Friday, April 19, 2024

Looking At The Career Parallels Between Christopher Nolan & Greta Gerwig

The slogan “Barbenheimer” will forever unite Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan, despite the dramatic differences between “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer,” and Gerwig and Nolan’s filmographies as a whole. Yet while Gerwig could not be more different from Nolan in her stories, her style, or the kind of characters she centers on she and Nolan have far more career similarities than one might think – with “Barbie” as the next step on her Nolan-like journey.

Like Nolan, Gerwig first broke out as a director with a small but beloved indie movie, then helmed a remake as her follow-up. But then, like Nolan, Gerwig suddenly received a blockbuster budget to revive a decades-old, much-loved but much-derided character for Warner Bros, in a way no one had helmed that character before. Now in a matter of days, time will tell if Gerwig’s “Barbie” is her personal “Batman Begins,” much like “Lady Bird” was her own “Memento” and “Little Women” was her own “Insomnia.”

Once upon a time, Nolan started as an independent filmmaker with the small but widely talked about “Memento” in 2000. It technically wasn’t his first film because he made the overlooked “Following” in 1998, but “Memento” was still treated like the debut of a brand new voice. Two years later, Nolan got a slightly bigger budget and studio backing for his next film, although it was a remake of another property instead of something he made up himself. Nonetheless, “Insomnia” was still reworked into Nolan’s already distinctive style and tropes.

Also, once upon a time, Gerwig started as an independent filmmaker with the small but widely talked about “Lady Bird” in 2017. It technically wasn’t her first film because she co-directed the overlooked “Nights and Weekends” with Joe Swanberg in 2008, but “Lady Bird” was still treated like the debut of a brand new voice. Two years later, Gerwig got a slightly bigger budget and studio backing for her next film, although it was a remake of another property instead of something she made up himself. Nonetheless, “Little Women” was still reworked into Gerwig’s already distinctive style and tropes.

In their debut but not really debut films, both Gerwig and Nolan took genres that had been fairly worn – the coming-of-age film and the revenge and memory loss genres – and revived them with fresh new perspectives and approaches. Then when it came time to prove “Lady Bird” and “Memento” weren’t flukes, they did so by making already established stories their own instead of like any other remake. What’s more, while Gerwig used “Little Women” to reimagine Amy March in a brand-new light, Nolan used “Insomnia” to reimagine Robin Williams in a more villainous light, though he was one of three directors to do that in 2002 alone. But then, for Nolan, he got upgraded to the biggest of blockbuster stages and never looked back. Now eighteen years later, Gerwig will soon do the same, in a way more similar to Nolan than one might first think.

When Warner Bros gave Nolan his first blockbuster movie, it asked him to reimagine a character who had been an American and world icon for decades, had already been reimagined in countless ways and forms, had gone back and forth between being taken seriously and derided as the campiest fluff, and whose name and brand began with a B. Yet their story had been told, remade, and remolded for so long in so many ways; the only reason another remake looked remotely promising at the time was because someone as unconventional as Nolan was making it.

Ultimately, that unconventional approach brought about “Batman Begins,” the launch of the Dark Knight trilogy, Batman’s finest cinematic hours, and Nolan as perhaps the most prominent new blockbuster director of the 21st century. Batman BeginsLikewise, when Warner Bros gave Gerwig her first big-budget movie, it asked her to reimagine another American and world icon, who’d literally been reimagined dozens upon dozens of times on toy shelves and other mediums. Like Batman, she had also spent decades going back and forth between being taken seriously – if not more seriously than ever intended – and being dismissed as high and outdated camp. And like with “Batman Begins,” the only reason anyone took the notion of a new movie about her seriously – at least before casting was announced – is because someone as unconventional as Gerwig was making it.

Ultimately, that unconventional approach is about to bring “Barbie,” the launch of a potential Mattel cinematic universe, Barbie’s potential finest pop culture hour, and Gerwig as the possible next significant blockbuster director – at least if Netflix’s plans to have her adapt the Narnia series pan out.

