Wednesday, June 18, 2014

#753. Christopher Nolan's Villains Revealed

Something occurred to me recently.  In each of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) the villain is introduced by way of misdirection.  Don't believe me?

Now, for those of you who lack the patience or time to view the videos and don't remember how things develop in the films (and are willing to trust that I'm being accurate), here're the bullet points:

  • Ra's al Ghul is apparently introduced in the guise of Ken Watanabe.  Liam Neeson is introduced as Henri Ducard, Bruce Wayne's main contact and trainer in the League of Shadows.  Except Watanabe's al Ghul is a smokescreen.  It's Ducard who is really al Ghul, as Batman discovers after saving Ducard's life.
  • The opening bank robbery in The Dark Knight sees a whole crew of would-be clown wonders under rubber masks.  As they begin eliminating each other, the audience realizes there's more going on than it seems.  This is made clear when we discover these clowns are working for the clown, Heath Ledger's Joker, who emerges from under the mask of the surviving hoodlum at the end of the sequence.
  • Tom Hardy's Bane has a number of reveals.  The second one still kind of infuriates people.  He was not the prison brat who made the miraculous leap.  That was the young Miranda Tate Talia.  In the opening sequence of Dark Knight Rises, Bane is introduced similarly to the Joker, under a hood that makes him seem like just another thug.  Despite his relationship with Talia, he most certainly is not.
Now, all of this is fairly obvious for movies about a man who chooses to run around in a giant bat costume, from a director who had already amply demonstrated his penchant for exploring mutable identity.  In fact, before we go much further, let's do another list, this time of Christopher Nolan's films to date:
  • Following (1998)
  • Memento (2000)
  • Insomnia (2002)
  • Batman Begins (2005)
  • The Prestige (2006)
  • The Dark Knight (2008)
  • Inception (2010)
  • The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
  • Interstellar (2014)
Now, chances are few in my reading audience are quite as interested in Nolan's career as I am.  This is not a boast.  There was a point where Memento was his best-known achievement.  I bet few of you even know what Following is much less have seen it.  How about Insomnia?

For me, these weren't just building blocks, but touchstones in his career.  I was actually disappointed by the news that he'd be doing Batman, and was generally underwhelmed for years by Batman Begins.  I thought it was a step back in his creative development.  It showed none of the flare of his earlier films.  It was a little too obvious, straight-forward.  Yeah, I can be an idiot sometimes.

The thing is, Batman Begins, and the two sequels that followed, were probably necessary for wider audiences to appreciate Nolan's talent.  They were necessary mainstream translations of his instincts, and as such took different approaches.  But they're every bit as remarkable, even the first one.  I came around, like everyone else, by the time Dark Knight was released.  It instantly became an all-time favorite.  The epiphany I began this reflection with is what solidified my overall opinion, however.

It probably seems obvious to interpret a Batman film around the lens of Batman, right?  Except, and I'm not saying this is inaccurate, but it's also not necessary.  Take away Bruce Wayne, take away Batman (either one, really), and you still have a perfectly representative Christopher Nolan experience.

In a lot of ways, Neeson's Ra's al Ghul makes Batman Begins very similar to Following, a student and a master whose relationship becomes increasingly confused.  The true genius of Ledger's Joker has as much to do with the performance as the depiction of a character many might have assumed they knew everything about, which is another way of explaining the story of Memento, which is told in reverse and constantly undoes everything the viewer thinks they knew.  And yes, Dark Knight Rises is a lot like Insomnia, with a compromised hero constantly trying to play catch-up with the villain.

No, I'm not making the argument that Nolan simply remade his own early films with Batman plugged in.  His Dark Knight was from the start a deliberate character study of the famous vigilante.  Bruce Wayne's journey was more important than Batman's introduction.  Back in 2005 I kind of just wanted a Batman movie, or a Christopher Nolan movie.  I wasn't prepared for both and more besides.  I was overwhelmed.  And I never saw coming that Nolan had been making his own story, with the villain, all along, even when it became clear which actor was playing Ra's al Ghul.

via Hippie Refugee. Again, not this guy.
To have the idea echoed, with considerable and effective variation, in the other two films, with more traditional villains who still work as Nolan archetypes, only affirms the accomplishment.

These films remain remarkable and singular experiences.  Whereas Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark/Iron Man gleefully prances around like a regular Jack Sparrow with the rest of the Pirates of the Avengers acts openly in his duel personality (only the later somewhat misguided handling of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 compares in the whole Marvel canon), nearly everyone in Nolan's Batman trilogy has another side of themselves they're desperately trying to hide.  Rather than alienating them from audiences looking to find a piece of themselves in colorfully outsized personalities, this humanizes them, Batman especially.  People like to mock Christian Bale's growl under the cowl, but it's his scenes as Bruce Wayne that truly represent the performance.  Exploring his insecurities and struggles, a newly nuanced relationship with Alfred, is a revelation, and how exactly he chose to become Batman why he sticks with it for so long.  It's not his resources that define him but his vulnerability, not his ability but his frailty, both emotionally and physically.

Before Batman, Nolan looked a lot more on the surface than he would later.  His characters are always troubled, and stumbling into crises that overwhelm them.  With Batman, he was finally able to step beyond the line that separated his characters from their own experiences, whether that was a faulty memory or lack of sleep.  Finally Nolan could look at the whole picture, which was another reason why his version of the Joker was so refreshing, because it was the rare moment he allowed himself to fall back on his own instincts.

To have Nolan accepted as a blockbuster filmmaker even outside the Batman films is perhaps more remarkable than people realize even now.  This is not one long hard sell for the upcoming Interstellar.  But can you think of anyone else making movies today who is able to get away with stuff like Inception and find a willing and large audience waiting for it?

This is to say I'm a big fan of the guy, and I think Christopher Nolan's career is really still only beginning. 


Pat Dilloway said...

I've seen all his movies except Interstellar for obvious reasons. "Following" was on Netflix streaming for a while so I did watch that.

"Inception" is actually my least favorite of his movies. Probably because everyone says how brilliant it is and yet to me it was all pretty easy to figure out. Also his conception of how dreams work was pretty asinine, to the point I had to wonder if he ever sleeps or what kind of dreams he's been having. And my book "Higher Power" used a similar concept only 5 years earlier. Therefore I must be a super-genius!

He does certainly like him some misdirection.

Tony Laplume said...

You are the strange exception to every rule. Therefore you do not count. Next!


I didn't realy enjoy Batman Begins till I rewatched it after seeing The Dark Knight. Nolan throws his misdirection into a lot of his works.

Tony Laplume said...

Yours and Pat's use of the word "misdirection," perhaps after years of listening to people describe M. Night Shyamalan's movies negatively for that reason, strikes me as the wrong way to look at Nolan's impulse. I think I'd prefer to flip the script on that. Perhaps consider it as redirection.

Pat Dilloway said...

When I use that word I think of John Travolta in Swordfish, which might have been his last decent movie.

Tony Laplume said...

Was that a decent Travolta flick? I'm not sure a lot of people would've noticed.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Nolan has an amazing way of revealing his characters slowly. Bane on the face of it, seemed obvious. Big guy who's a terrorist that likes to hurt people. Then you find out about his back. Then you find out about the prison. Then you find out he was crippled. Then you find out why. Brilliant progression. Yeah, Memento is still my favorite movie though. Good analysis Tony.

Tony Laplume said...

It's the perfect presentation of Bane, which is saying something because the original Bane comics were surprisingly excellent.


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