The director's latest project is a typically secretive affair, dealing in armageddon, time inversion and much more besides. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson lead an all-star cast including Kenneth Branagh and Michael Caine.
This week, we're examining Nolan's eighth feature film: The Dark Knight Rises.
What is the story of The Dark Knight Rises?
Several years after the traumatic events of The Dark Knight, a powerful new enemy is on the rise. Masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy), member of Ra's Al Ghul's League of Shadows terror organisation, is pitching himself as 'Gotham's reckoning', and this would ordinarily put him on a collision course with Batman. However, following the death of Harvey Dent/Two Face (Aaron Eckhart), millionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has retired his superhero alter-ego, wracked as he is by physical pain and years of guilt.
Following a chance encounter with Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), Wayne reluctantly enters battle with the imposing Bane, where he experiences near-fatal injuries. This allows the arch-villain to threaten the citizens of Gotham with a nuclear bomb, compelling Bruce and his allies, including Miranda (Marion Cotillard) and newly appointed Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) to rise up. The battle for Gotham's soul has begun.
How was The Dark Knight Rises made?
Back in 2005, the fire began to rise with the release of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Released in the wake of the widely castigated Batman & Robin, Begins performed a miraculous feat, making Batman profitable and relevant again. Assisted by an excellent Christian Bale in the lead role, plus a sterling cast and crew, Nolan invested the Batman screen mythology with far greater depth of feeling than we were used to.
It was, however, merely a dry run for the extraordinary The Dark Knight in 2008. Nolan's appreciably grounded take on outlandish comic book mythology found its centre in Heath Ledger's Joker, no campy pantomime villain but a terrifying embodiment of chaos. Nolan's ability to reshape the cinematic perception of Batman resulted in astonishing grosses of more than $1 billion, plus a posthumous Oscar for the late Ledger. With the release of The Dark Knight, many alleged that comic book movies had crossed into the realm of the art house for the first time.
So ear-splitting was The Dark Knight's success that any successor was bound to struggle. In particular, the late Ledger's absence would leave a sizeable hole. Which villain, and which actor, could possibly fill it in trilogy capper The Dark Knight Rises? Added to that was the general pressure of resolving the wider trilogy: so consummate was The Dark Knight in its command of psychology and thrilling set-pieces that it was hard to imagine how Rises could possibly top it.
Nolan was adamant that the film acted as an ending, firmly drawing a line under his Batman screen saga: "Unlike the comics, these things don't go on forever in film and viewing it as a story with an end is useful. Viewing it as an ending, that sets you very much on the right track about the appropriate conclusion."
In fact, in his book The Art and Making of the Dark Knight Trilogy, Nolan confessed that he hadn't envisaged a third film. That said, Batman Begins screenwriter David S. Goyer had, back in 2005, conceived multiple treatments involving the Joker, with elements variously incorporated into both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. It had been reported that Ledger was interested in reprising the Joker role prior to his death, but Nolan later removed the character entirely out of respect.
That left the need to come up with a brand new villain, which Nolan got in the form of Bane. He would be played by Inception favourite Tom Hardy, and in contrast to the lithe, serpentine Joker, would come across as a muscular, tank-like bruiser who is much more of a physical threat to Batman. Nolan quashed studio demands to include The Riddler in the movie, citing a need for a different type of villain, and describing Bane as "a classic movie monster ... with a terrific brain".
Nolan confirmed his involvement in the project in early 2010, and planned to work with both Goyer and his brother Jonathan. Goyer, however, after writing the initial script treatment, later left to work on Superman origin story Man of Steel, which Christopher Nolan would oversee as executive producer. As ever, various comic book sources were blended together, including popular Bane comic book arc Batman: Knightfall from 1993. In the comic, Batman is crippled by the steroid-enhanced Bane, a storyline aspect that would be directly translated into the script for The Dark Knight Rises.
Somewhat oddly, Nolan chose this final chapter of the saga to introduce several key characters from the Batman mythology. This included Inception's Joseph Gordon-Levitt as policeman Blake, whose identity in the closing scene is revealed to be Dick Grayson (later to become Robin). One can only assume this was intended to set up further instalments with the character, but given Nolan was averse to making further Batman movies, he was never going to be at the helm anyway.
Meanwhile, Anne Hathaway made her Nolan movie debut as Selina Kyle aka Catwoman. (Hathaway would also appear in Nolan's next movie Interstellar.) In a reflection of Nolan's philosophy, the potentially troublesome issue of Selina's signature suit is given a realistic twist, with a pair of upwards-facing googles doubling as the equivalent of cat ears.
Nolan's desire for plausibility extended even further into the script. With its emphasis on uprising and social discontent, Nolan's take on the script intentionally drew on Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities. In fact, Gordon's closing eulogy to Bruce Wayne is directly taken from the novel.
