The Dark Knight

26/04/2022

Arrested Developments

There is little doubt that over the last fifteen years, the most profitable way to make films is to make Superhero movies. Depending on how you define the genre (if it is a genre), between them four Avengers films, Star Wars and Black Panther took up six of the top ten places in the 2010s’ box office, according to Box Office Mojo. (The other four were Jurassic WorldFrozen 2The Lion King and Fast and Furious 7.) It is a dispiriting list if one sees film as an art form rather than entertainment but, if occasionally a superhero film hints at aesthetic intentions, should we accept its aims or reject it a priori? Such a question was posed by Martin Scorsese and his answer backed by Francis Coppola and Ken Loach, with Ridley Scott also joining in. Scorsese reckoned, “honestly, the closest I can think of them — as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances — is theme parks.” (Empire) There were plenty who disagreed, and many had skin in the game in dismissing Scorsese’s claims: from Scarlett Johansson to Chris Evans, Taika Waititi to Robert Downey Jr. Most were respectful of Scorsese’s right to an opinion even if it “didn’t make much sense” (IndieWire), according to Downy Jr. 

One may have many reservations about a type of cinema that lends itself to ever greater corporate power and what some see as a far-right mindset, evident in Alejandro González Inarratu’s remark, “the problem is that sometimes they purport to be profound, based on some Greek mythological kind of thing. And they are honestly very right wing” (NME). Yet to dismiss Christopher Nolan’s Batman films as contrary to cinema would also rule out anything else by Nolan since The Dark Knight is consistent with his other work. Who would be inclined to claim that Memento, The Prestige and Dunkirk aren’t cinema? Our broad agreement with Scorsese’s remark can allow for narrow disagreement: that at least some superhero films are still clearly cinema. Like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg before him, Nolan is a director who gets his moment, not as interestingly or complexly as PT Anderson or David Fincher, but someone whose work has absorbed both the developing aesthetics of the last twenty years, and the further complications often demanded of narratives that at least superficially absorb game theory and the problem of an irrational villain. Looking at The Dark Knight, it isn’t difficult to see the film through the prism of cinema, its formal choices and its characterisational and narrational demands. When David Bordwell was disappointed by the film it rested on all the cinema conventions he saw at work: “disguises, hostage-taking, ticking bombs, characters dangling over a skyscraper abyss, who’s dead really once and for all?” (Minding Movies

Bordwell has more than a point but to get us started let us discuss a little the film’s form and compare a couple of 70s films' early scenes with the opening one from The Dark Knight. If Nolan’s film is cinema, how does it compare to previous examples of films doing something similar: utilising a heist. In Charley Varrick, the film sets the scene leisurely. Don Siegel offers a crane shot that takes in the year the bank was founded, its name, a couple of kids playing on swings, and a yellow Continental seen initially in the distance pulling in outside the bank. The film cuts to the couple in the car, and then to a shot from behind their heads, as they look at a distant police car coming towards them. This is done in three shots. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates, we see a bank manager entering the bank, someone watching him do so, a truck and its workers dropping off money to the bank, and someone else looking on as they do so. What we have in both films is an economy of means but not an intensification of form, and we believe they can pass for typical examples of early 70s action cinema. The shots are there to give us information; they do not hyperbolise the situation. Vital to the sort of cinema Nolan practises, is this hyperbolised intensification. The first shot of The Dark Knight shows a travelling camera moving into a high rise building before one of the windows explodes. We cut to someone in a mask who has blown it out and then watch as he reloads and fires this time a rope to the other building. The film then cuts to a low angle shot of a man, seen from behind, at a street corner, a hold-all on his shoulder and a mask in his hand as a car pulls up and lets him in the back seat. We then cut back to the two others and are well aware that these five masked men are about to commit a heist.

