Beyond Batman: Christopher Nolan Really Is Hollywood’s Best New Talent

He makes smart, thought-provoking blockbusters — and he does it so well

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Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Director Christopher Nolan arrives at a Warner Bros. Pictures presentation to promote his upcoming movie, "The Dark Knight Rises" at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, April 24, 2012 in Las Vegas

What, exactly, do you want from a summer blockbuster? That’s the question that came to mind reading Lev Grossman’s commentary on Christopher Nolan’s movies, because I found myself agreeing with almost everything he says, and yet somehow, I fall on the opposite end of the like/dislike spectrum when it comes to the Dark Knight director.

I’d be the first to agree, for example, that Nolan’s movies seem overlong, especially The Dark Knight; anyone who knows me will be familiar with my twin theories that that particular movie is roughly two days long and is actually both the second and third parts of a trilogy that someone accidentally forgot to split in two before sending to theaters. (Part of the joy of that theory, for me, is imagining Nolan at the premiere, watching as Two-Face appears, realizing the mistake and thinking “Great, now I have to come up with another final chapter.”) Inception, too, seemed a particularly lengthy movie that lead to the continual expectation of “Okay, so this is the end, right? No, wait, this…” The repeated inability to actually end is, to me, the greatest flaw of Nolan’s work — that his ambition can sometimes overpower his narratives, forcing him to get tangled up in overly complicated explanations en route to whatever endpoint he’d originally planned to reach.

(MORE: TIME’s Review of The Dark Knight Rises: To the Depths, to the Heights)

I’d also admit that Nolan’s characters tend to have motivations that range from “unclear” to “downright ridiculous,” but part of me recoils from that as a reason to dislike the movies, as strange as that sounds. After all, the writing is consistently the weakest part of any Nolan production — not just motivations, but dialogue as well, or any scene that requires something other than pure plot manipulation — but I find myself thinking, who goes to see a Christopher Nolan movie for the story? every time I go near this particular criticism. In all of Nolan’s movies, the lure has never been the words, but his particular combination of words and ideas. Inception is a great movie, for example, but think about what people remember about it. It’s not the core narrative about Cobb recovering from the loss of his wife while self-sabotaging in a realm where that can literally be deadly, but the ideas and images that dress up that story: the ability to push lucid dreaming in other people’s dreams, the questioning of reality, the folding city and the spinning top.

The same emphasis on ideas and images over writing is true of The Dark Knight — although there, Heath Ledger’s performance really gives what should be terrible dialogue a wonderful edge — and arguably in Nolan’s other movies, each of which contains at least one sizable plot hole, but just as many moments of breathtaking imagery. (The one thing that everyone remembers from Memento, for example, is Guy Pierce’s annotated anatomy, rather than what the movie was ostensibly about.) What sticks with us are singular, amazing images and the concepts that shaped them. That’s what makes or breaks a Christopher Nolan movie, more than anything else.

(That said, Nolan has a tendency to get very watchable performances from the majority of actors he works with. He managed to make Leonardo DiCaprio watchable — I didn’t even want to make jokes about him looking like a brussel sprout with stubble, for the love of God. That takes some doing. With the possible exception of Christian Bale’s Batman — whose attempt at a threatening whisper remains a particularly amusing highpoint of superhero moviedom, if admittedly for the wrong reasons — Nolan consistently manages to bring a likable, charming, yet entirely professional presence to the men and women appearing in his films. So maybe I should add “he’s an actor’s director” to my list of his good points.)

(MORE: Is Hollywood Going to Kill Batman Next Week?)

For me, a lot of Nolan’s appeal rests in the fact that his movies are the summer blockbuster formula (i.e. name actors + eye candy + high concept = profit) done right. Or, perhaps, done differently enough from the norm that they’re compelling and interesting for that very reason, no matter what may be wrong within each one. Movie after movie, everything from Memento on, has managed to give the audience everything it demands from a summer blockbuster, but in a different way from which they’re used to receiving it; imagine the difference between a McDonalds burger and, I don’t know, a Zuni burger or something. Both do the same thing, but one just does it… I was going to write “better,” but I really just mean “differently.”

The McDonalds burger in this confused metaphor is Michael Bay, for his sins. For me, Bay’s Transformers: Dark of The Moon is some kind of magical manifestation of the perfected generic summer blockbuster. (Before you scoff, consider the visual bombast and sensory overload he brings to that movie, the familiar faces in background roles, simple plots that refuse to make any narrative sense beyond “and then this happened” and unspeakably banal rock songs playing over the end titles that makes you wonder whether or not you’ve accidentally slipped back to 1994.) Bay is the figurehead of a movie movement whose acolytes include Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon. There’s nothing wrong with this version of things at all — Who didn’t like Avengers, after all? — but it’s the same kind of thing that we get from countless movies, and it’s an easy option; you just sit there and get passively entertained by all the pretty colors, quips and obvious big moments. Sometimes, its nice to have something else.

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This is where Nolan gets major points from me. It’s not just that his movies look amazing or have great performances or smart and/or interesting ideas behind them; I find the fact that he continually subverts the expectations of the summer blockbuster quasi-genre to be something worth not only pointing out, but applauding. It would be easy — and safe, which is something that shouldn’t be ignored when dealing with something as ridiculously expensive and risky as the Batman movie franchise or the $160,000,000 it took to make Inception — to follow the herd, but Nolan continually does his own thing, thankfully finding critical and financial success in the process. That’s kind of wonderful to me, and even if that’s all Nolan had going for him, that would earn him a pass for any flat action sequences that he’s produced. That he does that with movies that are smart, thought-provoking and repeatedly beautiful, earns him a lot more. Nolan’s movies aren’t perfect — Whose are? — but they consistently go outside of the norm in ways that are ambitious both for the director and the audience, and I will always appreciate them for that, and want to see what he’s going to so next.

Plus, seriously: How can you dislike the movies of a director who has seemingly made it his mission in life to keep Michael Caine in work? For shame, Lev.

COUNTERPOINT: Lev Grossman doesn’t really like Christopher Nolan’s movies all that much