Two summers later, I am still quite taken with The Dark Knight. I have not encountered an American movie — much less an American movie, designed to be a gigantic blockbuster and based on a hugely popular comic book — that is structured as ingeniously and compellingly as this one. I’ve simply never seen anything like it, and after several viewings it still continues to flabbergast.
I’ve worked on a handful of these types of movies as a screenwriter, and let me tell you: they’re hard. They’re really hard. There are so many issues for the writer to address: the protagonist must be active, the villain’s plot must make sense, there must be a romantic interest, there must be due attention paid to the history of the character and the rules of the genre, they must be both fantastic and grounded at the same time. All these balls must be kept in the air and these concerns must mesh in a straightforward, compelling, swift, action-packed cinematic narrative, consistent in tone and true to its source material. I haven’t seen one — not one — that has managed to get everything in and do everything right. None of the Superman movies do it, none of the previous WB Batman movies do it, none of the Spider-Man movies do it, neither of the Fantastic Four movies do it, and, even after 22 tries, none of the Bond movies do it either. (The Iron Man movies come close — really close.) But The Dark Knight not only does a better job than any other movie based on its source material — and by that I mean “superhero comics” — it does it with a radically ambitious screenplay that challenges any number of conventions and brings a new, added weight to its subject.
It kind of shocks me that there are people out there who hate this movie — hate it, in a way that only the internet can inspire. Complaints seem to swirl around a number of side issues — Batman’s “growly voice,” passive protagonist, not enough Two-Face, etc. Since I’m going to mostly refrain from nit-picking in my analysis, here’s where I stand on most of the issues brought up by the Dark Knight discontents:
1. Batman’s “growly voice” does sound a little silly.
2. I do not think Batman is a passive character. In fact, I don’t consider Batman to be much of a character at all. Bruce Wayne is the protagonist of The Dark Knight, he is an active protagonist in every sense of the word I can think of, and “the Batman” is a costume he puts on when he goes out to fight crime. This sounds like hair-splitting but I think is a key to understanding the success of the narrative and the world Nolan builds here.
3. I did want to see more of Two-Face, because I like Two-Face, but I don’t feel like his story is rushed or tacked-on. Visually, it feels like a pretty big gimme to ask the audience to behold the unspeakable horror of a guy with half a face, only to then kill him off forty- five minutes later, but dramatically I have no complaints, and as we move forward I’ll make my case for that.
4. The Joker’s plans are complicated and slightly fanciful, but gee whiz, compared to what? Compared to the Penguin’s army of rocket-laden penguins in Batman Returns? Compared to Poison Ivy’s plot to team up with Mr. Freeze to freeze Gotham City (using a giant telescope) in order for plants to take over the world in Batman and Robin? Compared to Ras Al Ghul’s plot to microwave Gotham’s water supply with his magic microwave-gun in Batman Begins? If you ask me, the Joker’s ability to wire a hospital with explosives in The Dark Knight on short notice is a model of logic and circumspection compared to, say, Lex Luthor’s plot to build a new continent in Superman Returns.
5. Ditto Bruce Wayne’s sonar-cell-phone device. As a fantastic gadget, it has the icy breath of the plausible compared to some of the things Batman’s lugged around over his decades of public service. The fantastic elements of The Dark Knight, I feel, are the screenplay’s nods to convention and the source material — Batman without at least one moment of “now, wait a minute” would hardly feel like Batman.
6. The action scenes: some people find them incoherent. I don’t agree. I don’t know what else to say about it — I have not had trouble following the action in The Dark Knight, not the first time and not when I’ve watched it since.
7. To some people, The Dark Knight contains some sort of a political message. If one is intended, I can’t make head or tail of it. The Dark Knight deals with a lot of real-life civic issues, but it remains a drama, not a treatise. If I was supposed to vote for John McCain or something because of watching this movie, well, then I guess it’s a failure. David Mamet once said that the only question in an audience’s head during a movie should be “What happens next?” The screenwriter’s job is to keep the audience interested in the story. When the screenwriter does his job well, the audience gets sucked into the story and experiences the thrill of drama. When he does his job very well, the thrill of the experience is so powerful that the audience comes back again and again, even though they know how the story turns out. Spectacle may amaze and movie stars may charm, but if the screenwriter has not done his job well, the movie will still turn out bad and the audience will stay home. The Dark Knight engages the audience on a level unseen in movies lately, and does so while employing a number of bold innovations, which I will discuss as we move forward.
ACT I begins with a heist sequence: The Joker has hired a bunch of goons to rob a bank owned by The Mob. We know, although the goons do not, that the Joker is, in fact, part of the masked crew. As the robbery unfolds, we learn that the Joker’s plan involves the goons killing each other as each one completes his job, leaving him to make off with the money. What do we learn from this sequence? Well, we learn that the Joker is meticulous in his planning and duplicitous in his intent. No one is safe when he is around. He lies when it suits his purpose — his goal is not to impress people with his wisdom but to get them to do something.
Further, we learn that he is brave enough, or foolish enough, or crazy enough, to steal money from The Mob. Maybe it’s “crazy enough,” since we also learn that, under his clown mask, he wears another clown mask. (The Joker’s makeup is one of the boldest design choices made in The Dark Knight — it’s disturbing enough to look at, but it’s even more disturbing when we consider the mind of the person who decides to go out in public looking like that.)
The robbery also marks a shift in the crime world of Gotham City: whereas once, crime was controlled by “traditional” gangsters, men possessing time-honored notions of respect (they’re running banks, you don’t get much more respectable than that), the Joker represents something new: an amoral, brilliant rogue without respect for anything. (We don’t yet know why the Joker is stealing the Mob’s money, but we will in time.) The force and density of this sequence often leads people to believe that the Joker is actually the protagonist of The Dark Knight, as he seems to set events into motion. We will soon learn that the Joker’s actions are, in fact, a direct result of actions made by protagonist Bruce Wayne. Beginning a narrative in medias res is a good strategy for any movie and The Dark Knight exploits it well, but “the guy you meet first” is not necessarily the protagonist of the movie.
That opening delivers a great deal of narrative for a thrilling six-minute action sequence, and the density of the screenplay does not let up from there. Next, there are a number of brief scenes outlining the current state of crime Gotham City. The mere idea of Batman, we learn, is scaring ordinary criminals off the streets — one could say that Batman is, in his own way, a terrorist, practicing asymmetrical warfare on the Mob, upsetting the status quo of the criminal population, creating a kind of crime vacuum, which allows a costumed freak like the Joker to flourish. The police, we learn, under Jim Gordon’s leadership, encourage Batman’s activities while telling the press otherwise (the Joker is not the sole purveyor of duplicity). We also meet, briefly, detectives Wuertz and Ramirez, who will become important later on.