The viewer is probably meant to be too impressed by the pace and camera positioning to question the logic of the sequence, and this is central to the type of shift from the 70s to the 2000s: that while before action was usually consistent with logic to generate the logistical (a sort of logics of space), we might believe that the effect The Dark Knight wants to achieve is to overpower the viewer with sensation: that the camera’s purpose isn’t chiefly to provide us with the content of the scene but the tension in the form. Both the shot moving in on the building where the window is then blown out, and the one where the man waits by the side of the street as the camera moves in on the mask, and then shows us the car pulling into the same space as we see the mask and part of the car in the same shot, are impressively done, adding to the tension before the heist that often films will reserve for the heist. In both Charley Varrick and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, there is no excitement generated in the shot choices before the robbery. Nolan insists there should be.

However, the danger here is that the hyperbole generates a problem if we think of the film not chiefly as an experience there to entertain us, but one that shows us people with purpose and motivation. We might wonder if the best way to commit a heist would be to blow out a window in a nearby building: wouldn’t that draw attention to your actions even before you’ve entered the bank, especially when heists are all about how quickly you have to get in and out? Why draw attention to yourself before the heist has even taken place? Secondly, would someone about to commit a robbery have in his hands the mask he is going to use to disguise himself? The shots are impressive but the logic off: it works well enough if we remain focused on the excitement of the event; less so if we muse over the characters’ motivations. 

After the film’s release, plenty critics were quick to notice parallels with 9/11, with the New York Times seeing “it as something of a commentary on the war on terror”, but rather than viewing the film as a commentary on it, perhaps better to see The Dark Knight as a representational absorption of the attack on the World Trade Centre. As the camera in that opening shot moves in on the building, it may bring to mind the planes moving in on the Twin Towers, and the explosion a minor version of the eruption. Here of course we have a point of view shot that only the terrorists would have possessed, but this can be seen as Hollywood’s ability to create control over powerlessness: to give formal shape to a trauma that was perhaps all the more evident in the images that were captured so amateurishly on people’s video cameras. Nolan can seem to be alluding to the atrocity of 9/11 within the aesthetic mastery of Hitchcock: that opening shot could bring to mind the beginning of Psycho, with the maestro’s camera moving in on a building in Phoenix where Marion and her lover are post-coital. 

We can also think of the scene where the Joker (Heath Ledger) kidnaps and kills someone masquerading as Batman (Christian Bale). We watch the images on television as the Joker has recorded the footage of his victim strapped to a chair and frightened for his life. Nolan may have said, in the context of the commentary on terrorism critics saw, that “really, my co-writers, David S. Goyer and my brother Jonathan, and myself tried pretty rigidly to be not aware or conscious of real-world parallels…We just tried to write the most entertaining script possible within the terms of the storytelling that this genre of film demands and to meet audience expectations.” (Sight and Sound) If this is true it may be even more cynical than if it were deliberate, as though real-world events can be ransacked for entertainment purposes but the filmmaker needn’t even attempt to claim a social purpose behind the imagery. Yet Nolan is showing how technology changes the way the villainous can gain publicity; that the Joker, like Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists, have access to the means of production through video cameras. While the IRA and the PLO created events that the media would then turn up to film (like the Munich Olympics attack or a rooftop protest at Wormwood scrubs), Al Qaeda and ISIS could film the material themselves, showing atrocity after atrocity and putting the footage online. 

One needn’t claim the IRA, the PLO and ISIS are all equally villainous. That isn’t the point: the question is how would an organisation seeking political autonomy, yet without much access to the media, gain the necessary publicity? Al Qaeda and ISIS didn’t need the media; they had their own publicity machine and distribution outlet — the Joker likewise. The film must know that when showing someone strapped to a chair fearing for their life, the image will conjure up atrocities far beyond the shots the film shows us. Even if the film were to claim these images are evident on our screens generally, as we find in films like Saw and Wolf Creek, we may note that these films came out after the release of the Daniel Pearl execution in 2002. By 2004, videos showing various internationals killed in Iraq and elsewhere had become almost commonplace. Just as Nolan takes an aspect of 9/11 imagery and returns it to the virtuosic in the scene where the window is smashed, so in the recorded video he utilises the most rudimentary of handicam work to suggest how fearsome the Joker happens to be. 

