While doing research for my article on the deeper bottoms of Christopher Nolan’s films , I found a submission on the Quora question platform that made me laugh: “Do girls like Christopher Nolan?”. This girl is a fan, yes. But ultimately that question is interesting. Because Nolan’s protagonists are almost all white men (John David Washington is finally changing that), and according to many Nolan has a “women’s problem”. Is that true? Yes and no.
As with the comment that his characters seem a bit impersonal or cold, I can see why people say that, but I don’t quite agree with it myself. Nolan has no intention of creating intimate dramas, and it shows in that approach. Plus, I don’t need to know every character’s backstory to empathize with them.
Nevertheless, one of the most popular filmmakers catches the eye of many for its lack of three-dimensional female characters. Even though all women on the globe are now used to empathizing with men, the reverse turns out to be a tricky issue. Is that his problem? If we take a closer look at Nolan’s films, there are both good and bad examples of (nuanced) female roles.
Dead in the fridge
Let’s start with the most striking choice Nolan makes for the women in his films. As Vulture also pointed out , there are a lot of dead wives in Nolan movies. If Nolan’s own wife Emma Thomas wasn’t his regular collaborator and producer, I’d be concerned. Especially since fridging can soon be lurking around the corner. In this fictional trope, female characters are mistreated, raped or murdered to make the male hero spring into action.
The most oversimplified example of fridging can be found in The Prestige† Two magicians (Hugh Jackmans Angier and Christian Bales Borden) become popular together, until a trick by Borden goes wrong and Angier’s wife and assistant Julia (Piper Perabo) dies. Borden claims he doesn’t remember anything about the accident. Angier can’t stand that and the two men become mortal enemies. Julia’s death serves no purpose other than to push Angier into the path of obsession and resentment, and Nolan could accomplish that in another way. In fact, in Christopher Priest’s original book, Julia lives but miscarries. That choice is also a trope that (mainly male) writers like to use, but at least the woman is still involved. For a screenwriter who spends years working on his films, Julia’s fate is quite lazy.
Somewhere in between
In the Batman trilogy, both Bruce’s (Christian Bale) mother and his father die, and since no Batman movie has touched that part of the story yet, we can’t really blame him. But Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal) is also coming to an end, and that development leans against fridging. Indeed , in The Dark Knight , Rachel’s death has a metamorphic effect on Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who loses his goodness and nearly kills a child. Bruce reacts completely differently: he locks himself up for 7 years and refuses to move on with his life.
In other movies, dead wives aren’t so much a part of the plot as something a man has to learn to live with. In Interstellar , Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) doesn’t always have an easy time raising his kids without his wife. Inception then floats somewhere in between. Mal (Marion Cotillard) has passed away, but we as viewers won’t know that until Ariadne finds out. The whole plot actually revolves around Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who cannot accept her death (and his part in it). Unlike Julia, however, Mal’s death is partly the result of her own development and personality.
In Dunkirk , not a single woman dies, because there are no significant roles for them either. We can hardly rebuke him for that, since it is a war film.
If you look at it that way, Christopher Nolan would rather lose the women in his movies than get rich. Fortunately, there is a bright spot. When the women are given a bigger role, they are more often than not good role models.
Rachel may die in The Dark Knight , but that doesn’t just affect the fictional men. In Nolan’s characterization, Rachel is the heart of the story. Already in Batman Begins she had a strong sense of good and evil and she was not only the unconditional support of the main character. What’s more, she points out Bruce’s mistakes and shakes him awake. She doesn’t even become his love interest in the end . As a prosecutor, she doesn’t wait for a Batman to help her city, but tries it herself through legal channels. In addition, Rachel is a creation of Nolan and not a character from the comics.
In The Dark Knight Rises , Nolan even has room for 2 prominent women: Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). If we weren’t all looking forward to RBattz and Zoë Kravitz, I would have loved to see another movie with Hathaway’s rendition of Catwoman. Her Selina Kyle is not a psychopath out for revenge (like Michelle Pfeiffer’s version) but a thief who is tired of crime. You can’t call her a Robin Hood either, because she mainly thinks about her own interests. Yet there is something very recognizable and vulnerable about her. She also has a sense of humor and uses her femininity and apparent innocence to manipulate blank men. She knows how the world works.
