The nation had been mired in a slump for a decade. Industrial production was stagnant, and unemployment remained stubbornly high. The malaise had lasted for so long that young people had no recollection of happier times. In this environment of social mood, along came a young billionaire with inherited wealth, a playboy by day and a caped crusader by night, an incorruptible man devoted to fighting the problems plaguing his city. The man's name was Bruce Wayne.
Batman made his first appearance in "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” in May of 1939, a year after the first publication of Superman
. Soon thereafter, Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Wonder Woman would make their debuts as well. In a time of double digit unemployment, young people would take their heroes wherever they could find them, and if that meant only between the pages of a comic book, so be it. As written in the Atlantic
, while the makers of Superman, “played with the bright and impossible, [the creators of Batman] expanded that meme by adding the coin's other side, the dark and improbably possible.”
Bruce Wayne got his name from two historical men
. “Bruce” came from Robert the Bruce, the Scottish patriot. “Wayne” was chosen to reflect American gentry, the Revolutionary War general Anthony Wayne. As the story goes, Bruce Wayne's parents, wealthy and charitable Gotham City socialites, are murdered when Wayne is a boy. The trauma of this event leads Wayne to swear an oath to fight the evil plaguing his city. Given Wayne's age when Batman was introduced in 1939, we can surmise that he was a child in the 1920s, came of age during the Great Depression, and was now ready to be a savior.
As The Dark Knight Rises
is set to smash box office records this weekend, we see why Batman's appeal resonated then as it does today. In a period of stagnant economic growth and sclerotic government, a member of the societal elite dons a mask to save the less fortunate and give hope to a city. Bruce Wayne is “the 1%” with a conscience.
At the box office, we've been living through an age of superheroes for quite some time, with 2012 seemingly the peak, with The Avengers
, The Hunger Games
, The Amazing Spider-Man
, and The Dark Knight Rises
– after this month the top four grossing films of the year – all producing dystopian heroes. This is what we'd expect in a “Fourth Turning,”
a term popularized by Neil Howe and William Strauss to define the crisis period in the generational cycle when the demand for societal order is high but the supply remains low.
At the movies, and in generations, past is prologue, with generational traits revealed by the films popularized by youth. Generation X found its cynicism and individuality reflected in John Hughes movies like The Breakfast Club
and Ferris Bueller's Day Off
, and later in Reality Bites
. Millennials, optimistic and purposeful, have done the same with The Lord of the Rings
, Harry Potter
, and Batman
films. We may not have our savior on the ballot in November, but at least for a few hours, we can watch one on the silver screen.
The Dark Knight Rises
is produced by Warner Brothers, a subsidiary of Time Warner
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