Here we are, folks, the release of The Dark Knight Rises. For most people, 2012 will be a year remembered cinematically for The Avengers and this, Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film. It’s no flowery sentiment to remark that we have reached the end of an era. Joel Schumacher had managed to take a character as much a pop culture icon as a comic book hero and drive his name into the deepest of silly, Happy Meal toy purgatories. When the studio decided to revive Bats, and restore his legacy, the man they called upon to operate the defibrillator was a relative unknown.
That’s not to say Batman Begins was Nolan’s debut film, he’d in fact made three up to that point. It’s fair to say that most people did not take note of Nolan until the studio took a chance on his helming the Batman franchise, but was their choice really so much of a gamble? Though he didn’t command much clout in Hollywood at the time he was hired for Batman Begins, was there evidence in his earlier films that would suggest his appropriateness for not only taking over Batman, but landing a three-picture deal? We’ll be taking a look at two of Nolan’s earlier films, two films that are currently available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly, which present a strong case for Nolan’s preexisting Bat qualifications.
First, let’s consider Memento. As stated before, Nolan was largely unknown, at least to the average moviegoer, before Batman Begins. However, it’s reasonable to assume that a good amount of cinephiles had heard of, if not seen, his 2000 film Memento, starring Guy Pearce. The movie is a crime thriller that centers on a man searching for his wife’s killer. The overwhelming obstacle he faces is that he is suffering from a specific type of amnesia that causes him to forget things shortly after he learns them. This disorder was brought about by an injury, and while he is more than capable of remembering everything prior to the accident, he must now rely on Polaroids and homemade tattoos to keep himself abreast of new developments in his life.
Memento may seem categorically divorced from the Batman universe, because it is, but that does not mean the seeds of Nolan’s Batman sensibilities are not evident. Memento is a story of a flawed hero, of a man who seeks justice for the wrongful death of his loved one. However, much like Bruce Wayne in the wake of his parents’ death, Leonard is uncertain of how to achieve this justice. For Wayne, this uncertainty was caused by a conflicted sense of right and wrong. But for Leonard, the uncertainty is the result of a mental limitation. There is also of course the shaky morality of both Batman’s and Leonard’s methods; both circumventing due process of law for a more direct form of righting the scales. Both films also examine the lofty price of retribution.
Memento also serves as testament to Nolan’s ability to weave complex stories that defy the conventions of the genre. A revenge thriller tends to have a few twists and turns, but usually falls back on genre tropes and gives us exactly what we expected. But Memento is a puzzlebox of a movie that plays with chronology and plot development in a way that both challenges the audience and serves the character. Nolan would later apply this care and complexity into crafting his three Batman films. Individually, they boast intricate, fascinating, and long-form stories that flesh out the very essence of the Batman and the other characters of his canon. Taken as one entity, however, Nolan’s Batman franchise also plays with chronology, it defies the constraints of the genre, and tells one epic, mythic tale that extrapolates the storytelling talents he displayed in Memento.
Even before Memento, in Nolan’s first feature film, we can see the thematic elements that attracted him and would prepare him for the task of directing a new Batman saga. 1998’s Following is about a man with a very peculiar obsession: he likes to follow random people. He doesn’t harm them, and in fact there is nothing initially nefarious in his intentions, but he becomes fixated upon interesting people and imagining the lives they must lead. His world is fundamentally altered when he meets a man who likes to break into people’s homes… but not for anything as rational or innocent as burglary.
So many directors wish that their first feature could be as gripping and masterful as Nolan’s Following. Here again, this movie that has seemingly nothing in common with any of the most recent Batman films actually lays the groundwork for Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Following is a movie about exploring the darkness within even the most average person. It is a film about obsession, about the troubling psyche of the collective urban landscape. It is a neo-noir that digs into the intensely personal aspects of criminality where most people have turned a deaf ear to what they see as inevitable societal side effects. Any of this sound like Batman and Gotham to you?
There is also something frightening villainous about the character of Cobb that seems to lay the foundation for Nolan’s interpretation of The Joker. Cobb is a man who is not content merely observing people from afar, sort of the way Batman does from his various rooftop perches. No, Cobb takes it upon himself to enter the lives of innocent people and introduce chaos. He leaves a pair of foreign underwear in a young couple’s apartment just to interrupt their lives and make them see, after the fact, that they took their relationship for granted. He doesn’t believe you can see who people are until you irrevocably damage their complacent existence. It’s like watching the early exploits of the man who would eventually bear the grease paint and eerie scars of Batman’s greatest foe.
If you watch Following and Memento on Netflix, you’re bound to pick up on these and other clues as to Nolan’s long-gestating aptitude for helming Batman. Interesting cherry with which to top this piece, the door to the second house our two leads invade in Following features a very familiar heroic symbol. This same batty symbol can be seen front-and-center in the window of a comicbook store Leonard passes in Memento.
[Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment, Zeitgeist Films]