Loving big summer movies as an adult can be a sad and lonely thing. When you're a kid, any action blockbuster that you watch is epic. You haven't seen enough to compare. But then you get older, and you realize that they follow certain formulas and attract a certain audience, which is a lot younger than you. As much as I hate the Transformers movies, part of me knows if I was 10, I'd love the hell out of them.
So the excitement over next Friday's arrival of The Dark Knight Rises is bittersweet for me. It marks the conclusion of a streak of terrific summer movies—four in the past eight summers—from director Christopher Nolan.
A decade ago, Nolan was an indie hero, thanks to Following and Memento. These were crafty, ingenious films that played around with traditional linear narrative, not obvious down payments on a career making comic-book movies. Yet around the time of Memento's release, he was asked about the movie's unconventional style, which he didn't think was really that daring. "Filmmakers should be able to experiment with narrative without alienating the audience and without creating something that's impenetrable," he said. "I actually see myself as a very mainstream filmmaker and always have."
Despite his reputation for being a brainy filmmaker—or, if you don't like his movies, for being a "smartypants"—Nolan was like a lot of his fellow movie lovers in that the ultimate summer movie, Star Wars, was one of the biggest influences on him as a kid: "For people of my age, that was it," Nolan (who turns 42 at the end of the month) once said. "That was kind of the birth of cinema in a way." His movies may often be somber or even chilly, but deep down he's a guy like the rest of us who had his mind blown by George Lucas.
Nolan transitioned to Hollywood films with Insomnia, but even then there were plenty of arty trappings. Insomnia was more psychological thriller than action film, it featured Robin Williams in serious mode, and it was based on a 1997 Norwegian film. But Nolan clearly had grander aspirations, talking about his love for The Matrix in interviews and discussing the possibility of doing a movie about Howard Hughes starring Jim Carrey. (He's still talking about that movie, by the way.) But he definitely wanted to do something in the sci-fi genre. "[It] would require a fresh take and a fantastic script," he said in 2002. "I am biding my time waiting for the right thing in the science-fiction genre."
And after Insomnia, Nolan basically achieved what he said he wanted to do. First came 2005's Batman Begins, which is about as mainstream as you can get. And seven years ago, a new Batman movie was hardly a slam dunk. Everybody still remembered how awful Batman & Robin was. Christian Bale wasn't a box office titan. And Nolan had no blockbuster experience. (By comparison, the following year's Superman Returns seemed a more like a sure thing, considering that Bryan Singer had just made two X-Men movies.)
Nolan invested in a gritty realism that seemed more grown-up than the mood of any previous Batman movie (or, really, most summer movies) had been. In interviews, Nolan made it clear that he had a lot of respect for the Batman/Bruce Wayne mythology, but he didn't grow up reading Batman comic books. He was more of a 2000 AD kind of guy. He didn't go out of his way to prove his Bat-credentials to diehard fans. (Unlike Andrew Garfield, he wasn't going to dress up in costume to win over the Comic-Con crowd.)
And with the help of Christian Bale and co-writer David S. Goyer, Nolan created that rare hit that tapped into the pure joy of being a kid watching summer movies, engaging the brain and the heart at the same time. His skill with action sequences was still a bit iffy at that point, and Katie Holmes was a drip as Wayne's love interest—but Batman Begins lived up to how Nolan described Star Wars: "The screen just opened up a world that you had never seen before and that you could lose yourself in."
From there, Nolan became almost exclusively a summer-movie filmmaker, leading up to The Dark Knight, which for plenty of reasons is the best comic book movie ever made. When critics complain about Nolan's movies, their chief attack line is that Nolan is too much of a brooding intellectual to let his films be any fun.