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How Christopher Nolan Became Hollywood’s Most Unlikely Summer Blockbuster Showman

Many moviegoers hope his upcoming film ‘Tenet’ will help bring audiences back to the theater. If so, it will be just the latest example of how the British director has made the world safe for smart, big-budget event movies.

Listen, we have bad news: There is probably not going to be a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a salute to Miranda Priestly. Or, like today, it will be an appreciation of the man behind Tenet.

You’re probably starving for summer blockbusters, deprived of everything from F9 to Black Widow to Top Gun: Maverick, but fear not: Christopher Nolan is on the case. Whereas most of Hollywood has beaten a hasty retreat, moving its event movies to late July or later because of the pandemic, the 49-year-old Oscar-nominee has refused to budge. His latest film, the spy thriller Tenet, is still scheduled to hit theaters on its original release date, July 17th.

Will that actually happen? 

He’s far from guaranteed it — so much will depend on ensuring that people can attend theaters safely — but Nolan does give off the impression of being a man committed to ushering us back to the multiplex, a place most of us haven’t been since at least March. Having the first movie back is clearly part of the appeal for Nolan — he’s always been a champion of the theatrical experience — but I wonder if it doesn’t extend beyond that, too. After all, without necessarily trying, he’s become the king of the summer blockbuster. How exactly, though, did that happen?

Men who look (and, more importantly, sound) like Nolan aren’t who we think of as popcorn filmmakers. Summer action-movie directors tend to be bros like Michael Bay, or grownup kids such as Steven Spielberg and Roland Emmerich. Or, in the case of Anthony and Joe Russo (the brothers behind the last few Avengers films), they’re anonymous craftsmen — dudes who keep the trains running on time and adhere to the Marvel formula without expressing much of a personal style.

With his British accent, haughty air and (undeserved) reputation for being humorless and devoid of emotion, Nolan fits none of those modes. (His closest analogue may be fellow Brit Ridley Scott, who gave the world Alien and Gladiator.) Nolan would be perfect Central Casting for the role of a prestige filmmaker who only does stuffy costume dramas — or playing a film theorist analyzing Stanley Kubrick’s use of negative space. That one of the brightest, most erudite filmmakers also happens to have produced some of the best summer action spectacles of the last two decades is endlessly amusing.

Although Nolan doesn’t resemble the sort of geek-enthusiast filmmaker who holds court at a Comic-Com panel, he’s always been a movie buff. In fact, seeing Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in a London theater at age seven left him permanently hooked. (“I had the extraordinary experience of being transported in a way that I hadn’t realized was possible,” he said in 2018. “The screen just opened up, and I went on this incredible journey.”) After completing a degree in English literature — “I didn’t go to film school because I couldn’t get into film school,” he has said — he made his first feature, the 1998 thriller Following, on a shoestring, being praised for his clever, sophisticated tale about a young writer who befriends a thief for creative inspiration. 

Even then, two things were obvious: his braininess and his ability to tell entertaining stories that didn’t talk down to their audience. He approached movies almost as if they were watches or puzzles — precisely crafted, every piece fitting into place. “My most useful definition of narrative is that it’s a controlled release of information,” Nolan once explained, and who could imagine Bay saying something similar? 

After the smash success of his 2000 indie Memento, a thriller told in backward chronological order with a nifty premise featuring a widowed man with no short-term memory hunting for his wife’s killer, Nolan made the jump to Hollywood, remaking a Norwegian thriller for Insomnia, which starred Al Pacino as a cop matching wits with a murderer (Robin Williams). Boosted by strong reviews that hailed it as a smart thriller for adults, Insomnia was Nolan’s first summer movie, opening over Memorial Day weekend of 2002 as savvy counterprogramming to the more blandly commercial Attack of the Clones and Spider-Man.

Insomnia was a solid hit, but it wasn’t obvious that this refined British filmmaker would be the right choice to resurrect the Batman franchise — or that he’d even want to. (He’s long admitted he wasn’t a comic-book kid.) But when he met with Warner Bros., who’d liked working with him on Insomnia, he suggested a unique angle on the Caped Crusader. As the studio’s former head, Jeff Robinov recalled, Nolan told him, “I think it’s going to be different than any superhero movie anybody’s seen before. And what I really want to do is take that genre and embrace it as a real film genre.” Essentially, he wanted to take superhero movies seriously.

It’s easy to forget now how different comic-book films were in the mid-2000s. They were already establishing a stranglehold on the business, thanks to Spider-Man and X-Men, but they mostly felt fun and escapist. Then came 2005’s Batman Begins, which distinguished itself with its strong vision and tonal control. A somber origin story about a spiritually searching Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who will eventually reinvent himself as a masked crime fighter, Batman Begins placed the character in a more real-world setting, treating his trauma and grief as legitimate emotional hurdles. The 2008 sequel The Dark Knight was the better movie — and the bigger cultural phenomenon — but Batman Begins set the agenda for superhero cinema (and, by extension, blockbusters) for the next decade. 

Suddenly, simply being “fun” wasn’t enough. Nolan basically forced summer movies to be smarter and more soulful, and also a bit edgier and cooler. In other words, he wanted them to reflect his own warm but cerebral manner. He’s a guy who was blown away by Snow White as a kid but loves crafting his films like riddles or magic tricks. He makes spectacles that engage the mind. 

As Hollywood became infatuated with franchises — favoring pre-existing intellectual property over stars — action auteurs started attaching themselves to popular series. The Russos became Marvel’s go-to filmmakers. Bay did a million Transformers films. Spielberg brought Indiana Jones out of mothballs. And although Nolan helmed the Dark Knight trilogy (and developed the story for and produced Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel), he’s gone on to be just about the only major studio director who can still entice an audience to try an original idea simply because he made it.

