The Dark Knight has received overwhelming acclaim. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an overall score of 94%, based on several hundred reviews. American film critic Roger Ebert praised The Dark Knight, crediting Nolan with redefining the possibilities of superhero narratives.
Before the film commences, the audience sees the logos of Legendary Pictures and DC Comics. The DC Comics logo is important in establishing audience expectations about the narrative and genre of the film. Rays of light resolve themselves into a half-tone image of an eye, evoking a method of printing strongly associated with comic books. The images themselves have been taken from the pages of DC Comics: an eye, The Joker, clenched fists. The studio logos are a uniformly subdued shade of blue.
The film opens with an aerial shot of Gotham City which rapidly draws closer to the window of an enormous skyscraper which suddenly explodes in a shower of glass. In the subsequent shots, the Joker’s henchmen prepare to stage an audacious bank heist. The dialogue exchanged between the men helps to establish The Joker as a character before he appears onscreen. “I heard he wears make-up,” says one of the goons, hacking his way into a switchboard. “To scare people. You know…war paint.” One of the men reveals that they’re robbing a mafia bank: “A Mob bank. I guess the Joker’s as crazy as they say.” As he prepares to leave the bank, the Joker hears a voice behind him. Wounded by a gunshot the bank manager, played by William Fitchner, cries out: “Oh, criminals in this town used to believe in things. Honor. Respect. Look at you. What do you believe in, huh?”
The Joker kneels down and removes the latex clown mask. Christopher Nolan uses a tight close-up of Heath Ledger’s face, accentuating the scars and grotesque make-up. The key light in this scene comes from a large window over his right shoulder. While one side of his face is clearly illuminated, the rest is in shadow. Ledger’s voice is low and sinister as he delivers his response: “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you…stranger.” Ledger shoves a grenade into the mouth of the terrified bank manager and leers at the camera, revealing a set of yellow teeth. This shot is also filmed from the perspective of the bank manager, making The Joker seem all the more sinister to the audience. James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer collaborated on the scores for both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Although they revisit many of the themes from the original film, they wrote a new leitmotif for The Joker: a single note played on the violin which increases in intensity and pans rapidly from left to right, gradually joined by other discordant and distorted electronic instruments. As James Newton Howard notes: “What’s great about the Joker theme to me is that it feels totally untethered. It just kind of exists. It lives somewhere in the cracks.” The jarring, incessant wall of noise that constitutes The Joker’s theme in The Dark Knight contributes significantly to his anarchic and sinister character. In a review of The Dark Knight’s soundtrack, the editor of filmtracks.com noted: “Zimmer toiled for three months with the theme for the Joker, and in the end, he took a two-note motif and condensed it down to one note. Debate amongst the fans has ensued about whether one note can qualify as a theme. It all comes down to the texture of the performance, and this is where Zimmer defines the idea. This representation isn’t even as much a note as it is a sound effect, a rising tone of a siren that’s been altered into a harsh, digital calling card that is extraordinarily distinct. With such a blatantly awkward construct, this rising tone is very effective at representing the character. In “Why So Serious?,” Zimmer drives the point home with a series of equally abrasive, looped rhythms and pounding ensemble hits. A substantial amount of ambient design went into this performance, as well as several others accompanying the Joker and his rising tone. While Zimmer’s idea works, it also proves that any sound effect can be altered to convey a character or idea with a single note. Perhaps the most famous use of a unique sound in such a way was with the “Blaster Beam” effect employed by Jerry Goldsmith in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. One rip of that monster pipe and everyone knew that Goldsmith was referring to the mysterious cloud approaching the Earth. In theory, any noise could function for a crazed individual, so long as it was presented in an abnormal way. A hair dryer, a garbage can lid, a squealing baby, the sigh of an orgasm. The problem with using one sound, one note for the Joker is that it betrays the complexity of the character. Once again, as with the Batman character, Zimmer has tried so hard, labored for so long, that he has over-thought the situation. Praise may be poured on the idea because it’s intellectually different, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best representation for the character. The attempt to simplify the musical idea for the purposes of being radically different says more about the composer than it does about the character on screen. That doesn’t mean that the music box and waltz approach of Elfman for the same character was any better, but at least it was three-dimensional. On album, Zimmer’s “theme” for the Joker is unlistenable, as is the entire “Why So Serious?” cue. Those nine minutes, among others in the score, are, as one famous film score reviewer said, minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.”
