The Phantoms We Fight

To the best of my knowledge, Batman has never fought the Phantom, the pulpy 1940s DC superhero sometimes called “the Ghost who walks,” despite sharing a label and a generally dark, detective-y disposition. Maybe that’s because it’s widely assumed the latter originated as a rip-off of the former (in fact, the Phantom predates Batman by over three years.) Myself, I actually prefer the Phantom — that’s a story for another time.

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But in the wake of today’s shooting in Aurora, Co., during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises, we’re all coming to the aid of Batman against a Phantom we see as his biggest foe. Bigger than the Joker, bigger than Bane.

It’s the legion of people across America who will blame Batman himself — or rather, the dark, gritty Nolan Batman films — for putting the idea in the shooter’s head. It’s that same bunch (religious types mostly, as Homer Simpson might say) who “blamed it on Marilyn,” to quote Eminem referring to the 1999 Columbine shooting. They’re the church ladies who think violent movies are responsible for warping minds and causing these kinds of shooting sprees.

And they’re everywhere, just waiting to lay blame to violent Hollywood films. We all know they’re wrong: this shooting is the fault of the shooter and the shooter alone. How can so many people be so wrong?

Because they don’t exist. They’re phantoms.

Come on, that can’t be true, right? You can’t watch the news after a shooting like this without hearing miles of hot air about whether Hollywood is too violent. What about Fox News? Surely they were all over this, since those people are their core viewers? Nope, Fox News’s analysts all agree: “Batman didn’t do this.”

But there’s just no question these people are going to come out of the woodwork.

“Some will, no doubt, claim that late-night showings of movies involving masked avengers and incorporating violence are to blame.  Some will bemoan the playing out on screen of hyperbolic themes related to good and evil, claiming that these tides of meaning can sweep some people away and turn them into killers,” writes someone from Fox News whose name I didn’t care enough to look up.

The culprit? The man responsible, says whoever from Fox News wrote that. Just like everyone else says.

But extensive Googling is unlikely to turn up these characters. Page after page of Google News results, and the narrative becomes clear: “There are those who will blame these shootings on the films, but they are wrong — it’s the shooter’s fault alone.” We like this narrative — it gives us an opponent. But those same Google News pages give no sign that the opponent has actually shown up to the battle.

They are phantoms — the phantoms we use in engaging with the media every single day, the phantoms the media provides us (“no doubt they exist, they’re definitely out there”) so we can get riled up, righteously indignant and stand in brave and defiant opposition against absolutely no one.

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