Dunkirk is amazing! It’s an absolute thrill to watch - preferably on the biggest screen you can find - and demonstrates just how good director Christopher Nolan can be when he’s firing on all cylinders. It’s far too early to tell if this war drama is his best film, but it definitely feels like a deftly handled fine tuning of his style and vision. It’s as if he sat down and made a list of everything he knew he was good at and all the stuff he struggled with, then sought to make a film almost completely devoid of the latter. As someone who has always liked Nolan, with major reservations, this was undoubtedly an exceptional cinematic experience and one I hope will garner him great success. Dunkirk currently has near universal critical acclaim and is making major bank at the box office. It’s already an Oscar favourite and, like Nolan’s small but adored filmography, it’s a film that will inspire discussion for many years.
I was almost relieved that I loved the film as much as I did. When Interstellar proved to be a disappointment - albeit a visually sumptuous one - I hesitated to share my thoughts in review form or even on social media for a while, partly out of unease. Later, I found out I wasn’t the only writer to do so, and seeing the screeds written in various comments sections, Twitter notifications and even e-mail inboxes reminded me of why. Even people who liked the film ended up dealing with fans who acted as if their mild criticisms were tantamount to calling the director a child molester. For several years now, few fan-bases have left me so discomfited and baffled as the Christopher Nolan fandom. How does someone who is incredibly talented but not a demanding or memorable personal presence like a Tarantino or Scorsese have such a zealous base of fans? What is it about this man’s work that elicits such fervent devotion, to the point where the slightest critical gaze at his work can result in anything from insults to harassment to threats?
This isn’t my first round at the fandom rodeo. I’ve had my fair share of tinhatter encounters and uncomfortable confrontations with some, to put it politely, enthusiastic devotees. Some John Green fans once threatened to punch me in the face; Benedict Cumberbatch’s fans never miss a moment to turn up in my Twitter mentions uninvited the moment I make a vague joke about him; The dregs of the Twilight fandom who still believe Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are a married couple in hiding continue to be desperate to prove their case to me, as does the 1 Direction Larry subset; My recent piece on Rooney Mara briefly mentioned the fans who insist she is gay and dating Cate Blanchett, and they wrote paragraphs about how ugly and pathetic I was (all while maintaining they didn’t really care about me. It was all rather entertaining). The nigh indecipherable ecosystem of fandom and its intricate societal standards are almost a second language to me, and I’m beyond being surprised by anything the internet throws at me, no matter how outlandish or deluded it gets.
He’s a London born guy with a British dad and American mother as well as an uncle who’s done a bit of acting. He grew up making his own films, went to a good university where he met his wife (and future producer), then worked in the industry for a bit while making his own short films, then made an impact with his tiny budget feature debut Following. That led to his major breakthrough film, Memento, who saw him become an Oscar nominee, and followed it up with the successful thriller Insomnia.Three years later, a little film called Batman Begins was released, and Nolan became a major star, reviving the caped crusader for the new millennium and breathing new life into the previously struggling superhero genre.
12 years later, it’s easy to undersell the impact Batman Begins has had on the industry, partly because it’s hard to remember a time when the phrase “dark and gritty” wasn’t an overused part of our cinematic vocabulary. Auteur driven “re-imaginings” of familiar material weren’t new when Nolan did it - Tim Burton got there with Batman first - but he certainly paved the path for a new standard for what are usually dismissed as kiddie stories. Once again, this wasn’t new for the genre. Comic books have always gone through the cycle of swerving into diluted commercialism, then having notable creators take the stories back to their bleaker roots. Batman himself underwent this evolution several times, from the Adam West campy delight of the 1960s TV show to the deconstructed political interrogations of Frank Miller. Before Nolan, the franchise had been declared dead in the water after Joel Schumacher’s neon frenzy Batman and Robin, which combined batsuit nipples with tooth-aching ice puns to the delight of nobody beyond toy manufacturers. He may have provided a more ambitious canvas, but Nolan was simply continuing a Bat-tradition in a new age.
Nevertheless, like Miller and contemporaries such as Alan Moore and Scott Snyder, Nolan was praised by fans for doing what they considered to be the right interpretation of Batman. Not only that, but he legitimized the genre to wider audiences and critics alike after it had been written off thanks to the Schumacher era. That obviously inspired some devotion to Nolan. Now, the geeks weren’t just cool; they were artistic.
With that is a new age of geekdom, one where literally anyone is a geek: Everyone with Angry Birds on their phone is a gamer, and Marvel movies are fuel for the masses. There’s no exclusivity in being a geek on that level, and there’s no need for it, yet many are driven to recreate that tight-knit hub. A lot of that urge is reflected in those Nolan fans, the ones who see even the most minute forms of criticism against his work as a concerted attack against the genre. Nolan, following in the immense footsteps of Spielberg and Lucas, brought blockbuster film-making into that sweet spot of major critical appraisal and billion-dollar success. That brings with it a deeper level of scrutiny, as all great criticism is inclined to do.
Sadly, there is still a prevailing insistence among many that any form of critique, however big or small, is an attack from an out-of-touch elite. Before we were all being accused of receiving cheques from Marvel to keep DC movies slumming it on the lowest level of Rotten Tomatoes rankings, critics were lambasted by Nolan fans for having a vague agenda against his work and what it represented. Never mind that Nolan, who made $20m for directing Dunkirk, is essentially review-proof at this point: The illusion of perfection must be kept at all costs. It’s one of the reasons review aggregate sites are so fetishized. Nolan’s 10 films have an average Rotten Tomatoes rating of 85%, and all but one of them have been declared fresh. He’s hardly struggling for acclaim or fighting against preconceptions of his chosen genre. Zack Snyder and many of the DC directors who followed in Nolan’s footsteps have received similarly zealous fan responses, but the DCU in its current form - before Wonder Woman saved us all - was a creative and critical mess. At least there, the people invested in that franchise in its current state felt they had something to fight for, however misguided they were. Nolan has no battles that need to be fought.
Interrogating the darkest aspects of fandom can be a futile effort. Why search for reason in a community that practically gallops away from the concept? Sometimes, people are just defensive of the things they like for no reason beyond liking what they do. We’re inclined to protect the stuff we love because we still believe, even when confronted with reason that refutes it, that attacks against it are attacks against ourselves. I was 15 when Batman Begins was released and I remember boys in my high school classes who threw themselves at the altar of the film, just as I had done with various actors and authors. There are few greater cultural loves than finding a thing that feels like it was made just for you. I think that’s why Nolan, completely unwittingly, entices so many worshippers to his realm. If you’ve found solace in comic books and geek culture but felt shunned for it, and this guy comes along with a mission to legitimise those mediums, then of course you’re going to love him. But that mindset can often come with major blinders, and over-investing in one guy never ends well. Your heroes will inevitably disappoint you and that’s okay. They’ll never satisfying everyone, and nor should they, so don’t make it your job to be their internet bodyguard.
The odd thing is I’m not sure Christopher Nolan knows or even cares about the devotion his work has inspired. Truth be told, he seems like a pretty chill guy who just wants to make big movies and hang out with his cool wife and kids. He’d probably tell these fans to relax and stop worrying so much about everything. I wonder if they’d listen to him.