The Dark Knight Review: Story

I’d describe the story of The Dark Knight as particularly convoluted. Obviously not a problem in principle, but no doubt a a fact that makes story telling more difficult. So, give him credence or not, Martin Scorsese finds himself more taken with movies that have a story in terms of a unifying direction or theme; it makes various plot lines make sense together. Now I’m not saying that The Dark Knight’s story doesn’t make sense (not quite), rather The Dark Knight’s is one that is very difficult to parse. I’ve watched this movie several times and I think that it really took a close critique to get me all the way to understanding what is happening and moreover why. I’ll examine the reasoning and details of The Dark Knight’s story here.

The Dark Knight could really benefit from something of a review of basic narrative structure. The very fact that such a review is necessary supports my claim that Christopher Nolan is far and away more of a showman than he is an artist--he tells his story boldly but I’m not sure with real craft. See, The Dark Knight is a movie that wants to tackle some pretty serious subject matter, and it wants to present that subject matter over diverse, dramatic situations. Yet this movie could be streamlined and would benefit from fewer superficial elements because it could then gain the narrative elegance of a story over the narrative extravagance of plot.

Something that helps focus a movie, no matter how complex, is a story. And here I wish to underscore that there is a significant difference between plot and story although the terms are often used synonymously. The difference though is along the lines of parts versus whole. The story encompasses the action of a narrative, the plot is the action of a narrative. A different way of describing this relationship is that the story is where the narrative is going and the plot is how it is going. You find that even movies with a complex plot will have simple stories; often the simpler the better.

The notion of having a plot work with, if not in service of, a story is a widely applicable one. In The Godfather, for instance, each bullet Michael fires is important to the story of his change from soldier to gangster. In The Dark Knight the issue is all the competing plot-lines vying to synthesize some kind of meaning to the work. I can tell you that because of this greatly limited story, any meaning The Dark Knight may have as a work is particularly dilute. But what’s more is that this movie’s adherence to conventional and effective storytelling devices and constructions is debilitated. There is poor act construction, a number of plot holes, and a network of relationships here that are baffling.

In the case of another movie I don’t particularly like, The Usual Suspects, we have a simple story with a complicated plot. The story is essentially to uncover Keyser Söze and the plot of this movie is the problematic ‘how’ the uncovering takes place. Another example might be Rocky where the story is Rocky’s rise to boxing preeminence and the plot focuses on what he does to become a threat in the ring. In the case of Rocky the plot features very little extraneous material as each successive point is very much in service of this simple story. We see Rocky run up the steps and he is tired, later we see him run up those steps like a champion and we understand that he has changed. These are both plot points but they demonstrate the arc that is the story.

A narrative could conceivably be drawn out indefinitely by the addition of plot points in service of the story. Archetypal stories would demonstrate this fact. I think of The 1001 Nights, the whole punchline is that the story finds ways to continue indefinitely. Now I’m not saying that The Dark Knight has anything in common with The 1001 Nights although it could learn something from so rich a source. Yet the longevity of the characters in the Batman franchise are also proof of the indefinite possibility of plot; it may be because of the perfect condition of the continual struggle between good and evil though, that plot points remain powerful in the context of superheroes. Although there is a struggle between good and evil happening in The Dark Knight, I think that the preponderance of plot over any semblance of story poses a most significant problem to this movie.

I see in The Dark Knight aspects that could make for a compelling drama, even one that might examine the gray area between good and evil or feature some complex relationships along a gradient of good and bad. It’s almost painfully simple which is why good versus evil is so enduring in the narrative form. Batman is good, the Joker is evil, and they struggle to overcome the opposition each poses the other.  Clearly there is room for considerable plot concerning this age old drama.  I think that there is even considerable potential for showing that often, in accomplishing good, evil must be done--a central theme in The Dark Knight and other Post 9/11 works--with this straight forward opposition. The Dark Knight tries this dynamic but only in the presence of other plots.

The Dark Knight is groping wildly to have so straight forward and affecting a story. There is somehow narrative degradation in terms of act construction and character arcs; plot holes begin to surface, and the movie loses its focus. Obviously these are not the causes of the problems concerning The Dark Knight’s story, these are the symptoms. The problems identified so far are more or less endemic of this movie’s preponderance of plot over story rather than the cause of that dynamic. Now just by definition it would seem that plot points over power a story no matter what, after all they are the literal events of the film. However, and I can’t emphasize this enough, the plot is not what a movie is about. The story is what the movie is about and if it’s not present the movie becomes guileless, listless and meanders from one event to the next and all the power a narrative might have seems to fade away.

Looking more closely at the characters and situations,the events, causes, and effects in The Dark Knight, it becomes clear that there is a lot of effort to have a story and even a thesis. Nolan wants to tackle a variety of issues and the result is the plot heavy movie without a goal that is The Dark Knight. It’s not going anywhere. Rather than examine the object of defeating the Joker or defeating the mob, examining what it would take to accomplish those goals, the movie chooses to examine more dynamics between all the characters it so swiftly introduces in the first twenty minutes. With these characters and threads all cast together, The Dark Knight seems to be attempting to tackle such topics as the possibility of corruption, the human capacity for evil, emotions versus commitments as motivations, anguish in the face of an ineffectual war on terror, questioning the existence of universal morals and the legitimacy of moral codes, and ambiguity in characters, but it isn’t really accomplishing all that.

