WASHINGTON - With a fixation on random violence, Gotham City dysfunction and the death of a star, the "Batman" movies have long been consumed with tragedy and terror.
Now an unfathomable horror is forever linked to the series.
After the deadly shooting rampage at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater where hundreds had gathered to see the area premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises," it's hard not to wonder whether the gunman was in any way inspired by the characters or chaos that are the hallmark of the lucrative movie franchise.
No one yet knows exactly why a black-clad man wearing a gas mask and full body armor burst into a theater with several weapons, and there is no proof that the horrific deed has a direct connection to the Batman saga.
But there is connection by default, and the film's red-carpet premiere in Paris -- where stars Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway and Morgan Freeman had been due to attend -- was canceled Friday.
New York City police announced security was being stepped up at cinemas, in part "as a precaution against copycats."
And Batman studio Warner Brothers said it was "deeply saddened to learn about this shocking incident" and extended its sympathies to families of the victims.
Even before the shooting, tragedy, loss and controversy haunted the Batman landscape, notably when Heath Ledger, the Hollywood star whose devilish portrayal of The Joker in the 2008 blockbuster "The Dark Knight" won him an Oscar, died months before that film's release.
Director Chris Nolan has won plaudits for the ambitious finale of his brooding super-hero trilogy, which details the full breadth from childhood trauma -- protagonist Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered -- his vow for revenge and his status as loner and eccentric billionaire crime-fighter, through to whatever awaits viewers at the end of the latest movie.
Its portrayal of terrorist attacks, anti-government uprisings and martyrdom in what clearly resembles New York is unsettling in the post-9/11 era.
Nolan's reprisal of arch-villain Bane, a beast of a man who wears a mask and unleashes horrific attacks, caused a stir on American talk radio when a prominent conservative broadcaster savaged Hollywood for what he said were the film's liberal political undercurrents.
Rush Limbaugh pointed out that Bane sounds just like Bain Capital, the private equity firm founded by Mitt Romney, the Republican who is challenging President Barack Obama for the White House.
When "Obama and the Democrats keep talking about Bain, not Bain Capital, but Bain, Romney and Bain... these people will think back to the Batman movie -- 'Oh yeah, I know who that is,'" Limbaugh argued.
Comic book writer Chuck Dixon, who created the Bane character in 1993, dismissed the comparison as "ridiculous."
Political posturing aside, a debate has simmered for years about whether movies like "Batman" are the projector or the reflector of a culture of violence.
Hollywood and other popular culture staples, like rap and heavy metal music, are trotted out as scapegoats in the wake of tragedy, and some films have indeed inspired extreme acts.
John Hinckley Jr, who shot US president Ronald Reagan in 1981, had sent love letters to Jodi Foster, the child star of 1976 classic "Taxi Driver," about a mentally unstable man who tries to kill a presidential candidate.
And Oliver Stone's 1994 movie "Natural Born Killers" is believed by some to have inspired deadly shootings.
After Aurora, the veteran movie critic Roger Ebert rushed to the defense of film.
"I'm not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity," Ebert wrote in The New York Times.
The shooting suspect's "inner terror expressed itself, as it often does these days, in a link between pop culture and firearms," he said.
While the Batman effect on Holmes is not clear, the Caped Crusader has been swathed in violence since he was brought to life in a 1939 comic book, and observers turned to Batman Friday for possible clues to the Colorado tragedy.
Recent Batman films portray ineffective politicians, a corrupt police force under pressure from crime lords and terrorists, and a broken legal system, the embodiment of modern dysfunction in a fallen age.
Corey Graves, a wrestler in Florida, tapped into the incomprehension people expressed on social media over how someone could take so many innocent lives, with authorities powerless to stop the slaughter.
"Kinda makes you wish Batman was real, doesn't it?" he posted on Twitter.
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