The Kubrick comparison is apt: He, too, was a master of simple yet eloquent images. The haunting final shot in Inception was a spinning top, wobbling ever so slightly, the implications grave and deep. There are moments in The Dark Knight Rises that generate a furious surge of emotion that The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man combined couldn’t muster. But even at its most heated, the movie remains elegantly cool.
“There’s something consistently dark and either blue or gray — something overcast — to all of Nolan’s films after Memento,” says Peter Debruge, senior film critic for Variety. “I associate the word ‘portentous’ with his work — this sonorous undertone that rumbles underneath his movies. He’s a very classical director, which makes the Dark Knight films stand out from other comic-book movies. Those rely more on visual technology and effects. Nolan is grounded in an old-school aesthetic, even though he’s making these huge movies.”
Like most of the filmmakers of his generation, Nolan, who turns 42 on July 30, admits to having been influenced primarily by 1970s cinema. But although he works in the Hollywood-blockbuster arena, he doesn’t cite the expected names as inspirations — no Spielberg, no Lucas.
“The great filmmakers of the past — Terrence Malick, Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg, all those guys — created very experimental and interrogative works that pushed the grammar of film forward,” he says. “I’ve been inspired by some of the more outrageous cinema I’ve seen. But I have found a way to use that influence in a much more mainstream way. I was talking to Christian Bale, who is making a movie with Malick right now, and I joked that whatever Malick is up to, I’ll be ripping it off in five years, but making it really understandable to people.”
“Kubrick was inimitable: You can’t really try to do what he did, because it was very abstract and unique. But he had a way of calmly achieving an image that expressed a lot of emotions without firing in too many directions at once. He inspired me to always find the simplest, most direct way of getting an idea across. In hindsight, when I look at what I’ve done … it’s a cliché to say you steal from the best, but there is some truth to the idea.”
The combination of high-minded filmmaking and pulpy source material is one of the reasons Nolan’s trilogy will endure as a standalone epic, regardless of how soon the inevitable Batman-reboot arrives.
With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan also achieves something that has never been done in the realm of comic-book movies: He has given a finite end to a story involving a character that will continue to live forever, in countless incarnations, in the popular culture.
Sean Howe, author of the upcoming book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, says that if The Dark Knight Rises succeeds, it could result in more filmmakers choosing to tell self-contained story arcs from iconic comics, such as the Gwen Stacy-Green Goblin saga that has begun in the recent The Amazing Spider-Man.
“When you’re watching comic-book movies, the stakes aren’t very high, because just like when you’re reading the books, you know the [hero] is never going to be destroyed,” Howe says. “Writers who sign on to work on existing comic-book titles have their hands tied, because they know the series has to continue beyond them and they can never end the story. If there’s a clear ending to this new Batman movie, then that’s pretty admirable. Films would be able to complete a story in a way that even the comics can’t do. If that catches on, it could lead to a great utopia of comic-book movies.”