As street criminals head indoors, the Bat-signal shines over a meeting between a “traditional” gangster, The Chechen, and The Scarecrow, another new costumed freak in the Joker mold. I’m not sure what the point of the meeting between The Chechen and The Scarecrow is, but it seems The Chechen has a beef with The Scarecrow. Again, it comes down to an issue of trust — this new breed of criminals is just not trustworthy. The meeting gets interrupted by a group of imitation Batmen, vigilantes inspired by Batman’s example but lacking his bottomless income. They try to take in Messrs Scarecrow and Chechen, but soon enough the “real” Batman shows up to set things straight. “What’s the difference between you and me?” asks one of the would-be Batmen. “I’m not wearing hockey pads,” growls Batman in return — meaning what, exactly? “I spent more money on my suit, therefore I have a greater moral right to be above the law?” Or does Bruce Wayne merely think of himself as “special,” because of the physical and mental work he’s done to achieve his Batness? Or is it that Bruce Wayne considers his creation a unique achievement, and disdains his imitators because they aren’t creating their own crazy crime-fighting personae? (Batman, in this scene, also insists that he “works alone,” which he does, I guess, if you discount the full support of the entire police force.)
That same night, Jim Gordon checks out the scene of the Joker’s robbery, and soon Batman comes along to horn in on his investigation. Oddly enough, the fact that a costumed freak robbed the bank is of not much concern to Gordon and Batman — they are more excited by the news that the bank belongs to the Mob. That is, thanks to the Joker, Gordon is now able to identify the assets of Gotham’s traditional criminal elite. (The Dark Knight, among its many interesting quirks, is full of unintended alliances.) The Joker gets no more than a cursory glance from Gordon and Batman, who move straight on to discussing how to shut down the Mob banks. For this daring move, they will need the support of the new District Attorney, a man new to both Gordon and Batman, bringing up, again, issues of trust. So it’s not just the criminals who can’t trust each other in Gotham City, it’s the law enforcement officials as well.
It is the next morning. Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler, Alfred, delivers Master Wayne’s breakfast to his penthouse bedroom to find him gone. He then goes to the super-secret Bat-lair to check in with his boss. Bruce is hurting from the previous night’s activities, but his only concern is that he hasn’t spent enough time (and money) on his equipment. “Batman” is, after all, the ultimate “guy project,” a project that calls for the most expensive high-tech gadgets and endless obsession over minutiae, a project that cannot be completed, only endlessly enhanced. At the moment, there is no “endgame” for Bruce Wayne, just a never-ending struggle for justice.
Bruce, with his bank of computer monitors, keeps a close eye on Harvey Dent, the new district attorney, and now we add another wrinkle to an already corrugated story — Dent is dating Rachel, the woman Bruce turned his back on so that he could devote himself to dressing up like a bat and driving around town destroying private property.
Chagrined, Bruce notes that he and Harvey are both doing the exact same thing, except that Harvey doesn’t have to wear a mask. And that includes both fighting The Mob and bedding Rachel. Harvey is, essentially, what Bruce would like to be in an ideal world. And, in fact, in the same way that Bruce created the crime vacuum that allowed the Joker to flourish, he also inspired Harvey to step forward and be Batman Without A Mask — Daytime Batman, which is what Rachel was in Batman Begins.
Now then: up ’til now, Bruce has seen his struggle as lonely and never-ending, but when he sees Harvey (with Rachel) he begins to see 1) an ally, because Harvey can potentially do Batman’s job, and 2) a reason to quit, because he wants to reclaim Rachel for his own, and regain the life he gave up for this lonely painful pursuit. Later that day, Harvey enters the courtroom for his big day of prosecuting mobster Maroni. We get a little banter between him and Rachel, involving his “lucky coin” (which we will later learn is not “lucky” in any sense of the word — Harvey, the white knight, is not above deceit himself). Harvey, we see, is a brave and dedicated public servant — when a witness pulls a gun on him, Harvey punches the witness and then continues to question him. Canny, effective, willing to bend the rules — in every way, Daytime Batman.
After a brief scene between Harvey and Rachel that places Harvey’s actions in context and reinforces what we already suspect regarding their relationship (ie, they’re sleeping together), Harvey meets with Jim about the whole Mob Bank dragnet that Jim wants to trigger. Jim and Harvey (and Bruce) all want to put the Mob away, and Jim’s plan (aided by Bruce) has a shot at accomplishing that — but Jim and Harvey don’t yet know if they can trust each other. There is some talk of “dirty cops” in Jim’s command, which interests me — was Jim “stuck” with dirty cops in the Major Crimes Unit because no one wanted to work with him, or did Jim select cops with dirty histories for some reason that escapes me? In any case, Jim Gordon’s MCU is not The Untouchables, which apparently neither Harvey nor Jim are happy about. Regardless, Harvey, sensing that Jim knows something (because of his relationship with Batman) okays Jim’s Mob Takedown plan.
Later that same day, Bruce Wayne sleeps through a presentation by this HongKong banker, Lau. Bruce’s company is, apparently, negotiating some kind of merger with Lau’s company. This super-brief scene is played for laughs, but Lau will come to dominate the remainder of the act and become a linchpin of the entire plot. Right after the board meeting, Lucius Fox is buttonholed by an accountant, Coleman Reece, who has some kind of concern about the Lau deal. Lucius tells Reece to check his figures again, a piece of punishing busywork that will have grave repercussions later.
After Bruce wakes up from his nap (assuming he was actually sleeping through the Lau pitch — which, well why not? He’s got to sleep sometime) he talks to Lucius about upgrading his suit and mentions the Lau deal in passing. This updates Bruce’s relationship with Lucius and lays some groundwork for the steadily-increasing Lau plot. That night, Harvey and Rachel are out dining when Bruce shows up with a blond ballerina. (I wonder — does Bruce ever have sex, or is that off-limits for the man who is the Batman? And, if he has sex, do his conquests ever wonder what he’s doing with his body all covered with bruises and scars?) When we learn that Bruce owns the restaurant, we realize that Bruce, of course, planned to spoil Harvey’s date with Rachel, to check Rachel’s temperature vis-a-vis Harvey, and to take the measure of Harvey himself. Harvey shows himself to be both a true-blue public servant and to have a slight autocratic streak, both of which impress Bruce, and he throws himself fully behind Harvey — again, to relieve himself of the role of Batman, and to earn himself a chance with Rachel.
The next day, or a day soon afterward anyway, the three major “traditional” crime lords meet to discuss their problems. Again, their problem is not the Joker robbing their banks but Jim Gordon and his planned takedown of their organization. And look who’s here! It’s that Lau guy, conferencing via a video monitor, warning the mobsters about the impending crisis. Introduced as the butt of a joke, then looked at sideways a couple of times, Lau is suddenly figuring into the story in a much more troubling way. And none of this has been “explained” to us yet — we need to sit forward and pay attention a little to sort out the plot threads of The Dark Knight. So now we know that Lau is The Mob’s banker, and soon we will learn that Bruce Wayne was never interested in a merger with Lau’s company, the merger was a lure to bring Lau into the open, to get him to show Bruce his books. Bruce, we see, can be as duplicitous as the Joker or Harvey, and in broad daylight, in a way that Batman cannot. As Lau calmly explains to the mobsters his plan for protecting their money, the Joker invades the meeting and presents to them a radical new vision of crime in Gotham City. (I note that all the “traditional” gangsters in Gotham City are colorful ethnics, while the costumed freaks are all WASPs.)
