Christopher Nolan Explains How His Dark Knight Trilogy Was Defined by Its Villains

     May 13, 2018


While Marvel Studios is certainly in the spotlight at the moment, Christopher Nolan’s impact on the superhero genre remains a cornerstone of 21st century cinema. With Batman Begins, Nolan’s grounded and gritty reboot of the Batman franchise set a new bar for how serious, dramatic, and realistic a comic book adaptation could be, and while it’s been over a decade since that film hit theaters, its influence can be seen year after year in “gritty reboots” of existing IP.

It doesn’t seem like Nolan will be diving back into the superhero genre anytime soon, but during a wide-ranging talk at the Cannes Film Festival this weekend (via Variety) where he was unveiling a 70mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the filmmaker took some time to reflect on his Dark Knight trilogy as a whole, specifically speaking to how the villains shaped each film.


Image via Warner Bros.

Nolan admitted that doing a heightened comic book movie never appealed to him, which is why Batman was the perfect fit for the Memento filmmaker’s sensibilities:

“Yes, it’s a superhero, but it’s based on ideas of guilt, fear, these strong impulses that the character has. Bruce Wayne doesn’t have any super powers other than extraordinary wealth. But really, he’s just someone who does a lot of push-ups. In that sense, he’s very relatable and human. I think that’s why I gravitated towards it.”

Nolan says with each of the three films—Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises—he attempted to tackle a different genre through the lens of the villain:

“To me, each film is a different genre. They tend to be defined by the villain… We hadn’t planned on doing a sequel. So shifting genres and the nature of the antagonist felt the way to take the audience on a journey and tell them something different about Bruce Wayne.”


Image via Warner Bros.

As for how he views each film specifically, the genre of at least one might come as a bit of a surprise:

Nolan explained that he saw 2005’s Batman Begins as a straightforward origins story. “The villain (Liam Neeson’s Henri Ducard) is an appropriate adversary,” Nolan said. “He’s a mentor-turned-enemy.” Next, came the second movie in 2008 with Heath Ledger. “The Dark Knight for me was always a crime drama in the mold of a Michael Mann film. The Joker was a terrorist, an agent of chaos set loose.” Finally, in 2012’s the grand finale, The Dark Knight Rises, co-starring Tom Hardy, Nolan envisioned “this historical epic. Bane as a militarist foe helped that.”

The Dark Knight Rises as a historical epic, huh? I suppose the scope of the film is fairly epic, but I’ll admit this one caught me a bit off guard. The Dark Knight is blatantly pulling from Mann’s Heat, but I can’t necessarily see the connection between historical epics like Braveheart and Ben-Hur and The Dark Knight Rises—though feel free to correct me in the comments.


Image via Warner Bros.

Nolan also once again discussed his fondness for the James Bond franchise, noting that Inception was essentially his own take on a Bond movie:

“We mercilessly pillaged from the James Bond films for certain aspects,” Nolan said, adding that they wanted to make [Batman] as compelling as 007. He noted how Gotham’s chief inventor Lucius Fox is similar to Bond’s Agent Q, who has a closet full of gadgets. “But I think if I made my version of James Bond, Inception is far more guilty of that than The Dark Knight,” Nolan said.

The filmmaker has been approached in the past about directing a Bond movie and has admitted he’s interested, though only when the franchise is in need of rebooting—Nolan isn’t keen on stepping into someone else’s existing world.

The director is coming off his Oscar-winning World War II thriller Dunkirk, which earned him his first Best Director nomination, but we don’t yet know what he’ll be doing next. A return to the world of superheroes seems unlikely, but it’s certainly nice to hear him reflecting on that franchise, if only briefly. Though I’m honestly more interested in hearing what he has to say about how that genre has evolved since his Dark Knight Trilogy, and what he thinks about the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One day, perhaps.

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