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12 Best Characters in Christopher Nolan Movies, Ranked

Updated August 19, 2017
12 min read

Christopher Nolan’s panache as a filmmaker is not an unheard fact. A glorifying career thus far has managed to marvel the cinematic audience in one way or other in every attempt he has taken upon. Directing films spanning over different genres, yet giving them a style of his own, he has been able to gather people’s attention more often than not. His films are universal in its nature and are widely accepted, which makes him one of the most well-liked and easily accessible directors working today. Starting of his career with experimental short films and low budget films like any other studious filmmaker of his age, the instant fame he managed to gain with his cheeky, yet massively indulging style, sky-rocketed when he later directed The Batman Trilogy and from then on his films has got cult fan following all over the world.

Arguably, the most overlooked facet when it comes to his films is the characters appearing in his works. This is often attributed to the heavy reliability on the plot when it comes to his films, because of which the characters are felt a bit underwhelmed. But they are as fascinating and absorbing as the other aspects of his film-making. Ultimately, we as film lovers are more often than not are essentially allured by this fact. Hence, let us take a look at the list of top 12 Christopher Nolan characters in his films.

12. Ra’s Al Ghul – Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Ra’s Al Ghul, the villain-cum-mentor of Batman in the trilogy, is a key character that helped the evolution of Batman as the savior of Gotham and also contributed to his ideals in a great way. It was Nolan’s idea to use the same person as the mentor and villain in the first installment of the trilogy, thus arousing the intrigue of portraying different shades of dispositions that one character can possess and also imparting the uncertainty in the storyline. Ra’s al Ghul, in his younger days was a mercenary who got separated from his wife and child and then joined the League of Shadows. Later in his older days he finds Bruce Wayne and trains him well to fight against Gotham, which Wayne disobeys. In fact character wise he is as rich as Wayne and wants to defeat the evil and corruption in the world and his power as a character is revealed in his short appearance in the last part of the trilogy

11. Mal Cobb – Inception (2010)

Mal Cobb was the wife of Dom Cobb, whom both together invented the idea of dream sharing. During a particular instance of this sharing they both are trapped in the ‘Limbo’ and when they wake up, this dream becomes Mal’s false reality. Unable to accept her reality and in the hope of saving herself she commits suicide. In this film Mal is essentially the antagonist or threat. She reflects what all can go wrong if the dream sharing is not done properly. She often sabotages Dom in his dreams and forces him to join her and thereby hurting his fellow teammates too. It is also Dom’s idea of guilt in his wife’s death that invariably forces him to go on with the mission to prove him true.

10. Robert Angier – The Prestige (2006)

Angier, one of the two magicians in the film whose feud with each other becomes the driving force of the story, is one of Nolan’s imaginative characters. Both the magicians are fighting upon each other to top in their respective acts, and Angier at one point is extremely disappointed when his rival successfully completes the ‘Transporting Man’ and he is constantly in search for the secret of this throughout the film. The dark side of the rivalry between both is reflected mainly through Angier. He is selfish in his acts and is always in quest of people’s appreciation rather than admiring the art itself. And he is ready to go to any extreme to make his wishes possible. We see how this immorality and greed of his works against him at the end of the film.

9. Alfred Pennyworth – The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-12)

Michael Caine has been a regular in Nolan films and his character as Alfred Pennyworth is of immense influence in the trilogy. He serves as the butler of the Wayne family and he is the most apt spiritual and mental guide that anyone can aspire to and in this case his affection with Bruce is almost unparalleled as any other character relation in Nolan’s films. It is to be noted, although interestingly, that the trilogy begins with showing relationship of him and Wayne and ends in an iconic cafe scene where they exchange friendly glances which marks the significance of his character. They have mutual respect and Batman always listens to his advises. In the midst of saving his city when Batman often forgets about his social life, Alfred constantly tries to keep it together and is never disturbed with Wayne’s harsh responses.

8. Walter Finch – Insomnia (2002)

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One of the rare instances where the marvelous Robin Williams played an antagonist, through ‘Walter Finch’ we see a quirky villain who silently emerges to be a threatening force in “Insomnia”. Seemingly he doesn’t possess any mannerisms of a villainous character, and Nolan justifies this accurately by casting Williams for the role. He is a crime novel writer who develops an interest towards a student of his and later kills her revealing his psychopathic spirit underneath. Being an established crime novelist he is always one step ahead of the Police and even manages to distract an experienced detective. His acts are never too extreme, but it is the subtlety that arouses the actual psychopathic nature.

7. Bane – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Bane is the essential villain in the final installment of the trilogy, played by another regular companion of Nolan, Tom hardy. He also was a part of the League of Shadows, where he joined by saving Ra’s al Ghul daughter Talia from The Pit. Bane is ruthless and cold, and was perfectly willing to slaughter millions of people. Bane’s habit of casually talking to people that he planned to hurt made him a disarming presence, which allowed him to maintain dominance in any situation. He was extremely calm, and spoke softly and confidently at all times, even when he threatened people. He was always trustworthy to Talia. He possessed extreme strengths, with his only limitation being the mask which resulted from the attack in The Pit. Nolan himself quoted Bane is what Batman could have become if he continued in the League of Shadows, which shows the eminence of Bane’s character.

