The Year Of The Mask: Batman Vs. The Times Square Ninja

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By late Summer of 2012—in the continuing aftermath of the Aurora shooting during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises by a man styling himself after the Joker—I was increasingly getting convinced of two things:

  1. That this tragic event was going to set off a “trend” of similar mass murders—specifically, “lone nuts” who used the Internet as both social lifeline and critical access-point to information regarding the outside world.
  2. That contemporary pop-culture—specifically, the iconography of the “superhero” (and “supervillain”)—was having a strange sort of impact on our culture, one that extended past the borders of panels and screens and both reflected and “shaped” society.

Now, you can only imagine how “dangerous” this line of thinking was…it was almost tantamount to a Fredric Wertham-level heresy inflicted upon the burgeoning Church of the Immaculate Fan.

On the other hand, philosopher Marshall McLuhan did say…

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

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On August 11, 2012—around the same general time frame that the Guy Fawkes-masked protests were going on in support of Julian Assange, and similar balaclava-clad protests were underway in support of Pussy Riot—a knife-wielding man was shot dead by police in Times Square.

The man, 51-year-old Darius Kennedy, was allegedly smoking marijuana by the military recruiting station—which is also right near the NYPD Times Square command center— when confronted by police. Darius responded by tying a blue bandanna around his head and pulling out a rather large knife, which he waved around. The cops chased him down 7th Avenue, then fatally shot him when he would not stop.

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The crowd of locals and tourists largely did what you would guess they’d do in the situation: they stood around gawking and shooting video on their iPhones.

This story was widely reported in the media; significantly, a number of posts contextualized the incident in terms of a “movie-like” event. For example, the New York Times article starts as follows:

“When the tourists and shoppers thronging Times Square on Saturday afternoon first saw the police officers, guns drawn, confronting a knife-wielding man, many thought they had stumbled onto a movie set. But it was quickly apparent this was no celluloid fantasy.”

The blog Firedoglake raised eyebrows at the NYT’s intro, commenting:

“Film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1968 in an essay on violence in film, which has a troubling resonance today, ‘I have no way of knowing whether violence is more common in films today, but it seems to have become more explicit and brutal. Even more disturbing is the new attitude toward violence in many films. No longer is violence exclusively a force of evil. Now it is tolerated as a means toward good ends as well.’ The gunning down of a man in Times Square by police, for witnesses, may be just that kind of violence—violence toward good ends. The Times writers suggest the episode people saw seemed legitimate, not out-of-place. Had a film production been unfolding, there would have been no shock that Hollywood has become so good at creating illusion for the screen. People would have resumed shopping and there would be no story to write”

What I didn’t see noted in the articles about the incident was its backdrop. Luckily, for some reason I got it in my mind two weeks earlier to take photos of the immensely large billboards decorating the strip where Kennedy took his last steps. The block housing the main 42nd Street subway hubs had been “taken over” with advertising for The Dark Knight Rises. These billboards, which were as high as 10 stories, surrounded three of the four sides of the block. Here is the imagery which the police & Kennedy ran past:

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Now let’s take a look at some comments left on Gothamist (pun intended) regarding the event:

“I know that a steady diet of action movies have taught the American people that the police should be able to shoot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand, or they should be able to stun him with a witty one-liner or they could have thrown their batarang & left him tied up on the roof for the commissioner. That isn’t reality, though. The police are not ninjas. They are not Batmans.”

and:

“Wow. The first video is like a Christopher Nolan scene. The last video. man, there is a guy that is following the action that is so entranced by following 20 policeman with their guns pointed out that he tries to get as close to the action as possible and trips before the cops unload. That guy deserves to be shot.”

As if to contextualize the story in even more “comic book” terms, Kennedy was then subsequently referred-to in the press as “The Times Square Ninja”: “Kelly: Cops Were Right To Shoot ‘Ninja'”

Well..he was a ninja…and the cops were “Batman”…so…logic would dictate…

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What was real and what was a movie here? What was from a “Batman” flick and what were the objective facts of this case? Was this blurring of fantasy and reality harmful, and did it at all influence how the incident at Times Square played out?

Here are more gigantic posters that looked down from their high perches as the scene unfolded:

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Again, the question must be asked…how much of an impact does being exposed to images of violence have on us as human beings?

I have no solid answers or recommendations here; I just thought it was interesting that a disputed incident described in not just “movie” terms but “comic book” terms could have taken place under the shadow of huge Batman signage (one of the very last sights Kennedy might have had was that of “Midtown Comics,” right off of 7th Avenue, just blocks away from where he fell).

And let’s not forget that the high-profile Batman-contextualized Aurora shooting had happened less than a month previously.

I leave with a quote from Christopher Knowles, from the excellent blog The Secret Sun:

“The socioeconomic conditions I wrote about in Our Gods Wear Spandex have only worsened and the kind of escapism that was once the exclusive province of weirdos and outcasts like yours truly has gone mainstream. Jack Kirby has gone viral with The Avengers, Alan Moore with Anonymous and its use of the Guy Fawkes mask and Frank Miller has with his own projects as well as the Dark Knight films that ransack his Batman ouevre. Comic books matter because they are now writing our culture, often in terrible ways like we saw in Aurora.”

I happen to agree with him. While censorship of violent content in movies and comic books is not the answer, to pretend that this content has zero impact on our society, politics, and media is to be willfully naive. Comic books are important. As Knowles has put forth in his book, these superheroes are our “new gods.” This is why people within the comic industry, as well as fans, fight so much over things like who owns what and what version is “correct.”

We are dealing in gods, archetypes, keys to our primal subconscious. And this iconography was being used in the media circa 2012, with cases like the Aurora “Batman” shooting with its “Joker” villain and the “Times Square Ninja” incident.

As we will see in later posts in The Year of the Mask, as 2012 progressed and headed into 2013, the media embraced more and more the use of comic book iconography to narrate and contextualize their news stories…and this would eventually have an impact upon politics itself, up to the present day.