For all its showboating themes and undeniably impressive scale, it can't be denied that Rises is more a resolution to Batman Begins than it is to The Dark Knight. The film picks up the League of Shadows story thread from Begins, allowing Hardy's menacing Bane to "fulfill the destiny" of Liam Neeson's scheming Ra's Al Ghul (who appears in a vision sequence). This does mean that the relative single-villain claustrophobia instigated by the Joker is replaced by an over-stuffed onslaught of characters and sub-plots, including a somewhat unconvincing Marion Cotillard as Miranda. Although excellent as the deceased Mal in Inception, Cotillard struggles to sell the abrupt left-field turns demanded from Miranda's character, not helped by a thunderously noisy Hans Zimmer score that abruptly butts heads with both a dialogue-driven script and aggressive sound design.
Nevertheless, the film rewards spectacle-lovers with a mega-budgeted onslaught of action. If the script falters, then Nolan ensures that the trilogy goes out with a bang as far as the visuals are concerned. Working for the last time with cinematographer Wally Pfister (who would later make his directorial debut with the panned Transcendence), Nolan turns the streets and alleyways of Pittsburgh inside out, rendering a bleak world where loyalty can be bought and sold on a dime. As with the earlier movies, this is no magical Tim Burton wonderland but a grim world of light and dark, which only allows redemption via hard-fought battles.
With a huge budget of $230 million at this disposal, plus a plethora of international locations and handsome IMAX cinematography, Nolan guarantees that The Dark Knight Rises looks absorbing. As before, he's aided by the conviction of his cast, including a suitably frazzled Christian Bale as Wayne, who undergoes his most gruelling emotional journey so far. Much, if not all, of the pathos comes from Nolan favourite Michael Caine as Alfred, whose climactic emotional breakdown both moved and instigated hordes of 'emotional Caine' memes.
How was The Dark Knight Rises received?
In contrast to The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises received a more polarized response from critics. Many were turned off by its allegedly self-serious tone while others were left awe-inspired by Nolan's typically commanding sense of scale.
Just compare the following responses. Todd McCarthy delivered a rave response for The Hollywood Reporter: "Big-time Hollywood filmmaking at its most massively accomplished, this last installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy makes everything in the rival Marvel universe look thoroughly silly and childish." However, San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle was less enthusiastic: Moments are stretched. Every recollection must be illustrated by a flashback. Character motivations shift on a dime, and if you understand even half of what's going on -- not generally, but specifically -- you'll be doing better than most."
It's a microcosm of the wider response to the movie, with many alleging that Nolan had bitten off more than he could chew, not aided by the relentless sound design and drive of Hans Zimmer's score. Yet even within the more negative reviews, there was an awareness of the scale of Nolan's achievement within the overall trilogy. Even so, certain off-screen battles couldn't have been predicted: the horrific Aurora mass shooting that occurred during an American midnight screening of the movie prompted Nolan to deliver a public statement about how the sanctity of the cinema had been violated. It's a testament to the public appetite for Nolan's vision that moviegoers weren't thwarted from seeing the film: The Dark Knight Rises eventually took more than $1 billion worldwide.
Nolan and the rest of his cast and crew had achieved what many thought impossible: instill Batman with fresh relevance for the noughties generation, investing it with enough gripping darkness while retaining the interest of a mass audience. The overall Dark Knight trilogy was a journey down a particularly twisted rabbit hole, far more complex and demanding than anything Joel Schumacher or Tim Burton had conjured. Each of the films possessed a pragmatic, utilitarian sense of reality that allowed audiences to engage with these comic book archetypes as human beings, with the real intrigue lurking beneath the costumes.
Few directors in cinema have successfully reauthored pop culture icons in such a manner. Nolan performed a miraculous feat: working within a recognisable comic book landscape, yet aping the feel of gritty, plausible crime thrillers in the mold of Michael Mann's Heat (an acknowledged influence). These unique qualities are at the same time fused with a clear passion for the Batman mythology, not to mention a desire to push the boundaries of stunts and practical effects, aided and abetted by superior IMAX presentation.
While The Dark Knight Rises may be the most flawed of the three films, it would take a hard heart not to be stirred by the conclusion of Nolan's pioneering trilogy. In terms of its overall sweep and ambition, this trilogy continues to lay down a formidable gauntlet for all comic book sagas in its wake.
What was the next Christopher Nolan movie?
Interstellar was Nolan's next movie, released in 2014.
Tenet is scheduled for release on 26th August 2020. What is your favourite Christopher Nolan movie? Let us know @Cineworld. And don't forget to book your Cineworld tickets for Christopher Nolan's movies in IMAX.