  These comments needn’t be taken idly: if film form develops it doesn’t only do so through technological change. It often comes about through technology meeting sociology. If so many films adopted handicam for action sequences it wasn’t only because the technology was suddenly available. It was as much that the technology became pertinent to a perceptual affiliation. Bordwell looks at the use of the camera in action films, including the Bourne trilogy, and notes that “pans, zooms, and movements of the actors are seldom allowed to come to rest before the shot changes." "This", he says, "creates a strong sense of jerkiness and visual imbalance” as he emphasises the formal choices the filmmakers adopt. But it is when Bordwell quotes a comment by the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass, that we might see the sociologically inflected. “Your p.o.v. is limited to the eye of the character, instead of the camera being a godlike instrument choreographed to be in the right place at the right time.” (Minding Movies) No event made this more manifest than 9/11, where footage was caught on home video cameras: the magnitude of the atrocity and the impoverishment of the means of filming it in such strong contrast to each other. 

While the sort of camerawork Greengrass offers had been used before 9/11, in films like Husbands and WivesThe Idiots and The Blair Witch Project, action cinema usually emphasised visual assertion over perceptual uncertainty. The major 90s action films from Demolition Man to Face Off, and the disaster films like Armageddon and Volcano, offered the viewer an experience that may have occasionally adopted a shakier point of view when someone was in trouble and trying to get a clear sense of an action. We see it when Nicolas Cage is trying to shoot John Travolta without harming his daughter, whom Travolta has in his grip and with a gun at her head. But overall, the purpose was to present action as the privileged domain of the filmmaker, not something that reflects the precarity of character. When Greengrass made Bloody Sunday in 2002, it may have been based on an event in Derry in 1972, but it felt like a modern work in the frenetic way in which those involved were trying to make sense of a situation that the camera was reflecting. It wanted to capture a past social event within a contemporaneous form. Part of what the Dark Knight does however is recuperate the assertive, to absorb the edginess of films post-9/11, but at the same time to show a control once again over the material by, for example, evoking 9/11 in the opening shot — yet containing it within Hitchcockian control rather than the perceptually erratic images that caught the towers coming down.  

Nolan’s importance in contemporary Hollywood cinema rests partly on this combination — he more than most revitalised the action film without suggesting a lack of confidence in the Hollywood idiom, nor a return to a pre-9/11 aesthetics. If we think again of the heist sequences from Charley Varrick and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, they insist on giving the viewer time to attend to the details, but in The Dark Knight, the lack of time given to the details is vital to the film’s energy even if potentially it leads to numerous weaknesses in the script. When the bank manager asks, “do you have any idea who you are stealing from?” as he starts firing, we never find out as a minute later a smoke grenade goes off in his mouth. Why he doesn’t pull it out is odd too, since he seems despite being shot to have the use of both hands. The film has no interest in this character except as spectacle: he gets involved in the action and allows for an amusing moment as the Joker hooks the grenade to the back of the bus he is driving off in and the safety catch gets released. This is potentially where an immense problem resides, with the action film returning to the certitude of Hollywood control but without logistical precision. It is fine if a film wants to convey the happenstance nature of events that the viewer doesn’t have an awareness of, but if a film does possess that potential awareness, if it insists on creating a God’s eye narrative view as The Dark Knight does, then improbabilities pile on top of improbabilities even as (and in some ways because) the form increasingly suggests complete control.

We can think here of a scene several commentators have pointed out. The Joker turns up with his henchmen at a high-end gathering and one moment after Batman arrives, the Joker holds Batman’s great love and ex-girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) next to a smashed window as Batman tells the Joker to let her go. A poor choice of words, the Joker says, as he does exactly that and Rachael falls to what looks like her certain death, before Batman flies out the window. He rescues her as they both come to a relatively soft-landing that leaves her breathing heavily in what plays like a post-coital tangle. But where is the Joker, still terrorising people upstairs? We don’t know as the next scene jumps to something else. The film insistently tells us that the Joker just likes to create chaos wherever he goes but was he happy with throwing Rachael out of a window and seeing Batman rescue her? Perhaps. Yet the Joker’s purpose was to get Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who just before the Joker breaks in has been locked in a room for his own safety by Bruce Wayne. What happened to him; how was he released; did the Joker try and find him or was he content to leave the building after throwing Rachael out of a window even though he must have known that Batman, since he can fly, will be able to save her? 

