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Tonight, You’re Going to Be Part of a Social Experiment

The Dark Knight trilogy gave us the Great Superhero Boom — and a deeply nihilistic worldview from one of our most influential directors. Is ‘Dunkirk’ a new era for Christopher Nolan?

(Warner Bros. Pictures/Ringer illustration)
(Warner Bros. Pictures/Ringer illustration)

Christopher Nolan movies typically thrive on a frustrating sort of conflict: not "Man vs. Man," or "Man vs. Nature," or even "Man vs. Self." It’s more "Man vs. Screenplay." He builds gorgeous, brooding labyrinths, clever and elegant and inescapable, and then watches impassively as flawed and profoundly doomed humans stumble blindly through them. Fussy conceits, shocking twists, dreams within dreams within dreams. It’s enrapturing. It’s exhausting. It suggests a very dim view of human nature. You don’t admire the rat; you admire the trap.

Dunkirk is a radical departure for Nolan: in its brevity, in its grounding in reality, in its celebration of humanity, of simple people (plus Harry Styles) doing a simple thing (trying to survive). It may very well join Inception and Interstellar (and, to a more modest extent, Memento and The Prestige) as the increasingly rare Boutique Blockbuster, a wildly successful prestige popcorn flick with no franchise or craven IP ploy to hide behind. That it’s smart and lush and tense and cerebral is no surprise. That it feels both warmly and painfully human — that it spikes its grimness with bursts of heroism and optimism that don’t feel hedged or perfunctory — is a shock. Nolan finds another gear on Dunkirk, or, more accurately, he slips free of the machine entirely.

Of course, we have come to know, and grown to grudgingly love, the machine. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy — Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) — are as high-art as comic-book movies get. The middle installment, in particular, was a sensation, winning Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar and helping goad the Academy into expanding the Best Picture category to up to 10 movies, just to make it more box-office-friendly. The Avengers expanded-universe juggernaut, as dominant and beloved as many of those films are, has never quite achieved that level of prestige.

These movies are stuffy, and thrilling, and pretentious, and unforgettable, and very, very long. But revisiting them now, the profound skepticism is striking. The abiding view is of Gotham City as a lawless and hopeless place, its citizenry a cynical, fearful, eminently corruptible rabble ready to worship any god or devil who appears before them. In the end, Batman just has deadlier, shinier toys. The trilogy’s central question is why bother? Do these people even deserve him? Do they deserve a savior at all?

Yes, there are redemptions, and qualified happy endings, and lofty arguments for the inherent good of man. The whole thing wraps up with Commissioner Gordon quoting A Tale of Two Cities: "I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss." Which is slightly moving, and not at all convincing. Dunkirk has a similar dismount, capping 100 minutes of gripping wartime desperation with a bit of solemn and inspirational speechifying. But in this case, the trick works — the solemnity and sincerity come through.

It’s new. In the past, what really fascinated Nolan was the abyss. You spend the majority of the Dark Knight trilogy wondering whether Bruce Wayne is going to abandon these awful people to their own feeble devices and light out for Ibiza. Our hero fights a variety of charismatic and grotesque supervillains during these movies, but they all, to varying degrees, understand and even respect him, whereas the average civilian simply regards him as a freak, a nuisance, a haughty jerk who won’t even throw them a parade. Not all heroes wear capes; not all supervillains, either. These people are their own worst enemy. They are also Batman’s.

Christopher Nolan did not invent superhero brooding, or the notion of humankind as unlovable, untrusting, ungrateful, unworthy. The 21st-century comic-book-movie boom kicked off in 2000 with the first X-Men, in which our gang of heroes battled both Magneto and the asshole congressmen pushing the Mutant Registration Act. Thanks to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, we already knew that Gotham City, in particular, was loaded with money-grubbing bums ready to be hoodwinked by anybody.

Look at these dopes. All it takes to win Gotham’s loyalty is a purple trenchcoat, a sub–Animal House parade float, awkwardly dancing henchmen, a couple modest handfuls of cash, and a B-minus Prince song. ("Trust" is lovely, but the Prince curve is harsh.) Screw ’em. Why waste your time?

The Dark Knight trilogy is a nearly nine-hour exploration of that question; large chunks of all three movies consist of Batman arguing with various people about whether or not Batman should even be in these movies at all.

Immediately, it’s clear we’re in for a lengthy philosophy course disguised as a righteous chain of car chases and streetfights. The first hour or so of Batman Begins is mostly Liam Neeson, in a goofy mustache, holding forth about fear amid bitchin’ vistas and ninja training montages. "You must bask in the fear of other men," he intones; as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Christian Bale’s stated goal is "to turn fear against those who prey on the fearful."

Gotham City, we are repeatedly told, is divided between the Bad Guys and the helpless civilians terrorized by the Bad Guys. You’re one or the other. Even most of the so-called good guys are thoroughly corrupted. Outside Wayne Manor’s immediate orbit, the only two recognizable humans are Jim Gordon (takes out his own trash) and crusading lawyer Rachel Dawes (drives the Gotham equivalent of a beat-up Ford Taurus). The nominal villain, Scarecrow, takes forever to show up, and when he does — with a nefarious Comic Books 101 plan to poison the city’s water supply — he just frightens a handful of randos into exposing their true nature as bloodthirsty savages. Late in the game, at a fancy Wayne Manor gala, Bruce has to clear the room in a hurry, so he gives a fake-drunken, insulting toast: "All you phonies, all you two-faced friends. You sycophantic suck-ups who smile through your teeth at me. Please. Leave me in peace." It’s the only time the mask drops.

