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The Cultural Impact of the Dark Knight Rises

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    Mass media is an overwhelming presence in our society. Whether we are in a grocery store looking at television screens or merely driving in our vehicles with the radio on, it does have a serious impact on how we perceive the world. This critical essay from Ultius addresses the cultural impact of the Dark Knight Rises, specifically how the film impacts peoples’ behavior.

    Cultivation Media Analysis: The Dark Knight Rises

    Cultivation theory argues that as more people watch TV and it consumes a greater part of their lives, they will soon begin to feel as though the portrayed world is reality. The movie The Dark Knight Rises is a great opportunity to analyze the theory with respect to a piece of media that has gained widespread notoriety. In showing how this movie is a paradigm example of the implications of cultivation theory, it will first be important to go over some core assumptions and concepts in order to relate them to the movie. Then, specific examples from the movie, society and our values will be discussed to reflect how there is a strong relationship between this form of media and the people who watch it. In performing a cultivation analysis of a specific piece of media, the new release of the hit movie The Dark Knight Rises is a great example of how the media fosters a sense of belief, as well as other issues such as prejudice and stereotyping, in perceived cultural values and directly impacts people’s behavior on a micro level.

    A dark, dangerous world

    Some core themes and the overall plot of The Dark Knight Rises correlates directly to concepts related to cultivation theory and communication. For instance, it is important to realize that Gotham City is reflective of the American city lifestyle glorifying:

    • Greed
    • Corruption
    • Crime
    • Violence
    • Fear

    Also, villains like the Joker, the Riddler and Bane reflect the notion of mass terror, disregard for human life, fear and chaos upon a city of innocent civilians. Surely, this is indicative of a “mean world” syndrome in which there is a very cynical mindset regarding the actions, motivations and mentalities of people in the world. The movie fully emphasizes that there are individuals in our world that use chaos and terror as an end in itself, rather than a means for money, power or influence. Again, this is very indicative of a culture of fear that cultivation theory posits.

    Even more, the fact that a masked, fictional vigilante is the only one who can stop the villain shows that the police force and traditional forms of justice do not apply. This skews reality because it represents a world in which people are powerless and only fictitious heroes have the capacity to control the evil nature of people. Surely, this also reflects the attitude of fearing walking alone at night and generates increased social anxiety because the world is portrayed as being dangerous. 

    Cultivation of fear in the media

    It is also important to consider why people chose to consume this type of media: because it validates existing values and beliefs. The culture of fear is not limited to just movies such as this; in fact, it is a ubiquitous facet of media in general. While news outlets like CNN and others deliver both first and second order effects (facts and values and assumptions), movies only foster the latter. For example, according to Barry Glassner (1999), author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, even statistical data is skewed to represent how dangerous the world is. In citing an example of a Washington Post story of a 1991 shooting, the author lamented that the core message was:

    “you were told that the streets of America were more dangerous than a war zone” (Glassner, 1999, p. 23).

    This represents a second order effect in which the values and assumptions are warped to represent a culture of fear. Post 9/11, this was even more true as the threat of terrorism was emphasized heavily in the media. 

    Bolstering the fear in The Dark Knight Rises

    Similarly, The Dark Knight Rises touched on these same themes by fostering a second order effect related to terror, fear and exaggeration. Within the movie, there were terrorist acts including:

    • The bombing of a football stadium
    • The police force trapped underground
    • The citizens held hostage within the city
    • A nuclear device triggered

    While this was surely used as theatrics in order to build the plot, it nonetheless reinforced values of a powerless group of citizens who were at the mercy of a threat by a small handful of individuals. This kind of media is even more influential for heavy viewers that are exposed to this theme more frequently. Moreover, given that violence in the media is also present, it is no wonder that the same themes of fear and the “mean world” syndrome are evident. Just as the citizens of Gotham City were not comfortable with leaving their homes out of fear from gangs and prisoners roaming the streets, similar news stories on a daily basis plague the media. This all comes together in developing a mainstream theme of fear in society that may be unwarranted and heavily exaggerated. The Dark Knight Rises only adds credibility to this argument by portraying the same themes and terrorist attacks.