If the film were offering a narrow point of view there would be no reason to expect the film would return to what is happening in the building, but The Dark Knight offers this assumption of omniscient narration in its cross-cutting between the various stories, yet doesn’t return at moments when the storytelling seems to demand it. It is a problem when form becomes sensation: when the film feels it has achieved its aim as set-piece and then ignores its duty as narrative. Maybe returning to the Joker would have seemed anti-climactic after the excitement of Batman saving Rachael but this gives credence to many who insist that the contemporary blockbuster is all about the action rather than the story. Some critics like Geoff King have analytically shown that those attacking modern Hollywood’s lack of narrative are too categorical in their claims, taking to task Justin Wyatt. Wyatt says that “perhaps the most striking result of the high concept style is a weakening of identification with character and narrative. The modularity of the film’s units, added to the one-dimensional quality of the characters, distances the viewers from the traditional task of reading the film’s narrative.” King reckons nevertheless that high concept films of the eighties, like Top Gun and Flashdance, “still revolve closely around the aspirations and fate of their central characters; goal-driven figures existing within strongly cause/effect structured narratives.” (New Hollywood Cinema

However, while King is right to call into question some hasty dismissals of films that emphasise spectacle and high concept, and while we can agree with him that the films usually have goal-oriented central characters who drive the story, what they often don’t have are subsidiary characters with defined motives and purpose. Even if we accept the Joker as irrational he is at the same time constantly cooking up plans, bringing to the boil the tensions he creates. We will return to a couple of these later, but our point is that even if the Joker creates chaos for its own sake, he wants to follow through on at least his momentary preoccupation. In the scene where he drops Rachael out of the window, his purpose is to find Harvey: as he arrives at the venue, he tells everyone he has only one question: “Where is Harvey Dent?” But if Wyatt and other critics like Timothy Corrigan and Mark Crispin Miller have a point, it rests on the emphasis on the spectacle to the detriment of narration. If the through-line isn’t narrational but sensational, the scene can end when Batman and Rachael land on the top of a car after falling through the air. “It is all about creating the most technically advanced, immersive experience for the audience” Nolan says. “I think it’s incumbent on exhibitors but also on film-makers to provide the audience with a reason to leave their homes and pay money to come and see a film. The resources we have to make these films are colossal.” (Sight and Sound) Why bother with the intricacies of plot lines when you have the money to pursue spectacular through-lines? 

If we accept that The Dark Knight is cinema, we might wonder if it is good cinema. When Scorsese reckons it is closer to a theme park, we can see why: that opening scene where a couple of the criminals careen down a rope to the other building, and Batman’s rescuing of Rachael, are excitingly woozy moments. But they call into question the plot rather than further it. It might seem like their purpose is chiefly to generate the giddy feelings one has when on a rollercoaster or the sidewinder. We have shown that Nolan is a filmmaker following in traditions that include Hitchcock and Don Siegel, but if he has learned to push their perspective to generate greater intensity, to create an ostensibly deeper sense of immersion, we might wonder too if this has become so much the purpose that other areas of cinema which have been developed over more than a hundred years are getting ignored. Nolan may believe that “we should be using the resources to create the best possible image we can.” (Sight and Sound) However, we might say that there are numerous ways greater suspense and identification could have been offered if Nolan has learnt a bit more from previous masters. If cinema is much more than a fairground ride, it usually rests on it being in dialogue not just with an audience’s immediate demands but cinema’s ongoing capacity to generate fresh ways to think and feel. The Dark Knight is clearly cinema, but though the reviews when it was released were almost entirely positive, and though it received numerous Oscar nominations rare for a superhero film, it was keener ransacking cinema’s past for predictable convention rather than for nuanced tension. As Bordwell insisted when he commented on the hostage-taking, ticking bombs etc. The film draws undeniably on film history, but does it do so with much ingenuity?

