The Summer Hype Cycle is quickly shifting over from The Amazing Spider-Man to the true juggernaut of July, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. As such, I’d like to look back at the previous film in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight. Specifically, I’d like to talk about how that film’s true strength lies in its nonsensical plotting. In most cases, a plot that falls apart under any kind of closer examination is a serious problem, but Nolan subverts that, building it into the characters and the themes.
Where the plot all falls apart is with the Joker. Not the portrayal of his character, which is memorable and amazing, but specifically how he relates to the plot. The only thing that makes sense about the Joker is his motivation, and even his motivations are weirdly unmotivated. Christopher Nolan has described his Joker as being like the shark from Jaws. He’s a force that cuts through the film with little explanation; there only to bring chaos. The Dark Knight is all about chaos and the various responses people have to chaos. The plotting of the film reflects that.
Examining any of Nolan’s other films, it’s pretty obvious that he’s in love with logic. His films are often like elaborate puzzles that fit together ever so perfectly. Occasionally he takes a leap in logic, but for the most part everything works. The Prestige, for example, is impeccably constructed to an extent that repeat viewings only confirm just how detailed Nolan was in crafting the plot. His claim to fame, Memento, basically relies on perfect plotting in order to sell its reverse-chronology device. Even Batman Begins, which follows a fairly standard origin myth template, makes sure to plot things very carefully. In this way, The Dark Knight stands completely apart from the rest of Nolan’s filmography, which leads me to give him credit for something I believe is entirely intentional.
It starts right with the first scene. The Joker’s plan to rob that bank makes no sense. Somehow, even with the mob controlling Gotham, he’s put together a crew of guys, none of whom have ever seen him before, organized them to rob the bank and kill each other off one by one at very specific intervals. Of course, this might all be somewhat possible, but then the next thing happens. A school bus crashes through the building, killing the last henchman at just the right time, and then the Joker gets in the bus and drives off just as a string of other buses are passing by as a way of hiding in plain sight. It makes zero sense. There are two important aspects to this. The first is that Nolan’s writing and direction of this scene and many others is so detailed that as an audience we sort of just go along with it. The sequence’s tension, given life by that detail, makes us ignore or not even realize that the details don’t fit together at all. The second important thing is that this lack of sense is part of the design.
It’s by design that the Joker can come into the plot, shake things up, and then walk away for the other characters to pick up the pieces. In this case, the bank heist causes problems for the mobsters, which pretty much kicks off the plot of the film. But if all the Joker did was create plot contrivances for the characters to overcome, the film would be more lazy than smart. This is where theme comes in. What the film is concerned with is not so much the dilemmas created by the Joker, but the way the characters in the film make choices in the face of those dilemmas.
The most obvious iteration of this is the ferry sequence, in which the Joker rigs two ferries to explode, one with regular passengers, one with prisoners, and then gives each one a button to detonate the other and save themselves. How did the Joker manage to set this up? How did he find the time? How could he know that people would be ferried out of the city? Who helped him? Where does he find these people to help him? Where does he have the resources and entry to stage this? Who knows. It doesn’t make sense. But that’s part of the point. The Joker is a manifestation of chaos, and chaos doesn’t have rules. It doesn’t make sense. It’s unpredictable and doesn’t follow normal logic. Once the chaos hits, though, we as people need to make decisions about how we face it. In the case of the ferries, neither boat presses the detonation button. It’s a sign that even in the face of the worst chaos, human beings are capable of overcoming and doing what’s right.
The lack of logic in anything involving the Joker extends into every aspect of the film’s plot. Let me lead you through a crucial section of the plot, and let’s see if it makes any sense at all. So, the Joker kills a few people. At the scene of one crime, Batman finds a bullet hole in a brick. He somehow gets the idea, with some sort of magical technology, to do a series of experiments and recover a fingerprint off the bullet. This alone makes no sense, but let’s pretend that it does for the moment. So, Batman gets the fingerprint off the bullet, wich leads him to a name and to an apartment where a cop is tied up and a rig is set up by a window overlooking a memorial service for the recently killed police commissioner. At a precise moment, when Batman happens to be looking through the window, the blinds go up, making the positioned snipers think something is happening and they start firing the window. On the street, things erupt in chaos. We see that the Joker is down there, dressed as a police officer. An attempt is made on the mayor’s life, but Gordon takes the hit.
So, now everyone thinks Gordon is dead. Bruce Wayne is going to a press conference to reveal himself as Batman, but at the last second Harvey Dent pretends that he’s Batman. He gets arrested, and then when he’s being transferred in a heavily guarded convoy, the Joker shows up. There’s a chase, Batman shows up, apparently not to the Joker’s great surprise. Things happen, and just as Joker is about to get the upper hand and take Batman’s mask off, Gordon shows up, alive, and saves the day. The Joker is hauled off to prison, where he gets put in a cell with a guy, inside whom he’d planted a cellphone bomb. During that, he also reveals to Batman that he’s managed to kidnap both Dent and Rachel Dawes, and they are in two different buildings, each set to explode. I’ll stop here, just because I could go on right to the end of the film, but let’s take a look at the logical problems here.
Okay, let’s pretend for a moment that Batman using the fingerprint tech makes sense, and that Gordon would actually be able to pull off that fake death bit. Even more illogical than those things is that at the end of this series of events, the Joker is right where he planned on being. How in the hell could he have foreseen Batman using that tech, or Dent taking the fall, or Gordon pretending to be dead. For his plans to work, he’d need to have built those wild card events into his plan right from the beginning, maybe even before the events of the film itself. There’s just no way he could have known far enough ahead that he’d be in that prison where he’d have the guy with the cellphone bomb It makes no sense at all.
This thread of impossible chaos is actually thrilling in the film. It gives things a weird feeling where everything that happens seems totally planned, but also completely off the wall and unpredictable. It makes for a wonderfully entertaining film. But what it also does is put the other characters in difficult positions. Bruce Wayne, for example, is put in the position of potentially revealing his identity. He also has to make the choice of whether to save Harvey or Rachel. Dent makes choices, too. And later in the film we see what happens when he’s pushed to his limits. He ends up making terrible choices that endanger a lot of people. He becomes a machine of revenge. He is the fallen hero who couldn’t cope with the chaos of the violent world he lived in. Batman maintains his composure, but still crosses certain lines that even he finds deplorable, particularly the use of the cellphone sonar technology to map the entire city and find the Joker.
When you come face to face with the Joker you have to make extreme choices, just as if you were facing chaos itself. And that’s the whole idea. That’s the thematic centrepiece of the film. It’s about how far you would go and how much could you hold yourself back amidst all the chaos. The illogical plot is a part of that because puts the characters behind the curve at almost every turn. Even when the characters pull out some magic to get ahead, like the fingerprint tech or Gordon’s fake death, they are still way behind. They can never get ahead of the Joker. They can never know what he’s going to do or even how much their own actions play into his plans. All they can do is face the chaos one step at a time and act in the best way they know how. And that is how, by subverting the notion that plots need to be logical, The Dark Knight finds thematic cohesion in the illogical nature of chaos.