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Batman Begins (2005)

The importance of Batman Begins cannot be overstated. In the same way that Jaws and Star Wars gave us the summer blockbuster back in the 1970s, Batman Begins is the film that jumpstarted the Hollywood reboot-o-tron in the mid-2000s. In that respect, you could argue that its success may have even been more influential on the film industry than that of The Dark Knight.

In the 1990s, director Joel Schumacher had made a mockery of the Caped Crusader, putting nipples on Bat-suits and running the franchise into the ground with Batman & Robin. But Nolan was able to redeem the franchise in a way no one knew possible. For better or for worse, Hollywood latched onto this as a business strategy, seeing that it could repackage the same intellectual properties, over and over.

The year after Batman Begins, we got Casino Royale, which effectively gave James Bond the same reboot treatment, rescuing him from the ignominy of Die Another Day. And Hollywood has been off to the reboot races ever since.

Batman Begins also did something remarkable for its time in that it helped turn the tide for superhero films, giving them an air of legitimacy, even perhaps showing that they could function as high art. In the early 2000s, the comic book movie genre was still finding its footing, going through a lot of growing pains. Attempts at bringing Marvel characters to the big screen frequently resulted in dismal Tomatometer scores. By today’s standards, the most notable gem from that era would probably be Spider-Man 2.

Nolan raised the bar. In addition to situating his film more firmly in the real world, Nolan stacked his cast with serious dramatic actors, Oscar nominees and Oscar winners. Inspired by his example, director Jon Favreau would utilize the same approach for Iron Man, the film that birthed the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the meantime, this is also when Nolan started collaborating with Hans Zimmer, the composer he called “the sound of contemporary movies.”

Marshaling his talented forces, Nolan managed to deliver what is arguably the definitive origin story, across all mediums, for the greatest superhero of all time. Even in comic books, Batman’s full, mythic origin had never been told in such a sincerely Batman-centric way before. The closest thing would have probably been Frank Miller’s aforementioned Batman: Year One, part of the source material for Batman Begins. But if you go back and read it, that story belonged as much to Detective Jim Gordon, if not more so.

Say what you will about his gruff Batman voice, but with his extreme physical dedication as an actor, Christian Bale was the perfect Bruce Wayne. Up until Bale donned the Batman cowl, we had never gotten to see Bruce Wayne go through his training to become what Kingdom Come writer Mark Waid called “the zenith of human fortitude and ambition.”

The franchise that did exist around the character was really more a celebration of scene-chewing villains. In 1989, Jack Nicholson famously received top billing over Michael Keaton. As good as Keaton looked in that first Batman suit, there was always the nagging sense that he and subsequent actors were just there to play the boring straight man for whatever zany member of Batman’s rogues gallery popped up next.

Bale’s Bruce Wayne changed all that, restoring dignity to the Dark Knight, by allowing the most human and relatable of all superheroes to carry his own movie, in which the villains were only supporting characters. With Nolan at the helm, this movie would revive the potency of the modern myth of Batman.

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The Prestige (2006)

Like Memento, The Prestige was a film that featured on many best-of-the-decade lists. It showed Nolan and Bale operating outside their new Batman wheelhouse as one of the most noteworthy director-and-actor collaborations of the decade. By the end of the 2000s, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio would only be two films into their collaboration. Nolan and Bale, on the other hand, would have three landmark films under their belt.

Listeners to the /Filmcast will recognize The Prestige as the film that has furnished the well-worn audio clip that plays before the spoilers section of every episode. “Now you’re looking for the secret,” begins the voice of Michael Caine.

At its heart, The Prestige is a movie about show business and dysfunctional creative people, conjurers of art who compete with each other and are ultimately consumed by personal jealousy, petty professional rivalry, and their own fractured relationship with themselves and the world around them.

Bale’s magician is the serious craftsman, who lives a life so supremely dedicated to uncompromising art that it costs him in the end. For his part, Hugh Jackman’s magician is the more audience-friendly showman, who kills a little piece of himself every night he goes up on stage in front of a large crowd. It happens over and over, with him losing facsimiles of himself to the audience, again and again, as if he were a person trapped in some unstoppable copy machine. Eventually there is no soul left in him at all, just echoes of the person he once was, floating ethereally in a burning theater.

In his own filmography, Nolan has struck a delicate balance between the work of a serious craftsman, and the work of an audience-friendly showman.

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