Since 2001, Will Brooker has emerged as one of Great Britain's top thinkers about cult media, having tackled Star Wars (Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans), Alice in Wonderland (Alice's Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture), Bladerunner (The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic) , and Batman (Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon). Brooker's work starts where Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott's Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (1987) or Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio's The Many Lives of the Batman (1991) left off. Both of these earlier works sought to explore difference and continuity in the ways "popular heroes" or "migratory characters" evolve over time, across media, and across media audiences. Brooker's work has pushed this tradition to a whole new level -- his writing moves fluidly between history, textual analysis, media theory, and audience ethnography, tracing the ways media franchises (old and new) have left their traces upon popular culture. Such an approach is interested in issues of authorship and fandom, in both how formulas emerge and how elastic they are in responding to shifting tastes and interests. For me, this represents one powerful model for how we can take a comparative media studies approach towards the texts which matter most in our lives.
This summer, I ran into Will Brooker in London where we were both speaking at the Symposium on Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines, which was being hosted by the Center for Cultural and Creative Research at the University of Portsmouth and by Forbidden Planet, London’s best known comic book shop. Brooker shared some reflections on the construction of Christopher Nolan as an author around the then impending release of The Dark Knight Rises. Anticipating the cultural significance of the film, I asked him if he'd be willing to conduct an interview around the release of his new book, Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman, and he agreed. Will being Will has been tweeting to the world about the difficulty of my questions, so now you have a chance to see for yourself what I asked him and how he has risen to the challenge.
What neither of us could know at the time we started this process was the degree to which the opening of this new film would be linked to an act of unspeakable violence. So, this first part of the interview offers some of his thoughts about the tragedy, while subsequent parts will dig deeper into the theoretical issues around multiplicity and seriality in the Dark Knight series.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. In what ways did the Aurora shooting impact the meaning of the Dark Knight film franchise? Conversely, how did the intertextual construction you discuss in the book play into the ways that this news story was covered?
It’s hard to say, a month after the shooting (at the time of writing), how that event has affected the way Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is framed and discussed. The intertextual nature of Batman, as a ‘mosaic’, did shape the news response to the Colorado events, in that reporters dug back through the archive of Batman texts to find any possible echoes or precursors that could be foregrounded as ‘causes’ of the violence. So a single page from Frank Miller’s 1986 Dark Knight Returns, depicting a shooting in a cinema, was identified as a possible influence.
It’s ironic and unfortunate, I think, that it takes a violent tragedy to prompt reporters to treat comics seriously and study them so closely.
My sense is that the Colorado shootings are currently seen as a footnote to discussion of the third and most recent movie, and that this news story serves as a kind of tag or hypertext link, a postscript that is still pulled into view when we talk about Dark Knight Rises.
It would be impossible not to acknowledge that the shooting is now part of the broader intertextual matrix of meanings that both surrounds and constitutes the Dark Knight trilogy.
That trilogy is essentially a construction and circulation of texts, including the feature films themselves, the stories about Ledger’s death and the ‘Jokerised Obama’ images, the comic book adaptations and the DVD extras. The Colorado shootings, on one level, join that cluster of meanings around the three films.
I think the question is how closely this story will stick and how significant it will seem, over time: whether it will drift to the wider outskirts of what Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy signifies, as a more distant footnote, or whether it will play a more major, longer-term role in shaping how the film is discussed and remembered.
I’m hoping for the former, for a range of reasons.
Firstly because I would rather not see a criminal given the notoriety he seeks; second, because the discussion around the shootings and the film seems to fall into a ‘media effects’ category, which I don’t find especially useful; and third, because I think those involved in the Colorado event, and their families, would probably rather not have their loss trivialised as a ‘Batman shooting’, and have their own personal tragedy permanently associated with a movie.
The shootings were not the first tragedy associated with these films. In what ways did the death of Heath Ledger become part of the meaning of the Dark Knight franchise and how have the producers sought to manage the morbid associations with Ledger's death in handling this current situation?
My impression is that these two tragedies were managed by the film’s producers in very different ways. Ledger’s death can be understood within the already-established context of Brandon Lee’s accidental death during The Crow and Oliver Reed’s during Gladiator, and if anything I think it was seen as adding poignancy and mystery to Ledger’s performance and his role as Joker, and in turn, did the film’s publicity no harm.
I don’t believe any connection was explicitly made in reviews and production materials, but the rumour (circulated by fans and journalists) that Ledger’s intense preparation for and immersion in the role led him to emotional torment, drug abuse and possible suicide echoes the movie’s association with brutal ‘realism’ that was articulated in production discourses through foregrounding of Bale’s physical training regime, the dangerous stunts, the avoidance of CGI, and the military hardware.
I don’t think there was any attempt on the part of the producers to exploit Ledger’s death, but I equally don’t recall any obvious attempt to contain or limit the stories surrounding it, whereas my sense is that the producers aimed to disassociate the film text from the Colorado shootings, and to short-circuit the interpretations of negative cause-and-effect between the two, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The idea that The Dark Knight could have been so ‘realistic’ and absorbing that it consumed and possessed one of its lead actors was, I think, allowed to circulate because of its exceptional, isolated nature and because of the way we perceive Hollywood stars as unique and distinct from ourselves.
That it could have influenced a previously unknown individual to murder other ‘regular’ people in a suburban cinema carries quite a different meaning, because it is too close to the everyday lives of the average viewer and comes across as a reproducible event, rather than an isolated exception.
Will Brooker is currently Director of Research in Film and Television at Kingston University, London, and incoming editor of Cinema Journal. His books include Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, Alice's Adventures, The Blade Runner Experience, the BFI Film Classics volumeStar Wars, and Hunting the Dark Knight (I B Tauris, 2012).