    Entertainment gone wrong 

    The cultural implications of such themes in the media and the respective movie have been cited as directly evident in recent events. For example, we can see clear evidence of a hypodermic needle paradigm with the case of the theatre shooting in Colorado during the showing of The Dark Knight Rises. In one of the most serious shootings in American history, the media flocked to the scene to discover why the young man was motivated to open fire on harmless individuals.

    Cited news reports stated that the shooter colored his hair orange to imitate the Joker, a character from a previous Batman film that had a penchant for the same type of behavior. While for other instances, the influence of this type of media may be small or not quantifiable, in this case it is clear and blatant. This reflects the notion that heavy television viewers have a higher tendency to engage in violence.

    Drawing parallels

    CBS Local News (2012) published an article that reflected on how older Batman comic books, particularly the work of Frank Miller, explicitly featured a movie theatre shooting scene as a form of inspiration for the killer. Surely, the argument that the movie, characters and villains of The Dark Knight Rises inspired the young shooter were critical points that the article mentioned. To that extent, it is reasonable to argue that media like this has a strong capacity to influence people on a micro level to carry out acts of violence that they have witnessed on the big screen.

    This relates back to cultivation theory’s theme of a warped reality in which the perpetrator would not be caught and punished for his actions based on the course of events in a movie. However, this tragic case clearly exemplifies that the shooter’s perception of reality and his actions were not indicative of the reality that the media fostered.

    Limitations of cultivation analysis

    However, some limitations regarding the application of cultivation analysis should be noted. For example, while the movie was a reflection of a Hollywood production, it is easy to analyze it from the perspective of an objective story. It should be taken into account that the fictional movie was meant to entertain people and follow a story line from previous movies. Nonetheless, it is still reasonable to apply the theory and its concepts from the standpoint of broader themes such as a culture of fear because there is evidence that this is not an isolated incident in the media. Moreover, the direct use of an example where the movie inspired violence in society based on false perceptions of reality is also applicable because it reflected a tangible means of testing whether the theory was supported through observable behavior. 

    Conclusion

    As we have seen, movies like these clarify and exemplify cultivation theory in terms of false perceptions of values, violence, and the real implications of it. Core themes of the movie reflected a society that lived in a culture of fear where masked vigilantes are the only ones capable of bringing villains to justice. Society and its own police force is powerless to stop the inherent terror brought on by villains who only want to see evil and terror as an end in itself. This reflected core concepts such as “mean world” syndrome and an overwhelming culture of fear. Media like this is consumed because it validates and justifies existing values that society is already exposed to as being mainstream. For example, the mass media’s tendency to:

    These are core facets of Glassner’s (1999) argument that Americans have irrational fears brought on by the media. The movie also endorsed similar themes related to such warped perceptions. Finally, the theatre shooting of 2012 was evidence that exemplified how such influence has real world consequences that are tangible. The shooter’s perception of violence, terror and the way in which terror was carried out was similar to previous Batman movies where villains like the Joker did not have to succumb to police or real authority in the world. Given this evidence, cultivation theory offered a strong framework for understanding how movies like The Dark Knight Rises perpetuated themes of fear, inclination towards violence and a false view of reality.

    References

    Local News. (2012, July 20). Did Batman Comic Book Inspire Aurora Theater Shooting? « CBS Connecticut. CBS Connecticut. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://connecticut.cbslocal.com/2012/07/20/did-batman-comic-book-inspire-aurora-theater-shooting/

    Glassner, B. (1999). Crime in The News: Tall Tales and Overstated Statistics. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (pp. 21-50). New York, NY: Perseus Books Group.

    West, R., & Turner, L. (2004). Cultivation Analysis. Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis Application (pp. 376-91). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

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