The Joker shambles towards the bus, a tripwire tied to the grenade trailing behind him. He slams the door shut and Nolan cuts to a full shot of the bank manager laying on the floor. The audience hears the diegetic sound of the bus ignition starting. Nolan cuts to a shot of the bus pulling out of the bank, then back to the bank manager: the pin falls to the ground with a sharp clatter and Nolan dollies in as smoke erupts from the grenade. The opening scene of the film closes as the bus drives into the distance.
A traditional Hollywood narrative, The Dark Knight begins with a disruption to the normal state of affairs. There are two main narrative possibilities at the beginning of the film. An audience familiar with superhero narratives and the Batman mythos will expect a series of increasingly audacious and savage crimes which lead to a confrontation between Batman and The Joker.
The next sequence is used to establish the character of Bstman. Although he is a vigilante, this scene establishes that he is helping the citizens of Gotham. Nolan cuts to an aerial shot of Gotham City at night, a column of light flickers reaches for the night sky. The Bat Signal. The audience hears a montage of dialogue including an interview with the mayor of Gotham City: “Mr. Mayor, you were elected in a campaign to clean up the city. When are you going to start?” Nolan cuts to a midshot of a uniformed police officer walking towards his car. He looks over his shoulder, towards the sky and smiles. An extreme long shot shows the silhouette of a bat against the cloudy sky. This use of acting and editing contributes significantly to Batman’s character establishment. In the next shot, two criminals look towards the sky. “No, man. I don’t like it tonight,” one of them says. “What are you, superstitious?” the other replies. “You got more chance of winning the Powerball than running into him.” Inside the Gotham Police Department, Detective Anna Ramirez is listening to the news broadcast: “Hey, Wuertz, mayor says you’re closing in on the Batman.” Wuertz tosses a ball of paper at a board labelled ‘BATMAN SUSPECTS’ which features photographs of Abraham Lincoln, The Sasquatch and Elvis Presley. This contributes significantly to the character’s aura of mystery.
Lieutenant Gordon: I like reminding everybody he’s out there.
Detective Ramirez: Why wouldn’t he come?
Lieutenant Gordon: Hopefully…because he’s busy.
THE PARKING GARAGE
Nolan cuts to a parking garage where a group of men emerge from an SUV. What ensues is a confusing scene as multiple vigilantes dresses as Batman confront the criminals.
THE CRIME SCENE
Batman: Him again. Who are the others?
Gordon: Another bunch of small timers.
Batman: Some of the marked bills I gave you.
Gordon: My detectives have been making drug buys with them for weeks.
Gordon: This bank was another drop for the Mob. That makes five. We found the bulk of their dirty cash.
Batman: Time to move in.
Gordon: We’d have to hit all banks simultaneously. SWAT teams, backup. What about this Joker guy?
Batman: One man or the entire Mob? He can wait.
Gordon: When the new DA hears about this, he’ll want in.
Batman: Do you trust him?
Gordon: Be hard to keep him out. I hear he’s as stubborn as you are.
Editing contributes significantly to Batman’s mystique in this scene. Nolan cuts from a midshot of Gordon who looks up, puzzled, then to a shot of the empty doorway where Batman was standing.
NOT SLEEPING IN THE PENTHOUSE
The following morning, Bruce Wayne is tending to the wounds he sustained the previous evening. The exchange of dialogue between Bruce and his butler Alfred is significant. In the previous film, Nolan established Alfred as a surrogate father to Bruce Wayne. In Batman Begins, Alfred concedes that he cares about Bruce Wayne because “a good man once made me responsible…for what was most precious to him in the whole world.” In this scene, acting, dialogue and shot size help to establish the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred.
