It can be said without too much reservation that Christopher Nolan has simultaneously saved and forever ruined Batman. When Batman Begins debuted in 2005, it was clear that Nolan was determined to make a clean and undisputed departure from the woefully executed previous films that eventually resorted to putting nipples on the batsuit. The franchise changed directorial hands several times, squeezing multiple well-known actors into the bat suit (or into the dreadfully extravagant antagonist costumes), and then the entire story went belly-up. George Clooney couldn’t save it; it seemed that no one could. Fans of the caped crusader were left without a satisfying motion picture representation of the great graphic novels, and it seemed that Batman would be confined to the page, the dark animated series and mini-movies, and the imaginations of the loyal.
Then, when comic-book movies began emerging from the shadows with shockingly respectable results, a lesser-known but well-respected director by the name of Christopher Nolan quietly gathered the broken and disfigured corpse of Batman and carefully laid it in the Lazarus Pool* of recreation. Batman burst out very much alive and, true to the effects of the Lazarus Pool, a new creation. There, it rose from obscurity and daring to take on Star Wars that very same summer, launched the movie trilogy that Batman will now forever be defined by.
As a director, Christopher Nolan’s career has been marked by dark mind-benders and intricate plots that are virtually irreproducible, which is a skill he brings to his Batman creation. Rather than setting out to save what Hollywood had already submitted for this particular hero, Nolan began completely afresh, starting from the beginning of Bruce Wayne’s story and re-imaging his world and the people in it to suit the dark and serious tone of the new Gotham. Clownish villains now eliminated, Bruce himself was not your friendly neighborhood Batman, but a shadow in the dark that the hardest of criminals would fear. Throughout Batman Begins, but especially in The Dark Knight, it became clear that Batman was not a pure-hearted incorruptible hero. Conversely, he is at times barely different than those he fights against, willing to make sacrifices and walk that very fine line. The genius of Nolan’s Batman in the hands of Christian Bale is that for the very first time, Bruce Wayne was made touchable, sympathetic, and more a warm-blooded human than he had ever been before. The newer, edgier Bruce was not just a rich orphan anymore, but a man who had wallowed in the depths of the darkest corners of the human mind and emerged not shining hero, but a man changed by the darkness and determined to overcome it and bring his city out with him. If you have seen the Dark Knight, you know how much this costs him (and I strongly suspect will still cost more in the upcoming The Dark Night Rises).
If anything can be said of Christopher Nolan’s approach to the iconic character and story, it can be summed up as gutsy. Nolan took definite risks in his approach of Batman Begins, but the result left him millions of dollars richer, and audiences hungry for a follow-up. People questioned the choice of Heath Ledger as the Joker, but that character now tops most greatest villain lists. And yet, the brilliance of Nolan’s approach is not just in the character adaptations, but in his sheer mastery of shaping the characters, the story, and the setting to fit into a world that we feel that we know. By the time The Dark Knight came to be, the story was ultimately more about the Joker than Batman, but was also a deep and twisted tale on crime and corruption. Batman just happens to live in this world. Everything about Gotham seemed tangible and uncomfortable in its familiarity. Therein lies one of the greatest weapons in the arsenal—that a story about a comic book hero was taken and shaped into a world that is believable and realistic. Even well-established Batman villains were recreated to suit the squalid nature of Gotham and its multi-faceted corruption. (Personal example, I will never forget how my mouth dropped open and I began shaking with excitement when I realized that Dr. Crane was none other than the Scarecrow. Instead of a little man prancing around in a straw hat and manipulating dreams, Dr. Crane was a shrewd and twisted doctor with a disturbing understanding of psychosis and chemical components that induce hallucinations).
The upcoming summer movie The Dark Knight Rises totes the tagline “The Legend Ends.” This can be interpreted a variety of ways, but the truth is that when Nolan says it ends, it ends. He has saved Batman from being forever marked by the missteps of Kilmer, Keaton, and Clooney, but he has completely ruined it for any director who may have harbored dreams of one day taking the story in a new direction onscreen. Nolan has done something with the story that was so audaciously out of the box that it can never be successfully touched again. Christopher Nolan has ruined Batman because when his adaptation closes once and for all, no other Batman will ever escape comparison to this trilogy. Put simply, anyone hoping to do something else with Batman in the future just... can’t.
*Lazarus Pool is a reference to the graphic novels. Ra’s Al Ghul had a mystical pool that had the ability to bring the dead to life again, but the cost was usually that the once-dead would be mentally an entirely different person.