Christopher Nolan and his impact on comic book movies

Comic book movies are getting darker and grittier in some quarters. That's down to Christopher Nolan, right? Well, not quite...

If someone were to say the words ‘Nolanisation of comic book movies’ to you, it might conjur up images incredibly serious, laughter-free movies with a dark visual palette. The word ‘gritty’ would be used. Furthermore, Christopher Nolan has arguably had as big an impact on comic book movies as anyone over the last decade, and many are keen to follow in his path. Thus, goes the theory, comic book movies – and blockbusters in general – are favouring dark and gritty.

And yet, on rewatching The Dark Knight trilogy, it becomes immediately apparent that Christopher Nolan’s own work doesn’t entirely align with this.

My own personal frame of reference is, as ever, Doctor Who. In the 1980s, two stories – Earthshock and The Caves Of Androzani – became influential on the series that followed, only for the attempts to replicate their success to be hugely flawed. It was partly budgetary, in that a show like Doctor Who had always struggled with effective action sequences But mainly it was due to characterisation.

Christopher Nolan did for the Batman franchise of movies what the 2005 ‘rebooted’ series did for Doctor Who, after the franchise-halting Batman & Robin, a film my Granddad described as “not very good at all.” This meant Nolan had free reign to reboot. His pitch was to make Bruce Wayne and Batman into characters that the audience would care about, to make the tone serious, and to heighten the realism.

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This is a difficult thing to do when you consider the DC universe, with its Lazarus Pits, half-man-half-crocodiles, and giant sentient eggs. Thus, Nolan decided a good way to achieve realism was to significantly ignore the comics universe.

Batman is the only superhero in his trilogy, and operates in a contemporary city the audience can recognise. For Nolan’s Batman, this only serves to contrast his heroism and extraordinary situation. Interestingly, Nolan said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that “a similar approach to the Man of Steel would assure the integrity needed for the film.”

Clearly, this idea hasn’t been that influential across the board with superhero films.

One thing that has been a constant in superhero movies is the ‘why should I care?’ issue, when presented with a strange and unusual scenario. Nolan and Bale’s Batman is considered a darker take on the character, yet he has a ‘don’t kill’ rule, and great pains are taken to address Bruce Wayne’s privileged background to make him come across as sympathetic. This is because Nolan’s approach is to question the logic of everything, so that every aspect of the character, his motivations, and even his equipment are explained, which also gives Nolan the chance to do several ‘Bond gets his new gadgets from Q’ scenes (even though Nolan has never directed a Bond film, it’s the franchise that has been most clearly influenced by his Batman movies).

Again, this hasn’t been something that’s extended far into films beyond the ones Nolan’s been involved with, probably because no one actually enjoys writing exposition. However, one thing Nolan does to ground the film in a plausible reality that other movies also do is have his characters make lots and lots of jokes.

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No, really.

Watch Batman Begins again, there are four quips in the first five minutes. Not laugh out loud ones but quips nonetheless. Much like the ones people make in reality.

Nolan’s apparent reputation for humourlessness is baffling considering this is a man who helped bring us Heath Ledger’s Joker. While he doesn’t exactly emit constant zingers Nolan clearly has a dry, morbid sense of humour. His characters aren’t glowering distant gods, but people who make jokes in desperate situations (the policeman driving Harvey Dent to secure confinement, for example, deploys gallows humour when he sees a helicopter falling out of the sky). While you’re never going to put on The Dark Knight trilogy for its comedy value, to say it is totally humourless is simply inaccurate.

Another crucial aspect of Nolan’s version of realism is that Christopher Nolan knows it is not actually realistic. He’s talked about the benefits of great casting making his dialogue sound good (“the great thing about Liam Neeson is he can sell you anything”), which helps with getting the audience to invest in the fiction. Or as he put it: “it’s really about cinematic reality”. He cites the example of the Lotus Espit turning into a submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me as something unlikely that we can accept in the context of that film.

The reason Nolan’s films work isn’t because there isn’t anything ridiculous in them, but because the ridiculousness is delivered in the right context to feel temporarily plausible. Back to Batman Begins again, take the first scene where Bruce Wayne meets Ducard in the League of Shadows’ headquarters: in isolation, that could come across as po-faced and pretentious, but obviously it’s not in isolation, it’s part of a film that mitigates the dialogue’s potentially ridiculous qualities.

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Marvel have learned plenty from Nolan’s approach. Their films have presented a contained universe in which the more outlandish/cosmic elements are gradually revealed and grounded in science before interacting with the down-to-earth elements Crucially, they’ve all had strong characters, which was the original starting point for The Dark Knight trilogy: make the character of Batman seem like a plausible choice for a sympathetic but flawed Bruce Wayne, then see how far you can push that. Marvel have, again, gone down this route though with a more flippant tone, differently measured to the self-aware quips in Batman Begins.

The main thing Marvel know, though, is that it’s all window dressing for a story. As Ryan said a few weeks ago, it’s the human drama at the heart of Nolan’s Batman trilogy that makes them succeed, and without that a movie is in trouble. You can have something as grittily unrealistic as the fight at the end of Batman V Superman but it works if you care about the characters.

Equally the recent Fantastic Four movie might have worked with its more Nolan-esque approach if more than one character had been developed (and when Nolanised films don’t work, the seriousness becomes comical). Conversely, if you have the same storyline and character beats of the first Iron Man but with the tone of Batman Begins, it would still work, and vice versa.

Marvel, for all their faults, very much know that investing in the characters and their heroism isn’t merely a jumping on point for the audience, but a source of future drama. Once a figure has been established as heroic, you can push against that, but the starting point is making you care. Nolan always tries to do this in his films but Bruce Wayne might be his best attempt, because he’s had to work all the harder in making the potentially ridiculous seem utterly reasonable. This is something that, since The Dark Knight trilogy, Marvel have achieved more successfully than DC.

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