Alfred: Be nice when Wayne Manor’s rebuilt. You can swap not sleeping in a penthouse…for not sleeping in a mansion. Whenever you stitch yourself up, you do make a bloody mess.
Bruce: Yeah. It makes me learn from my mistakes.
Alfred: You ought to be pretty knowledgeable by now, then.
Bruce: My armor. I’m carrying too much weight. I need to be– I need to be faster.
Alfred: I’m sure Mr. Fox can oblige. Did you get mauled by a tiger?
Bruce: It was a dog.
Bruce: It was a big dog. There were more copycats last night, Alfred, with guns.
Alfred: Why don’t you hire them and take the weekend off?
Bruce: That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind…when I said I wanted to inspire people.
Alfred: I know. But things have improved. Look at the new district attorney.
Bruce: I am, closely. Need to know if he can be trusted.
Alfred: Are you interested in his character or his social circle?
Bruce: Who Rachel spends her time with is her business.
Alfred: I trust you don’t have me followed on my day off.
Bruce: If you ever took one, I might.
Alfred: Know your limits, Master Wayne.
Bruce: Batman has no limits.
Alfred: Well, you do, sir.
Bruce: Well, can’t afford to know them.
Alfred: And what’s gonna happen on the day that you find out?
Bruce: We all know how much you like to say, “I told you so.”
Alfred: On that day, Master Wayne, even I won’t want to. Probably.
The banter between the two characters is important, establishing their close relationship. Michael Cain’s performance as Alfred reveals both affection and deep concern for his charge. Before he delivers the line, “Know your limits, Master Wayne”, his eyes flicker and he clearly looks upset by the risks that Bruce is taking. At this moment, Nolan cuts between a close-up of Alfred and a point-of-view shot of the scars on Bruce’s back.
Throughout this scene, when Alfred is helping Bruce stitch up his arm, they are framed together in the shot, their proximity suggesting an almost filial relationship.
This scene is also significant because it establishes the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes. Conventionally, male superheroes have always had a female love interest. In the film Batman Begins, the character of Rachel Dawes – a character previously unseen in the comic books – was introduced to the Batman mythos as a love interest for Bruce Wayne. This conversation establishes the relationship between Bruce and Rachel. “Are you interested in his character or his social circle?” Alfred asks, motioning towards the computer monitor which shows District Attorney Harvey Dent walking alongside Rachel Dawes. Nolan cuts back to Bruce Wayne whose expression remains neutral and stoic. He blinks several times, looks down and says, “Who Rachel spends her time with is her business.” This fleeting moment establishes the important relationship between these two characters. Familiar with the conventions of superhero narratives, it’s possible that the two characters might reconcile their differences and rekindle their relationship.
SORRY I’M LATE, FOLKS
After the scene establishing the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred, Nolan cuts to a courtroom where Rachel Dawes waits patiently, looking to her right at Mob boss Salvatore Maroni who rocks back and forth impatiently in his chair. This scene is principally used to establish the character of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Production elements such as acting, music and editing are principally used to establish this character.
Rachel: Where were you?
Harvey: Worried you’d have to step up?
Rachel: Harvey, I know these briefs backwards.
Harvey: Well, then…fair’s fair. Heads, I’ll take it. Tails, he’s all yours.
Rachel: Yeah? You wanna flip a coin to see who leads?
Harvey: It’s my father’s lucky coin. As I recall, it got me my first date with you.
Rachel: I wouldn’t leave something like that up to chance.
Harvey: I don’t. I make my own luck.
Court Bailiff: All rise. The Honorable Judge Freel presiding.
Maroni: I thought the DA just played golf with the mayor or things like that.
Harvey: Tee-off’s 1:30. More than enough time to put you away for life, Sally. With Carmine Falcone in Arkham someone must have stepped up to run the so-called family. Is that man in this courtroom today? Could you identify him for us, please?
