When the late Roger Ebert, film critic without peer, reviewed Batman Begins upon its release in 2005, he neatly captured the essence of what made it different. “The movie is not realistic, because how could it be,” he said; “but it acts as if it is.” And he gave it the full four stars. As time has gone by, the prescience of Ebert’s assessment has only become clearer. Nearly a decade since that first installment in director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films, his ethos has come to permeate mainstream American film-making. At a stroke, he made redundant the self-referential cheesiness, the glossy, flashy sheen of slick production values, and the extravagant sensationalism that had hitherto been the norm in Hollywood action movies. The new norm is the style made fashionable by Nolan: ultra-serious, pseudo-realistic, and both thematically and visually dark.
Within the superhero subgenre, this transformation has quite obviously been spearheaded by Nolan’s own work. The keystone was of course the phenomenal success of The Dark Knight, unprecedented for a superhero film both in being taken so very seriously by critics and in achieving the kind of pop cultural integration normally reserved for the likes of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. After The Dark Knight, superhero films could expect to be received as mature and worthy action dramas, not merely as the childish entertainment pieces that had so dominated the genre in the past. But Nolanisation goes far beyond superheroes. It’s a shift in the basic expectations to which blockbusters cater, and the crucial essence of it is still the thing that Ebert put his finger on: we expect these films to act as if they are realistic. Not to actually be realistic, because anyone paying close attention can still poke almost as many holes in Skyfall as can be poked in GoldenEye. But to act as if they are realistic.
The James Bond franchise is, in fact, a perfect example of this trend. Would the rebooted Bond films – that is, from 2006’s Casino Royale onwards – have been possible without the precedent of Nolan’s rebooted Batman films? Both Batman Begins and Casino Royale effectively do the same thing: take a B-grade (albeit enduringly popular) franchise that has traditionally been the preserve of the cheerfully silly, and reinvent it as a gritty, earnest epic that feels firmly grounded in the 21st-century world. Attitude, with these movies, is everything. The new Bond films are not actually much more plausible than their predecessors, but when Javier Bardem escapes from prison in a scheme so convoluted that it requires him to have accurately predicted the exact locations and behaviour of several dozen different people and institutions at precisely the right moment, we accept it very readily. That is because the film has such panache, such self-confidence, that we happily suspend our disbelief and call it realistic, seduced into accepting the illusion of plausibility.
At the less respectable end of the scale, the slew of lamentable reimagined fairytale films (check Snow White and the Huntsman for proof of just how dire these can be) testifies to the new orthodoxy: if something as basically silly as Batman can be turned into a raw, dark-toned, and, if convenient, sexually charged action film, then why not give the same makeover to anything else that springs to mind? Nolan’s influence pervades these movies, sometimes taken to unintentionally parodic extremes. And what unites them all, the good and the bad, is their almost humourless sincerity – their expectation that we will not only take them seriously, but treat them as though they are realistic. Gritty earnestness prevails.
The question is, ought we to approve of this trend? Is the Nolanisation of Hollywood more of a good thing or a bad thing for cinema? Obviously, there is no simple answer. It is certainly true that there has been a deadening effect on some mainstream cinema: lightheartedness and exuberance are no longer in fashion, and so the quirky and the upbeat have been suppressed in favour of the deadly serious. Far and away the best thing to have come out of the Twilight franchise, better by far than any of the books or any of the subsequent movies, is the very first Twilight film, released back in 2008. It still isn’t particularly good, but it has a certain adolescent charm – epitomised in the famous Muse-soundtracked baseball scene – that is rooted in the feeling that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Twilight plays as though the director is having fun with it, and having fun with it because she knows it’s pretty fluffy, inconsequential stuff. Yet that director, Catherine Hardwicke, was replaced after the first film, and the directors who followed her have perpetuated a po-faced, painfully earnest, charmless and totally humourless morass of seriousness. Hardwicke’s take on the franchise was considered not gloomy enough, not sincere enough – in other words, not enough like a Christopher Nolan film.
But fashions in Hollywood ebb and flow, and sometime within the coming decade, the pendulum will inevitably swing back the other way. In the meantime, we can hardly complain when the current orthodoxy facilitates films like The Dark Knight and Skyfall – not to mention giving Nolan himself the artistic license from major studios to make some of the most ambitious and original blockbusters in recent Hollywood memory, Interstellar and the supremely creative Inception. The moment will pass, but while it endures, it is giving us remarkable cinema. Best to sit back and enjoy the darkness.
This article originally appeared in The Oxford Student on 20 November 2014.