The film often offers the momentary clever over the sustainably intelligent: it will allow for an immediate witty pay-off rather than the motivational slow-burn release. Early in the film, one of the heist villains says that if the joker were so smart he’d have gotten a bigger car, unaware the person he is talking to is in fact the Joker. The villain says that he is betting the Joker wanted the other man to kill him as soon as they loaded, and the Joker says that his own job was to kill the bus driver. What bus, the villain asks and, at that moment, after the Joker looks at his watch, a bus reverse crashes into the bank, killing the villain. Joker then kills the bus driver, puts the smoke grenade into the bank manager’s mouth and drives out and onto the busy road — joining a troupe of buses that his own can get lost within. The film cleverly shows that when the villain says what bus, sure enough one comes along and immediately kills him, and in turn, the Joker does what he says he will do: kill the bus driver. He then leaves and joins a procession of buses so he will be a hard man to catch. But what are the chances that more than half a dozen buses are passing at just this time and that the Joker’s bus can neatly be lost in the line of them? And anyway, wouldn’t a bus that has reversed itself into a solid stone building be showing a few signs of damage easily distinguishing it from the other buses? 

Some might insist this is splitting hairs, but it is more likely that a viewer looking for coherence would be tearing their hair out. The Dark Knight is a superhero film, so we can accept that it defies the laws of physics, but what if it seems constantly to be defying its own internal reasoning? When Batman rescues Rachael we may have no problem with Batman able to fly through the sky to save her, but we might wonder why the Joker lets her go unless he is buying time to look for Dent without Batman’s presence. After all, Batman can easily rescue her; and the Joker doesn’t look for Dent as far as we know. If we accept that a film like The Dark Knight is interested in spectacle over story, it rests on it so often allowing weak reasoning to produce strong action. It is a spectacular moment when the bus reverses through the bank, and again when Batman rescues Rachael, but what Nolan hasn’t learnt from Hitchcock, or even Siegel or Yates, is that action is the consequence of narrative logic and not the cause of it: narration shouldn’t be there to generate action sequences; more that action sequences may be the inevitable outcome of narration. If one feels that a bus reversing into a building, and later a ten-ton truck flipping over and a hospital getting blown to pieces, seems consequentially weak, next to the spectacularly strong, then it rests on what motivates the deeds and the subsequent nature of the actions. The truck’s flip is part of capturing the Joker, but no sooner has he been imprisoned he escapes again, when he is left without handcuffs in a cell with only one man keeping an eye on him. This, the most wanted man in Gotham City. The combination of implausibilities and hyperbolies gives rise to the feeling that the film, like many a modern blockbuster, isn’t interested in story. 

How could it have learnt from films by Hitchcock, Siegel and Yates? Let us ignore Hitchcock for the moment but see aspects of the Hitchcockian in Charley Varrick and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, films that despite their relative lack of visual flair, show how they have learnt from others how to generate purposeful tension. That early heist scene in the former film plays out over the course of the whole story. When in The Dark Knight the bank manager asks the Joker does he know who he is dealing with, the answer is more or less yes, though little is made of this: when he gets involved with Gotham gangsters it has nothing to do with the money stolen but instead with the gangsters hiring him to kill Batman. In Charley Varrick, the answer is no. The titular character has robbed a bank just to get by. The heist goes wrong and his wife gets killed but, when he and a colleague add up the money, they realise they have a large fortune that makes no sense. They were robbing a small bank but for some reason a huge sum of cash had been deposited in it. The news reports only $2,000 has been stolen. Charley works out this is laundered gangster money and the rest of the film is predicated on how to find a way of staying alive in an intricate plot that involves giving the impression he is happy to give the money back, even though he knows that won’t be enough (the gangsters will still kill him). He will thus have to fake his own death, made possible partly through an early scene where he swaps around dental records. At the same time, the other characters have clearly worked through motivations, including the killer who comes after Varrick, and the respectable front for the gangsters, the bank president Maynard Boyle, who realises that he and the bank manager could be seen by the gangsters to have arranged the robbery themselves, since they were the only ones to know the money was deposited there. 

