In 2003, a young British-American director whose previous work included intimate, psychological thrillers was given the reins to reboot one of the biggest superhero franchises of all time. True, his breakout film Memento was Oscar nominated, but he still seemed like a left-field choice. Flash forward ten years and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has won Oscars and performed staggeringly well at the box office, practically re-inventing the superhero genre.
With Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy raising the bar for superhero films, the level of quality has been kept high in the genre’s subsequent outings. Iron Man gambled on a charismatic but quirky lead in Robert Downey Jr. and the choice paid off to great effect. Kick-Ass exposed the genre’s inherent violence and vigilantism while making a pointed and incisive commentary on it. Hell, Thor had Kenneth Branagh directing for crying out loud!
Studios weren’t messing about any more. Nolan’s Batman films had educated an already huge and devoted fanbase, and they weren’t going to accept anything other than excellent cinema.
So, what did Nolan do that was so different? Essentially, he treated the films like biopics. Before Batman Begins was released in 2005, superhero films were all predicated on the assumption that we already know who the superhero is. What Nolan did was say that no, we don’t know who the superhero is because we’ve never been told. Nolan made us look at Bruce Wayne then showed us how he became Batman. He made it a psychological transformation as well as a physical one – and that will be his greatest legacy.
With that in mind, what can we expect from Man Of Steel, this summer’s Superman film which Nolan has produced, but that has Zack Snyder, of 300 and Watchmen, behind the camera? Producers aren’t often afforded any creative credit, but this may be the exception. The trailer homes in on Superman’s origin, points to his moral compass, emphasizes his solitude within the universe.
The action sequences are there, and they’re as big and explosive as you’d expect from Snyder, but the result looks surprisingly intimate. Only time will tell how influential Nolan has been but early signs point to him having drastically changed the genre in all its forms. With fourteen superhero movies slated for the next three years, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to see where the genre can go from here.