Both the director and the Dark Knight himself could use a new challenge.
After this Friday's The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan will stop making Batman moves—and that's a good thing. That's not because his have been bad films. Quite the opposite. The boldness of Nolan's storytelling, the seriousness and conscientiousness with which he addressed comic books as a form, and the degree to which he interwove comics conventions with cinematic ones, showed the world just how great comic-book movies could be. Without delving into too many spoiler-y particulars, Nolan has concluded his Batman trilogy on a fairly definitive note, and has said all he has to say as a writer and filmmaker about Batman as a character and (even more importantly) as a symbol. This is why even though both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were enormously successful with audiences and critics, and The Dark Knight Rises is almost certainly poised to continue that trend, it's time for Nolan to tackle a new challenge and for Batman to be re-imagined yet again.
Nolan, starting with his second feature, 2000's Memento, has delivered a string of intelligent pop movies that are meticulously constructed, have a wide sweep, and are morally and formally complex. He's said that he considers Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, and Michael Mann to be his influences, and you can see the traits he shares with those directors: a flair for making bleakness engaging rather than ponderous, an interest in haunted, driven protagonists, and particularly in Kubrick's case, a knack for adaptation. Nolan's films deal heavily with memory, perception, and the knotty, amorphous definitions of right and wrong; they're not terribly profound in the way they go about exploring these subjects, but their subjects are worthy ones that aren't tackled all that often in mainstream (increasingly expensive) films.
Nolan's immense commercial success has afforded him a level of creative freedom that will allow him to do pretty much anything he wants. The immediate future holds The Man of Steel, which he'll be producing for Zack Snyder (of 300 and the critically reviled Sucker Punch) to direct; Snyder fans and detractors alike surely must entertain the possibility of an Obi Wan Kenobi/Luke Skywalker-type relationship developing between Nolan and Snyder, to the latter's benefit. But surely, at some point, Nolan will return to the director's chair. It's hard to speculate what, specifically, the film in question would be: Who, after all, could have imagined he'd follow up Memento and Insomnia with a huge-budget Batman movie? But whatever comes next, it'll be a "Christopher Nolan film": handsome, engrossing, challenging, but also entertaining.
What of Batman, as a character? Like Spider-Man and Superman, he's moved from being a comic-book hero to being something bigger: a folk figure, a mythological archetype ripe for constant reinvention. Though created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman has taken on characteristics given him by comic-book creators Dennis O'Neil, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and others. Films, TV shows, and video games have all had their say in who Batman is. Actors have, too. Adam West's portrayal on the 1966-68 television Batman is as legitimate interpretation of Batman as a character as Michael Keaton's in the Tim Burton films, Kevin Conroy's on Batman: The Animated Series, or Christian Bale's in the Nolan trilogy.
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West's, though, stands apart from the rest for its light comic touch, pointing out a dirty secret of the Batman character: There's something fundamentally silly about a grown man dressing up in a bat costume to fight crime. That Burton and Nolan chose to explore the fact that there's something fundamentally serious and a bit spooky about a grown man dressing up in a bat costume to fight crime doesn't contradict the other reading at all. West's Batman fit the cultural tenor of its age just as the Nolan/Bale iteration reflected the predominance of fear (and its causes) in early 21st century America. Even if Warner Bros doesn't wait for another epochal shift to make its subsequent Batman films, there are other undercurrents in society than fear, just as there are other aspects of Batman as a character. The tenor of subsequent adaptations will depend both on whatever creative team is assembled, and the pulse of society whenever that may be. The time might be right to revive the lighter side of Batman, as long as "lighter" doesn't mean aping what director Joel Schumacher did to the franchise in the '90s. Also, lighter than Nolan's very-dark knight can still be plenty dark: The existential terror inspired by the late Heath Ledger's Joker, for one example, is the stuff of cold-sweat nightmares.
To imagine the future for both Batman and Nolan, it might help to think about the last time a big, successful superhero film trilogy wrapped up. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series ended in 2007, and only five years later, the Peter Parker character returned to screens for this summer's The Amazing Spider-Man. While the common chatter around the film said that it was too soon to reboot Spider-Man, the movie actually performed well at the box-office and received a mixed but overall positive reception from critics. Something similar happening to Batman wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. As for Nolan, having stuck the landing on his trilogy far more smoothly than Sam Raimi did with his Spider-Man series, he's in a more secure position in both creative and business terms than Raimi was on the heels of the (somewhat excessively) maligned Spider-Man 3. Where Raimi has seemed torn between the kind of mega-budget extravaganzas that he is able to make post-Spider-Man and the kind of smaller, nastier genre pictures he made so delightfully early in his career, Christopher Nolan has more apparent certitude in himeself as a filmmaker at this point. Whether he continues with other superheroes (after Man of Steel), science-fiction along the lines of Inception, a variant on the thriller form like Memento, Insomnia, or The Prestige, or something wholly new (the next James Bond film? A comedy, if he's feeling really adventurous?) one gets the feeling Christopher Nolan will be just fine.