Al Rossi: You win, counselor. It was me.
Harvey: I have a sworn statement from you that this man, Salvatore Maroni, is the new head of the Falcone crime family.
Rossi: Maroni? He’s a fall guy. I’m the brains of the organization.
Harvey: Permission to treat the witness as hostile?
Rossi: Hostile? I’ll show you hostile!
Harvey: Carbon fiber, .28 caliber, made in China. If you wanna kill a public servant, Mr. Maroni…I recommend you buy American.
Judge: Get him out of here.
Harvey: But, Your Honor, I’m not done.
Before he appears onscreen, we hear the sound of his voice: “Sorry I’m late, folks.” Harvey moves into frame and sits beside Rachel. Dialogue and acting are central to establishing Harvey Dent as a character in the narrative. During this scene, he turns casually and confidently to Salvatore Maroni who suggests that he thought the District Attorney only plays golf with the mayor and quips, “Tee-off’s 1:30. More than enough time to put you away for life, Sally.” During the cross examination, Rossi pulls a carbon fiber pistol from his jacket and attempts to shoot Dent. Aaron Eckhart’s performance in these few seconds establishes his character as courageous and calm in the face of adversity. Eckhart looks down and appears slightly surprised before seizing the gun and punching Rossi in the face. The loud and exaggerated diegetic sound of his punch highlighting his strength. Nolan cuts to a reverse shot as Dent turns, expertly removes the cartridge from the pistol and confidently walks towards Maroni and says, “Carbon fiber, .28 caliber, made in China. If you wanna kill a public servant, Mr. Maroni…I recommend you buy American.” Nolan further establishes his confidence and courage as the judge orders the bailiff to remove the witness from the courtroom. “But, Your Honor, I’m not done.” The courtroom breaks into applause. Although acting and dialogue are principally responsible for establishing Dent as a courageous character, music also plays an important role: throughout the scene, when Dent arrives in the courtroom and as he’s speaking to the jury, a heroic theme performed on brass instruments and strings plays in the background.
GOTHAM’S WHITE KNIGHT
Gordon: I hear you got a hell of a right cross. It’s a shame Sal’s going to walk.
Dent: Yeah, well, good thing about the Mob is they keep giving you second chances. Lightly irradiated bills. Fancy stuff for a city cop. Have help?
Gordon: We liaise with various agencies–
Dent: Save it, Gordon. I wanna meet him.
Gordon: Official policy is to arrest the vigilante known as Batman on sight.
Dent: Mm-hm. What about that floodlight on the top of MCU?
Gordon: If you got problems with malfunctioning equipment, I suggest you take them up with Maintenance, counselor.
Dent: I’ve put every money launderer in Gotham behind bars but the Mob is still getting its money out. I think you and your friend have found the last game in town. You’re trying to hit them where it hurts, their wallets. It’s bold. You gonna count me in?
Gordon: In this town, the fewer people know something, the safer the operation.
Dent: Gordon, I don’t like that you got your own special unit and i don’t like that it’s full of cops I investigated at Internal Affairs.
Gordon: If I didn’t work with cops you’d investigated while you were making your name at IA, I’d be working alone. I don’t get political points for being an idealist. I have to do the best I can with what I have.
Dent: You want me to back warrants for search and seizure on five banks…without telling me what we’re after.
Gordon: I can give you the names of the banks.
Dent: Well, that’s a start. I’ll get you your warrants, but I want your trust.
Gordon: Oh, you don’t have to sell me, Dent. We all know you’re Gotham’s white knight.
Dent: Yeah, well, I heard they have a different name for me down at MCU.
Gordon: I wouldn’t know about that.
This scene is important in terms of narrowing the narrative possibilities in the narrative: forcing a confrontation between Batman, his allies and the Mob.
