10 years of The Dark Knight: Does the film deserve all the praise it has received?
The film is riddled with needless plot devices and nonsensical contrivances any time one sequence needs to lead to another and take the story forward.
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“Genre-defining” is a powerful descriptor for any work of fiction. It is also one that has been regularly used to describe Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Before The Dark Knight, the Nolans (Christopher and his brother Jonathan, a screenwriter) had already proven their chops with Following, Memento and, to some extent, The Prestige.
But things tend to get tricky when filmmakers perceived to be auteurs deal with superhero comic books. This is primarily because such filmmakers start out by catering to niche audiences who hold them to a high standard, whereas superhero films aren’t meant to be held to this standard, but rather to mint money for large studios.
What makes things even trickier is a phenomenon called “groupthink”. This is extremely relevant in the context of cinema in today’s world, as our opinions about films can be shaped not by their merits, but their popularity.
The hype around The Dark Knight is one of the most shining examples of “groupthink”, as it seems not to stem from the results of critical evaluation, but a superficial appearance of “cool”. An actual analysis of the film reveals that there isn’t much about it that deserves the acclaim it’s received.
The film has recieved all manner of adulation, but does does it live up to any of it? [Photo: Warner Bros]
The Dark Knight’s screenplay is riddled with needless plot devices and nonsensical contrivances any time one sequence needs to lead to another and take the story forward. When Batman/Bruce Wayne needs a way to plant a device inside Lau’s office building in Hong Kong, he makes Lucius Fox travel halfway around the world to accomplish this.
The pretext is a business deal, which Fox cancels the second he meets Lau, who then says that a phone call would have sufficed. To this, Fox’s response is “Mr Wayne didn’t want you to think he was deliberately wasting your time.” This is supposed to be witty but makes absolutely no sense because a phone call would’ve conveyed the very same message Fox wanted to convey.
Lau, the mob’s money launderer, is captured and is then interrogated in Gotham. He refuses to give up his clients’ money, implying that if he does, they would kill him. Lau’s “clever survival strategy” then is giving up all his clients instead.
When the plot needs something huge to happen, the Nolans introduce a plot device that requires a huge suspension of logical and human-like thinking on the audience’s part and hurriedly deal with it before one gets a second to think about it.
Jim Gordon is told that the Joker’s card contains the DNA of a judge, the police commissioner, and Harvey Dent. This is simply not believable as criminal databases only contain the DNA or fingerprints of people who have actually been strongly suspected, arrested, or convicted of crimes, not every single individual in the city/country. Not only this, but Gordon’s mind takes a massive leap when he learns this and infers that this is a threat on these three people.
Things get less and less logical and believable from this point and the reason is simple: the Nolans’ intent behind most such elements in the film is to make them seem “cool” and intelligent at first glance, when they’re actually the opposite. Batman/Bruce Wayne uses a ludicrous fingerprinting technique to chase down a lead that is actually of no significance in the story, and is therefore the sloppiest kind of writing one sees.
Jim Gordon then manages to fake his death in the middle of a crowded area with no help from anyone whatsoever. To top it all, when he finally returns and catches the Joker, he claims that he did it to ensure his family’s safety. Once again, this is a forced plot device because the Joker’s henchmen and the mob are still free and as real a threat to his family as they were earlier.
The biggest contrivance in the film is in its final scene, in which Batman takes the fall for Harvey Dent’s crimes for no reason other than to prove his heroism. In a scenario where the entire city is on red alert and being terrorised by the Joker, sweeping away the deaths of a few corrupt cops and mob members is really not that difficult, especially if the police commissioner wants to.
Superhero films are not devoid of plot holes. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is as popular as The Dark Knight, if not more, also has its fair share. But the difference is that the MCU is not held to a gold standard of screenwriting. It’s often acknowledged to simply be a modern, relatively more realistic wave of superhero films. Its light-hearted nature and humour reinforce the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously or pretend to be more profound than it is.