Two years after The Dark Knight, Nolan directed his fourth summer event movie with 2010’s Inception, a dizzying mindbender about a group of unconventional thieves (led by Leonardo DiCaprio) who loot their victims’ subconscious, a scenario that created endless gravity- and logic-defying narrative possibilities. You could nitpick Inception’s flaws, but in a summer filled with remakes (The Karate Kid) and sequels (Toy Story 3, Iron Man 2), it felt thrillingly risky and new. Inception was brainy but also incredibly entertaining. With Nolan, you felt like you were in the hands of a master showman — even if that master showman would say things like this in interviews when asked about having faith in the audience to embrace innovative stories:

“If you can avail yourself of the appropriate cinematic device to make the audience feel something, then cinema is an incredibly powerful communicator. I have faith in that process, that if I get it right and put the pieces together, then people will understand what they need to understand and will feel the intensity of the experience that I’m trying to give them.”

Those kinds of comments can give Nolan a rep for being snooty, opening him up for accusations that he enjoys blockbusters in an elevated, intellectual way that’s meant to signal that he feels superior to them. His longtime advocacy for cinema, and the theatrical experience, sometimes comes across the same way, especially when he’s slagging television. In 2017, when discussing the rise of so-called peak TV, Nolan said, “I view movies and television as different, and the conventional thinking right now is that they must converge and become the same thing. [But] a scenario in which movies and television become more similar elevates television but diminishes movies.”

Unfortunately, Nolan is swimming against a pretty powerful tide: As Hollywood blockbusters grow increasingly serialized and obsessed with reaching the widest audience possible, movies run the risk of becoming dumbed-down, devalued pieces of product. In such a climate, Nolan’s earnest declarations about cinema as both popular entertainment and works of art — paired with his old-school preference to shoot on film, not digital — make him seem like a dour stick-in-the-mud who’s blind to a shifting reality. But that stubborn idealism and insistence on bringing braininess to the multiplex are part of the reasons why I love him. Even if those ideas aren’t fashionable, they’re worth fighting for.

After 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises — an Occupy Wall Street-channeling blockbuster that tried to make room for, as Nolan put it, “the idea of how in America we take for granted a stability to our class and social structure that has never been sustained elsewhere in the world” — he returned to summer multiplexes five years later for Dunkirk, which might be the most avant-garde popcorn film ever devised.

Working with complicated time structures — different segments of this World War II film occur over differing time intervals — and eschewing a main character for a collection of disparate individuals, Nolan challenged his audience again, giving viewers few of the usual narrative comforts. No other filmmaker would be able to get Dunkirk made — or, frankly, want to make it. But Nolan’s track record made it possible. That it was a huge commercial and critical hit was only further proof that his faith in viewers’ intelligence continued not to be misplaced. And as with his other films, it also redrew the boundaries of what a summer movie could be. “We saw it as a blockbuster,” Nolan said around Dunkirk’s release. “It’s a strange [term] to use in relation to the subject matter, but we saw it as an entertainment, albeit one that’s intense and suspenseful. We wanted it to reach the widest audience possible, and that happens in summer.”

In the buildup to Tenet’s release, it’s easy to mock Nolan’s zeal to get the movie ready for theaters, insisting he won’t let it come out digitally first because he wants to preserve that sense of community you can only get sitting in a dark room filled with strangers. In a March op-ed, he was adorably romantic about the wonder of movie theaters, writing, “In uncertain times, there is no more comforting thought than that we’re all in this together, something the moviegoing experience has been reinforcing for generations.” 

That’s sappy, but it’s a sentiment that has made movies — and especially summer movies — such a staple in people’s lives. In interviews, Nolan can come across a bit stiff, but it only makes his enthusiasm for big movies all that more endearing — he’s still got a little bit of that nerdy kid in him who grew up equally adoring 2001 and Star Wars, the apex of (respectively) thought-provoking and crowd-pleasing science fiction. His career has been about seeing if those two extremes can reside in the same movie. 

“Films are subjective — what you like, what you don’t like,” Nolan said 10 years ago. “But the thing for me that is absolutely unifying is the idea that every time I go to the cinema and pay my money and sit down and watch a film go up on-screen, I want to feel that the people who made that film think it’s the best movie in the world, that they poured everything into it and they really love it. Whether or not I agree with what they’ve done, I want that effort there — I want that sincerity. And when you don’t feel it, that’s the only time I feel like I’m wasting my time at the movies.” 

If I were a betting man, I’d guess most theaters won’t yet be open in time for Tenet. (Understandably, theater chains don’t want me to be right.) But you can see why so many filmgoers and folks in the industry have pinned their hopes on Nolan saving this summer movie season. After all, he’s been breathing life into the formulaic blockbuster model for years now. None of us know much of anything about Tenet, which is remarkable for a big event picture. Normally, we head to the theater because we want to see Iron Man or Harry Potter or Batman. If and when we ever see Tenet, it won’t be because of a logline or a piece of intellectual property, or even necessarily a big star. It’ll be because of Christopher Nolan. For years, he’s had faith in his audience. And in turn, we’ve put our faith in him.

More From the Ultimate Summer Movie Guide:

‘The Devil Wears Prada’ Changed What a Summer Blockbuster Could Be

The DeLorean Was a Dud. Then ‘Back to the Future’ Made It Timeless.

How ‘Why So Serious?’ Became This Century’s Best Summer Movie Tagline — and Then a Punchline