The possible meanings the movie may be trying to address are overwhelming and Nolan compensates by creating different competing threads--the Joker versus Batman, the Joker and the Mob, Gordon versus the Mob, Two-Face--in the form of plot points to get at these various meanings. Nolan connects these threads in some bizarre ways too (consider the Dawes/Dent/Wayne love triangle that is so vital to the Two-Face plot). I’m not particularly interested in the motivations of the characters at this point, I’m more interested in the motivation of the story as it were. Where is it going is the question. See, I think that some or even one of the themes that this movie is going for, that laundry list being addressed in The Dark Knight, could be developed if there was a story, a point to them being there. Frankly, given the morality play between a character like Batman and a character like the Joker, it should be easy to do. But maybe only one at a time. These elements can be brought to the fore--illustrated--in a simple struggle between good and evil à la Star Wars, but acknowledging the ends of so many topics would be nearly impossible in a lifetime let alone in a two and a half hour movie.

The result, as I have said, is this plot heavy movie basically without a story. No object and no reason for all these elements to be playing together other than their juxtaposition in this film. Here we run into some very run of the mill issues in terms of the way the movie is put together. It’s important to differentiate between the theory, which I’ve basically discussed so far, in terms of the relationship between plot and story and how they are presented in The Dark Knight, and the resulting, case specific problems in this movie.

So there are of course strong cases to be made for the three act construction. It’s certainly useful, but not necessarily the only approach to a story. Nevertheless, a development of rising action to an eventual climax is something that maps well over acts which have certain characteristics associated with them. It proves a good way to discuss a story. In the case of The Dark Knight, though, there are a number of problems in it’s adherence to any kind of dramatic structure no matter your preferred division and definition of the narrative.

The most glaring of these issues is probably the introduction of Two-Face in the last 50 minutes of the movie. When I mapped out this film, I found that basically the first thirty minutes of the movie are all exposition and take the audience right up to the first major turning point as Bruce Wayne heads off to Hong Kong to get Lau. In a movie that is this long, it’d follow that the next third or so would be devoted to the action and drama of the movie, then the final third would track the resolution of the problems brought on by the previous action--introductions and initial conflict, lowest point and epiphany, confrontation and resolution. Whatever. Clearly introducing what is basically a new character so late in the film undermines the ability to make these kinds of normal developments.

It goes back to plot and story. Two-Face is introduced like a plot point, but he’s basically given the worth of a story in this movie. It would be easier to tell just how necessary Two-Face is to the movie as a whole if it were more clear what the object the movie is striving for is. But I think it would be better if the issue of Two-Face was dropped from this movie altogether. Dropping Two-Face would favor emphasizing the showdown between the characters that had relatively dominated and created most of the action in the movie--Batman and the Joker, with the mob still unfortunately adjunct to the whole issue. There would be one point made with subordinate points making the focus stronger.

There are also practical problems surrounding the late Two-Face introduction. That is to say, this becomes more than just a matter of form. I suppose the case might be made that Two-Face was already introduced in the form of Harvey Dent or that there is no need for inflexible adherence to narrative conventions. Fine. Now consider the result of Two-Face’s introduction on the story, such as it is, in The Dark Knight. It is the case that Two-Face shifts the central argument of the story from one where Batman is significant because he holds out as a bastion of morality in an immoral world to one where Batman is significant because he can be both the righteous protector and a wanted man. Both of these possibilities are posited equally, but almost contradictorily it seems. Clearly the involvement of Two-Face, though, clouds the possibility that either of them might be particularly central to the movie.

Two-Face, and his untimely introduction in the grand scheme of The Dark Knight, cloud the importance of a lot of things in the movie. It’s a big and perhaps best examples of the plot of this movie commandeering the direction the movie as a whole could be going. It seems that it could have either been that Batman is ultimately, always in the right in the face of evil, and the ultimate good in Gotham. Or it could be that Batman is always right against the relativism of society, and the relative good in Gotham. (Another example of entailment that went over Nolan’s head.) I think it’s problematic that, because of the plotting introduction of Two-Face, Batman takes both these differing positions right after he defeated the more ultimately evil character in Gotham. Further, that he has to protect Dent’s name by becoming a hunted hero is just superfluous and kind of ridiculous to what Batman might have otherwise been proven to be. The two together just don’t work and the distinction may be small but it’s there and the result of the large problem that The Dark Knight has in so far as its story is concerned.

Here is perhaps another example of the poor narrative construction on display in The Dark Knight that doubles with the movie’s commitment to maximize every element that goes into it to a fault. It’s basically that, given the preponderance of plot and lack of story, thus the need to expedite from point to point, this movie seems to be based around climactic moments. Not just moments where the action comes to a head. Each successive event, particularly in the second half of the movie, is one that seems like it could almost be the punctuation of all the action--ultimately climactic moments. Being a matter of plot and not story, all things appear equal in this movie but that deadens the impact the film as a whole might have if there was more of a progression of events. I’d even go so far as to say these events play into Nolan’s fashion of belligerent filmmaking.

