What a difference four years make in the discourse of hope and change—and the course of cinematic urbanism. When The Dark Knight was released in July 2008, Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, had just defeated Hillary Clinton, then junior senator from New York for the nomination of the Democratic Party. On screen, Gotham City—its very name taken from an old Washington Irving sobriquet for New York City—had morphed into a very recognizable Chicago.
But, being a charitable lot, we came around. Before a single star was cast or Tumbler chase shot, conventional wisdom already asumed that Christopher Nolan’s Batman would be about recovering the dread realism, the urban rot, that surrounds our only superhero without super powers, and shaking off the black rubber camp that tends to accrue every few decades. Batman Begins (2005) accomplished this, sort of, with pure dreariness.
The world wanted an adult crusader, and Hollywood obliged with dime-store Jung (“I want to be be a symbol!”) and Oprah’s-couch Freud. Christian Bale, reliably great, dug deep to deliver something of a demented sequel to American Psycho: Here was (Patrick) Bat(e)man, after enough therapy to have lost all humor and gained tedious introspection—but a few sessions short of actually quitting the maniacal nighttime S&M sprees. Critics toasted the psychological acuity of Nolan’s reboot.
If The Dark Knight was an infinitely better film than Batman Begins—and it was—might even NYC fanboys now admit that the improvement was because of Chicago, not in spite of it? Yes, we can. Riffing off canonical urban-crime dramas (Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection, Heat), Nolan’s second entry found a specific key for unlocking his absurdly broad (and just plain absurd) remit to ground Batman in realism: In the real world of big cities, the scariest crimes happen in broad daylight, with banks open, children in school buses, and hospitals packed.