The gangsters around the table may be wealthy and powerful, but they fear and respect the Batman while the Joker fears and respects nothing. He unveils the next layer of his plan — to “kill the Batman.” So right now, the Joker’s plan seems to be: steal money from The Mob in order to get their attention, to get them to take him seriously as a criminal mastermind, then get them to pay him to “kill the Batman,” a payment so lucrative and steep that it will surely make the Joker the new criminal kingpin of Gotham City. As we will learn, this is not the final layer, he’s got a few more layers to go before we come to the rather startling conclusion of the Joker’s plan, but it’s the first thing he says that makes any sense.
So Lau goes off to Hong Kong with the Mob’s money, which forces a crisis among Harvey, Jim and Batman — how do they solve the Mob Bank Problem if the money is gone, and who tipped Lau? They meet briefly on the roof of Jim’s MCU to discuss a plan, which involves stepping outside the law to bring Lau to justice (or to Gotham, in any case).
At this point, the narrative of The Dark Knight enters a brief moment of relaxation — Bruce has a plan to get Lau, and for the remainder of the act we get to experience the joy and thrill of seeing the plan unfold. It’s like a ten-minute version of Ocean’s 11, as we see Bruce put his plan together, then execute it with wit, flair and high style. Along the way, he gets to relax on his yacht and spoil another of Harvey and Rachel’s dates. The sequence is a day-seminar on writing a caper: the writer should explain enough of the plan so that we know the basic shape of it, but should withold enough information so that there are some surprises in store for us along the way. Caper plotting is all about what the screenplay tells us, what it does not tell us, and when.
While Bruce implements his plan, still no one is taking the Joker seriously. Except for Gambol, the only gangster in Gotham who is at all challenged by the Joker’s brand of craziness. Why Maroni and The Chechen don’t mind the Joker after he robbed one (more than one?) of their banks isn’t clear, but Gambol has put a price on his head. The Joker, being the Joker, takes Gambol’s bounty and turns it on its head, setting up a situation where he can kill Gambol himself.
The act ends with an unmitigated triumph for Bruce: he captures Lau and brings him back to Gotham, where ally Jim Gordon and new Daytime Batman Harvey can pick up the task where Batman must leave off. What Bruce does not know is that his bold extrication of Lau will set a disastrous series of events into motion that will, at the end of Act II, require him to give up being The Batman altogether.
At the end of Act I, Bruce Wayne, in his Batman persona, has snatched Mob banker Lau from Hong Kong and delivered him to Jim Gordon. He’s done his job, justice has prevailed, the cops and the lawyers are united against the forces of the underworld and everything in perfect in Batworld.
But of course, it’s not — Lau’s capture is only the beginning. Bruce, in his desire to upset the status quo and rewrite the rules of (out)law and (dis)order in Gotham City creates a wildly unstable new environment, and by the end of Act II, Bruce will be forced to abandon his Batman persona and sacrifice himself, yet again, for the city he loves — that is, until Harvey Dent steals his thunder and turns, in the public eye, from White Knight to Dark Knight.
So: Lau is in custody, questioned by Rachel, with Harvey and Jim lurking in the background. This one thing right here, small as it seems, indicates for me how The Dark Knight earns its place at the top of the “superhero movie” pyramid: the Nolans figured out a way to get Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s love interest and apex of the movie’s romantic triangle, into the plot in a way that feels seamless and organic. Go through the list of superhero movies and list the number of love interests wholly peripheral to the story and you’ll see the coup that the Nolans achieve here. In most cinematic superhero narratives, the love interest exists outside of the protagonist’s superhero world, which is why they end up as damsels in distress. Here, Rachel is part of Bruce’s natural world of interests (she is a law enforcer, after all, she’s almost Harvey Dent her own self — and hey, wouldn’t it have been awesome if it was Rachel instead of Harvey who ended up becoming Two-Face?) and works closely — and professionally — with his allies Jim and Harvey.
Rachel manages to get what she needs from Lau in record time, sending him to jail — but whose jail? Where will Lau be safely put away? Again, Jim and Harvey clash over issues of trust — can anyone be trusted in Gotham City? It seems that the gangsters of Act I have a greater sense of trust and loyalty than the law-enforcement officers — again, they are the establishment in Gotham. The fact that all the cops in Gotham are dirty means that the gangsters control the police department as well as the underworld. Harvey, Rachel and Jim (and their weapon, Bruce) are all alone in the city. When Batman acts to rid Gotham of gangsters, he’s stages an assault on the very fabric of the city. But Harvey is keen to pick up Batman’s baton, and proceeds to use Lau’s confession to round up, literally, every single gangster in Gotham City.
As Jim arrests Maroni, The Chechen and their goons, the crimelords come to see that the Joker is correct — the Batman must be eliminated, at any cost. And so a Joker-led operation goes into effect — the crimelords turn their resources over to a madman to expedite their agenda. “Kill the Batman” is not the end of the Joker’s plan, but they don’t know that.
Harvey meets up with the Mayor, to justify his crazy scheme to arrest every gangster in the city. It turns out, Harvey knows that his grand gesture is baseless and doomed to failure, but has a long-term political goal. And so he demonstrates that he is willing to appear to be foolish in order to achieve something bigger — a notion which will echo throughout the rest of the narrative.
Harvey’s meeting with the mayor is met with the Joker’s first response to Bruce’s plan of cleaning up Gotham as the dead “Hockey Pads” Batman appears outside the Mayor’s window.
(Incidentally, where did the Joker get “Hockey Pads?” Was he still in police custody, or had he been freed on bail, and thence out into the world in his hockey pads again? Have these vigilantes no respect for the law, even after they’re beaten up by Batman?)
Bruce, up until now under the impression that he had set everything straight in Gotham City, learns the news about Hockey Pads as he’s getting ready for his party for Harvey Dent — his ceremonial passing of the baton from Dark Knight to White Knight. “This is how crazy Batman’s made Gotham” says the Joker, again, mixing lies with truth in order to elicit a response. Batman hasn’t made Gotham crazy, he’s cleaned up its streets in the space of a weekend. But, in so doing, he’s created the crime vacuum that allows the Joker to flourish. Now, you’ll notice that the Joker’s plan has subtly changed from the meeting at the restaurant. His stated goal then was to “kill the Batman,” but now he only wants to force Batman to reveal his identity. This might seem like a de-escalation, but it points to the Joker’s larger goal, one that won’t be fully revealed until the end of the narrative — namely, that the Joker doesn’t have a goal, doesn’t have an endgame — he wants only to have more and more chaos, murder and insanity in Gotham. Killing Batman solves the problems of the gangsters, but the Joker’s vision of crime is much broader, and doesn’t include the crimelords notions of respectability. Killing the Batman would restore Gotham to its status quo, but revealing the Batman would undermine everything in the city. This is why the Joker in The Dark Knight is such a great villain for Batman to go up against — there is, literally, nothing Batman can do against him that does not further his agenda, even killing him.