The Dark Knight is where the nihilism really kicks in, courtesy Heath Ledger as the Joker, whose maniacal charisma overwhelms everyone and everything. More posh rich-person galas, more highfalutin calls for unity and safety and fundamental decency, more grunting arguments about Man’s True Nature that the Joker wins handily: "When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other."

And then, late in the movie, Nolan unveils his master’s thesis.

Here is a thing the Joker literally says: "Tonight you’re all gonna be a part of a social experiment." You may have forgotten a ton about The Dark Knight, but you remember this: two ferries, one full of violent criminals, one full of "innocent" "civilians." Each boat has a trigger to blow up the other boat; whichever boat blows up the other wins. The violent criminals all mostly just gawk at each other, until one of them gravely grabs the trigger and chucks it out the window. The civilians, meanwhile, scream at each other, organize a paper-ballot vote, decide to blow up the other boat, and are redeemed only by the fact that the asshole-businessman guy who volunteers to flip the switch can’t do it.

As a cinematic experience, this sequence starts out as oddly entrancing but eventually grows tedious; as a means of reestablishing Gotham as a place worth fighting for, it is once again entirely unconvincing. Batman, of course, claims the ferry thing as a victory: "This city just showed you that it’s full of people ready to believe in good." But he ends the movie banished and hunted and detested, and the Joker won an Oscar.

The Dark Knight Rises is functionally This Is the Future That Liberals Want: The Movie. Released less than a year after the Occupy Wall Street movement of late 2011, it reimagines Gotham City’s woes as a class problem, as the Haves lording it over the Have-Nots. "Come on, let’s go scalping," a stockbroker says to another stockbroker.

Bane, in addition to beating the crap out of Batman and blowing up a football stadium, foments an uprising against the rich, so as to "return control of this city to the people." This film’s version of the ferry stunt is a tribunal that condemns big shots to death for "living off the blood and sweat of people less powerful"; we get the vivid image of pitiless capitalist wolves cowering on the cracking ice of a frozen river. Nolan denied any particular political resonance, but many takes were issued regardless.

This movie’s Law vs. Misguided Lawlessness passion play might be interpreted a little differently in 2017, given more recent political events. But in the end, the Bad Guys lose, the wayward masses reconnect with their better natures, and the Good Guys light out for Florence. Not one part of this fragile peace will last, of course: The superhero-movie industrial complex demands it. But the lofty Tale of Two Cities evocation aside, you walk away convinced that the wayward masses will crack first.

Like Dunkirk, the Dark Knight trilogy ends with miles and miles of physical ruin, but also a steely populace determined to rebuild. But the Allies know they’ve suffered a crushing defeat, know they’ve got to radically change tactics. In Gotham, it’s just Tuesday. Somebody flashy and new will be along soon to knock it all down again. And the same old tireless hero will once again do the thankless work of swooping in to save them while they smile through their teeth.

Mere civilians have always had it rough in comic book movies, but post-Nolan, the situations got worse. Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman reboot, Man of Steel, is infamous for the blitheness of its mass destruction, with a climactic battle that clearly resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties. Last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, while lousy in most respects, at least tries to address this problem: Batman’s main beef with Superman is that he keeps trashing the place.

The Marvel Universe is way better at making all this fantasy feel real, and weighty, and consequential, with a sunnier outlook overall and a more realistic sense of cause and effect. The excellent Wonder Woman, meanwhile, has stabilized the DC Universe, in part by stealing a core Dark Knight idea: namely, the fact that Wonder Woman is repeatedly told, "They do not deserve you." They meaning us. She decides otherwise, keeps the faith, wins the day, pledges to fight another. But the complaint about superhero movies now is that that’s all she can do.

Every superhero installment can only tee up the next one, which means nothing truly shocking or remarkable can happen, because there’s too much money on the line to do anything but reset the pins. Dunkirk’s climactic Winston Churchill speech calls out the battles immediately to come, but there’s nonetheless a sense of finality to it, a palpable relief on Nolan’s part that he doesn’t have to start casting the Riddler.

He likewise seems relieved that his protagonists no longer have to wear goofy costumes and/or argue about Caesar. You almost never see the enemy in Dunkirk: just the terror and grim determination of the heroes waiting for the enemy to arrive. Nor do they have to look or act outrageously heroic: Even with a shorter run time and a much shorter script, Nolan’s people this time feel like actual people, their moral failures as resonant as their moral victories. Dunkirk, for all its elaborate wartime destruction, might actually be his simplest movie yet. It’s still gorgeous and brooding, clever and elegant. There is inescapable doom for a great many extras and a few lead actors, too. But there is far more gravity to that carnage than you’ll find in Man of Steel, and far more compassion than you’ll find in anything Nolan’s done before. He can still build a beautiful trap. But he’s finally come to see the people scurrying inside as more than mere rats.

An earlier version of this piece stated that The Dark Knight Returns "is functionally This Is the Future That Liberals Want: The Movie." The film is The Dark Knight Rises.