We all have something in our childhood years that we feel nostalgic about or, if we’re not quite old enough yet to get past the urge to reject our childhood years, a little ashamed of them. (If you’re not even that old yet, it’s okay. You’re still allowed to read this post.)
For me, it’s comic books. For about a decade, until I started college, I was obsessed with comics the way a junkie is obsessed with hypodermic needles. This was in an earlier era when comics weren’t quite as adult-oriented as they’ve become in recent years and Stan Lee was just inventing Marvel’s Silver Age line-up of heroes. In fact, if it weren’t for Lee, I probably would have stopped reading comics by age 12, but Spiderman put the hypodermic back in my vein. He had all the same problems I did. He was a geek, he was out of place with his contemporaries, he had no idea what to do around the opposite sex, and he kept having to deal with erections, by which I mean tall buildings that could only be surmounted by shooting a sticky web-like substance into the air and soaring off through the skyscrapers like Tarzan swinging through the treetops.
We all have to grow up, though, and eventually I outgrew comics. The funny thing is, comic books kept refusing to let me outgrow them. And no one except perhaps the genius at Marvel Studios who figured out how to reassemble the Avengers has had more to do with this than Christopher Nolan. I don’t know whether the credit should go to director Nolan, his writer brother Jonathan, or frequent comic-book-movie scripter David S. Goyer, but when the movie Batman Begins came out in 2005, it made me see comic books in a whole new light. Until then superheroes existed in their own cartoon universe, where a peculiar set of rules insisted that they wear spangly costumes, battle supervillains who actually saw themselves as villains (all writers should make note of this immediately: real people don’t think of themselves as villains) and rely on science fictional tropes for about two-thirds of their plot devices.
Nolan asked a question that, with a couple of exceptions (notably Alan Moore in Watchmen), nobody had really asked before: If there were superheroes in the real world, what would they be like? If they wore costumes, why would they wear them? If they fought villains, what would those villains be like? Nolan tackled perennial favorite Batman, an obvious target because his lack of superpowers made him one of the most realistic of superheroes, and put him in a film noir universe where his bizarre activities made sense, his costume and fancy set of wheels had genuine utility, and the villains rarely bothered to dress up in Halloween costumes before threatening the eternally fragile peace of Gotham City. He even gave the villains realistic motivations: Ra’s al Ghul really believed he was going to save the world from crime — from Ra’s al Ghul’s viewpoint he was the hero and Batman was the villain — and the Scarecrow (who never actually called himself that, at least as far as I recall) was just a clever experimental psychologist on the payroll of a crime boss.
It all made sense and not the loony kind of sense that Tim Burton’s Batman had made. It only took a little suspension of disbelief to accept that Nolan’s world was real. It was dark, it was exciting and Christian Bale’s unexpectedly charismatic performance held it together like the glue in Spiderman’s web spurter. Batman Begins left me gasping in my seat when it was over and Nolan never equaled it in the remaining two movies of his trilogy, which were just bloated and pretentious rehashes of the original. It didn’t matter, though. Nolan had created a new paradigm and it has slowly but surely begun to stick. (Some credit should go to Bryan Singer for his more realistic depiction of the X-Men in the early 2000s, but — let’s face it — those movies just weren’t as good as Nolan’s.)
Now we’re beginning to see the Nolan approach take root in other gardens, comic book and otherwise, and until it becomes an overdone cliche I expect to see more of it in the future. The most obvious example is the series Arrow on the CW network, which might as well be called Green Arrow Begins. Even in the late 1950s, the superhero Green Arrow had been DC comics own cut-rate clone of the more successful Batman and he’s proved himself to be an apt candidate for the Nolan treatment. Like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, zillionaire Oliver Queen disappeared for several years, became tough and expert in exotic methods of fighting, then returned to clean up crime in his home town. (Gotham City is now Starling City, but not much else has changed.) His costume, at least until the most recent episode, is little more than a hoodie with some greasepaint under his eyes to make him unrecognizable even to friends — improbable, but only a little — and his only superpower is those tricked-out arrows, which aren’t much more fantastic than the gadgets Lucius Fox stuffed in Bruce Wayne’s utility belt. And the villains, even the more over-the-top ones, feel noirishly real. The show itself is little more than a slickly executed soap opera, but I’m glad to see superheroes treated realistically on television at all — Smallville, for all its attempts at realism and the brilliant performances of John Glover and Michael Rosenbaum as Lionel Luthor and his prematurely bald son Lex, was still more than a little silly — and I’m even more thrilled to see that the producers are apparently spinning off a second series based on a far greater superhero, the Flash. (I was actually rather stunned to see that their visualization of the Flash’s origin almost exactly matched my memory of the origin of the Silver Age Flash in the 1956 Showcase #4, with the quite reasonable addition of an out-of-control particle accelerator to replace the original lightning bolt.) If they can Nolanize the Flash at least as well as they’ve Nolanized Green Arrow, the producers have my kudos and a permanent setting on my DVR.
Perhaps the most surprising result of Nolanization is the new version of Lara Croft in the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider video game series. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Tomb Raider games. Lara Croft, a female Indiana Jones, has never been much more than a Barbie Doll with guns and improbable athletic skills. The games have always been mildly diverting and more than a little frustrating every time Lara fails at her trademark circus act of jumping from vines to ledges and climbing walls while shooting wolves and falling to her screaming death. But the reboot, which takes us back to Lara’s teenage years (which bear a remarkable resemblance to the backstory on Arrow, with Lara shipwrecked on a remote island crawling with AK-47-wielding bad guys), is surprisingly realistic. The carefully rendered graphics make Lara seem real and deeply human, and her sexiness is now just an incidental part of her character, not something for horny teenage boys to stare at while following her curvaceous buttocks down endless cavern hallways.
Tomb Raider 2.0 is a big game and, at last count, I was only about 37 percent of the way through it. (The map screen tracks your progress through the story.) If the rest of the game holds up as well as the first part, though, I look forward to the series that will inevitably follow and seeing Lara grow out of her teenage insecurities into a character realistic enough for someone like Christopher Nolan to make a movie about. (Let’s face it: The Angelina Jolie films weren’t exactly Lucasfilm productions.) I wouldn’t mind seeing the Nolanization of some other classic video game characters, though Super Mario Begins might be carrying things a bit far. Bethesda Softworks has already created their own Nolan-like world in the Elder Scrolls series, where in games like Skyrim the interactive environment seems about as real as a fantasy universe could.
We all need cartoons when we’re kids and sometimes we need them when we’re adults too. They provide a means of depicting the world with the absurdity that it deserves far too much of the time. But cartoons also have to grow up and if Batman, Green Arrow and Lara Croft can do it, I fully expect the Powerpuff Girls one day to star in a Sex in the City reboot. There’s a deep charm in the idea that the fantasies of our childhoods can mature even as we do and that Lara Croft can reinvent herself as a real person.
Well, a real person who can still jump from ledges, swing on vines, and climb walls while shooting at wolves. Some things should never change.