so that she can escape. It was about driving an ambulance through crowded streets, carrying stretchers into carnage, placing bandages on the wounded.
It was about holding a door so that others could escape, even as the bad guy came at you with his semi-automatic weapon.
It was a brief moment of action in an unspeakable situation.
It doesn’t take courage to walk into a crowded place with a loaded gun. It takes a great deal of courage to remain in that crowded place with the wounded and dying to try to stop the person with that gun.
There were a lot of heroics that night. They just weren’t flashy heroics. They were simple ones, the ones that mean the difference between life and death. I wish I could tell the kid that.
But heroics like that, those small but extremely important things, are hard to see, especially if you’re not looking.
About two weeks after the shooting, I went to see The Dark Knight Rises. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about the shooting, but not in the way you think. Yes, I thought about the wounded and the dead, about the difficulty some moviegoers had on that night in telling what was real and what was fake in those precious few seconds.
But mostly, I thought about the actual meaning of Batman’s heroics. In the film, the villain Bane effectively neutralizes Batman for months. Batman cannot save his city; he can barely save himself.
The people in Gotham are left to survive. A small group finds heroism inside themselves as they struggle against unimaginable evil. They exhibit, in a fictional way, the kind of heroism real people showed in that Colorado theater in July.
The Dark Knight Rises is about the importance of heroism and also about the importance of the little guy. In Batman’s absence, others step up. They might not be as talented or as smart or as rich as Bruce Wayne. They might not have the resources—both physical and mental—that he has. That’s what makes him a superhero. But they do their part.
And the movie makes us see that part.
I’d love to find that kid who lost his belief in heroes that night, and show him the real live people who are every day heroes. But I also want to show him that the best stories we tell, like The Dark Knight Rises, are about the heroes hidden inside us. Heroes we don’t discover unless we’re in the middle of something awful and traumatic and impossibly difficult.
Individually, we cannot be Batman. He’s a fictional construct, and the scars Bruce Wayne has on his body are minimal compared to the ones a real human would suffer in his stead.
But collectively, we are Batman and Superman and Spider-Man and all of those superheroes who protect the worlds of our imagination. Batman can’t—and doesn’t—save everyone in every single story. None of us can save everyone. But we can—and do—save more people than we lose. We work together to repair that hole in the universe the crazies with guns leave behind them.
We do the best we can, and what we can do is pretty damn startling, every single time.