Sat, Jul 28, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Knowing when the joke has gone too far

By Chao Che-Sheng 趙哲聖

The Batman movie series is based on the classic US comics of the same name. Tragically, a midnight screening of the latest film in the series, The Dark Knight Rises, became the scene of a massacre in which the alleged perpetrator, James Holmes, modeling himself on the previous film’s villain the Joker, shot and killed several members of the movie theater audience.

Movies that have heroes always have an evil adversary. This is the foundation of the dominant theme of goodies and baddies. Many such heroic characters have been packaged and presented by the entertainment industry. Those created in the US have gone on to enjoy global popularity and are part of the spread of US culture. Plots pitting good guys against bad often underpin popular cultural forms including magazines, television, film and comics and can be interpreted in different ways by different audiences.

The aestheticized violence that these media products often portray, and often in serial form, present various kinds of meaning. Viewers may attach a particular meaning to the words and images they see. Some characters may inspire a strong sense of justice, but there are of course those, like mass murder suspect Holmes, who seek to imitate the criminal activities of characters like the Joker. So, the point at which a consumer engages a commercial movie, animation or online game is also the moment at which the product’s content takes on a meaning.

Most people are able to discern the thematic roles and identities that make people human. In other words, they understand that all the fighting and killing in films and online games are fictional and scripted. However, we must face the reality that, as electronic technology advances, the virtual spaces and worlds being represented could blur the perceptions of those people with multiple personalities and of Internet users who have poor interpersonal and social skills.

Holmes is an example of this. He appears to have modeled himself on a crafty film character who is dedicated to destroying all that is good and just. Following the crime, the police had to dismantle booby traps at Holmes’ home which he had painstakingly constructed using explosives and flammable materials. This shows just how dissociated and perverse such people can become with regard to real life.

Violent and unpredictable individuals who have become isolated from normality often intrude into people’s lives. These people interpret the virtual and simulated discourse created by popular culture from their own dehumanized and distorted perspectives.

The Batman comic book series has been turned into a total of eight Hollywood movies with progressively exaggerated content presented in ever more vivid ways. Although Batman, and other works of popular culture, give an impressive presentation of the theme of good overcoming evil, one wonders whether advances in production technology have served more to reinforce the sense of justice portrayed by the main characters, or to elaborate the evil intrigues personified by villains like the Joker.

Popular culture is innocent itself, but from within its system of signification we gain the enjoyment of entertainment and consume excessive reality. Might we become immersed in hyper-real stories about villains being defeated and killed by the forces of justice and still be influenced by the actions of the villains?

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