(The Joker’s videotape of his torture of Hockey Pads contains images of animal carcasses hanging from the ceiling. This is a visual nod to painter Francis Bacon, and the only link I can find back to the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, who defaced every painting in the Gotham Museum of Art — except for the Bacon.)
The party for Harvey begins. Bruce’s plan is to ensure Harvey’s security the same way he’s ensured his own — with tons of cash. Acknowledging who Harvey is inside, Bruce recognizes him as Daytime Batman and now seeks to turn him into exactly that. And, just so we know that his motives aren’t entirely civic-minded, we learn that his plan to turn Harvey into Daytime Batman involves stealing Rachel away from him. That is, he’s says “You want to be Batman? Great, be Batman — oh, and by the way, that means you can’t have a wife.”
Meanwhile, the Joker’s plan to unmask Batman proceeds apace. He kills, at once, the police commissioner and the judge trying the “all gangsters in Gotham” case, and will soon try to kill Harvey. This is good planning on the Joker’s part — by killing the judge and the commissioner, he both applies pressure on Batman to unmask and ensures that all the gangsters will go free — no one will step forward to replace the judge — and the crimelords can then reclaim their place as Gotham’s true power base.
Back at the party, Harvey, feeling perhaps secure in his future, now that he’s gotten the security of Bruce Wayne’s rich friends, proposes to Rachel. Rachel, however, cannot accept — she still loves Bruce on some level, even though his heart is something she can never really have, just as “justice” is something Bruce can never really have, it is only something he can endlessly pursue.
Suddenly, the Joker shows up at the party, in a rare moment of straightforwardness — he wants to kill Harvey Dent, and so he shows up where Harvey Dent is to kill him. No brilliantly devious double-crossing scheme, just storming the penthouse and demanding the goods. Bruce responds by abducting Harvey and stashing him someplace safe (just like Bruce, in a crisis, to assume he knows what’s best for everyone) and then heading off to his Bat-closet to prepare himself for his first confrontation with the Joker. (On the way he disarms a guy with a shotgun, then takes apart the gun without looking at it, a neat echo of a similar beat with Harvey in the courtroom.)
The Joker menaces Rachel out in the living room, telling her the second version of his “scars” story. We will, of course, never know how the Joker got his scars, he most likely has an endless supply of stories to tell people. Wherever the Joker came from, whatever formed his psyche, however he came to his world-view, he is infinitely scarier if we’re left in the dark. We can feel compassion for — and even root for — other Batman villains. Ras-Al-Ghul, the Penguin, Catwoman, Mr. Freeze, we can disapprove of their crimes but we can still kind of see why they are as they are. This is what has always made the Joker the most interesting and deathless Batman villain, the reason why, back in 1989, when people saw that Jack Nicholson was playing the Joker, everyone said “Well now — that I have to see.” Everyone understands that the Joker elicits a stronger response than any other Batman villain, even though they may not understand immediately why. Batman appears just in time to rescue Rachel from the Joker’s threats, although he must dive out a window and make a rather improbable skydive to do so.
Across town at the MCU, Jim and one of his detectives, Stephens, rue their reversal of fortune — in nothing flat, they have cleaned up the streets of Gotham and then, just as quickly, lost all the ground they had gained. The moment Stephens announces they’ve lost, Harvey, last seen being stuffed into a closet in Bruce’s apartment, shows up, brass balls in place, to take Lau to court, as scheduled. (We don’t know how long Harvey had to wait in the closet before the Joker gave up and went home — a rare instance of a question unanswered in The Dark Knight. Once Bruce dives out the window to save Rachel, what does he do? Put her in a cab and walk back to his underground lair? Call Alfred on his cell phone and tell him to pick him up around the corner?)
Back at the lair, Bruce discusses the situation with Alfred, who provides some perspective on the whole Joker situation with his story about being a soldier in Rangoon. Alfred reminds Bruce that he created this situation when he decided to upset the status quo, and that if he’s thinking of giving into the Joker’s demands he’ll just make everything worse. “We just need to figure out what he’s after” says the World’s Greatest Detective, proving that he is completely unequipped to deal with the Joker — Bruce is a man of relentless, probing intelligence, and the Joker, he will eventually learn, isn’t after anything that Bruce can understand.
That night, Batman stands atop a building with, apparently, some kind of sophisticated listening device. He picks up a piece of information and swoops down to discover a murder scene. Two men, named Harvey and Dent, have been killed — somehow — by the Joker, or his men in any case, for the sole purpose of the Joker issuing a threat against the life of the Mayor.
Batman shows up at the scene and proceeds to perform a little sophisticated detective work, which I can kind of follow in theory but which ultimately stretched my credulity. With only a shattered bullet inside a brick, Bruce is able to procure and set up — by himself — a ballistics lab in his lair to test and analyze different shattered-bullet patterns (I think). Just in the nick of time, this process provides him with exactly the piece of information he needs to get to his next place — the address of the man who shot the gun that put the bullet in the brick. (Who, it turns out, is not the Joker, but one of his minions — about whom we will learn more later.
In the middle of the “detective” sequence is another scene between Fox and Reese — Reese has discovered that Bruce is Batman, and wants to blackmail him. Fox reminds him that Bruce is, after all, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world — and a little crazy to boot — which is enough to get Reese to back down. For now. Now, we have a smashing set piece set around the funeral for Commissioner Loeb. The Dark Knight is like a miniature film festival — so far, we’ve seen a heist sequence, a fight sequence, a caper sequence, a detective sequence and now a suspense sequence, all executed near the top of their respective genres. Every fifteen minutes or so, The Dark Knight unfurls a set-piece that would be the climax of an ordinary movie — the fact that it manages all this and has a complex, involving plot revolving around serious issues continues to astound. The logic of the sequence, for the record, is: Loeb’s funeral is being held in the streets of Gotham, Bruce arrives at the address of the guy whose fingerprint he got off the shattered bullet, finds a bunch of guys gagged and bound. The gagged and bound guys turn out to be the funeral’s honor guard, and the honor guard down in the street turns out to be the Joker and some of his followers. The Joker’s plan is to shoot the Mayor during the 21-gun salute, and, just to complicate things, he has rigged a timer to open the window-shade of the room where the real honor guard is gagged and bound, to attract the attention of the police snipers ringing the streets. That strikes me as a little too much planning on the Joker’s part, but then again the Joker is not trying to trap Bruce, or anyone else, with his window-shade gag — rather, he wants to draw attention to the window itself, so that the police snipers are looking the wrong way when he turns to shoot the Mayor. Which he does, although Gordon blocks the shot and appears to be shot dead.
