Anyone who saw Memento upon release surely could never envisage the career path that its London-born director, Christopher Nolan, would take,moving from hugely impressive small, independent films to being the king of big budget and, along with Darren Aronofsky, surely Hollywood’s premier filmmaker.
The crescendo of this status will come this summer, with the opening of The Dark Knight Rises, perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated films of all time. This a film so craved that millions attended cinema screens purely to watch its first full length official trailer.
When Nolan was approached to helm a new take on the caped crusader, he was approaching a specialized genre with little of any background in the field. Rather than become a superhero film director, he took the central cores of Batman and approached them conventionally, with no interest in camp theatrics and cheapened sensibilities.
The result was Batman Begins, a film that won critical respect as well as financially explosive success upon release in 2005. Though hugely entertaining, the core of Begins is a moral centre, a pumping, beating heart. In fact, the saga is really a means to an end to portray the turmoil and journey of one Bruce Wayne, shedding his fears and self doubts to find a greater purpose. His crusade to save Gotham City is a redemption tale.
By approaching a niche market and populating it with an impressive cast, including the likes of Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and Tom Wilkinson, along with an emotionally charged script, Nolan was ensuring that his story would be taken seriously. The hiring of method character actor Christian Bale rather than a star name as the titular hero indicated that acting chops came first, commercial appeal second. He was effectively approaching the saga as he would a conventional film, making a blockbuster into an poignant, thinking man’s tale.
Of course, everyone knows about the follow up. The sequel, 2008’s The Dark Knight, was a searing, ambitious and complex crime saga epic. While Begins was perhaps the first notable comic book movie to play the material straight, The Dark Knight was the first to break the boundaries of its subgenre completely, a mammoth event film that could stand shoulder to shoulder with any straight laced mainstream fare, an epic of Greek tragedy and moral counterpoint, of political undertones and philosophical musings.
More significantly, perhaps, was that it was a box-office monster, one of the most commercially successful films of the decade. The series had now bridged the gap between comic book fanatics and the more conservative movie going public. People who had no interest in Batman, or in action orientated blockbusters, were turning up in droves. The rules had changed.
With Rises set to hit us in July, already the advertising and promotional campaign is in full swing. IMAX screenings of Mission Impossible 4 were swamped by cinema goers trembling with anticipation at another showing they would be treated to, namely Rises’s prologue. The first six minutes of the film were shown pre-movie, more fuel for the rising fire of excitement as they got to see the new villain, Tom Hardy’s megalomaniacal monster Bane, and an astonishingly audacious set piece.
The success of the new Batman, now known as the Dark Knight Trilogy, stems from how the man at the helm steered the ship. Treat the material seriously, and change nothing of cinema’s keen eye, and the finished product will not suffer in its storytelling. Make the background believable, actions proto-realistic, while as always, the heart of any tale is the people who inhabit it, and their struggle.
In Memento, it is Leonard’s battle to bring meaning to his fragmented life. In The Prestige, it is the overpowering darkness of revenge, while Inception is about letting go. In the Dark Knight Trilogy, it is a broken man finding purpose, and then weathering the traumatic tests of his resolve. He just happens to be wearing a cape and bat ears. While the setting is awe inspiring, epic in scope and scale, its true meaning is modest. This is Nolan’s focus always, and it’s the core of his effectiveness.
As Heath Ledger’s unforgettable Joker at one point remarks to Batman, “You’ve changed things, forever”. This summation could well be directed at the man behind the camera, since new films in the genre are already showing signs of influence.
Last year’s Thor was helmed by a Shakespearian auteur in Kenneth Branagh, and features a moral dichotomy and complex emotional strands. Similarly, Captain America is a zero-to-hero origins story. The reboot of the rebooted Spiderman series, also due out this year with Andrew Garfield leading, takes on a darker approach to get to the centre of the web-slinger Peter Parker. There is now a character driven ideal, rather than one looking exclusively for thrills, that powers such flicks.
Rises will conclude the saga, and with all the clout and acclaim he has won, Nolan has free reign, and the ability to make whatever he pleases. Nine years after picking up the franchise, he will leave behind a legacy which has altered the scope of blockbusters forever, molding the set pieces into complex human drama. It is that, not the billions of dollars earned and countless words of recognition and praise, which is the real achievement.
And whatever he does next, it will be a far cry from Memento…
- Scott Malcolm Patterson