With the recent release of the final film in the highly acclaimed The Dark Knight Trilogy, Christopher Nolan has once again shown the world that superhero movies do not necessarily need to be about a whole lot of special effects and they can always chose realism over fantasy if and when one has to choose one of the two. Most superhero films today are made when studio executives feel that the time is right for a certain comic book story to be marketed to the movie going audience. This makes most other films from this genre very restrictive in terms of the scope of the era they have been released in.
For example, a movie like Michael Bay's Transformers, can perhaps be enjoyed only up until the effects shown in the film are considered 'cool'. But, a movie like The Dark Knight Rises can easily stand the test of time. If you were to go ahead by many decades in time and plant a copy in someone's screen, you would find the movie as enjoyable as people find it now. The difference lies in the way Nolan pens his characters. One could argue that a director does not create characters but actors. That is indeed a good argument if it's coming from someone who has not read Nolan's resume. With the exception of Insomnia, Nolan has co-scripted all of his works.
But does all of this necessarily make him an auteur?
Well, to figure that out, let us first see what exactly the title 'auteur' implies. According to the book Film; A Critical Introduction; by Pramaggiore and Wallis the term implies that the director is the major creative source and his films express his distinctive vision of the world in which the story is based. This means that a director whose consistent body of work shows a distinctive style and his parochial voice can be called an auteur.
For the moment, let us just look at the Dark Knight Trilogy. When Nolan took up the mantle of reviving the legacy of the caped crusader on screen, after the pounding the franchise took from Joel Schumacher in the late nineties, he decided that to shake up an audience that was used to watching the run-of-the-mill good versus evil sagas, he'd need to create a hero that people need to understand and not necessarily love. After all, Batman was never a loved hero like say, Superman was. But Nolan took him further away from all the 'coolness' that comes with being a superhero and placed the character in a position that was filled with self-doubt and moral ambiguity.
Over the course of the three films, Nolan voraciously explored the struggles a person would have within himself. All three films also tend to follow a noir style where our hero finds himself detached with his environment. 'Batman Begins' dealt a lot with the theme of fear - about how what Bruce Wayne conquered it and turned it upon the scum of Gotham. The second film, which owes a lot to Heath Ledger's Joker and Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent, touched upon the subject of chaos. The final instalment, where Batman is faced with Bane, a nemesis who is physically stronger and more ruthless than him, deals with pain. Put together these three variables and you have a perfect equation for the story of a fallen man. I do not say hero only because it needs to be empathized that this could be anybody's story. This is how Nolan makes a superhero movie unique by taking away the fantasy element and replacing it with real people with real problems.
But, Nolan also has other films under his name - what of them? Merely directing a perfect trilogy does not qualify someone as an auteur. There's no part-time auteur.
Well, let's take a look at his earlier work then, shall we? Nolan started off with Following, which was a low budget, indie flick with the story of a man who was obsessed with the idea of following strangers on the road. The cult-hit Memento was about a man on a path of revenge against unknown people for the murder of his wife. His next offering, Insomnia, dealt with guilt in the form of a police detective who was trying to redeem after having messed up something in the past. Sometime after The Dark Knight Nolan also devoted himself to the epic sci-fi project called Inception which touched the grey areas of deception and deceit. And finally, we have The Prestige, my personal favourite - a movie that perhaps defines who Nolan is as an auteur.
The Prestige was an adaptation of a 1995 novel with the same name by British author, Christopher Priest. Now this film dealt with many themes but the most primary one was that of rivalry and competition. The story about the two illusionists also showed shades of deception and sacrifice from both sides. In the end it resulted in what will be Nolan's most brilliant film for a long, long time. Incidentally, the theme of sacrifice was also present in The Dark Knight Rises in the form of Bane's back story where he helps a certain girl escape a ruthless prison at the cost of his own safety, only because he loves her.
After having watched all these movies that deal with all these ambiguous themes, one can say that Nolan is an auteur after all. But, where he differs from others in the auteur group is how he uses contemporary issues as underlying themes in his films. His latest offering and the final film in the Dark Knight trilogy shows a story where the poor and the desperate folks follow and hugely cunning leader and confront the elite in Gotham City. The movie shows how a revolution can be sparked but then it also points out how a revolution can slip into an anarchic fascist regime. It might interest you to know that this film was written when America was going through the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Just because we have seen Nolan establish himself as a director who is an auteur does not mean we should always expect him to sit on the same chair in all his movies. Nolan also dives in passionately into the production and editing of his films as well. Nolan might be looking forward to establish himself as an able producer too. The teaser for the new and revamped Superman movie, Man of Steel, is already out on YouTube. Viewers have already started commenting on how different it looks from any other superhero movie. A grim and bleak look adorns the teaser, which is surprising considering the movie is being directed by Zack Snyder, who, through films like 300 and Watchmen, has made movies which sort of light up the screen. How big a role Nolan, as the producer, will play shall only be revealed when this film hits the theatres next year. Until then, audiences shall eagerly wait and thank Nolan for all the gems he has given us so far as a director.