I remember the summer of 2012 with great fondness—it was early in the current era of superhero films, when The Avengers was a risk that paid off (there were how many superheroes in one film?), Andrew Garfield debuted as the second live-action incarnation of Spider-Man, and the frontier of superhero cinema was still largely unexplored territory. And while I felt smitten with the boyish new Peter Parker and desperately wanted to be Black Widow, I was awestruck by an entirely different hero that summer: Bruce Wayne.
I didn’t have a crush on Bruce Wayne; He inspired me. A very different enchantment, but still a compelling one. The cinematic heroes I had known before him were externally focused—would Prince Philip defeat the dragon in Sleeping Beauty, would Rick O’Connell put that mummy back where it came from in The Mummy, could six superheroes defeat one demigod and an army of aliens? They had character, but they weren’t grappling with two heroic identities that battled one another for domination.
Bruce Wayne, as depicted in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (which concluded in the summer of 2012, with The Dark Knight Rises), begins his journey as a young, wealthy orphan who leaves his hometown, Gotham City, to train in combat and understand how to defeat villainous corruption. Upon his return home, Bruce discovers Gotham is in shambles—organized crime has ruined the strong economy and thriving public life his parents built. Bruce takes on two personas to save Gotham: he remains Bruce Wayne in name but transforms his public image into that of a devil-may-care billionaire, who buys hotels on a whim and sponsors yacht trips with Russian ballet companies, but ultimately puts money back into reforming Gotham’s crumbling environment.
And then there’s Bruce’s other identity: Batman. The Caped Crusader. That guy who wears a mask, has a gruff voice, and drives the Batmobile. This version of Batman isn’t your mother’s cheesy 1960s television Batman: he’s angry, he’s bent on justice. His initial intent was to take down crime lords, but he graduates into taking on bigger, more dramatic villains, like the Scarecrow and the Joker. Bruce Wayne is nothing compared to maniacal foes: the Joker wouldn’t see a sharply dressed billionaire in a Lamborghini as a threat. But a costumed crusader with an arsenal of weapons? The playing field is more even.
The duality of identity is manageable at first—Batman Begins is all about Bruce finding the balance between his public persona and his true calling as an anonymous vigilante. The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are about Bruce’s inability to maintain the two identities, and the realization that he must surrender one identity. The lives of those Bruce cares about are put into jeopardy, sometimes at the risk of Gotham’s own safety.
Bruce’s dual obligation to heroism makes him fascinating: he must maintain his persona as Bruce Wayne, heir to Wayne Enterprises and beacon of hope for the floundering economy and safety of Gotham City. But he’s also taken up the mantle as Batman, who provides hope in a way that Bruce Wayne cannot. Bruce’s commitment to maintaining both identities becomes increasingly strained as the series goes on—by the end of The Dark Knight, Bruce’s duality of identity has gotten someone close to him killed, and put others he cares about in danger. There is no right answer, no clear-cut path to success: if he left Wayne Enterprises behind, he leaves it in the hands of corporate America, which values the company for its financial earnings, not for its power to improve Gotham City’s infrastructure. But if he leaves Batman behind, he risks the weight of leaving Gotham vulnerable to the maniacal egos of villains like the Joker or Bane.
The dilemma Bruce Wayne has to wrestle with across the Dark Knight trilogy drew me to his story, and is why those films are among my favorite superhero films. Now, nearly a decade on from the last film in the series, we have had one new Batman and another debuting next year, another Spider-Man, and several dozen movies dedicated to the Avengers, their comrades, and potential new allies. I have loved and enjoyed them all, but the psychological conflict in the Dark Knight trilogy is what enticed me most about the possibilities of the superhero genre when I first saw the films in 2012. I hope more superhero films follow this lead—demonstrating heroes whose greatest conflict isn’t a flashy villain or a burning building, but the struggle to understand their place in the world and how to utilize it for the greater good.