Photo taken from Slant Magazine
If Christopher Nolan's filmography was just this: Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and Inception (let's say he somehow managed to make the big-budgeted Inception after four relatively small films), I would bet you that serious cineastes would find it easier to embrace him. As much as fans of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies insist that those films should be judged as serious films, there are a lot of people out there who will just refuse to accept that idea. The fact that nearly all blockbuster films in the current era aren't being made by writer/directors, but rather, a team of writers and a director-for-hire makes it even more difficult for a writer/director with a singular vision like Christopher Nolan working with the same budgets to be taken seriously as a filmmaker in a lot of different film circles.
It'd be difficult to call his films art though they may have a degree of artistic quality. His films aren't art films, to me, they're thoughtful but ultimately are made to entertain. To me, a work of art would be the product of someone who makes something that pleases him first and foremost before the person even thinks about everyone else. Now that doesn't mean that Christopher Nolan doesn't make great films. For me, he is a maker of great entertainment and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I feel that films can come in all different sizes. They can be made with the purpose to confuse, excite, thrill, shock, alienate, depress... you name it. Lars Von Trier doesn't make films to entertain you, he's trying everything he can to make the average moviegoer not want to see his films. There is absolutely room in the film world for that sentiment.
As there is room in the film world for Christopher Nolan. I embrace the blockbuster films of the '80s and some in the '90s because the best ones were made by filmmakers who had a vision that was made to entertain and they succeeded. Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, etc... there came a point where big, loud, and explosive wound up taking over and big budgeted films with engrossing stories and lively characters went by the wayside. I put Nolan's Batman films on the same platform of those aforementioned movies. Do the plot points always work out and make sense? Not really. You can pick apart any of the great blockbuster films the '80s or Jaws or Star Wars. That's not what makes them great movies and they're not great simply because of the special effects and visuals, it's a healthy combination of that and story plus entertaining characters.
I think because Christopher Nolan came to prominence during an era of those big, loud, empty special effects films, he somehow wound up lumped into the same category of those filmmakers responsible for that garbage. How many negative reviews of Nolan films allude to Michael Bay's films when they talk about Nolan? Having said that, I do agree that Nolan wasn't always a great director of action though he's been getting better and better in that criteria. What makes him special is that despite whether or not some plot points in the Batman films don't always add up, they do ultimately amount to satisfying and thrilling conclusions. Also, the films have strong thematic and cinematic elements to them. Batman Begins works great as an origin story, The Dark Knight can work perfectly as an epic crime film alone, and The Dark Knight Rises is an apocalyptic war film in many ways. He brings a different and fascinating approach to each film and he somewhat makes it all work juggling all these characters, making them interesting and memorable, even giving Batman plenty moments to shine when previously many people have felt that the villains always seem to get more screentime than the caped crusader. Nolan fixed that.
Are the Batman films serious films? Do they deserve to be taken seriously and held in high regard as major works of film or just exceptional entertainment? I choose the latter. Because, no matter what, all superhero films have to go through the same general motions in order to reach satisfying conclusions. No matter how difficult and seemingly impossible the situations are, it's expected and a given that Batman will come and save the day. He has to, that's how the genre works. The Nolan films are effective because they work in many different ways, but they always have to maintain that foundation. When Bane breaks Batman's back, you know that's not the end of Batman. When Batman's plane explodes, you know that's not the end of Batman or Bruce Wayne. That degree of expectation is what keeps the Batman films in the "entertainment" category. Great films? Sure, but because they're so entertaining not because they're works of art.
My argument is that we should be able to make that distinction, acknowledge it, and accept it. Movies don't need to all be done the same way. There's bad blockbuster films out there but not all of them are bad. Fewer and fewer are great, but they're not all bad. And when you have a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan who sees his productions all the way through to the end, you're going to get a final product that's a cut above the usual blockbuster fare. Add on the fact that Warner Brothers essentially lets Nolan do whatever he wants with those films and you have yourself a filmmaker with a lot of freedom to make films that align within his vision. That type of power within the studio system should be celebrated not ridiculed because as long as we have someone like Christopher Nolan we won't have to lose faith in Hollywood altogether.
His Batman trilogy was a true landmark. It was a perfect marriage of personal and blockbuster filmmaking. But they are what they are. When Nolan's not directing the Batman films, he's making great visionary films like The Prestige and Inception. The whole world can be used as his canvas and Warner Brothers will throw as much money at him as he demands because he has proven consecutively that he can use their money effectively. He wants to entertain but he also wants to challenge his audience. Maybe not too much, but enough to make them want to see his films repeatedly. They see them repeatedly and find more to like from the film. That's why Nolan's fans love him so much. They know he's going to give them what they want, but they'll never realize just what it was they wanted until after they see his films.
So I'm hoping now that his Batman trilogy is over and Nolan goes back to more original work that his detractors will begin to see what makes him a great filmmaker in the first place. Until his next film comes out though, it's hard not to sit back and marvel at what he has already accomplished at the young age of 42. Let's hope that he has at least another 30 years of high level filmmaking ahead of him.