Post Christopher Nolan was originally published in 2014. It is a comprehensive report — at once historical and speculative — on the recent evolution of the blockbuster release and the major shift in audience trends, seen through the lens of what the project coins as the "Nolanization" of the film landscape.
FULL TEXT ON MEDIUM
When filmmaker Christopher Nolan was presented in 2003 with the task of rejuvenating the Batman franchise, which had come to an indefinite halt in 1997 with Batman & Robin, he transformed Gotham City from a grotesque, fantasy fun house into an austere dystopia closely resembling modern New York City. Instead of relying on other-worldly theatrics to empower or threaten his characters, Nolan downsized the idea of superpowers and focused on the limits of human capacity; his superheroes became as human and as vulnerable as the extras. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Robin in The Dark Knight Rises, for example, isn’t a trapeze-swinging goofball—he’s simply a bleaker version of the same character he played in (500) Days of Summer. Likewise with the villains: Nolan gave DIY makeovers to the campy portrayals of Joker and Bane from the 80’s and 90’s so that we wouldn’t forget they’re real people.
Because it was no longer a given that Nolan’s heroes would emerge with their physical and moral integrity intact, there was suddenly more at stake, both for Nolan’s characters and for movie-goers. At the end of The Dark Knight, Nolan sacrifices the Batman superhero myth in order to preserve the hopeful image of Harvey Dent, a mere mortal, so that the people of Gotham would have a plausible figure to rely on. Batman disappears because he became too big for the world Nolan had created around him. He had to become human again.
If anti-hero is broadly defined as a flawed or unlikely protagonist, Nolan’s universe assumes everyone is an anti-hero. His rejection of the classic superhero can be traced to one weekend in July 1998, when two movies opened that shifted the cinematic depiction of humans. The movies Saving Private Ryan and There’s Something About Mary both presented man as a fallible and vulnerable creature, a depiction that the film industry would strive to replicate throughout the next decade. Saving Private Ryan introduced a raw, directionless lens to combat, contrasting with the glossy, focused scope of films like The English Patient or Braveheart. Sequences were shot at an unusual 45 degree shutter angle which made movement shaky and seem faster-than-life, a stylistic approach that is now so universal that one hardly notices it in films like Captain Phillips and The Hunger Games. With a lighter approach, There’s Something About Mary showed the appeal of human flaws by combining the raunchy comedy formula typified by Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey with a layer of human complexity and warmness, a combo that would later be honed by Judd Apatow. The reviews for There’s Something About Mary and Knocked Up were nearly identical. One critic said of Mary, “The movie managed to walk a line between raunchy, gross-out comedy and a romantic comedy,” and another of Knocked Up, “Engagingly raunchy, but strip away Apatow’s films of their vulgarity and they’d warm the heart of a Production Code censor from a half century ago.” Anti-hero has since become a questionable term because audiences have, on a larger-than-ever scale, embraced their flawed individuality and wish to see it represented on an equal scale.
Around 1999, a new wave of indie filmmakers emerged who were on a search for human authenticity that diverged from the existential intensity of auteurs such as Atom Egoyan and Lars von Trier. While wide audiences could no longer recognize their own lives in character-driven Hollywood productions, neither could they relate to the completely morose and inaccessible characters that propelled the work of Egoyan and von Trier. The new crop of indie filmmakers — Spike Jonze, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson, Alfonso Cuaron and a young Christopher Nolan — found that they could attract audience interest by warmly depicting flawed, endearing eccentrics. This led them to mistake idiosyncrasy for authenticity. Zac Braff’s and Natalie Portman’s quirky, outcasted exchanges in Garden State, for example, precisely hit the mark of quirky realness that filmmakers were looking for. The new indie aesthetic relied on a tweaked form of self-projection from the audience: I’m like them but only in the sense that I’m not like them or anyone else.
In 2004, Napoleon Dynamite’s successful blurring of cinematic categories (was it an indie comedy or a mainstream one?) signaled to indie directors that they could preserve their trademark styles while still achieving mainstream success. Little by little, the indie filmmakers veered towards large-scale projects, importing an indie sensibility to an 8- or 9-figure production budget.
The Hogwarts castle in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is known to be enchanted so that if humans, or Muggles, find the castle, all they will see is ruins. One late night at the castle, Harry stumbles through some dark corridors. He notices something about it has been refashioned, or rescaled. It almost looks likes he could be in the Muggle world. And the vulnerability seeps in. Harry dons his invisibility cloak, but it doesn’t rid him of the feeling that the walls are closing in on him. Disappearing doesn’t make the world any less small.
The Boy Who Lived (2022), the first installment in a Harry Potter franchise reboot, inherits the dark tone of Deathly Hallows Part 2 from the old series. There is no chance for a Quidditch match or a PG rating. Grace is on board as the director. She was 2 when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out in 2001. Shortly after the reboot is announced, Grace proposes that the series be retold backwards. “Backwards?” Warner Bros asks. Grace is patiently thinking. They continue, “You mean the movies are released in reverse-chronological order? Or do you mean the series begins after Harry defeats Voldemort and ends with a cradle on a doorstep? Or does it continue further into the untold past, before the boy who lived?” “Yeah,” Grace finally replies, “Before there was anything at stake.”