What Is Christopher Nolan’s Big Idea Behind The Dark Knight Rises?

Chris Nolan directing"Batman" on the streets of Manhattan on November 6, 2011 in New York City. Photo: Aby Baker/Getty Images

Over the past seven years, Christopher Nolan has become the director of choice for the smart fanboy. It’s no surprise. Much like them, Nolan is an obsessive creature, and whether it’s his blockbuster work (Inception, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins) or his more artsy fare (The Prestige, Insomnia, Memento), there exists a single-mindedness to his films that has invaded the waking dreams of fans while simultaneously repelling some critics. Our own David Edelstein finds Nolan’s films to be empty, portentous drivel interrupted by confusing action sequences. He has a point. With a few exceptions, Nolan’s action scenes are serviceable at best. As for portent … well, the man does seem to own more black suits than Batman.

But I have to respectfully disagree with the notion that he’s empty. Rather, Nolan is clinically focused. He doesn’t tell novelistic tales full of generously detailed characters. Rather, he takes a single idea and works it from practically every angle, so that the idea becomes almost a cipher to unlocking the film itself. As Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb says early on in Inception, the most resilient parasite is an idea: “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” Each of Nolan’s films is built around a single idea that eventually seizes control of the characters and, eventually, the film itself. At this point, we can only speculate on what that idea will be in The Dark Knight Rises, the next addition to Nolan’s wonderfully one-note filmography (which comes out July 20), but a focused journey through Nolan’s earlier films may provide some clues.  

Practically everyone has seen Nolan’s blockbusters, but let’s take a quick look first at some of his smaller stuff. In the director’s breakthrough film Memento, the amnesiac Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), who at any point can remember only the last few things that happened to him, seems sure of only one thing as he searches for his wife’s killer: “You never forget who you are,” he says. But the film eventually reveals that Leonard does not know who he really is, and what seemed at first to be a tight, artfully made murder-mystery turns out to be an existential journey about identity. Guilt propels Nolan’s first studio film, Insomnia (2002), which he did not write and was based on a 1997 Norwegian film. It consumes a corrupt detective (Al Pacino) who tries to hide the fact that he has shot his partner but seems to go mad both in the light of his own conscience and the perpetual daylight of the Alaskan town where he’s searching for a killer. 2006’s The Prestige, on the other hand, plays like a mirror image of Memento. This tale of rival magicians is essentially about men (spoiler alert) trying to lose their identities; it ends with the startling image of a man who has repeatedly cloned and killed himself in pursuit of public glory.

In Inception, perhaps the most-discussed of Nolan’s later blockbusters, regret is the idea that’s woven into the very fabric of the film. Dom Cobb lives in a world dominated by it. At nights he puts himself into a dream state and relives key scenes from his life. The film’s emotional trajectory is one in which Cobb’s regret over causing his wife’s death (by convincing her that their life was a dream) must be transformed into an understanding that they did in fact grow old and have a life together (if only in dreams). To that end, the film’s main musical theme is a slowed-down variation on the opening notes of Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien (I Regret Nothing),” its triumphant, lilting chords transformed into ominous blocks of blaring, brooding horns. The song is played to let the dreamer know his dream is ending. In the end, the song beckons him back to a life lived with no regrets.

But what about Nolan’s superhero movies? Even with bigger budgets and comic-book-franchise expectations looking over his shoulder, Nolan didn’t abandon his need to build narratives around single concepts. Fear percolates out from the very first scene of Batman Begins — in which young Bruce Wayne falls into a cave and confronts thousands of bats — until every essence of the entire film is suffused with it. Even an early training scene where the enigmatic Henry Ducard/Ras al Ghul (Liam Neeson) introduces Bruce to the clandestine League of Shadows turns out to be all about fear; Ducard tells the young man, “What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things.” So perhaps it’s appropriate that the film’s main villain is the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), whose sole weapon is a hallucinogen that, when taken, confronts the victim with that which they most fear. In the film’s final act, the toxin is pumped out to a part of Gotham. When the people affected look up into the sky and see Batman gliding overhead, they see a dark demon, the very air around him pullulating with a thousand unnamed ghouls. Fear takes over not just the entire frame, but the very texture of the film itself.

In The Dark Knight, that fear has been replaced by guilt (also the central theme of Insomnia), and the film opens onto a Gotham where Batman is being held responsible for a series of copycat vigilantes. The villain this time, the Joker (Heath Ledger), is an almost abstract force, a free radical who feels no guilt but understands how to use it against others. His final act is to set two ferries of Gotham denizens against each other. One boat is full of ordinary citizens, the other full of convicts being transported from a prison. Each boat has a detonator that will make the other explode. If one doesn’t explode by a certain hour, the Joker will blow both up. Thus, a boat that chooses to use the detonator will destroy itself morally just as surely as it destroys the other one physically. The Joker doesn’t just want to kill these people; he wants to corrode their souls.

Perhaps what’s most telling about this final standoff is how Batman manages to find the Joker. He rigs an elaborate citywide sonar by secretly hacking into the city’s mobile devices. The film treats this act of mass surveillance as something horrific — his finally lowering himself to The Joker’s level. By betraying the trust Gotham has placed in him, Batman seems to almost assume the city’s guilt. (He assumes literal guilt in the film’s final scene, when he encourages Commissioner Gordon to pin the now-dead Harvey Dent’s murder spree on him: “I killed those people … I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be. You’ll hunt me. You’ll condemn me. Sic the dogs on me.”)

So what, then, could be the idea that will drive The Dark Knight Rises? It’s probably insane to speculate, given the intense secrecy with which the plot (like most recent Nolan films) is being kept, but I will anyway. Nolan and Christian Bale have both said that this is the last Batman movie they’ll make, and final acts are often about redemption. But from what we’ve seen of the trailers and what we know of the characters, I wonder if maybe the new film will have something to do with the idea of change. The trailer features what appears to be a popular uprising (they almost shot some scenes at New York City’s Occupy Wall Street outpost), a prison being emptied out, and a hint at a political election where Commissioner Gordon’s job might be threatened. With change often comes revelation — in this case, perhaps, the shedding of identities. The trailer also features images of masks being removed, and the key villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), is notable mainly for his physicality — he’s less about gizmos and gimmicks and more about raw physical power, in bracing contrast to Batman himself. It all hints at a "big idea" of change, transformation, and the return of that which has been repressed, the return of the hidden. Consider: They’re even bringing back Liam Neeson (as Henri Ducard/Ras al Ghul), as well as a younger actor playing the character in his youth. It might be foolish to try to pin it down any further at this point. But one thing’s for sure: The obsessive Christopher Nolan will make sure we’re all completely obsessed with it soon enough.