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The Dark Knight’s Mushroom Cloud

If viewers accept the conceits of this essentially escapist entertainment they embrace the notion that there can be

“The Dark Knight Rises” – in addition to being tied to real life tragedy – is so chockfull of subplots, back stories and caesura for action sequences that critics and viewers don’t seem to care about its primary narrative: After years of wallowing in self-pity and cynicism, Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego, Batman, emerge from Howard Hughes-like reclusiveness to save Gotham City from an evil scheme to detonate a nuclear weapon therein. The device, we’ve been told, has a blast radius of six miles. During the film’s climax, our hero flies the bomb out to sea, a safe distance from shore, with barely a second to spare. When it explodes, Gotham’s citizens watch the resulting mushroom cloud from just over six miles away.

And there you have it! As long as you’re eight or ten or a 100 or 1,000 miles from a nuclear explosion, you’re completely safe. Fallout is contained. The radioactive half-life of the bomb’s fissionable material, we guess, can be measured in minutes.

Earlier in “The Dark Knight Rises” the weapon is referred to as a “neutron bomb.” That device, you may remember, was manufactured and praised during the Reagan administration because it would destroy people while leaving the enemy’s infrastructure – its buildings, transportation systems, property in general – intact. (For this reason, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev called it a “capitalist bomb.”)

So, what am I saying? That Time Warner’s “The Dark Night Rises” is pro-nuclear propaganda? That if viewers accept the conceits of this essentially escapist entertainment they embrace the notion that there can be “limited nuclear warfare” – that is to say, atomic blasts without devastating global or even regional consequences? You bet I am.

To be sure, comic book superhero science has never been rigorous. An entire generation of Superman fans believed that if you squeezed a piece of coal hard enough you could turn it into a diamond; after all the man from Krypton did exactly that. But there’s a difference between bad science that results in kids getting their hands dirty while handling briquettes from the family grill and bad science that leads an uncritical population to believe dropping one form or another of hydrogen bomb on Iran, say, is a viable solution to political problems in the Middle East.

I’m not arguing that “The Dark Knight’s” brilliant writer/director, Christopher Nolan, is part of a conspiracy to bamboozle moviegoers. Clearly Mr. Nolan had his hands full wrangling a large cast of great actors, a lengthy screenplay, a music score with enough bombast for a dozen DC Comics movies and hundreds if not thousands of computer-generated visual effects. In all likelihood, none of the actors or craftspeople involved in the making of his film thought about “limited nuclear war” propaganda either.

Actors create characters, memorize their lines and hit their marks. Cinematographers light and compose shots. Production designers conceive and create sets. Editors edit. And they all work more than 16 hours a day. So, no, they didn’t consider the bellicose, reactionary implications of “The Dark Knight’s” main plot. If they had, given Hollywood’s notoriously liberal bent, many might have hesitated to contribute their talents to the film. Nonetheless, moviegoers have a responsibility to view the work critically and reject its idea that nuclear weapons can be detonated safely.

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