On the other hand, The Dark Knight isn’t just referred to as a good superhero film, but one of the best films of the 2000s. Its USP was its supposedly gritty and realistic setting. Clearly, this film is held to a very high standard and is even perceived to make good on it, which is why such glaring plot holes are unacceptable.
Do the Nolans understand human nature?
What makes this film even more difficult to digest is that its writers don’t seem to have a good understanding of human nature, even though that’s one of the film’s primary themes. When the mob pays the Joker (another plot hole, since he was to be paid for killing Batman, which he didn’t do), he burns his share of the money and makes a preposterous claim: that criminals don’t do what they do for money, but because they enjoy it, something that was substantiated in effect by mob henchmen discarding their old boss and joining the Joker’s cadre.
Dynamite, gunpowder, gasoline — and preposterous assertions. [Photo: Screengrab]
This reflects the elite conservatism of its makers and absolves the society at large of any responsibility in creating criminals. It also perpetuates the notion that being a criminal is an incurable, inherent trait that certain individuals possess.
The film also repeatedly links “insanity” and crime. The Joker himself is a psychopath, but his henchmen are also shown to have psychological disorders like paranoid schizophrenia. The film’s protagonist, Batman, remarks in one scene that the Joker naturally attracts such minds for his “cause.”
When the Joker says that people in Gotham are “losing their minds”, Batman says that the city is full of people who choose to believe in good. Considering how misunderstood mental health is in even more developed parts of the world, this is very irresponsible on the part of the Nolans.
In the film’s penultimate sequence, the Joker plants explosives on two ferries — one carrying civilians and the other the city’s worst criminals (the latter is again a contrivance, as there was absolutely no need to move those criminals in a time of emergency). The Joker’s “game” is a strange variant of the prisoner’s dilemma: if the people on one boat decide to blow up the other, they live.
While this could have been a serious dilemma if both boats were full of innocent civilians, having one boat be full of dangerous criminals makes it nothing but a dilemma forced upon the film’s world by its writers to prove the Joker wrong. Perhaps in “Satya Yuga”, this may have been a serious predicament. But in the world we live in, the choice between the life of an ordinary, innocent person and that of a violent criminal is a simple one for most people.
Superhero films inherently glorify powerful individuals working outside and, often against, democratically elected power structures. We accept this because deep down we know that our systems are generally corrupt and incapable of handling things when they get too difficult. Superhero films like The Dark Knight and Batman Begins even make it a point to show us that certain individuals simply had to take matters into their own hands because the system did not work.
This much is fair. But The Dark Knight focuses a lot on Harvey Dent as Gotham’s “white knight.” Harvey is labelled the hero Gotham needs because he takes on organised crime through the proper legal channels in broad daylight without wearing a mask. Since he is being juxtaposed against Batman, a billionaire and masked vigilante who works outside the law, this is meant to be seen as ideal.
But Harvey Dent is also a white man who believes that when there is a serious external threat, it is acceptable for an individual to assume all power to fight against it. This idea, given the rise of the Far Right around the world in the last decade, is a truly disturbing one, as it assumes that such privileged individuals are incorruptible supermen who should be given such power.
He lived long enough to become a villain, yet he was allowed to die a hero. Why? [Photo: Screengrab]
A counterpoint to this idea — that you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain — is woven into the film’s storyline. Harvey Dent does live long enough to become a villain who murders many and is willing to kill an innocent child. But the film’s other two protagonists — Batman and Gordon — decide to hide the criminality of a white man for the “greater good,” another highly problematic idea considering the state of the world.
To actually be deserving of the hype around it, The Dark Knight needed to be written in a better manner and with the intent to engage, not hoodwink. The Nolans needed to understand that coming up with apparently brilliant plans are no good if it is done just to show off their IQ. The story needed to flow from the characters and situations, instead of being forced to fit certain planned sequences.
What The Dark Knight needed even more was a balancing perspective in its narrative, like a cool-headed, experienced Steve Rogers to balance out the egotistical Tony Stark. A Doctor Strange to show, that a rich, white man should understand that it isn’t about him. It needed the coin to have both sides, not just varying shades of the same one.