Why is 'The Dark Knight Rises' inspiring such rabid fandom?

IN MAY, "The Avengers" made $207,438,708 during its opening weekend. And, so far, it's raked in $1,457,760,486 worldwide since it was released. But it doesn't feel like the movie premiered just a scant few months ago. Why? Because no one is talking about "The Avengers" anymore. If anything, that quaint little film about the bromance of various Marvel superheroes now seems like a distant memory. Iron who?

Since we stopped caring about Tony Stark, Captain America, Thor and their sundry friends, moviegoer anticipation has been placed squarely on the shoulders of "The Dark Knight Rises," the third and final entry in the Christopher Nolan-directed trilogy that began with 2005's "Batman Begins" and was followed by 2008's "The Dark Knight." This time out, unlike the previous movies, Bruce Wayne is competing against several other comic-book-turned-movie properties. "This is the year of the comics," said local novelist and comics writer Duane Swierczynski. "You have the Marvel movies, but you also have ‘The Walking Dead.' I can't think of a year this full of comics movies and I think that's a good thing."

Yet the buzz surrounding "The Dark Knight Rises" makes it not just the movie of the summer, but the pop-culture event of the year. AMC theaters around the area are screening the previous movies in anticipation of a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" on Thursday. Too bad if you don't already have tickets: All area screenings are sold out. Try scoring a ticket to a midnight showing and you'll be similarly out of luck, unless you're willing to stay up for one of the many area screenings at 2 a.m. or later (earlier?). The movie-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes recently had to disable its comment system because fanboys had taken to attacking reviewers who gave the film middling reviews. Even conservative radio pundit Rush Limbaugh tried to get in on the fervor, saying that Democrats are purposely referring to Bain Capital, the private-equity firm Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney ran so that people will associate it with Bane, the uber-strong villain in "The Dark Knight Rises," played by Tom Hardy.

"In my book [Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture], I talk about how we're at a moment called ‘peak geek,' " said East Falls native Rob Salkowitz, an author, business analyst and comics fan. "Superheroes have come to define the pop-culture space, and superheroes have defined this summer. ‘The Avengers' came out and it did great, ‘[The Amazing] Spider-Man' did great, but those guys were an opening act. Batman's the headliner."

Some reasons for the intense interest in "The Dark Knight Rises" are obvious. It's the final installment of a trilogy with two successful preceding movies that were popular with moviegoers and critics. People saw the first two, so now they need to see it wrapped up. Nolan has managed to deliver thus far, so how could he disappoint now?

Another factor is the continuing reinvention of the character, from his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939 to this weekend's sure-to-be blockbuster. "One of the enduring qualities is the malleability of the character," said Jerry Stephan, comic grade and consignment director at Heritage Auctions. "In the '60s, he was so campy in the TV show. Now he's an avenging character of the night. The creators have been able to keep him contemporary."

Captain America and even Superman feel retro because of their quest to uphold some sort of patriotic ideal that doesn't really exist anymore, like killjoy Boy Scouts. But Batman evolves with his audience. His flexibility makes him ideal for a director with a strong vision, a boon for a director like Nolan, whose movies have a taut, singular feel, or Tim Burton, who kicked off the Batman resurgence with his surreal, larger-than-life 1989 version featuring Michael Keaton donning the mask. In the wrong hands, Batman's blank canvas can work against the movie, as evidenced by Joel Schumacher's laughably disastrous takes with "Batman & Robin" and "Batman Forever."

Nolan has created such a strong world for his version of Batman that it's extended beyond the films. Witness the wildly popular Batman: Arkham Asylum and its recently released sequel Batman: Arkham City, which both reflect Nolan's particular take on the Batman franchise.

Even amid the evolution of the character, though, the most important aspects of Batman endure, which keeps the most zealous fans happy. "It's a character to relate to. Even though Bruce Wayne is a bazillionaire, he has no superpowers," said Swierczynski, who currently authors the DC series Birds of Prey, which takes place inside the Batman world and features many of the characters with whom Batman regularly crosses paths. Although he's just a regular guy, he's still beyond us.

"People like watching movies about where people are good at their jobs. It's an everyman who is kick-ass at this job," Swierczynski said. "Batman is cool because I could put on a Batman mask but I would be dead in three minutes."

And Batman's flaws — in an era when every public figure is revealed, at one time or another, to have flaws — further connect us to the character. "He has his moments of shame and disgrace, as well," said Sean Phillips, Yahoo! Movies executive producer and movies expert.

Similarly, Batman's villains are just as iconic as our hero. Few people could name an Iron Man villain before Robert Downey Jr. made him our second-favorite billionaire playboy. Only the hardest core of fans went into "Captain America" dying to see Red Skull. But Catwoman has set off the libido of many a Batman fan for years. And the Joker has been around almost as long as Batman.

It would seem that Warner Bros., the company that owns the film rights to Batman, would have a surefire hit on its hands, due to the subject matter. But it also contributed to the fervor by keeping a lock on leaked details. Chris Sims, a senior writer for Comics Alliance and a self-proclaimed Batmanologist, points out that other superhero movies have been marketed more like traditional action movies (think: "Die Hard" or anything with Sylvester Stallone in it). But "The Dark Knight Rises" has gotten artier trailers, spare sketches that keep plot details vague and barely show the marquee actors who appear in the movie, such as Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The filmmakers have prided themselves on how tight-lipped they've kept the cast and crew. "This is not typical studio marketing 101," Phillips said. "Instead of flooding the market, they're starving it."

And, man, are we hungry.


Contact Molly Eichel at 215-854-5909 or eichelm@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mollyeichel. Read her blog posts at philly.com/entertainment.