Chaos erupts in the street, and Harvey, Daylight Batman, corners one of the Joker’s men in an ambulance. The guy, who is clearly out of his mind, tells Harvey that Rachel is the Joker’s next target, which presses Harvey’s buttons and sends him over the edge — almost. Again, the Joker’s plan is not just to put the crimelords back in power, but to force the few good people in Gotham to turn evil. Somewhere along the way, he’s assembled an army of crazy people, ready to do his bidding (apparently he’s spent some time in Arkham).
Stephens and Ramirez go to tell Gordon’s wife (whose name is Barbara, although she looks a little too old to become Batgirl) about Jim’s death, and she responds by shouting out into the night, to the Batman she knows is listening, “You brought this craziness on us!” Bruce, filled with guilt and now towering anger, goes to find Maroni and, in the gangland tradition, breaks his legs to get information. Maroni, however, knows nothing about the Joker, even though he has hired him to restore the status quo.
(Does the Joker have a home? His suit, although custom made, is filthy and ragged, and there is a sense of history about him — the makeup, the scars — that feels lived-in and precise. Has he been living on the street, in abandoned buildings? If you add up all the things we know about the Joker — including the fact that he lies as easily as he breathes — does it add up to a real person? I submit that while the Joker is indeed a fanciful creation, he feels more plausible — and more frightening — than Hannibal Lecter, Hollywood’s last great boogeyman creation.)
Harvey, in the midst of interrogating the Joker’s goon, calls Rachel and orders her to get someplace safe. Rachel, knowing that Bruce is Batman, says that the only safe place in town is Bruce’s penthouse. (Although the Joker seemed to be able to get in pretty easily during the party, which should still be uppermost in Rachel’s mind, since she got thrown out a window there.) Harvey, not knowing about Bruce’s torch for Rachel, pushes her into his apartment. He’s taking one more step from White Knight to Dark Knight, fulfilling the action begun by Bruce earlier. And, just as Batman interrogated Maroni and went a little too far, Harvey does the same with the Joker’s goon, in his own style. Batman stops him before he kills the goon, not knowing that Harvey is merely playing a psychological trick on the assassin. Batman tells Harvey that the city can’t afford to have Harvey be a vigilante, it would ruin everything. Harvey must be the face of “good” Gotham, while Batman must remain masked — this is the balance that must be struck to deal with criminals like the Joker.
Bruce gets home and finds Rachel there, and tells her that he’s going to turn himself in, “I’ve seen what I’d have to become to stop men like [the Joker].” He asks again for Rachel’s love, and Rachel gives it to him, even though they both know that if Bruce turns himself in they could never be together.
Bruce goes to his lair and puts away all his bat-stuff, preparing to give himself in. The dream is over, Bruce must give up his dream of justice in order to placate a madman. Essentially, he will sacrifice himself in order to save Harvey, even though it will mean undoing everything he, Gordon and Harvey have done.
He goes downtown to turn himself in — the movie’s not even half over! — but Harvey turns the tables on him, steals his thunder and fulfills his wish at the same time. Bruce wanted to turn Harvey into Batman, and poof! Harvey is now Batman. Under pressure from “the people” of Gotham, Harvey announces that he is The Batman and puts himself under arrest. Not only does he steal the thunder from Bruce, he steals the act climax as well, and very nearly steals the rest of the plot of the movie. Act III will trace Harvey’s journey from Batman to Two-Face, as Bruce will become increasingly helpless to recover the ground he has lost through his actions. At the end of Act II, Bruce Wayne was ready to reveal himself to be Batman, only to have his decision yoinked away from him by Harvey Dent. At the beginning of Act III, Bruce is forced to continue on as Batman in order to capture the Joker, the key representative of the new breed of criminal class Bruce has created by trying to clean up Gotham. Although there is some question as to whether Bruce’s heart is really into giving up Batman — which Rachel will address later.
At the top of Act III, Rachel goes to see Alfred. She’s angry about Bruce’s decision to let Harvey take the fall for Batman’s vigilante crimes, so angry that she has apparently decided to give up Bruce forever and marry Harvey (although we don’t know that quite yet). Rachel is, it seems, the only true-blue force of good in The Dark Knight. The other good guys understand that it’s sometimes necessary to lie to defeat evil, but Rachel cannot let a lie stand. Alfred argues that Bruce is actually more than a hero for his actions — he’s already sacrificed his life to fight crime in a mask, now he’s willing to give up the mask as well, to let Harvey take Batman from him. At this point, Harvey is really more Batman than Bruce.
Rachel goes downtown to see Harvey as he’s being loaded into a SWAT van to be taken to the county lockup. They have something of a goodbye scene (appropriately enough, as we will see), where Harvey winks to Rachel that he knows what he’s doing and everything will be all right.
Before we continue, behold the structure of Act III of The Dark Knight. It begins with a smashing chase scene, then moves straight into an extended multi-threaded suspense sequence, which culminates in the death of one character and the transformation of another. It delivers the narrative low-point for the protagonist, then kind of goes on for another ten minutes or so. This odd little post-climactic interlude between Act III and Act IV, a little mini-act of itself, maps out Harvey’s transition from Harvey to Two-Face and includes the end of the Joker’s relationship with the “establishment” (hint: the split is not amicable) and his nurturing of Harvey’s transition from white knight to villain. During this interlude, Bruce acts as a superhero without putting on his mask (unless you count behaving as a dim-witted billionaire playboy a mask), and the Joker destroys a hospital in order to cover up the disappearance of Harvey.
Now then: Harvey’s transfer to the county lockup has generated a lot of confusion among fans of The Dark Knight, so let’s see if we can sort out what exactly happens here. The plan appears to be Harvey’s: he knows he’s not Batman, and the SWAT folk seem to understand that he’s not Batman (Harvey’s awfully open about it when he talks to Rachel), and, as we will find out, Jim Gordon is the non-talking SWAT guy driving the van next to the chatty SWAT guy. So it’s Harvey’s plan to set himself up as bait to draw out the Joker, but Jim — unbeknownst to Harvey — is driving his van. (Jim, like Bruce, understands that, for justice to prevail, it sometimes must wear a mask.)
So Harvey’s plan is: claim to be Batman, which will get him arrested, which will then get himself transferred to the county lockup, which will lure the Joker out of the shadows, which will then prompt the real Batman to come forward to arrest the Joker, and poof! Justice will be prevail in Gotham and everyone’s problems will be solved. Jim’s plan is auxiliary to Harvey’s, and is this: capitalizing on his “death” in Act II, go under cover as a SWAT guy and be on hand to arrest the Joker when he makes his attack and Batman captures him. Harvey does not know about Jim’s plan, although Jim must know about Harvey’s, but I see no indication that Batman knows about either — as far as he knows, Harvey is still sacrificing himself for the good of the city.