6. Alfred Borden – The Prestige (2006)

Yet again one of the magicians in “The Prestige”, Alfred Borden is one who manages to win the hearts of the viewers at the end of the day in this film. Although not a great showman, he was one of the true artists in his field of work, and he went in search of new boundaries by willing to take risks unlike his partner. His predominant intentions were not necessarily in pleasing the public, but to be noted as one of the true and best magicians to have lived in his era. He is very cunning and often straight-forward with his acts, and he strives hardly and cleverly for his aims. Above all he respected the purity of the art that he followed and was never willing to put down anything for the love of it. He had love and compassion, and stayed true to his self throughout the course of the film, which makes him the hero at the end of the film among the two.

5. Bruce Wayne or Batman – The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12)

The story of Bruce Wayne is known far and wide all over the world. A child who witnesses the death of his parents in front of him pledges to save the world from similar criminals and who thus does that. Just because this story is known to everyone and is well received doesn’t mean that it is easy for a director to adapt it onscreen. In fact it only makes his job harder, and Nolan and Bale together create a world of the Dark Knight like no other we have seen before. Christian Bale’s performance in this trilogy is arguably the best superhero depiction on screen ever. Portraying the evolution of the child who turned his worst fear as his strength to fight his enemies, this Batman in the Nolanverse thrashed the usual superhero beliefs and gave us a new experience altogether.

4. Joseph Cooper – Interstellar (2014)

Speaking of the prodigious “Interstellar”, we can never forget the man in charge of the epic mission Joseph ‘Coop’ Cooper. A widowed father of two children who has to take a substantial decision of whether to take upon a mission of absolute uncertainty that has come in search of him or to leave his beloved children back on earth, Cooper sacrifices himself for the rescue of the world. Like Nolan’s other characters, the loss of the presence of his beloveds tests him, but he uses that to his advantage. During the initial part of the film we might see him as a selfish man or an untruthful father who leaves his children for his own ambitions, but during the endurance mission we see him rerouting and making sloppy decisions to end it quickly solely to save his family. Hence we see that he is a man of conflicting needs, but when the push comes to shove, the necessity of the situation is winning.

3. Dominic Cobb – Inception (2010)

Although his films like the “Inception” are noted broadly for the immersive quality it possesses due to its bombastic plot, Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the best performances of his career as Dominic Cobb. He is a man, who has lost his wife due to an idea of dream sharing of his and now he has to work on a mission that requires this to serve as his purpose. A man who has lost all hopes, not even able to go to his homeland and live with his family is ended up with this mission as his last hope to save his life. This emotionally unbalanced situation of his is further threatened when his wife appears in these dreams and tries to take his life. It is hence Cobb’s miserable attempt to save him from this dreadful situation that the film at its core intends on. Even though the film is rich with characters, it is Cobb’s pathetic, which later on becomes an adventurous saga, the key point of the film. His adverse condition never tramples him, but serves as an inspiration to continue his mission and we as a viewer empathize and root for his victory at all points.

2. Leonard Shelby – Memento (2000)

A man, who is no longer able to make new memories, is trying to search for his wife’s murderer “John G.” aided by his friend Teddy. It was Nolan’s first major feature, and bringing out such a character and plot marked his distinctive capabilities even at his earlier days. He is also another character of Nolan who is on a mission, but entirely different from the others, where here all the odds are against him. He tries everything that is humanly possible to prove justice for his wife. His infinite love for his wife is echoed when hers is the only memory he has now and has an unending enmity against the traitor. Killing him is the only thing in his mind, and that never seems immoral or unjustifiable. Hence, he is no ordinary man of low temper, and he is also yet another Nolan character whose adversity proves to be strengthening him.

1. The Joker – The Dark Knight (2008)

There is no other character as the Joker’s, among Nolan’s other characters who is able to beat him for the top position. The Joker is arguably one of the greatest characters to have ever appeared on film itself. Taking one of popular cultures greatest villains to a whole new level, Nolan’s and Ledger’s perception of The Joker is one golden feat which will forever shine in the history books of cinema. You will never witness a villain like him possibly ever, and we as a viewer absolutely “enjoy” every moment he is onscreen. Being the clown face of insanity, his madness of destructing the city of Gotham is a distressing menace upon the people, which seemingly no force can resolve. The Joker is the most apt villain for the Dark Knight and at different levels in Nolanverse exceeds the greatness of Batman itself. With this character, which can be perceived upon different levels, even philosophically and in many other forms, Nolan thrashed wholly the stereotypes of a superhero movie. This movie and the character itself still exists — and possibly in the future too — as an archetype of versatility and uniqueness done in an effective way which even can pave way to reinventing some of the basic aspects of film-making itself.

Read More: Best Christopher Nolan Movies

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