During the scene in the boardroom, Nolan further develops the character of Bruce Wayne whose all consuming double life as a vigilante means he sleeps through an important board meeting. After Lau’s presentation to the board, Lucius Fox stands up and says, “Well, Mr. Lau…I speak for the rest of the board…and Mr. Wayne, in expressing our own excitement.” At this point, Nolan cuts to a shot of the board, pulling focus as the board members turn their heads towards Bruce Wayne who is slouched in a chair asleep. Nolan cuts to a midshot of Bruce Wayne to emphasise that he is sleeping. This combination of focus, acting and editing establishes two important details about this character: first, his life as Batman is all consuming and exhausting; second, his inattentiveness is interpreted by others as sheer laziness. Shortly after this scene, Coleman Reese (Joshua Harto) confronts Lucius Fox about the irresponsibility of his employer: “Sir, I know that Mr. Wayne is curious about how his trust fund gets replenished but, frankly, this is embarrassing.” This point in the narrative spurs a sequence of cause and effect which will be resolved later in the narrative when Reese suspects that Bruce Wayne might be The Batman, attempting to bribe his employer and ultimately becoming a target of The Joker. This scene is also linked in a chain of cause and effect with the preceeding clashes with the Mob. Bruce Wayne admits that he wanted the deal to get “a closer look at their books.” This, in turn, leads to the pursuit of Lau to bring charges against Mob. During this scene, Wayne also asks Fox to make him another suit which will be resolved later in the narrative.
In the following scene, Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent meet for the first time. A number of production elements – including acting, dialogue, editing and music – are used to establish the relationship between these characters.
Natasha: I’m talking about the kind of city that idolizes a masked vigilante.
Dent: Gotham City is proud of an ordinary citizen standing up for what’s right.
Natasha: Gotham needs heroes like you, elected officials…not a man who thinks he’s above the law.
Wayne: Exactly. Who appointed the Batman?
Dent: We did. All of us who stood by and let scum take control of our city.
Natasha: But this is a democracy, Harvey.
Dent: When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service.
Rachel: Harvey, the last man that they appointed…to protect the republic was named Caesar and he never gave up his power.
Dent: Okay, fine. You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Look, Whoever the Batman is, he doesn’t wanna do this for the rest of his life. How could he? Batman is looking for someone to take up his mantle.
Natasha: Someone like you, Mr. Dent?
Dent: Maybe. If I’m up to it.
Natasha: What if Harvey Dent is the Caped Crusader? Hm?
Dent: If I were sneaking out every night, someone would’ve noticed by now.
Wayne: Well, I’m sold, Dent, and I’m gonna throw you a fundraiser.
Dent: That’s nice of you Bruce, but I’m not up for re-election for three years.
Wayne: No, you don’t understand. One fundraiser with my pals, you’ll never need another cent.
During the conversation, when Dent asserts that the people of Gotham appointed Batman when they let “scum take control” of the city, Nolan cuts to a midshot of Wayne. As he cuts back and forth between the two characters, the camera slowly dollies in on Bruce Wayne. The heroic theme the audience has come to associate with Harvey Dent plays softly in the background. Wayne smiles slightly as he listens to Dent talk. This combination of production elements subtly conveys to the audience that Bruce Wayne immediately likes the District Attorney. This is reinforced towards the end of the conversation when Bruce Wayne says, “Well, I’m sold, Dent, and I’m gonna throw you a fundraiser…One fundraiser with my pals, you’ll never need another cent.” During this conversation, Nolan also conveys more information about the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes. Dent says that Batman “doesn’t want to do this for the rest of his life.” At this moment, Nolan lingers on a close-up of Bruce Wayne. Wayne blinks, clearly affected by what Dent is saying, and looks towards Rachel. Nolan cuts to a close-up of Rachel who returns the glance. This combination of shot size, acting and editing establishes that Bruce Wayne still has feelings for his former girlfriend. As the audience is watching, speculating about the direction of the narrative, they consider the possibility that Bruce and Rachel may rekindle their relationship towards the end of the narrative.