Needless to say, a movie can have a number of memorable moments. A movie can even have a number of times when the action comes to a head, perhaps anticipating the finale. But The Dark Knight has events that only suggest the climax and not simply the development of the action. For example, the Joker is finally caught in something of a large sting operation in the middle of the movie. If Batman and Gordon’s plan to catch the Joker had been ultimately successful, the entire chase leading up to that end would have served as the climax of the movie. As it happens, that pivotal scene is sort of the middle action scene, something of a turn in the plot which is acceptable. Subsequently the Joker breaks out of jail in another climax that involves Batman and Gordon rushing off to find Dent and Rachel Dawes in another climactic scene. There is eventually a final showdown between Batman and the Joker, but it’s after a variety of similar if somewhat smaller scenes, and before the actual concluding confrontation of the movie between Batman, Two-Face, and Gordon and again we must ask ‘why those three?’ All of these events have the same merit and same claim to end the story altogether in the absence of another superfluous plot line.

At the very end there arrises something of the reverse problem too as a result of the successive climaxes this movie has. The confrontation that actually concludes the film is, in terms of action in particular, greatly underwhelming by comparison to most of the other scenes in this movie, but is the finale nonetheless. I suppose the scene is supposed to provide a point where some semblance of a story, a goal of the picture can be retro-enacted by Gordon’s epilogue narration. The fact is, nevertheless, that this scene is less important as a conflict and more underwhelming than the previous action. As I’ve said before, the heart of this movie could be between Batman and the Joker as something of diametric characters but the tangential addition of Two-Face needs to be addressed. All the plots in this movie need to be addressed because they don’t service a goal of the action. Basically the final conflict is less climactic and less important than previous events and is there to conclude a character which was extraneous to begin with but particularly useless as a force opposed to Batman.

At this point, having examined this movie’s story and plot, I’d like to turn to some specifics that will segue into more considerable nit-picking for this movie. But the fact of the matter is that the plot-points I’ll discuss here are ones that I think would be less of an issue if this movie adhered to a story more than it does. There’s a lot of conjecture that I will raise in regards to The Dark Knight, but I see these issues as more relating to what I’ve discussed at length now concerning this movie’s story. Or lack there of.

So there’s all these threads of plot wound up in the movie. I guess a brief catalogue of them is necessary, and it comes down to Batman’s plot, the Joker’s, the mob’s, Gordon’s, and Dent’s. Again, so much time has to be spent with all these elements in this movie because there is not much of a story for them to service. But the most significant interplay between these parts comes as the mob hires the Joker to kill Batman so that they can return to the status quo of organized crime. This alliance inspires Batman’s confrontation with the Joker over his confrontation with the mob which Dent was picking up in the courts.

In adding Dent, there would seem to be a case for him being the most immediate threat to the mob’s presence and Batman as more of the spark behind Dent’s alacrity. So I think that it’s a little odd that the mobsters shown jump at the chance to eliminate Batman when he can’t prosecute them, only punish them. Dent is the man putting the mob behind bars. Further, in expanding Dent’s character, we see that he has difficulties of his own in actually carrying out the task of putting the mob away in the form of red-tape that Batman doesn’t have to deal with. I’d like to point out that there is a lot going on in this regard but very little demonstration of the process.

Given the rigamarole in Hong Kong, the Mob then decides that Batman is more ultimate a problem to Dent’s proximal threat. So they take the Joker up on his plan to kill Batman. The troubling fact about the Joker’s involvement is that he doesn’t suggest any qualifications for getting the job done. The Joker’s methods don’t really seem like a good way to kill Batman, rather it’s a game to develop another issue for Batman to navigate. The Joker says as much that he doesn’t really want to kill Batman but rather exist in conflict with him, the whole idea of the Joker’s integration with the Mob is kind of brushed aside at this point even though that alliance is perhaps the most contentious one in the movie--a nuanced contrast. The fact that the Mob “let the clown out of the box” becomes irrelevant once the clown is out of the box.

The Joker goes on to subvert the mob once he finds himself in a position of power in relationship to them. This course of action is, needless to say, contradictory for the Joker because he’s not interested in power. And the mob didn’t see that possibility coming despite the fact that the Joker had a 50 percent leverage financially over the mob in his contract and somehow got the money without doing the job. The whole system is supposed to connect all these issues in some meaningful way but because there isn’t a story, there isn’t a direction that makes these developments significant, all these connections confuse this movie even further.

There’s pretty considerable potential in The Dark Knight with a story. In fact the principles of Batman stories are as old as time and often very powerful in terms of thematic resonance with the audience. But what the movie needs is something to bring meaning to the events and it’s simply not there. I’m a little baffled by the audience’s willingness to attempt to follow the convoluted plot to it’s conclusion despite the lack of resolution that the movie has in terms of a story. But the presentation of plot points also proves particularly engrossing as each is brought in such an extravagant manner. The fact of the matter is there a total lack of substance to these plots being in this movie.