In 2008, the director Christopher Nolan released The Dark Knight, the central installment of his Batman trilogy. It was a remarkably good film in a genre not known for reliably producing “serious” fare—and alas, it inevitably inspired imitators: moody, self-important capes-and-tights movies that the Hollywood studios seem only now, blessedly, to be leaving behind.
From the mid-20th century onward, screen portrayals of superheroes—and Batman in particular—had generally been tongue-in-cheek. In the 1960s, ABC’s Batman series, with its “bat Geiger counter” and “alphabet-soup bat container,” favored overt silliness. In the ’80s and ’90s, Tim Burton’s and Joel Schumacher’s movies tended toward high camp, with Danny DeVito cast as the Penguin, for example, and Jim Carrey as the Riddler.
Early-21st-century works such as Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies—in which the outcast mutant protagonists were implicitly compared to Holocaust survivors and victims of anti-gay bias—treated their characters more soberly. But Nolan’s pictures, especially The Dark Knight, were something entirely new. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times described the film as “pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment,” adding that “it goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind.” An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal compared Batman’s “moral complexity” to that of George W. Bush. Barack Obama later said that the movie’s villain, the Joker, helped him comprehend isis. The film became a staple of college courses; Amazon currently offers book-length analyses running the gamut from The Masculine Identity Crisis in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” to The Gospel in Gotham: Parables of Christ’s Glory From the Dark Knight Trilogy. That the movie cracked $1 billion at the global box office only increased its cachet.