'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' Nails What 'Dark Knight Rises' Fumbled

A far better spin on the "anyone can be a hero" trope.

Not enough superhero movies explore the theme that anyone can be a hero, and even fewer do it well. The Dark Knight Rises tried (and failed), but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse really nails it.

The Golden Globe-winning animated Spider-Man movie, executes on this idea perfectly by making it the core concept of an excellent film. Not only does Miles Morales need to learn to become a superhero, but he’s doing it while surrounded by alternate reality versions of himself that illustrate just how ordinary he really is. Meanwhile, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy tacks on a similar message that feels out of place and ultimately less satisfying.

After three movies of Bruce Wayne struggling to reconcile his role as Batman in Nolan’s trilogy, he fakes his own death and saves Gotham one last time. “A hero can be anyone,” Batman tells James Gordon minutes earlier. “Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat on a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” Then the final scene of The Dark Knight Rises has Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Detective John “Robin” Blake enter the Batcave to take up the mantle as the new Caped Crusader.

To Batman, the real hero was the detective who once showed him sympathy, but the ending communicates this “a hero can be anyone” idea more literally.

These disparate threads don’t quite cohere, though, especially since Blake is a new in the trilogy. Blake demonstrates heroism in most of his scenes throughout the movie, but he doesn’t quite do enough to prove to the viewer that he’s earned the title. His big finale, then, feels like a thin post-credits scene meant to tease future films that never arrived.

Batman in 'The Dark Knight Rises'.

Warner Bros.

In 2012, Nolan told Film Comment “the open-ended nature of the film is simply a very important thematic idea that we wanted to get into the movie, which is that Batman is a symbol.” This makes logical sense, but on some level, that message still fall a little flat.

In Batman Begins, Bruce loses himself and is reborn as Batman. The Dark Knight sees him lose everything he ever loved, including Rachel, precisely because he exists as Batman but wears Bruce Wayne as a mask. And in The Dark Knight Rises, he exists as a shell of a human being before emerging once again as Batman — only to die so he can retire and be reborn as Bruce Wayne.

This is all excellent storytelling, but it doesn’t leave enough thematic room to really sell this idea that Batman is a symbolic title that can be transferred to someone new. Instead, this extraneous thread ends up feeling like a half-measure meant to appease the growing interest in superhero movies at the time (2012 saw the release of Dark Knight Rises along with the first Avengers movie and The Amazing Spider-Man).

The Dark Knight Rises could take notes from Into the Spider-Verse — if only there was a parallel dimension where the Miles Morales movie came out first.

Miles literally wears a Spider-Man costume for a long stretch of the movie.

Sony Pictures

It’s especially astonishing that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse takes one of the most iconic and recognizable superheroes of all time and dramatizes this “anyone can be a hero” idea through the emotional journey of Miles Morales. But in a Spider-Verse of infinite alternate realities, anyone can wear the mask and be a superhero. There’s even a humanoid pig with Spider-Man powers!

For tons of superheroes who keep their identities a secret, the mask transcends into a symbol, often of hope and justice. That’s the case with the noble version of Spider-Man in the film’s main universe, who’s so beloved that his adoring fans wear masks, costumes, and clothing to show their love. For the entire middle act of Into the Spider-Verse, Miles wears a shoddy Spider-Man costume, seamlessly blending into an endless sea of Spidey fans.

Only through making mistakes and learning what it means to stand up for something he believes in does Miles discover what it really takes to be a hero. He gets a handful of role models, each teaching him sometimes contradictory lessons that somehow coalesce into something great by the end.

The shadow of Spider-Man, and the expectations that come with the role loom over him. Miles might be Spider-Man, but he’s not Peter Parker. It’s in reconciling that supposed contradiction that Miles eventually reaches his full superhero potential. The scene when he emerges with his own custom suit and dives into the city to swing for the first time is nothing short of triumphant.

To Into the Spider-Verse, the idea that “anyone can be a hero” is demonstrated through a hero’s journey that’s central to the entire film. In The Dark Knight Rises, it kind of feels like an afterthought.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is in theaters now.

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