Now: what is the Joker’s plan? The Joker’s plan, we will learn, is: attack the SWAT caravan, knowing full well that Harvey is not the Batman, but knowing that by attacking the caravan he will draw out Batman. His plan then is either: get Batman to kill him, or to get himself captured by Batman and then arrested by the police (although not by Jim, whom the Joker thinks is dead). “Could you please just give me a minute?” he asks Jim politely as he prepares to “put a smile” on Batman’s face — he’s perfectly okay with getting captured, but he wants to know who Batman is first — not out of any kind of Caeser-Romero-Joker-style desire to “unmask Batman,” but because when Batman is unmasked, the fabric holding Gotham City together will unravel.
(Although I sometimes wonder about this. Mid-way through Batman and Robin, Batman participates in a celebrity charity auction, bidding an extraordinary amount of money for a date with Poison Ivy. I got the feeling while watching that movie that the Joker of Dark Knight could hold a press conference, announce that Batman is Bruce Wayne, and the people of Gotham would just look kind of embarrassed and say “Um, yeah, we had all figured that out already. Thanks anyway.” The idea that the people of Gotham know that Bruce is Batman and let him run around punching criminals anyway is one that has yet to be explored in the Batman mythos.)
Harvey, who has spent the last two acts of The Dark Knight becoming Batman, now looks visibly relieved to announce that it was all a ruse — like a bad dream. Harvey, like Hockey Pads, is not, and cannot be, the “real” Batman. Batman may have begun as a symbol, but The Dark Knight insists that only one man can truly be Batman.
The Joker is taken to the MCU, where the second half of his plan comes to light. And as long as we’re here, let’s work this through as well. The Joker, sensing that Harvey is not the Batman, attacks Harvey’s convoy knowing that it will lead to his capture. He knows that attacking the SWAT convoy will land him in the MCU (or get him killed, which is okay with him too), so he has contrived to have one of his crazy minions locked up with him. (The minion, let’s call him Phone Minion, has killed a policeman, thus guaranteeing his delivery to the MCU rather than some other police department.) Then, the Joker’s only plan is to be taken to the phone-call place within the MCU and call Phone Minion from there, which will blow up Phone Minion and destroy the MCU, which will allow him to free Lau, the Mob banker, thus re-gaining the status quo for Maroni and the other crimelords — or so they think. In order to keep the police distracted, he has also contrived to have Wuertz and Ramirez kidnap Harvey and Rachel and deliver them to a pair of abandoned warehouses, where they are wired up to a whole bunch of oil drums.
The Joker most likely does not know that Jim is alive, and he seems surprised that Batman shows up to interrogate him, but that’s okay — he’ll get what he wants anyway. He doesn’t need Batman to show up to interrogate him, he knows that Batman is around somewhere and will try to rescue either Harvey or Rachel, and that one of them will die. Although it does turn out handy for the Joker that the Batman does show up, as it gives the two of them some valuable face-time with each other.
But before all that happens, we spend a little time with Jim Gordon, the latest addition to the Masked Justice fraternity and, until recently, dead. Jim is given a promotion to Commissioner by the Mayor, then checks in with his wife and son. He goes to interrogate the Joker about the sudden disappearance of Harvey and Rachel (The Joker turns his argument back on him — Harvey and Rachel were abducted by Jim’s people, not the Joker’s), then, having had his little narrative moment in the sun, turns the story back over to Batman for his big scene.
“There’s no going back, you’ve changed things” says the Joker to Batman. By deciding to take out the Mob, by upsetting the status quo, Bruce has created a far more unstable environment. The Joker also hints at his ultimate endgame — he doesn’t want Batman dead, and never did, despite what he told the mobsters back in Act I. He needs Batman alive to provide a dramatic contrast that will make him, the Joker, more powerful. “You have nothing to do with all your strength,” he laughs — if Batman kills the Joker, he’s admitting that he’s a failure and that his notions of justice are a fraud.
Lecter-like, he tries to get inside Batman’s mind, warning him that, despite the support of the police, there will come a time when Gotham won’t need him — especially if he does his job well — and will cast him out. He tells Batman where Rachel and Harvey are being held, forcing Bruce to make a choice between the two. Harvey is the public face of good in Gotham, he’s Daytime Batman, but Rachel is Bruce’s ticket out of Batworld altogether. Under pressure, Bruce doesn’t think and chooses to save Rachel over Harvey, not realizing that the Joker has given him bad information — he’s mixed lies with truth to confuse him, and succeeded.
(Again: the Joker does not need Batman in the interrogation room to fulfill this part of his plan — the Harvey-Rachel crisis will empty out the MCU just as easily, allowing him to make his phone call and get to Lau.)
So Bruce, thinking he’s being selfish and saving Rachel, instead saves Harvey (half- way) while Rachel gets blown to bits. The next morning, Alfred reads a note Rachel gave to him to give to Bruce. It’s a “Dear Bruce” letter, telling him that she’s chosen to marry Harvey after all. Rejecting one Batman, she’s chosen another. Bruce may be the “real Batman,” but Harvey can be Batman without a mask — or at least that was the case when Rachel wrote the letter. Further, Rachel seems to understand that there will never be a time when Bruce cannot be Batman. The note doesn’t explicate, but she could mean two things here: either she means that there will never be a time when Gotham doesn’t need Batman, or else she means that Bruce will always find an excuse to keep being Batman. I’m inclined to think the latter, since Bruce’s non-confession at the end of Act II is what prompted Rachel to write the letter in the first place.
Alfred is about to deliver this letter to Bruce when Bruce, at his narrative low-point, mentions that he acted to save Rachel because he believes that Rachel had decided to choose himself over Harvey. Alfred then decides not to hand over the letter after all — another lie to serve a greater good, something especially poignant as Rachel would have felt bitterly betrayed by the action.
The action-packed entre-acte begins, almost a prologue to Act IV: Jim goes to see Harvey in the hospital. Harvey, in his agony, has refused medical treatment for his horrible, horrifying wounds, and vows revenge on Jim, who he feels is partly responsible for the death of Rachel.
It’s not an entirely bad day for Jim, though — no sooner does he get condemned by Harvey than he gets saved by Maroni, who turns up outside Harvey’s hosptial room, repentant, wanting to turn in the Joker. It’s as though Maroni, being a man of honor, after all, wants to make amends for his role in all this mess. He knows that he’s upset the status quo too, and he addresses Jim as an equal in the world of crime — almost a kind of business partner, which is how the Mob felt about the police in any case.
