Superheroes have functioned as sites for the reflection and shaping of American ideals and fears since they first appeared in comic book form in the 1930s. As popular icons which are meant to engage the American imagination and fulfill real American desires, they are to inhabit an idealized and fantastical space in which these desires can be achieved and American enemies can be conquered. Film as a mass medium possess a similar potential to shape and reflect cultural values. Mainstream cinema in particular reaches a far larger audience than comic books do, so when this medium is used to transmit fantasies of popular superheroes, the result is apt to reinforce and perpetuate the American national narrative.
Nolan's Ordinary and Extraordinary Batman
Batman is not ordinary in the same way as 'Spider-Man,' whose working class status affords him such everyday troubles as struggling to keep a job, pay the rent on time, caring for someone, and attract the attention of women. Bruce Wayne, armed with his father's fortune, shares none of these worries. He takes a job at Wayne Enterprises in Batman Begins (2005), but only to gain access to its Research and development division and its large and idle supply of flashy gadgets his father built for the military.
What makes Nolan's Batman ordinary, then, is not the nature of the struggles he faces, but rather the fact that, for all intents and purposes, he is a super-powerless superhero. He does not hail from another planet bearing any number of superhuman abilities, and he had not been randomly bitten by a radioactive spider. Batman is fueled by a rage against criminals and an unquenchable thirst for vengeance. Is that a wish-fulfillment fantasy? Indeed. And a powerful one. Who doesn't want payback for injustices committed against oneself?
Part of what makes Batman appealing to us and the post 9/11 Americans is that wealth and riches are the root of Batman's power. On the one hand, Batman's wealth provides the viewers the pleasure of witnessing on-screen the abundance of energy absent in their own lives, particularly during an era of economic recession. But it is also Batman' wealth which renders him such an emblematic embodiment. The Batman of Nolan's films is both an ordinary man in a cape, as Batman Begins villain Ra's al Ghul points out, and a figure of extraordinary power.
Evidence of this duality pervades Batman Begins and Dark Knight. Alfred (Michael Caine) defends both positions at different moments in the same film. At one point, he advises Bruce: "Know your limits Master Wayne." Batman has no limits," Bruce responds. "Well, you do sir," Alfred replies, reminding Bruce that behind his mask he is, after all he is just an ordinary man. However Alfred tells Rachel: "Perhaps both Bruce and Mr.Dent believe that Batman stands for something more important than a terrorist's whims, even if everyone hates him for it. That's the sacrifice he is making -- not to be a hero. To be something more." In other words, to be a symbol of extraordinary power.
The Re-defined Batman's Villains
Just as Batman's wealth and the masculine body it (literally) affords him are what make him an exceptional hero of American capitalism, Batman's enemies in both films are framed and vilified through their contrasting relationship with money and consumerism. In Batman Begins, Batman must save Gotham from the league of shadows, which is like a cross between a group of ninjas and an Al Qaeda-like terrorist organization dedicated to destroying a succession of historical empires when they became too "decadent."
In Dark Knight, for example, The Joker, outlines his "favorite things" as he sets an enormous pile of money on fire: "Dynamite, gunpowder, gasoline," he says, "You know what they have in common? They're cheap." By re-inventing Batman villains as anti-capitalist anarchists, both the Nolan's movies explicitly equates American heroism with American enterprise and economics. The films other forces of evil, Falconi and the mob, are corrupt and greedy , but their relationship with money is presented as something equally contrasting to the honorable capitalism of the Wayne family as the Joker and the League of Shadows.
By representing the "good wealth" of Waynes and the "bad wealth" of mob boss Falconi, the film seems to suggest that wealth itself is not the problem. The corruption of certain individuals, no the capitalist system itself, is to blame for Gotham's suffering.
Goodness And Bravery
Nolan's Batman films, like the Spider-Man movies, also set about glorifying the ordinary man, emphasizing that Gotham's masculine strength pervades all levels of society. The demonstrative example of goodness and bravery of everyday Gothamites occurs when the Joker takes remote control of two ferries, one full of innocent civilians and one filled with Gotham's prisoners. He informs each group that it possess detonator to a bomb on the other, but that if neither makes the decision to destroy the other within a set amount of time, he will blow up both. If, however, one decides to blowup the other, the Joker will let that boat's passengers live.
But the morals are upheld both in the civilians and the prisoners ferry. The allotted time passes, but by this point Batman has tracked down the Joker and engaged him in a violent struggle over the detonator to both bombs. "This city showed you it's full of people ready to believe in good," Batman tells him after subduing him. Like New yorkers of Spider-Man, Gotham's citizens proves that they are willing to stand up for good, even when their lives are at stake.
The Ultimate Battle
The appeal of classic superheroes from decades past may never fade, but we can hope that in the future, we might begin to see the protection narrative both on film and on in society, even in the face of threat, and to look to new, more empowering heroes for both men and women, which are not bound to the oppressed stereotypes of an era. And so, With "Dark Knight Rises," releasing today, Nolan completes the story arc, he commenced in 2005. It might be a fitting decision to end a excellent franchise, that has redefined the super-hero genre. Especially since, the world is eager to create more super-heroes for even more destructive problems.
Christopher Nolan concludes, "Bruce Wayne's story has fascinated people for more than 70 years because it's a great story. We were thrilled to bring our interpretation of the legend to the screen with these three films. It has been an extremely gratifying experience. We are very proud of this ending, and we hope the audience shares our excitement."