Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy represents cinematic perfection to me: Batman Begins (2005) was the Batman movie I’d waited my whole life to see; then, much like Batman himself emerging from the cover of shadow when least expected, came The Dark Knight (2008), a gripping thriller à la Michael Mann’s Heat in which the Al Pacino and Robert De Niro roles were assumed, quite credibly somehow, by Batman and the Joker; and just as no artist before Nolan had tackled the early days of Batman’s crime-fighting career (including his apprenticeship and inspiration to go vigilante), no one had authored its concluding chapter, either, until The Dark Knight Rises (2012)—it is, if you take my meaning, the Last Batman Story. For a character that had been in continuous publication—across multiple media—for seventy years at the time these films were produced, Nolan managed to find new, vital aspects of Batman’s rich hagiography to explore.
(Point of geeky clarification on my opening salvo: Though Nolan surely took inspiration from the seminal comic-book works of writer/artist Frank Miller, Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, the former only alludes to Bruce’s years spent training abroad, and the latter tells the story of a long-since-retired Batman getting back in the game. Nolan and his screenwriters did an admirable job of incorporating elements from many popular comic-book storylines, including, among others, The Long Halloween and Knightfall, but used them as the inspiration to find new tales about—and new psychological insights into—the Dark Knight.)
I could fill an ongoing series of posts studying and celebrating the creative accomplishments of this trilogy, but this isn’t a Batman blog (despite my recent two-part study of the Joker and profile on legendary comic-book illustrator Norm Breyfogle). However, over the recent Christmas break, I had a chance to catch up on some long-languishing Blu-ray supplementals for which I never seem to find the time, including The Fire Rises: The Creation and Impact of the Dark Knight Trilogy, and was struck by something Nolan said:
Batman Begins is very much a hero’s journey—it’s an origin story, it’s an origin myth—and so it has a sense of romanticism or theatricality that embraces that story model.
With The Dark Knight, in order to change the scale of the film, we went to a city story—we went to a crime epic. That allows you to look at all these different aspects of Gotham society. It suggests shooting on location, on real streets more. There’s a city-based socioeconomic idea behind the film that demands a different visual approach.
And then moving then into The Dark Knight Rises, we move into the arena of the disaster movie, or the historical epic: a film that embraces all of Gotham, all the humanity there—lots of different people encountering tumultuous events.
So, we chose to increase the scale not by sort of just blowing up the balloon, if you like, which sequels get into trouble doing, but by shifting genres [emphasis mine].
Nolan’s approach reinforces a strategy propounded in an article I recently posted on The Hunger Games (a version of which was also published over at Save the Cat!): that looking to different narrative templates can be a powerful way to foster creative prosperity in an ongoing series. To be clear: Nolan is not in this instance referring to the story models, or “genres,” as Blake Snyder defines them; all three Dark Knight films fit snugly within Snyder’s “Comic-book Superhero” subcategory. Regardless, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy provides an object lesson in how a storyteller can use time-honored genre conventions to combat artistic stagnation.
(Related aside: That all the Dark Knight films can be deemed “Comic-book Superhero” by Snyder’s criteria and yet maintain unique aesthetic identities from one another only serves as further testimony that any given Save the Cat! narrative archetype can account for stories that range considerably in style and tone, rendering Snyder’s set of classifications more flexible—and more useful—than general designations like “drama” or “comedy” in producing new variations on the many dramatic forms. Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin and Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises couldn’t be more dissimilar stylistically and tonally, and yet they are virtually indistinguishable on a fundamental, genetic level; both adhere to the genre’s three governing criteria: special power; nemesis; curse. That’s what we mean when we talk about genre in Snyder’s terms: not stylistic flourishes—like mise-en-scène, for instance—but issues that get to the heart of a story’s central dramatic question. In a Superhero tale—and this goes for recent films as diverse as “Fantasy Superhero” juggernaut The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 and current Oscar contender and “Real-life Superhero” biopic The Imitation Game—that question is always some variation on this generality: Will the hero use his special power to overcome the nemesis without succumbing to his curse?)
Because what is genre, in whatever capacity you define it, other than a set of agreed-upon compositional criteria that the audience intuitively expects the storyteller to honor? If you submit to a horror story, you expect to be scared; with a comedy, you expect to laugh. Those particular emotional responses are elicited (or not) based on how effectively the storyteller delivers on their corresponding conventions—i.e., genre expectations. (That is where stylistic idiosyncrasies come into play with respect to creating something new and compelling and clever and artful from a familiar story model; once again, I submit as evidence a comparative analysis of Batman & Robin and The Dark Knight Rises.)
For aspiring writers, I do recommended mastering Snyder’s codified system of genres rather than making up your own or relying upon something more general; his ten defined categories (and fifty subcategories) cover every relevant narrative permutation across the spectrum. But, by whichever metric you classify your story’s genre, don’t run from its conventions like some cliché-engendering contagion: Genre is a form that can be misapplied as a mass-production formula for by-the-numbers storytelling (notably the blow-up-the-balloon method of franchising that Nolan cited, of which the Schumacher entries could certainly be conspicuous examples), but it is also a tool that, when employed artfully as Nolan has done with Dark Knight, can suggest exciting new exploits for well-known heroes, as well as new exploitational opportunities in age-old modes of creative expression.