Coincidence and Tragedy

My favorite movie is and most likely always will be Die Hard, but if I had to pick a movie to call my second-favorite movie of all time, it would be The Dark Knight. I’ve seen the movie probably dozens of times since it was released way back in 2008 (the same year the first Iron Man movie came out) but it’s the kind of movie where you notice something new and different with every viewing.

dark knight poster

I re-watched the movie a little while ago after not having seen it for some time, and there were two big things (hint: see the title of this post) that really stood out to me that I wanted to talk about here.

The first is coincidence. I’ve read a lot of stuff in various corners of the Internet ever since The Dark Knight came out complaining about how the Joker’s various diabolical schemes in the movie don’t make sense, and that much of the plot is coincidental because there’s no way the Joker could have planned out every single thing that happens in the film. These complaints have always bothered me, and re-watching the movie recently helped me figure out why.

People always talk about how the Joker must be clairvoyant or something, because he always seems to know what’s going to happen. But the point of the Joker isn’t that he knows everything that’s going to happen, it’s that he’s prepared for every eventuality and he reacts according to what other people do.

Joker tells Harvey Dent that “I’m like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I caught one! I just…do…things.” The Joker doesn’t make plans. As he also tells Harvey, he’s the one who shows people how foolish their plans really are. He disrupts everyone else’s plans, and basks in the resulting chaos.

Also, think about one of the Joker’s first appearances in the movie, where he disrupts the meeting of the mobsters who are talking about what to do with their dirty money. The mobsters are all convinced to go along with Lau’s plan until the Joker shows up and tells them that there’s no way Lau’s so-called plan will be able to withstand Batman’s interference (and for the record, Joker turns out to be right about this).


This also feeds in to Joker’s status as Batman’s foil. He’s the opposite of Batman, a dark, perverted reflection of everything Batman represents. Because if you think about it, Batman’s tactics when it comes to fighting crime are not dissimilar from Joker’s tactics of instilling terror on the citizens of Gotham. Both use unpredictability and fear as weapons. The people of Gotham are scared of the Joker just as criminals are scared of Batman.

Remember in Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne tells Alfred that he needs to become a symbol? His words are something along the lines of, “As a man I can be ignored, I can be destroyed, but as a symbol…as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”

All of that applies to the Joker.

Just as Batman is the symbol of hope, the Joker is the symbol of terror.

batman joker

All of this is to say that it really does not matter if the Joker’s schemes in the movie don’t completely make sense. Do Batman’s actions completely make sense to the criminals of Gotham? Probably not. But we see the movie from Batman’s perspective, so his actions make sense to us, the viewers, while the Joker’s don’t always. The Joker is all about creating an air of panic and disorientation, and this applies to Gotham’s citizenry as well as the viewers of the film.

We see Bruce and Alfred talking about what to do about the Joker; we don’t see Joker and his henchmen talking about what to do about Batman. We see Joker telling the mobsters that they need to kill Batman, yes, but he doesn’t share the details of how they are going to accomplish that. This serves to keep the viewer in suspense, and it also serves to bait the mobsters into thinking what Joker wants them to think, so that when they get desperate enough, they’ll turn to him. Just like Leo DiCaprio in Inception (which Christopher Nolan made after The Dark Knight), Joker plants the idea in their minds so that when the time comes, it’s him they’ll be thinking of.

But even aside from all of this, put very simply, the Joker’s actions drive the story, and the details don’t really matter. The Joker is the main force driving the plot of the film forward, and the actions of all the other characters are based around what he does. Christopher Nolan (who also co-wrote the movie) doesn’t waste time getting bogged down in the details of the Joker’s actions, because he knows that that would detract from the story, and from seeing the story through to its incredibly tragic conclusion.

And this, in an extremely roundabout way, brings me to the second main point I want to discuss about The Dark Knight, which is tragedy.

Superheroes, at their core, are all about sacrifice. And The Dark Knight is a movie that explores this theme in ways that no other superhero movie really does.

As much as I enjoy superhero movies, I can definitely concede that they tend to be predictable in terms of plot. Villain tries to destroy/take over world, hero stops him, day is saved, everyone is happy, everything is okay.

But at the end of The Dark Knight, everything is NOT okay. Yes, the Joker has been captured, and the immediate threat he poses has ended. But the crime-fighting trifecta of Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and Harvey Dent has been irreparably damaged. Not only is Harvey Dent physically dead, but so is his reputation. He pulled a full-blown Anakin Skywalker and descended into murderous madness, only to meet his end while in the process of attempting to murder Commissioner Gordon’s children. How many other superhero films end with a previously-heroic character pointing a gun at a child’s head? I sure can’t think of any.

batman triumvirate

The Joker has been stopped by the end of the film, but Batman, Gordon and Dent have had to sacrifice so much of themselves in order to accomplish that that it ends up being a Pyrrhic victory. They’ve all had to sacrifice their integrity on so many different occasions that it’s a wonder they have any part of their souls left at all. Take, for example, Batman using Fox’s sonar device to track every cell phone in the city. He knows it’s wrong to spy on so many people, but he does it anyway because the Joker has backed him into a corner and he has no other choice.

The Dark Knight is a movie in which so much more is at stake than the physical well-being of the characters. The characters’ very souls are at stake, making the movie as a whole about so much more than just saving a city from a madman.

The Dark Knight is a masterpiece. I admit that it’s not perfect, despite what I said about how the feeling of disorientation is intentional to some extent, I will agree that the film’s storytelling is a bit muddled at times. For example, I still don’t really understand the whole bullet-reconstruction sequence, that part of the movie has never made much sense to me. But I have come to accept it for what it is, which is a way to advance the plot. The specific details are kind of irrelevant.

And if the Joker’s actions don’t always seem to make sense, it’s because the Joker isn’t a typical villain and his actions aren’t driven by the kind of motivations that you would expect. Remember the scene where he burns the huge pile of money? He does that because he doesn’t care about money. He’s not motivated by it.

I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m trying to pass off the movie’s flaws by saying they’re all intentional. The film does strain believability a couple times, and the action sequences can be hard to follow. But the acting is tremendous and the ending is devastating, and it’s the most moving superhero film I’ve ever seen.

I still think it’s absurd that the movie wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, if ever there was a superhero movie that deserved to be nominated for Best Picture it’s this one. The stupid Academy of Motion Picture Snobs and Douchebags seems to enjoy stiffing Christopher Nolan, since they snubbed him for Inception and Interstellar as well.

Oh, well. The Dark Knight is still a masterpiece, and it’s a movie that has remained in the public consciousness for very good reason. It’s kind of amazing that Warner Bros. had the balls to let Christopher Nolan make the movie the way he wanted to, but it’s a gamble that paid off big time.

After 75 years (he celebrated his 75th anniversary last year), Batman has proved that he is still relevant. And it is a great time to be a fan of the Caped Crusader. I can’t wait to play the upcoming video game Batman: Arkham Knight (I’ve put off buying a next-gen console until Arkham Knight comes out) and everyone has an opinion about Zack Snyder’s Batman/Superman movie due out next year. Batman is the greatest superhero of all time, and his many fans still have a lot to look forward to.

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