The two Nolan brothers may have combined on the screenplay, but the directing job fell to elder brother Chris, who was already a Very Big Deal when he stepped up to helm The Dark Knight. Born in London, he grew up hopping back and forth between England and Chicago, thanks to his mother (a flight attendant) and his father (an ad executive). He showed an early talent for moviemaking: helming 16 mm films when he was still in college and probably driving his friends nuts by constantly asking them to perform.
It paid off.
His first feature, Following, was completely self-funded, and while it never really saw the inside of a theater, it was quite the to-do on the festival circuit, which led someone to trust him with several million dollars to make his second film.
It was called Memento, and you've probably heard of it: the story of a reluctant detective whose injured brain inconveniently "resets" every few minutes, forcing him to piece together the tenuous mystery he's trying to solve over and over again. The film turned into a big hit, praised by critics for its unique structure that started at the end of the story and worked its way to the front, as well as the twisting plot that kept everyone guessing until the end.
It also scored Nolan his next film, Insomnia, another crime story about a corrupt policeman (Al Pacino) who travels to the far north of Alaska to find a killer. Though more conventionally paced than Memento, it still painted a memorable picture of a mind coming unhinged, and like Memento proved to be a big hit. That in turn led Warner Bros to tap him for one heck of a reclamation project.
In 1998, the studio made a movie called Batman and Robin, which was so stunningly, soul-searingly bad that it almost killed our collective love of the Caped Crusader on the spot. (George Clooney is still apologizing for it decades later.) Marvel Comics was scoring big hits with the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises, and Warner—which owned Marvel's big rival DC Comics—didn't want to get left in their wake. They tasked him to reboot their most popular superhero, and he did so in amazing fashion.
2005's Batman Begins completely tossed aside all notions of a colorful comic book universe. Its Batman lived in a real world, where there were no super-powered aliens, Amazon warriors or blonde Atlantean princes who can talk to fish. This was a Batman who might be living in one of our own cities, and who faced the kind of bad guys who could actually show up there. (Okay, they consisted largely of ninjas, but still…)
It also rebooted DC's Batman franchise and turned Nolan from a well-respected working director into a Big Fat Hairy Deal. He parlayed that success into something truly out there: 2006's The Prestige, also starring Christian Bale now paired with Hugh Jackman. (There was a lot of "Batman vs. Wolverine" snickering when it first came out.)
Bale and Jackman play rival magicians in the late 19th century who hate each other's guts and constantly seek to out-prestidigitate each other. When Bale's Alfred Borden pulls off a stunt no one can duplicate—seeming to transport across the stage instantaneously—Jackman's Robert Angier turns to mad science to top it. The movie was based on a book that no one thought could be successfully filmed. (Us included; seriously, we've read it and we're still shocked that he pulled it off.) It didn't do nearly as well financially as Batman Begins, but it was another critical smash and it kept Nolan's reputation intact when he stepped up for The Dark Knight two years later in 2008.
Weird Detectives Everywhere
You can see Nolan's proclivities running throughout all these movies like a bad rash. He's drawn to crime stories and mysteries, but they don't go the way we'd expect them to. Memento concerns a detective with no short-term memory trying to solve a crime he himself may have committed. The Prestige is about a pair of rival magicians who turn to unwholesome methods to one-up each other. Insomnia follows a detective who can't sleep in pursuit of a serial killer. And Inception? That's about a bunch of guys who try to plant secrets in your dreams.
These all start out as fairly standard murder mysteries or film noir detective stories, but they add something funky to the mix. Memento basically opens at the end and runs to the beginning. The Prestige throws mad science into the mix. Insomnia takes place in far north Alaska where the sun never sets, and so on. Nolan clearly loves his mysteries, but he doesn't like them in the plain vanilla variety.
Batman's Greatest Creator?
It's just a hop, skip and a jump from that kind of darkness to the weird crime saga of The Dark Knight. (And that comes over and above Batman Begins and the follow-up to the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.) Batman's not all that much different from a hard-boiled detective. He just has cooler toys and a nicer office. The character was born in the 1930s, patterned after The Shadow and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. But he's not just trench coats and clever quips. He's dealing with psychotic clowns, schizophrenic District Attorneys and a cop who calls him by turning on a giant flashlight. The weirder incarnations of the character involve dinosaurs and aliens, but even without them, you can see where we're going. Batman's based on detective stories, but stays off the beaten path… the perfect kind of material for Nolan to sink his teeth into.
In addition, Nolan's films all involve psychologically tormented characters: guys teetering on the edge of sanity and who may tumble over if we don't watch carefully. In the case of Memento, our hero has literally suffered brain damage, and his brethren in The Prestige, Insomnia, Inception and Interstellar are all close enough to feel the same vibe. Small wonder Batman really spoke to him: a character who sees his parents gunned down before his eyes and who dresses up as a menacing creature of the night as a way of getting even. Yeah, there's a lot of time on the therapist's couch running through this guy.
Nolan likes characters like that. He likes exploring how they got that way and where they might end up if they don't get any help. Most importantly, he likes to push them to the breaking point and see if their psychological demons either help them find a way through it or break them in half. (Or in some cases do both at the same time.) The Dark Knight might be the most potent version of this kind of story, but it's clear that Nolan is fascinated by it and keeps returning to it again and again.
And he wants to keep that stuff as grounded as he can, which often comes out in his technique. Although he sometimes plays with narrative styles—as with Memento, which moves backwards in time through the plot, and Inception, which follows dreams within dreams within dreams like some kind of rampaging M.C. Escher painting—but he doesn't like moving too far from the world as we know it.
Hence, we get a lot of films that don't offer a lot of flights of fancy. Even a science fiction movie like Interstellar took pains to stay as plausible as it could. And when eccentric genius Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) shows up in The Prestige, the contraption he builds looks as close to actual 19th century electric gizmos as we could hope for. The Dark Knight goes even further than that. All of Batman's goodies stay within the realm of the plausible, and he never "cheats" us by using some gadget or toy that doesn't feel like we couldn't buy one ourselves if we slept on a giant pile of money like Bruce Wayne does.
Yes sir, Nolan definitely likes sticking to the world as we know it, and you can see that in terms of pure technique as well. Movies these days are bursting at the seams with wild computer-generated images, but Nolan hates using CGI. He even hoped he could actually train real bats to do what he needed to do in Batman Begins, and when that failed, he only used the CGI he absolutely needed to get the shot in.
The same principle applies in The Dark Knight. While there's some compositing to help sell the world here (Gotham's skyline doesn't actually exist, and Two-Face's pretty mug came about without having to burn off poor Aaron Eckhart's cheeks), it stays as photorealistic as he can possibly make it. Remember when the 18-wheeler flips over at the end of the big car chase? They actually flipped an 18-wheeler over to get the shot, something that any other director would have done on a hard drive. The stunts and visual effects come from actually planting some explosives and rolling the cameras, something that helps the movie feel like part of the real world even though it shows us a city and characters designed to entertain school kids for two dollars an issue.
That's in keeping with Nolan, who wants us to see how fantasy appears in reality, and the ways the shadows of our own psyches can filter into a real and plausible place. Batman may be the best figure in all of pop culture to do that, which explains why a director with so many brilliant movies under his belt would hit his highest note with this one: a franchise sequel from a giant studio that any other director would have turned into a colossal theme park ride. That's the sign of real brilliance, something that nobody else can do. And like every other great director, Nolan makes it feel like absolutely no one else can.