Naturally, there are still fears about a director and a voice like Gerwig tying herself to larger studio projects, fantasy films, and characters like Barbie. Yet those same concerns were surely voiced when Nolan went from “Memento” and “Insomnia” to the Batman universe. He indeed never returned to smaller movies – with the possible comparable exception of “The Prestige” – but “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” promptly proved a bigger canvas didn’t shrink his personal vision.

“Batman Begins” was the first proof of concept that someone like Nolan could survive in the blockbuster formula and even subvert it. What’s more, he could even subvert and revitalize a character who had been remade and argued about to death since early WWII. Despite how “Batman & Robin” was seen as the death of Batman in the cinema just eight years earlier, Nolan’s more thoughtful approach to him and his legacy than merely using him for Mattel toy sales gave him a new life.

In this case, “Barbie” is projected to be the proof of concept that someone like Gerwig can still survive in the blockbuster formula and subvert it – even under the thumb of David Zaslav’s Warner Bros. What’s more, she is out to subvert and revitalize a character who has been remade and argued about to death since 1959. Despite how many a critic has complained that we don’t need Barbie anymore and never really did, Gerwig’s more thoughtful approach to her and her legacy than merely using her for Mattel toy sales is poised to give her new life.

In addition to the curiosity factor of someone like Gerwig tackling Barbie, it also has the added bonus of feeling like half of Hollywood is involved too, between Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken as well as Will Ferrell, Simi Liu, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, America Ferrera, dozens more Barbies and Kens and the likes of Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish on the soundtrack. Likewise, Nolan made it feel like “Batman Begins” had half of Hollywood involved too, between Christian Bale and Michael Caine as Batman and Alfred, as well as Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Katie Holmes, Ken Watanabe, Tom Wilkinson and more, as well as Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, uniting on the soundtrack.

Of course, massive all-star casts for Nolan became commonplace since “Oppenheimer” appeared to cast everyone in Hollywood that “Barbie” didn’t snatch up first. But in 2005, having so many all-stars for a brand new Batman movie under a brand new director untested in blockbusters and pop culture iconography was a major gamble. Eighteen years later, it’s Gerwig’s turn to make that kind of gamble for a mid-summer Warner Bros movie that examines an icon like never before and puts her under deeper scrutiny than ever before on the big screen.

Of course, when Nolan did this for Batman in 2005, he stood alone on opening weekend without any competition or help. But despite their own competition, Gerwig and “Barbie” are still poised to win “Barbenheimer weekend” by a wide margin at the box office, with ever-increasing opening weekend projections that Hollywood desperately needs to come true. Still, while “Barbie” might win the battle at the box office, Nolan and “Oppenheimer” could yet win in awards season – such as it might become in a SAG/WGA strike or post-strike landscape.

Whatever side wins the “Barbenheimer” wars in the short or long game, Gerwig and Nolan will forever be joined together from this unique moment in pop culture time. Yet while countless jokes and memes have been made about how different and widely opposite “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” are, Gerwig and Nolan are another matter, if only career-wise.

They are still very different since Gerwig was acting long before she moved to directing, unlike Nolan. And while Gerwig has defined herself in telling stories about women, Nolan has still barely featured any female characters that he didn’t kill off, make a mere wife/girlfriend or sidekick, or reveal as a villain. Plus, no matter if Gerwig makes more Barbie or Narnia movies or her own original big studio films from here, they likely won’t take PHDs to solve like with many a Nolan film. Even so, if “Barbie” indeed does for Gerwig what “Batman Begins” did for Nolan, it won’t be the first time Gerwig has been Nolan-esque in her rise up the directorial A-list.

Are you seeing both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” this weekend? Which one are you seeing first? What Oscar nominations do you think they will receive? Please let us know in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account. Thank you!

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984

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