It may seem like an unfair question, given the recent events associated with The Dark Knight Rises, but like all short cycle entertainment news feeds, the inquiries are already happening. With the release of the upcoming Man of Steel Superman reboot (in which he plays the role of producer) and the continuing saga of the Batman franchise reconfiguration (Who will handle the eventual redux? Will he participate at all?) figuring out Christopher Nolan’s next move is tough. You’d assume that the man behind one of the most amazing cinematic experiences in the last decade would have a plate full of possibilities. If the past is any indication, the next installment in the Nolan legacy will be very special indeed.
The pattern in place begins with Nolan’s leap into mainstream acceptance. After the independent feature Following, he rewrote the rulebook on standard cinematic narration with Memento. A huge hit with critics and film fans, the mystery in reverse announced Nolan as a director to watch. Still, it was two years before he landed his next gig, the professional if placeholding Hollywood adaptation of the Norwegian thriller Insomnia. Oddly enough, of all the Nolan films, it remains an entertaining enigma. While it offers the same sort of epic emotional balancing act that the filmmaker would follow for the next several years, it plays more like a starring vehicle for Oscar winners Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank. Still, it was a commercial success, which opened the doors to more opportunities.
Now Nolan wasn’t the first filmmaker approached to reboot the flailing Batman franchise. After Joel Schumacher destroyed its bankability, Warner Brothers and DC were looking for someone who could infuse new life into what many thought was a mere stone’s throw away from the campy kitsch of the ’60s TV series. As far back as 1996, there was still talk of taking the material in this over the top, high gloss direction. Schumacher was still on board, and a script for something called Batman: Triumphant was commissioned. The cast of the fourth film was set to return, with the Scarecrow and Joker’s daughter, Harley Quinn, set to make an appearance. After the failure of Batman and Robin, however, said plans were scrapped.
Still, Schumacher felt he owed the character another shot, and proposed a darker take on the iconic crime fighter. Batman: Year One was the result. In a surprise move, Darren Aronofsky was hired over Schumacher, and worked with Frank Miller to give the character a complete overhaul. Again, Warners balked and decided to make something called Batman vs. Superman. It had Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne as close friends (the latter was even best man at the former’s wedding to Lois Lane) and the Joker killing the Bat’s beloved. Somehow, our Caped Crusader blames the Man of Steel and they become enemies. In the end, it turns out to be Lex Luthor’s fault, and the duo team up to take him down.
Once hired, Nolan wanted none of this. His goal was simple – humanity and realism. To that extent, he worked with writer David Goyer to make Batman Begins. Believing that the previous versions of the character were all about style over drama, he drew inspiration from various comic incarnations and came up with the movie we see today. It was a gamble considering Warners need for another Summer tentpole and few thought Nolan had the ‘chops’ to be a superhero action genre director. They were clearly wrong. Batman Begins was well received and a siginificant commercial success. It also gave Nolan carte blanche on what he wanted to do next. The answer, was The Prestige.
Adapting Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel about battling magicians, Nolan collaborated with his brother Jonathan to create a masterpiece of tone and period. With his Batman Christian Bale and superstar Hugh Jackman in the leads, the 2008 title should have been a smash. Unfortunately, it landed against a pair of equally skilled films on the same/similar subject – The Illusionist with Edward Norton and Scoop by Woody Allen – and failed to perform at the box office. Still, it showcased Nolan’s range as well as his reliability. Anyone who doubted his ability to handle scope and speculation were wowed by his careful manipulation of the source and his own emerging ethos.
All of which would come to play in The Dark Knight, the universally adored (more or less) sequel to Begins. With its crime epic approach and masterful performance by the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, the film became the talk of 2008, in part because of its amazing moviemaking prowess, and also because of the tragedy that surrounded its creation. Ledger died of an overdose a few months after completing the film, spurring a combination of curiosity and concern. He would eventually go on to win a posthumous Oscar while the film went on to become the benchmark standard for the genre – or at least, one interpretation of same. The success gave Nolan even more creative wiggle room.
What he gave us was Inception, one of the most unique science fiction films of the last decade. A dense, dream within a dream within a dream amalgamation of mystery and thriller, it was a strange choice for a specialized Summer release. Nolan had been pushing for it for nearly a decade. Warners must have had a great deal of faith in him – or was desperate not to disappoint him with the final part of the trilogy in the wings – to give something so esoteric such special consideration. Luckily, their gamble paid off. Inception made a massive impact, proving that, when given the aesthetic leeway, Nolan’s vision worked outside the superhero format. Now, with The Dark Knight Rises, the filmmaker confirms his consistency. While not necessarily the fulfillment of everyone’s Bat dreams, it’s destined to go down as yet another significant stride in Nolan’s career.
Which, again, begs the question: where to now? Nolan can pick almost any project he wants. A weird musical based on the works of Franz Kafka? Some suit, somewhere, would be willing to listen to the pitch. A small family drama about the struggles of relationships? Name the price, and pick the cast. Even if he wanted to go in a completely different direction, making something outside his frame of reference or comfort level, he would more than likely meet with near universal approval from within the industry. Billions of dollars in revenue will do that. But it’s the track record which speaks volumes for Nolan’s continuing commercial relevance. After all, if you had a resume that read “Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises,” you’d be able to write your own ticket as well.