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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 series.
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 red-carpet premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Paris -- where stars Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard and Morgan Freeman had been due to attend -- was canceled Friday.
New York City police announced security was being stepped up at theaters showing the new Batman film, in part "as a precaution against copycats."
And Warner Brothers, the studio which produced the film, said it was "deeply saddened to learn about this shocking incident" and extended its sympathies to families of the victims.
Even before the tragedy, the Batman franchise was tinged with controversy, most 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 his ambitious finale in his brooding Batman triptych, 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, through to whatever awaits viewers at the end of the latest movie.
But Nolan's reprisal of arch-villain Bane, a beast of a man who wears a gas mask and unleashes horrific attacks, caused a stir on American talk radio when a prominent conservative broadcaster savaged "liberal" Hollywood for what he said were its 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.
"The thought is that when (people) start paying attention to the campaign later in the year, and Obama and the Democrats keep talking about Bain, not Bain Capital, but Bain, Romney and Bain, that these people will think back to the Batman movie -- 'Oh yeah, I know who that is.'"
Chuck Dixon, the comic book writer who created the Bane character in 1993, long before Romney ran for president, posted on his message board that the comparison was "ridiculous."
A genuine debate has simmered for years about whether movies like "Batman" are the projector or the reflector of culture and violence.
Hollywood movie violence and other popular culture staples, like rap and heavy metal music, are trotted out as scapegoats in the aftermath of American 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 "Taxi Driver," the 1970s classic about a man determined to kill a president.
And Oliver Stone's 1994 movie "Natural Born Killers" is believed by some to have inspired deadly shootings.
But while the Batman effect on the Aurora shooter is not clear, the Caped Crusader has been swathed in violence since he was brought to life in a 1939 comic book, and observers were quickly turning to Batman on Friday for possible clues to Colorado tragedy.
The recent Batman films portray ineffective politicians, a corrupt police force under pressure from crimelords and terrorists, and a broken legal system in fictitious Gotham City, the quintessential embodiment of modern dysfunction in a fallen age.
Batman is the tortured hero wrestling with good and evil, forced to intervene when security breaks down. But in the latest film, Wayne's butler Alfred urges him not to take up Gotham's cause, because "there is nothing here for you but pain and tragedy."
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.