The deadly shooting rampage during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises that left 12 dead and dozens wounded revived our fitful national debate about the impact films that feature human brutality have on the consciences of their audiences.

Prior to the spree, the suspected shooter, James Holmes, had dyed his hair red and called himself the Joker, in reference to the amoral, nihilistic criminal from The Dark Knight, the previous installment in the Batman saga.

In the pages of The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan argued that the routine depictions of celluloid mayhem could foster violent thoughts and actions in the minds of disturbed individuals. And she charged that while many parents today are exhausted by the need to protect their children from toxic cultural products, Hollywood producers possess the financial resources to better insulate their own offspring.

The truth is that no policy will fully protect our world from the evil that leads a serial killer to extinguish innocent human life.

Some freely choose to commit such acts — and possibly rejoice in the fleeting celebrity they enjoy, while mental illness drives others to homicide.

And while parents are wise to vet such films for their suitability for their children’s viewing, news reports suggest that four young men in the Aurora theater died protecting the lives of their girlfriends, while a young woman braved further danger to aid a critically injured companion.

In such extreme circumstances — 9/11 comes to mind — the radical nature of human freedom, hinging on both our capacity for transcendence and our attraction to sin, is on display.

This is the story within a story that once preoccupied Shakespeare and now draws the genius of Chris Nolan, the ambitious director of The Dark Knight Rises.
Nolan serves up a wealth of moral insights and paradoxes that rarely surface in action thrillers.

In this film, the protagonist doesn’t deny Gotham City’s stubborn depravity, from the insular materialism of the wealthy to the self-centered careerism of its public servants. But while the archvillain — Bane — uses these flaws as the justification for his reign of terror-filled anarchy, Batman acts as if he believes Gotham is worth protecting, warts and all.

The film makes several references to A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’ story of courage and conversion amid the French Revolution.

Ultimately, Dickens’ anti-hero chooses death so that a better man — a beloved husband and father — might live.

Batman may face a similar choice, and thus parents of teenagers might be relieved to know that this film raises up selfless heroism, not the opposite.

We could do worse, but could we also do better?

For all the surprisingly rich moral insight of Dark Knight Rises, it is worth pausing to consider if such epiphanies might be obtained in a way that did not require the graphic mayhem.

Put another way, is it time for America’s most gifted filmmakers and other artists to offer a more diverse context for exploring the struggle between good and evil and our unpredictable capacity to make choices that defy our base instincts?

There’s no formula for drawing inspiration from stories and characters that compel an audience’s engagement without desensitizing their conscience.

But in his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” Pope John Paul II offered guidelines and encouragement for such artistic endeavors.

Reflecting on the vocation of the artist, he observed that Christian teaching on the Incarnation served as the wellspring for Western high culture during the Middle Ages and Renaissance and that the Church would always have a stake in the culture-defining work of artists.

Of the Incarnation, he wrote, “This prime epiphany of ‘God who is Mystery’ is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity.

From it has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation. In becoming man, the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good, and with this he has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty, of which the Gospel message is filled to the brim.”

In contrast, the modern era has witnessed the emergence of a “kind of humanism marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God. … Such an atmosphere has sometimes led to a separation of the world of art and the world of faith, at least in the sense that many artists have a diminished interest in religious themes.”

John Paul II does not suggest that such artistic works are invalid, and he celebrates whatever is worthy.

But he concludes his stirring meditation with the reminder that the Church needs great art, in part because our faith is nurtured by contemplation of the good, the true and the beautiful. But he also suggests that artists need the deeper truths regarding the mystery and origin of the human person.

The Church continues to defend and transmit these often inconvenient truths that offer the artist glimpses of the vast possibilities of his vocation.

In a world that often rewards shallow creative expression and cheap thrills, John Paul II points the artist to a story with limitless possibilities:

“‘From chaos, there rises the world of the Spirit.’ These words of Adam Mickiewicz, written at a time of great hardship for his Polish homeland, prompt my hope for you: May your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.”