Across town, the Joker meets up with the Chechen. Maroni is supposed to be there as well, but we know that he’s across town giving the Joker up to Jim. The Joker now has Lau and half of all the Mob’s money — he should now be the crime boss of all Gotham. Which makes it all the more shocking when he burns the money — all the money — and Lau — and then kills the Chechen. The Joker, we learn, has no endgame. There’s no point where he’s going to say “Okay, I’m done, good job.” For the Joker, the whole point of his enterprise is that it goes on and on and on. This is a radically new concept in superhero movies, where the “bad-guy plot” always culminates in some bizarre, colorful, impossible scheme that the hero has to foil. How can Batman foil the Joker’s bad-guy plot when he doesn’t have one?
Meanwhile, the Coleman Reese plot plays itself out. Reese, who knows Bruce is the Batman, has seen enough destruction that he’s going to abandon his blackmail plot to expose Bruce for free on live television. While Jim takes his men to wherever Maroni told him to go (I’m assuming the boat with the burning pile of money, although we never see them arrive), the Joker sets another plot into motion: he heads over to the hospital where Harvey is, turns him evil, then blows up the hospital to cover Harvey’s escape. The Reese aspect of his plan is mere happenstance — the Joker was going to blow up the hospital in any case, to get Harvey out.
In any case, the Joker calls into the TV show where Reese is and puts a price on Reese’s head. He doesn’t particularly care about whether Reese lives or dies, but Reese’s TV appearance gives him a chance to stage a massive diversion as the city goes crazy.
He goes to Harvey’s room, and, in spite of being responsible for killing his girlfriend and sending the city Harvey loves into chaos, the Joker is able to convince Harvey that Batman — and the police who back him up — are the real villains in this story. Which, well, he has a point, although he stretches the truth when he tells Harvey that Batman and Jim are “schemers” while he’s a mere “dog chasing cars.” Batman and Jim have plans, it’s true, and so did Harvey once, but the real difference between them and the Joker is that their plans have ideal outcomes, whereas the Joker’s plans just go on and on forever. This, for me, is a signature aspect of the Joker character presented in The Dark Knight, a criminal with no goal, just a perpetuation of anarchy. The fault in Batman and Jim, says the Joker, is that they’re all about control, whereas he’s an “agent of chaos.” That’s as close as the Joker comes to a statement of purpose in The Dark Knight, especially when he backs up his point by talking about the everyday barbarity of society, the way that society is completely tolerant of death and destruction, as long as it happens to the right people. To seal the deal in Harvey’s mind, the Joker happily includes his own probable death into Harvey’s notion of justice.
The Joker’s plan, Jim’s plan and Bruce’s plan all come crashing together, literally, as Bruce heads into traffic to stop a Gothamite from killing Reese. It’s interesting and compelling to see Bruce act as a superhero without a mask, and it reinforces the extent to which Bruce has turned his life over to that mask — his daytime persona is more of a mask than his actual mask is.
Bruce’s bold decision to step out unmasked is dramatic, but again, he has played into the Joker’s hand, heading to save the wrong person as the Joker blows up Harvey’s hospital and makes off with a busload of hostages (the same bus as from the heist prologue?). Despite Bruce’s sacrifices and best attempts, the city is now in dramatically worse shape than before, in a state of emergency in fact, and the day isn’t yet over.
At the end of Act III, Bruce, despite his best efforts and his bravest sacrifices, has pretty much screwed up everything in Gotham City. In the act of cleaning up the Mob, he’s created the Joker, and in the act of making his act legitimate (shades of Michael Corleone) he’s created Two-Face. By upsetting the status quo, he’s gotten his girlfriend killed and turned her new boyfriend insane. In Act IV, he will do his best to defeat the Joker — and fail, forcing him to face the consequences of the decisions he’s made. As the act begins, the Joker has created a siege situation in Gotham. His relationship with the Mob has reached its, um, conclusion; he now controls all the crime in Gotham. Now he seals off the entire city, using nothing but fear and paranoia (as far as we can tell) to close the bridges and tunnels.
Back at Wayne headquarters, Lucius Fox is alerted to a break-in in the R&D department. The “break-in,” of course, is just Bruce’s way of getting Fox’s attention. It’s a tiny beat, but ties in thematically, as so many things do in The Dark Knight, of the idea of the forces of justice needing to pose as a criminal in order to achieve their goals.
Detective Wuertz now takes the spotlight for a moment, as he comes face to face (to face) with Two-Face, who inaugurates his new notion of justice, which he has taken from the Joker (chaos being the only answer to the world) and given his own spin (yes- and-no chance is the only fairness in a chaotic world). For the people who feel shortchanged by the Two-Face storyline, think about this: the entire movie is about him, the struggle for his soul, which represents the soul of Gotham City. Bruce Wayne has sacrificed everything he has (except, of course, all his power and wealth, obviously) for the “good” part of Gotham, the Joker keeps absorbing more and more of the city’s power and wealth and then squandering it, and the two of them literally tear Harvey Dent in half. When folks complain that Two-Face isn’t in the movie enough, I think what they mean is that the cool special-effects makeup isn’t in the movie enough, and that Two-Face doesn’t have any kind of outlandish, colorful scheme to implement. Well, that’s too bad, but the Joker doesn’t have a scheme either. There isn’t any “end” to this for the Joker, he wants to take the whole world and send it down the toilet — an endless project of disorder to match Bruce’s endless project of order. Whereas Two-Face has the opposite of a grand scheme — he wants to kill the people who made him suffer, and then kill himself. The folks who pine for a “bigger” Two-Face story, one to match the one in, say, Batman Forever I guess, where he teams up with the Riddler to build a giant mind-control ray, miss the great tragedy at the heart of The Dark Knight — they want a supervillain, whereas the Nolans have imagined him as a human being. In any case, Wuertz loses his coin toss and Harvey kills him.
Next we have the scene where Bruce explains his crazy cell-phone sonar device to Fox, the science of which I’ll just go ahead and accept somehow. The thing that interests me about the scene is how the same people who reject The Dark Knight as absurd fantasy because the Joker blows up a hospital on such short notice, have no trouble accepting that Bruce Wayne designs, engineers and builds the gigantic cell-phone sonar device, based on an idea he only learned about a few days earlier, entirely by himself. In any case, Fox’s response to the device is “This is wrong,” which points to the complex nature of Batman’s existence in Gotham: in order for there to be a masked vigilante dispensing justice, he needs an interweaved set of checks and balances, Gordon and Fox and Dent, to oversee his work and do the things he cannot.
Meanwhile, Gordon confers with the mayor, outlining the scope of the terror that’s about to unfold. Compare this Commissioner Gordon to the Gordon of the Burton and Schumacher Batman movies and The Dark Knight stands out in bold relief. Gordon in the earlier movies was a patsy, a bumbling fool who couldn’t catch a criminal to save his life, but in Nolan’s script and in Gary Oldman’s performance you can feel the soul of a man caught in a vast web of conflicting responsibilities — he must be a politician, a father, a cop and an action hero, he must be loyal to his friends but also enforce the law, and he has the family that Bruce gave up to fight crime, so the danger he faces, the sacrifice he makes, is that greater. Bruce risks nothing but himself when he goes out to fight crime, but Gordon risks everything he’s worked for, the lives of his men and the lives of his family.
