Aug 5, 2008
Spoiler alert: this breakdown divulges information about the plot of the film.
For anyone who wants to look beneath its action surface, The Dark Knight proves that a movie can be a huge hit because of theme, not in spite of it. The Dark Knight is the closest thing to a fictional exploration of moral philosophy to come out of Hollywood in a long time, and that includes No Country for Old Men. Amazingly, writers Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, and David Goyer create this complex moral expression on the foundation of superhero action crime genre.
The writers begin their elegant construction with the depiction of the main character, Batman, and here they had a tremendous advantage going in. Of all superhero characters, Batman highlights and consistently questions the very concept of the hero and the savior. He is truly a dark knight, concerned with justice but also willing to use illegal and immoral means to achieve it.
He is also deeply aware of the negative effects a savior can have on the general populace. He knows, and probably believes in, the great moral principle of “If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” But he is unable to live the principle when faced with so much injustice. And when, in The Dark Knight, the bad guys escalate their evil acts, Batman is dragged into a war of tit for tat that soils everyone. Interestingly, Batman’s garbled voice has a strange resemblance to Clint Eastwood’s, especially in his Dirty Harry films.
In the Blockbuster story development software, we place a lot of emphasis on the “character web,” and The Dark Knight uses this crucial technique to perfection. The first character to be compared to Batman is the main opponent, The Joker. A lot has been written about Heath Ledger’s terrific performance. But we need to look at what he built his performance on, and that is found in the script. Non-writers might think I’m referring to the dialogue, but I’m not. The writers constructed this character to drive two major story elements, the moral argument (theme) and the plot.
The classic crime story is based on a master criminal who believes he is above the law and society itself. The Joker is just such a character, a genius psychopath whose massive intellect is shown not so much in dialogue as in his ability to plot. He accuses Dent and Batman of being schemers. But in fact he is the master schemer, a modern Moriarty, who acts, not out of greed or revenge, but for the game. And he is better at the game than anyone else, so much so that we have the rare example of a story with too much plot.
The Joker is literally the author of Gotham City, constructing criminal plots that will remake the city to express his moral vision. Many have called The Joker a nihilist, a man in love with chaos. But this is a serious misreading. If Batman is the Dark Knight, The Joker is the Dark Philosopher. The entire plot of The Dark Knight is a series of moral conundrums The Joker creates to expose what he believes is the true animal nature of mankind. Tracking the beats of the crime story that goes all the way back to its originator, Crime and Punishment, The Joker creates ever more difficult versions of the genre’s central question: What would you do if you had to choose between two bad options?
First, does Batman expose his true identity or let the Joker kill someone every day? Then does he let Dent take the risk of getting killed to pull The Joker out of hiding? Does he save Rachel, his true love, or Dent, the righteous hope of the city? Does he listen in on the entire city in order to save a few?
For the film’s final choice, the writers use the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, central to game theory and moral philosophy. In Prisoner’s Dilemma, two prisoners suspected of a crime are placed in separate cells. Each is given the following choice: If you both remain silent, you both get only six months in jail. If you both confess, you both get 5 years. If you remain silent but your partner confesses, he goes free and you get 10 years in jail. As you can see, the only real choice each person can make is to confess, since neither can risk the harsh 10-year sentence trusting that his partner will remain silent.
In The Dark Knight, two ships filled with passengers are given the choice of pushing a button to blow up the other ship before a time deadline. If one ship fails to blow up the other, The Joker will destroy them both. This sets up a unique battle in which not only two forces but also two entire moral systems are brought into opposition. The battle is marred only by the fact that the writers don’t play true to the reality about human beings they have carefully crafted throughout the film. In other words, the people on the boats don’t make the believable choice.
Though The Dark Knight has too much plot, resulting in a movie that is at least 20 minutes too long, its plot is worth studying to see masters at work. These writers use a vast array of plot techniques, and a lot of professional writers I know, while bemoaning so many false endings, have said the plotting is what they studied the most. Ironically, one of the main techniques these writers use is character web, proving again that at the deepest level of good storytelling, plot and character are the same. I’ve already mentioned the plotting power the main opponent brings to the story. But plot also comes from the second lead, Harvey Dent, as well as a number of other characters who appear to be friends but are really enemies, or appear to be enemies but are really friends.
Screenwriters and storytellers can learn all kinds of lessons from The Dark Knight. Perhaps the most important is placing all story elements at the service of the larger moral argument, and expressing that argument primarily through the story structure. Using the crime genre as its foundation, The Dark Knight focuses on whether someone can remain a hero when the opposition becomes increasingly ruthless, a question that is central to our world. But as the cop in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil says about how hard it is being a cop, “It's supposed to be (tough)... A policeman's job is only easy in a police state.”
Interestingly, the writers go all the way back to the classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for their ending. When it turns out the hero of a gunfight didn’t actually kill the bad guy, the newspaperman refuses to print the truth. “When the legend becomes fact,” he says, “print the legend.” Batman decides to let Harvey Dent die a hero, so the people will have hope in justice, while he accepts his role as the scapegoat. With a subtle flip on the ending of Shane, Lieutenant Gordon’s little boy doesn’t say, “Batman, come back.”
The Dark Knight is a writer’s genre movie, even a transcendent one, and screenwriters would do well to study it closely.