Bradley J. Birzer writes what is probably the best review of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that I’ve come across. I grew up watching hokey 1990s Batman cartoons, but Nolan’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne cuts away all the cruft from the cartoon portrayals of Batman as a character and focuses on drawing out the essential character of Bruce Wayne as archetypal hero:

First, he brought the characters into the realm of realism. They reside in the actual world, not a fantasy world, and events and developments can all be explained rationally. Second, Nolan fashioned his central character not from the pastel pages of a comic book but rather from America’s western legend, the frontier mythos that captured the national consciousness so powerfully in multiple movies of the 1940s and TV shows of the 1950s. This western legend, or myth, was larger than any single person, event, or even culture. And there were no antiheroes in that cultural fare, focused on the daunting challenge of extending the essence of Western civilization to those forbidding and often dangerous lands of the Rocky Mountains and beyond. It took real heroes to do that.

Thus does Nolan’s Batman trilogy stand today as a remarkable cultural achievement. Indeed, his third film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, was not only the best of the three but is arguably one of the finest movies ever made, a true achievement of the cinematic arts, certainly worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock or a John Ford. It also may be the single most important defense of Western civilization ever to reach a Hollywood screen. That the severe cultural liberals of the West Coast didn’t rip it to shreds indicates they probably didn’t watch it—or perhaps didn’t understand it. …

As Nolan approached the story, he decided two critical things. The first was his insistence on realism. If something happened that could not be explained rationally, he excised even the idea of it. Everything from the Batmobile to the reaction of the police had to be utterly realistic. If the Batman headgear needed two ears, there needed to be an explanation for those two ears. If Batman jumped from building to building, there needed to be a reason why and explanation as to how. The second was his embrace of the myths of the American West. Here Nolan was tapping into something already in the Batman mythos but not explicitly understood by the larger public. Like Natty Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Bruce Wayne/Batman stands as a crucial American symbol. If Bumppo and Finn personify the American frontier of the 19th century, so Wayne/Batman is the great mythological figure of 20th and 21st century urban America. Named after the Revolutionary War general, Mad Anthony Wayne, and coming from one of the wealthiest of American families (builders and defenders of Gotham City, a Platonic shadow of New York, populated by 30 million people), Bruce Wayne considers it his aristocratic duty to protect the poor and oppressed from the wealthy and corrupt. He is an Arthurian but also deeply American figure.

Several themes inform each movie. The first movie deals with justice and fear; the second with free will and anarchy; the third with hope and reformation. …

Nolan’s third Batman film was inspired by Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, though much of the dialogue might have been written by the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, considered by many the father of modern conservatism. The movie is in essence a retelling of the events of the French Revolution in Paris. In place of Robespierre is a mercenary, chemically-enhanced villain from either Eastern Europe or the Mideast, known only as Bane. …

In Nolan’s expert hands, Batman becomes what he always meant to be, an American Odysseus, an American Aeneas, an American Arthur, an American Beowulf, and an American Thomas More. Indeed, it would be hard to find another figure in popular and literary culture that more embodies the traditional heroism of the West more than in the figure of Bruce Wayne. He most closely resembles Aeneas, carrying on the culture of charity and sacrifice into the darkest and most savage parts of his world. Like St. Michael, he guards the weak, the poor, and the innocent. Like Socrates, he will die for Athens (Gotham) as it should be rather than as it is. Like Beowulf, he asks nothing for himself, merely the opportunity to wage the never-ending war against evil.

And in the third film, Western civilization survives, but only barely and only with incredible sacrifice at every level. “I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence,” Dickens had written.

What makes Bruce Wayne and the Batman mythology so compelling is that this is the one super hero whose greatness comes, at the most essential level, from his moral character and virtue rather than from a chemical or otherworldly enhancement. Anyone can strive for the moral excellence of Bruce Wayne.