Two-Face now catches up with Maroni, the next guy on his list of grudges. Maroni wins his coin toss, but Two-Face kills him anyway by killing his driver. It rains on the just and unjust alike in Two-Face’s world, or maybe Two-Face is just as much of a liar and prevaricator as the Joker.
Now the screenplay heads into the big ferry sequence. The Joker has rigged two ferries, one carrying ordinary “good” Gothamites, the other carrying hardened criminals — the same criminals Harvey Dent put away at the beginning of Act II (again, an unintended alliance). Batman heads out to search for the Joker while Fox locates him via the big cell-phone sonar thingy. Batman informs Gordon of the Joker’s location, and now the sequence becomes a three-way fight between Batman, the Joker’s forces and Gordon’s forces. Gordon, a lone good detective in Batman Begins, is now the police commissioner, with “henchmen” of his own, and Batman must fight his own ally’s forces in order to achieve his goal of capturing the Joker before the ferries blow up. Batman panicked when the Joker fed him the bad information about Harvey and Rachel and made a mistake, but Batman — finally — has his act together now and it is Gordon’s turn to panic. He thinks the Joker has taken Harvey hostage, and he’s acting on a rash impulse to right what he feels is wrong.
About those ferries: setting aside any possible tricks up the Joker’s sleeve (ie, each ferry blowing itself up instead of the other), to me the morality of the situation breaks down like this: the “good” Gothamites and the “bad” Gothamites have been given the opportunity to kill each other, and who will pull the trigger? The “good” Gothamites (represented by Average Guy on the “good” ferry) all want the “bad” Gothamites dead, but they don’t have the strength of will to actually kill (which is why they need a justice system). The “bad” Gothamites, meanwhile, have killed, they’ve faced that choice and know what it means. (“Killing is making a choice,” says the Joker to Batman in the interrogation room, and the reverse is also true — when people in power make a choice (and everyone is a person in power), they are, on some level, choosing who will live and who will die. Bruce’s idealism and the Joker’s nihilism meet — half-way — in the person of Two-Face.) In the end, the “good” Gothamites don’t have the will to defend themselves (which is why they need Batman), but the “bad” Gothamites have the strength to not kill, which calls all the way back to what the bank manager says to the Joker at the end of the heist sequence — criminals in Gotham used to have honor and respect, and here we see those qualities in action. It’s not just that Big Scary-Looking Convict conveniently grows a soul when faced with the opportunity of cold-blooded murder, it’s that he, and not the “good” Gothamites, and not the National Guardsman holding the detonator, has killed, and thus understands the strength it takes to have that will — and refuse to act on it. When Big Scary-Looking Convict throws his detonator out the window, he is risking his life but saving his soul, but when Average Guy gingerly puts his detonator back in its box, he’s admitting that it is not the responsibility of a citizen to mete out justice (the breaking of which rule is what sets the narrative of The Dark Knight into motion to begin with).
Meanwhile, Batman, the Joker and Gordon’s SWAT forces all collide in a three-way action sequence across the way. Having fought off his allies in the police department, Batman now gets attacked by the Joker. The dog motif begun in the Chechen’s meeting with the Scarecrow back in Act I now comes to a head. The Joker now has those very same dogs, which Batman must now fight.
Why dogs? Well, as several folks have pointed out, the Joker is referred to as “a dog off its leash” and “a dog chasing cars,” and we’ve seen him hang his head out a car window. And maybe its nothing more than a visual pun, that Gotham City is, literally, “going to the dogs.”
In the midst of this, Two-Face arranges to have Gordon’s family kidnapped through Detective Ramirez. Ramirez wins her coin toss and receives only a punch in the face for her crimes against Gotham.
Across the way, the Joker is disappointed that neither the good nor the bad of Gotham could kill anyone, so he goes to his backup plan of doing it himself. This is enough of a distraction for him to allow Batman to get the drop on him, and the Joker plunges down the side of the building — and is saved by Batman. (Which points to one of the key rules of the superhero genre — in a superhero story, the villain wants to kill the hero, but the hero wants to save the villain, not kill him. Bruce, even after everything that’s happened, cannot, will not, kill the Joker. And I thought this was supposed to be a conservative wet-dream narrative.)
As the Joker dangles helpless, he tells Batman that the stunt with the ferries is — yes — only a distraction, something to focus Batman’s attention while the real event, the real crime, is happening elsewhere — the self-destructive rampage of Two-Face. If the ferries had blown up, Gotham City would recover, but if they knew that their white-knight DA was a murderous madman, the whole system of justice would fall apart. Having saved the Joker, Bruce must now race off to save Two-Face. Two-Face has decided to punish Gordon not by killing him but by killing his son. Batman shows up for a three-way conversation between himself, Two-Face and Gordon, where they sort out who did what to whom and why. Batman feels that, even after killing three people, Two- Face is still Harvey Dent, and deserves to be saved. Harvey wants justice for those he feels are responsible for Rachel’s death, but Batman tells him that it’s not that simple — Rachel is dead because Bruce, Harvey and Gordon all acted, together, to clean up Gotham City. “Then why was I the only one who lost everything?” wails Two-Face, and Bruce holds his tongue — not only has he lost Rachel too, but he’s lost his parents and his normality into the bargain. He’s sacrificed more than Harvey could ever imagine, and he doesn’t bring it down to chance — he brings it down to choice. He chose to act, setting all the events of the narrative into motion, including the death of Rachel and Harvey’s disfigurement.
When people complain about Batman being foolish in The Dark Knight, they wish for the strong, always-right, never-wrong Batman of their imaginations. But the greatness of The Dark Knight‘s narrative lies in how it shows that Batman is often wrong, and completely helpless when dealing with a criminal like the Joker. There is no defense against evil, only the strength to not give in to it. “If Batman has limits, I can’t afford to know them,” says Bruce in Act I, and here he’s confronted with the folly of that headstrong philosophy — Batman is all about limits, and the narrative of The Dark Knight is, in large part, an examination, and definition, of those limits.
Some folk don’t buy that Batman has to take the fall for Harvey’s crimes. Why not tell people the truth, they ask, or, if Gordon absolutely must lie, why not pin the crimes on the Joker? And yet, in Bruce’s philosophy, he is responsible for them. He inspired Harvey to run for DA, he set into motion the bold stroke of rounding up all of Gotham’s gangsters, he gave the big party to ensure Harvey’s power, he set about making Harvey Daytime Batman so that he could stand the hope of giving up his burden and stealing Rachel away, he created the power vacuum that gave rise to the Joker. He tried to make Gotham a better place, and failed, in every conceivable way. The Joker wins at the end of The Dark Knight and now it’s Gordon’s dogs who chase him.