Miranda Tate, or Thalia Al-Ghul, similarly deceives Bruce Wayne – and also the viewer until the end of the film. She is very intelligent and at the same time the head of The League of Shadows and Wayne Enterprises. Do both women have to be master manipulators, you may ask? Maybe not, but rather that than two damsels-in-distress.
Mal from Inception is also often described as a femme fatale. The problem with that characterization is that we never really see it with ‘our own eyes’. Cobb struggles with his guilt, which may be coloring his memories of her. By staging the circumstances of her death herself, Mal manipulated her husband, but in the end it was he who drove her to do so. Or as Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) says to Ariadne (Ellen Page): “She was lovely.” Unfortunately, we don’t get to see that side of Mal.
Ariadne, on the other hand, like Rachel on Batman , is the moral heart of Inception . As a dream layperson, she is also the access point and stand-in for the public. The architect views the Fischer case with a more critical eye than the rest of the team. When Cobb is too self-righteous and broken to fulfill the assignment, she keeps a cool head and comes up with a solution. She is confident and proud of her intelligence.
An even bigger revelation is Murph(y) Cooper (Jessica Chastain). It’s no secret that Nolan made Interstellar with his own daughter in mind. He turned the son in his brother Jonathan Nolan’s original script into a daughter. Throughout the film, we think Father Cooper is the hero who sacrifices himself, but in the end he turns out to be just a pawn for what his daughter will accomplish. She saves humanity, just like Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway). Admittedly, Cooper plays a big part in that, but he also saw that not him but both women were the key. Two scientists with their own mind and a lot of self-confidence. Who runs the world? Right, yes.
Tenet goes backwards and forwards (pun intended)
Looking back at the past doesn’t change the present, of course. Tenet is ambitious, well acted and raises a thousand questions. Unfortunately, one of those questions is, “Why don’t the women have more depth?” Admittedly, the lack of an emotional connection to the characters is generally the biggest disappointment of the film. But then the women in Tenet get the short straw.
Clémence Poésy plays a scientist who teaches the Protagonist the tricks of inversion and then disappears again. She is part of the Tenet organization, but Poésy’s role is limited to that scene. It wasn’t until I saw fan theories about her (Is she the creator of the algorithm that inverted herself to work with the Protagonist?) that I realized her character’s name is Laura. It would have been nice if she had been part of the team, but at least Nolan is continuing his trend of female scientists.
Nolan is clearly aware of the sometimes old-fashioned sides of the spy genre. When the Protagonist goes looking for an arms dealer in Mumbai, he naturally thinks it’s a man. Turns out his wife is the most powerful link. Priya (Dimple Kapadia) likes to keep up appearances: “A masculine front in a man’s world has its uses.” Touché, but put your money where your mouth is , Nolan.
Because that is precisely why it is a pity that the main female lead character is a cliché damsel-in-distress, especially in the beginning. Katherine (Elizabeth Debicki, who is also allowed to grow up here ) is the wife of super villain Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a kind of Thanos who wants to sacrifice the world because we killed it. He holds his wife in an iron grip, even though he knows she no longer loves him. She stays with him for her son and a rather complicated plot of intrigue with art.
The Protagonist and Neil see that she can add value to their mission. Once she finds out what Sator is up to, Katherine’s anger wins over her fear and despair for her son. She wants the world to save him and stop Sator. Just as he (and the Protagonist) always had, she uses his weakness against him. She tells him that she wants to start over to save their relationship. When he’s nearing completion of his Endgame plan, she refuses to give him any mercy. She shoots him and throws him off his yacht without boo or ba. A new life with her son can begin.
The evolution that Kat is going through has worked out well for Nolan, because she does it almost completely alone. She only gets the necessary information from the Protagonist and Neil, she acts on it. Actress Elizabeth Debicki herself does not think that Kat is just a victim. At the beginning of the film she has lost herself because Sator has her under his control. She no longer believes that there is any other way. The Protagonist and her own role in the heist changes that. It’s just a shame we spend so much more time with the desperate Kat than with her angry and enterprising side. Then the unfortunate beginning would be less noticeable.
Chris Nolan can certainly bring nuanced and evolving female characters to the big screen. But the generally low number of women in his films makes it seem like he often just falls into cliches. Quantity isn’t necessarily quality, but if he puts in a little more effort, not only his fanboys but also his fangirls will feel that he’s making his movies for us too. When is it our turn to be the Protagonist?