Has Christopher Nolan Killed Batman?

July 20, 2012
A thought by James Berardinelli

Don't worry - NO SPOILERS!!!

[The following was originally written for intended publication by CNN on July 20, 2012. Following the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, CNN understandably elected not to go forward with this piece and gave me permission to post it to my site. So here it is as it would have appeared on CNN.com had one disturbed individual not killed 12 people, injured 59 others, and cast a pall over one of the summer's high points. I must say, reading it after what happened is a little unsettling.]

Has Christopher Nolan killed Batman?

The answer to the question won't be found in the final installment of his Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, it won't be known for a while. But in another three, four, or five years, when Warner Brothers decides the iconic superhero is too valuable to remain idle, someone will be pressed into service to deliver another Batman movie. That's when we'll know whether Nolan's singular vision has so fundamentally altered the way in which viewers see the Caped Crusader that anything less will not be accepted.

Nolan's Dark Knight movies have represented a shift in what viewers expect from a superhero film. In addition to the requisite big budget action scenes, the director has incorporated drama on an almost Shakespearean scale. These films go to places no previous picture in this genre has imagined going. They explore the deepest and darkest areas of the human psyche. By and large, they are not happy movies.

You don't go to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, or The Dark Knight Rises to feel good about the world. You attend not just for goose bumps and eye candy but for an experience that doesn't demand that the brain be parked in neutral. This is not feel-good territory; happy endings are not guaranteed. What other superhero movie can boast that? Not a "truth, justice, and the American way" Superman or a "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man."

Inexorably, over a span of seven years, Nolan has reinvented the superhero genre, and there's no going back. It's not just an issue for whoever reboots or continues the Batman narrative; the proverbial "game changer" impacts every filmmaker who makes a superhero movie. The simplicity of following a basic template will no longer work. We've seen hints of this in recent years with B-list titles like Captain America and Green Lantern failing to live up to expectations. Why? Because they followed yesterday's rules.

The Avengers made an obscene amount of money by going into overdrive, creating a spectacle so massive that it couldn't be ignored. That movie was too big to fail. But every film can't be The Avengers. So what to do with a smaller, non-supersized superhero movie? Take a page from the Bible According to Nolan. The Amazing Spider-Man tried to do this but botched the recipe.

With his Batman films, the British-born director, who burst on the scene with his riveting reverse chronology thriller, Memento, has established the new template. People connect with the darkness. That's the way it is in the 21st century. Innocence and white hats are out, replaced by shades of gray and the bleak blackness beyond. Viewers, especially younger ones, revel in cynicism and moral ambiguity. It pervades modern culture - music, literature, movies, television, on-line. A cloudy day is more appealing than bright sunshine. Audiences relate on a visceral level to the world created by Nolan, a Gotham characterized by villainy and depravity - a modern-day Sodom. To be a hero in a world like this, all one has to possess is a working moral compass. Nolan's Batman is a superhero but he's not constrained by the too-good ethics that make many of comic world’s most famous characters seem quaint by 2012 standards.

That's not to say there will never be another straightforward, by-the-numbers superhero movie, but the audience's appetite for such bland simplicity is waning. One need look no further than the box office grosses of recent offerings to get the idea that they're on the way out. Survival in this genre demands complexity and a rejection of an old-fashioned good/evil dichotomy. Nolan has shown it can be done; now it's up to other directors to broaden the trail he has blazed. And it's not just about darkness; it's about serious darkness. It's about darkness without a whiff of campiness. After all, Blade was plenty dark, but did anyone take it seriously?

Spider-Man, Superman, and a legion of other heroes may benefit from entering the twilight, but what about the future Batman? Will the viewing public buy a different vision of him? Is the Caped Crusader gone forever, supplanted by the Dark Knight? Short of turning Batman into a serial killer, it's hard to imagine how the franchise could become bleaker. But to pitch a future installment at this level invites potentially unfavorable comparisons to Nolan. And it's a trickier feat to move back toward the weirdness of Burton and Schumacher or the campiness of Adam West.

At the moment, however, having experienced the best comic book trilogy to date, it's hard to believe that better years and better films lie ahead for Batman. No matter what happens, no matter what Warner Brothers eventually decides, one thing is clear: We'll always have Nolan's Gotham. And that's enough.