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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nolan and the Batman Franchise: What Now?

   Well, Rises has come and gone.  And just like that, Nolan’s Batman trilogy, 8 years in the making, has come to a close.  And a pretty definitive one at that.  Despite the (SPOILERS) open-ended nature of that final shot of Joseph Gordon-Levitt rising up in the cave, Chris Nolan has stated he will never again direct a Batman film, meaning that his stamp on the franchise is officially over. 

    And what a stamp it is.  Whether you love them, hate them, or just don’t give a damn, it’s impossible to deny the influence this trilogy has had on both the Batman universe and the entire genre of superhero movies.  All three were massive box-office successes, and The Dark Knight is still considered by many to be one of the most definitive superhero movies ever made.  So now that it’s done, what are we left with?  What legacy (or legacies) does Chris Nolan leave the Batman universe? 

    Origin Story:  One of the first things Nolan did with the trilogy was to provide a solid, detailed, and *relatively* reasonable origin story for the caped crusader, something that no previous Batman movie had attempted (I speak of movie origin stories here, not ones in the comics, if there are any).  It’s interesting, it’s engaging, it’s fun to watch him slowly get the hang of skulking around Gotham at night, and, perhaps most importantly, it really gets us interested in Bruce Wayne.  A constant problem with Batman is that his villains are often so much more fun than he is.  And while Heath Ledger definitely steals most of the show in The Dark Knight, by giving us a strong background for Batman in the first film, he helps give viewers an understanding of (and sympathy with) Bruce Wayne as a person, which, in my opinion, carries strongly through the other two films. 

    (More) Gritty Realism:  This particular trend in the Batman universe had been going on for several decades prior to the Nolan franchise (Burton’s films were particularly influential in this regard), but Dark Knight and Rises both raised the bar for gritty realism even higher with their dark tones, tragic story themes, and brutal (if noticeably bloodless) violence.  Both films (especially Dark Knight) are filled with heavy references and allusions to our own post-9/11 society, making Gotham and its struggles with super-villains-turned-terrorists hit just a tad closer to home.  Any effort to launch a new Batman franchise (and there will be another, sadly) will almost certainly be judged on how well it matches the tone set by this franchise. 

    The Joker:  I’m having a hard time trying to think of a movie franchise as deeply influenced by the death of a main actor as this one.  Not only was Heath Ledger’s performance genuinely ground-breaking for the character of the Joker (and well worth the Oscar nod), but his sudden and tragic death prior to the release of the film elevated it to an almost sacred level in the minds of the public (even though it technically wasn’t his LAST film appearance).  Unfortunately, it also partially crippled Rises from the get-go, because no matter how well Nolan wrote the character (and no matter how good a replacement he found), there was no way he could include even a mention of the Joker without pissing off legions of audience members, convinced he was trivializing the “last act” of a great actor. 

    There is no shortage of opinion that this hurt Rises considerably.  The briefest of mentions are made to the crimes of Harvey at the tale-end of the last movie (and some passing references to the “Dent Law” that followed), but aside from that, all of Dark Knight may as well have fallen into a Dark Hole in the nether regions of space.  Despite this obvious, but painfully necessary, omission, I still really, really liked the movie, but even I can’t help but imagine how much more Nolan could have done with both Bane and the overall plot if he could have thrown the Joker into the mix as well. 

    And as deep as Heath Ledger’s influence on Nolan’s trilogy has been, I am convinced that his shadow is going to loom large over the entire Batman universe for some time.  If there is another serious attempt at a Batman film series, it is inevitable that they will bring in another interpretation of the Joker.  How can they not, after all, when he is consistently Batman’s #1 arch nemesis?  I am convinced that, when that does happen, the inevitable cries of “How could they?” and “It’ll never be as good!” will surface, and the newer franchise will suffer as a result. 

      Bane:  Chris Nolan has always been about re-imagining concepts from the Batman comics in his own way, and out of all the characters he plucks from the coffee-stained pages of the printed universe, Bane definitely undergoes one of the biggest makeovers.  Although I have never read the comics (or watched the Animated Series), Bane was never (to my knowledge) considered a significant or important villain.  Here, however, he is given a powerful and threatening intellect to rival Bruce Wayne’s, an AWESOME accent (yes, I love his voice, and I am not ashamed to say it), and a connection to the League of Shadows.  What sort of effect this will have on the Batman universe as a whole probably won’t be felt right away, but I would not at all be surprised if a comic, graphic novel, TV series, or even a future movie franchise uses Nolan’s invention as a template for its own Bane someday. 

    Catwoman:  Another character to change pretty substantially from the Burton film version, Catwoman is never even named in Rises, just passingly referred to as the “Cat Burglar.”  Additionally, Nolan removed the bizarre sexuality of Burton’s Catwoman, making Selina more of a low-class version of Batman, albeit with *slightly* more questionable motives.  Yet another reinvention that could be the genesis for future takes on the character. 

    All-Star Performances from A Bevy of Great Actors/Actresses:
  Christian Bale.  Morgan Freeman.  Cilian Murphy.  Liam Neeson.  Michael Caine.  Tom Wilkinson.  Gary Oldman.  Aaron Eckhart.  Heath Ledger.  Maggie Gyllenhaal.  Anne Hathaway.  Tom Hardy.  Joseph Gordon-Leavitt.  Marion Cotillard. 

Need I say more? 

    Technical Perfection (IMAX style):  Thoughts and opinions on the individual films of the franchise aside, Nolan does succeed resoundingly in making Gotham bigger with each progressive movie.  This shouldn’t really be a surprise.  Nolan has always had a talent for making films that look amazing.  While earlier Batman films were hindered by lower budgets and lower technical capabilities, Nolan puts his love of IMAX-style film technology and big, moving cinematography on full display.  Using both high-powered cameras, old-style prop and set pieces for effects, and a combination of shots from several major US cities, Nolan managed to give us a Gotham that genuinely sprawled, setting yet another high bar for any director that tries a reboot. 

    Are these all of the ways in which Chris Nolan has altered or influence the world of Batman movies?  Probably not.  They’re just the ones that happened to pop into my head as I was writing this.  It’s always difficult to pinpoint exactly how a movie can influence culture, even years or decades after its release.  It’s especially hard for a franchise as defining and pervasive as this one.  For 8 years now, Chris Nolan’s Batman has been a pretty dominant presence in our culture, and will likely remain so for a long time.  They could even someday ascend to the level of the original Superman films in the public conscience, if a later reboot doesn’t manage to overshadow them.    

    None of these movies are perfect, of course.  I have discussed their varied flaws at length more times than I care to count, and I anticipate many more future nit-pickings.    That’s all part of the fun though.  They’re big, they are immensely entertaining to watch, and they take Batman in a lot of new and different directions.  It saddens me to think that a reboot is already being planned, but given how comic book heroes are part of our social conscience now (and, yes, how well they pay), I guess it’s inevitable.  No matter how good any later films are, though, this trilogy will always be “The” Batman movies in my mind.  After all, I didn’t become a Batman “fan” until I saw Begins, and, much like with Doctor Who, you never forget your first Batman.

-Judge Richard

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