Promoting the Joker? The media and gun violence

by Sarah Mensch

In my series for engaging peace, I have explored the possibility that the media, particularly films, can provide models for gun violence that may lead to copycat crimes.

For today’s post, I analyzed The Dark Knight, a popular hero film approximately 2½ hours long; it features 43 different guns wielded and shot by police officers, members of the mafia, and several different trademark Batman villains. Batman himself never holds a gun except to disarm someone else. Batman’s archenemy and the film’s main villain, the Joker, holds a gun in eight different scenes, shoots a total of 20 times, and kills three people onscreen and six offscreen.

My last Engaging Peace article discussed the need to revise the media rhetoric on gun violence to avoid sensationalizing the shooters. The Dark Knight (2008) brings my point home. The Dark Knight was voted the movie with the best Halloween costumes the year of its release. Batman and the Joker were the two most popular men’s costumes, with Joker costume sales far outnumbering Batman sales. Even today, nine years after the film’s release, DC Comics has more Joker than Batman Dark Knight merchandise available on their website.

James Holmes plotted and executed a shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, sequel to The Dark Knight in Aurora, CO, on July 20, 2012. He shot 71 people. When Holmes entered the theater, he said something along the lines of “I am the Joker.” Like the Joker, Holmes had dyed his hair a shocking color and like the Joker, Holmes seemed dedicated to creating an air of chaos to promote his own notoriety.

At the time of the shooting, Holmes was a PhD candidate studying Neuroscience at the University of Colorado. Three years after the shooting, photos were released of Holmes’ apartment. Among the booby traps, bomb setups, and a gallon of gasoline was something particularly interesting: a Batman mask. .

Why did Holmes choose to emulate the Joker instead of Batman?

Could it be that the news media add to the potential for copycatting crimes portrayed in the motion picture media by devoting significantly more attention to perpetrators and evil-doers than victims?

Perhaps if media coverage of gun violence tragedies shifted its focus so that it was the victims and the people who helped the victims whose actions were  memorable,  troubled people like James Holmes might choose to become like Batman, instead of the Joker.

P.S. from KMM: Did you watch the media trailer at the beginning of this post?  If so, what was your emotional reaction to it?  excitement? anxiety? horror? disgust?  Other? Do you remember the actions of one character more than another?


Frosch, D., & Johnson, K. (2012, July 20). Gunman Kills 12 in Colorado, Reviving Gun   Debate. The New York Times. Retrieved April 6, 2017, from        batman-movie.html

Sarah Mensch, Research Assistant, Graphic Designer, is a psychology major at Boston University. She is thrilled to be working on a Directed Study focusing on the effect of the media on gun violence under the supervision of Dr. Malley Morrison. When Sarah graduates, she aims to go on to graduate school to earn an MSW and become a therapist. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys pursuing her minor in Deaf Studies, photography, and exploring Boston


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2 Responses to Promoting the Joker? The media and gun violence

  1. LB says:

    Sarah ~ Your question, “Why did Holmes choose to emulate the Joker instead of Batman?” is a good one.

    Maybe it would be helpful to think of Batman and the Joker as archetypal energies, with each representing one side of the inner duality (opposing forces) which exist within each of us and in the collective unconscious.

    Batman, as world savior on the side of ‘good’, could easily symbolize the U.S. empire in a collective sense and of our assumed moral superiority as individuals, ready to take a stand in defense of the oppressed and innocent, while ignoring or unaware of our complicity in less obvious forms of violence and oppression.

    Since our country is built on and continues to profit from violence and aggression ~something both conservative and liberal media sources fail to report on in any meaningful way~ it seems ‘natural’ that the truth beyond the illusion contained within these two extremes find an outlet and make itself known in as BIG a way as these darker truths are suppressed.

    The Joker’s exaggerated persona and obvious cruelty (a result of his disfigurement and suffering) provide a dark counter-balance to some of the unconscious, unacknowledged and hypocritical aspects of our cultural values and perceived moral goodness (Batman, cloaked in his dark disguise, unknowable even to himself, battling aspects of his own psyche and repressed pain when he takes on the Joker).

    I’m all for better gun-control and for being mindful of what it is we and our children consume. But I think our bigger challenge is to know and understand ourselves, our denial and complicity. If and when we become more conscious of our own propensity to dehumanize, exploit and deny suffering both in ourselves and others, our forms of entertainment (sports, music, print and film) will likely become less violent, reflecting this as well.

    I’m sure there’s more but I honestly haven’t seen the movie. If you google Jungian psychology and “Dark Knight”, there are others who’ve done a more in-depth job of analyzing the movie’s archetypes than I have.

  2. LB says:

    I found an interesting Counterpunch article from 2008 (“Batman’s War on Terror”) and wanted to share it since it seems relevant to this post. In the article, the author points out that obvious comparisons can be made between billionaire vigilante capitalist Bruce Wayne’s actions as Batman and the United States’ “War on Terror”:

    Apparently the similarities didn’t escape Christian Bale (who played Batman), and to some extent, may have been intentional:

    “As Bale says of the Batman character, “This apparently lightweight superhero–originally this spoofy, kitschy, campy character–we’ve actually managed to turn that around. [The analogy of the war on terror] is absolutely one that I read into the script immediately.””

    “Christopher Nolan, one of the screenwriters, said in an interview: “[W]hat you’re always trying to do is tap into people’s view of the world we live in…But I think if you try to do that in any conscious political sense, you’re going to be somewhat violating the terms of the type of entertainment you’re trying to make. What we’re trying to do…is to be very unconscious in those associations. To just write a world that seems relevant and frightening and inspiring and just has a power over us.””

    Interesting how the screenwriter uses the word “unconscious” to describe the symbolic associations the audience may make ~ which goes to your point about how easily influenced we are, depending on how issues/characters are portrayed.

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