Christopher Nolan’s astounding third Batman feature, The Dark Knight Rises, represents the true maturation of the superhero movie—and provides the key to understanding the bottomless craving moviegoers have for these films, 34 years after the Christopher Reeve Superman gave birth to the genre. It’s not because the odds of seeing something good go up when you buy a ticket to a superhero picture, because most of these movies are lousy (a point on which even diehard fans agree).
Nor is it about the dazzling special effects, the killer action sequences, or the empowerment fantasy that the stories provide to young kids and teenagers who feel so powerless in their own lives—though all that helps, to be sure. You can have all of these, as John Carter did earlier this year, and fail miserably.
What people adore about superhero movies is the signal quality of the Christopher Nolan films—their complete lack of irony when it comes to the portrayal of heroism and the need for heroes to confront evil. When they grab you, and the utterly riveting and entirely gripping The Dark Knight Rises grabs you as few movies do, it is because the filmmakers discard the knowing winks and go all-out, turning their stories into moral pageants dedicated to the elevation of self-sacrifice, selflessness, and heroism.
I didn’t quite get this when I saw Nolan’s second Batman movie, The Dark Knight, back in 2008. I found it excessively solemn, and I wrote in these pages that “[i]ts makers seem to forget that it’s a movie about a man who goes out at night wearing a black rubber hat.” Well, the more fool I, because of course if its makers had made it clear they understood how ludicrous the whole setup was, the movie itself could not have cast a spell over three-quarters of the world.
But where The Dark Knight did fail, at least in terms of classic moviemaking, was in the fact that the story was thrown off balance by the utterly dominating presence of the late Heath Ledger in his terrifying and wildly original turn. The struggles of its hero were as nothing to the murderous, sociopathic antics of Ledger’s Joker.
That doesn’t happen here, and The Dark Knight Rises has a much more effective and affecting story to tell. Nolan has a powerful villain in Tom Hardy’s Bane, whose master plan involves the apocalyptic fulfillment of the deepest anarchic hungers of the Occupy movement. But the focus is on Batman, who begins as a crippled recluse and is brought out of the shadows by the reemergence of evil. He is not up to it, and the movie turns on whether and how he can rise again to save Gotham from its ultimate doom.
What it does not do is saddle Batman (who is, of course, billionaire Bruce Wayne in disguise) with a moral conflict of his own, as The Dark Knight did, to its detriment, with a confusing subplot about a Big Brother-like surveillance device he invented. The movie considers instead what he has lost by being a hero—not only his reputation, surrendered so that the city could falsely worship a more acceptable dead hero, but any semblance of a normal life. That is a conflict worthy of the kinds of sacrifices the story calls upon Batman to make.
The Dark Knight Rises finally finds an epic story that fits the super-hero’s simple moral code—good people do right and bad people do wrong and good people must stop bad people. Because Batman has no special powers, the character is far better suited to fit this code than the supernaturally charged Superman or the genetically mutated Fantastic Four or X-Men or Matter Eater Lad (an actual character name from a 1960s comic book).
The series of pictures built around the Marvel Comics characters who all came together in The Avengers earlier this summer struggled to find any kind of consistent tone or approach at all—until that movie’s key shot, when all six of its super-heroes, lined up along Park Avenue in New York, fought as one to save the Earth. That was the moment that had people cheering in the theaters, and the moment you knew the movie was going to make 10 squillion dollars.
This Manichean worldview goes very well with what one might call the quiet Tory perspective of Christopher Nolan. The theme running through the three Batman movies (the first, Batman Begins, was not very good, although Nolan and his co-screenwriter, brother Jonathan, mine it effectively for plot points in the new one) is the battle between order and chaos, with Nolan standing unambiguously on the side of order.
Nolan knows exactly what he’s doing when he puts the rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the mouth of his villain. The Dark Knight Rises is a Classic Comics version of Edmund Burke. Which makes its incidental role in the latest monstrous spasm of nihilistic violence, as the movie that was playing during James Holmes’s evil massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, all the more haunting.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.