The film has one or two plot holes but overall Charley Varrick unravels from its initial heist and any action comes out of necessity. It makes sense that the bank manager in Charley Varrick wouldn’t give up the cash easily: his life really is on the line if he does. The bloody action that comes out of his reluctance to open the safe straightaway, as the police turn up after hearing about the number-plates, leads to mayhem. But this isn’t just a convenient retarding device all the better so that the police have time to arrive: we later find out that the bank manager has a very good reason to protect the bank’s interests: he knows as Varrick’s gang do not that there is three-quarters of a million dollars there. No such evidence is apparent in The Dark Knight: the bank manager fades from the film and the money stolen becomes inessential to the plot. It is an opportunity for mayhem, quickly forgotten.

Charley Varrick can seem visually knocked off and its action sequences competent but hardly inventive, yet Nolan could have learned at least from how to construct action that has causes and also consequences. Very few of the scenes in The Dark Knight do, with perhaps only the death of Rachael and the atrocious injuring of Dent transforming the plot, as Dent becomes a villainous and bitter figure after losing his loved one. Most of the time the action is spectacular but inconsequential — in contrast to The Friends of Eddie Coyle where the action is usually unspectacular but very consequential. The opening heist would seem to have nothing to do with the plot which shows us central character Eddie Coyle selling guns, but amongst those he sells to are the gang who pull off the heist. In time we discover that Eddie is up on a charge for rumrunning that could put him away not for the first time, and the police need info that will lock up the gang and thus allow him to go free. Eddie has given the police info on a young and impetuous gunrunner who has been showing Eddie little respect but that isn’t enough. They want info on the heist gang who have committed another robbery that went wrong. The police raid the gang and it is assumed Eddie was responsible but we find out the person who has done the grassing is the very person hired to kill him: his old friend and fellow informer Dillon, who was also the man Eddie was protecting: it was Dillon whom he wouldn’t name on the rumrunning charge.  

We describe the plots of both Charley Varrick and The Friends of Eddie Coyle to see that, as in Hitchcock’s work, what matters isn’t always the action but the reasons for it: the interlocked motives that lead out of the heist in The Friends of Eddie Coyle and to the death of Coyle at the end. To understand the film is to understand the motives of others: that the gang will assume Eddie has told on them because he has a good reason to, and he is the one who sold them the guns. But, more importantly, Dillon will know this is what they will think, and can thus not only give the police info they want, but also get paid by the gang for taking out Coyle. For all the talk of Batman and the Joker sharing similarities (you’re just a freak, like me, the Joker says), there is little understanding in the film of how the characters might think. Sure, there are moments when the Joker has been thinking ahead a little, but often other characters aren’t thinking with him. When Batman gives the two addresses Rachael and Dent are soon to die in when the ticking bombs go off, Batman takes him at his word and goes to rescue Rachael when that is the address where Dent happens to be. It is clear to the Joker that Batman would want to save Rachael over Dent so why wouldn’t he give Batman false information?

When Corrigan, quoted by King, says, complexities of character “have been replaced these days …by the most solid and unflinching displays of untramelled personality and pure image” (New Hollywood Cinema) we can half agree by seeing how The Dark Knight is much more interested in creating the opportunity for action rather than attend to what generates it. This needn’t be an either/or, but with Hitchcock’s work, the famous set pieces aren’t isolated actions but inevitable consequences of thought-through behaviour. When in Strangers on a Train, Guy absent-mindedly leaves his engraved lighter on the train after speaking to the strange, Bruno, this will lead all the way to the famous carousel ending, with Bruno there to plant the lighter linking him to the murder that Bruno committed. Both Charley Varrick and The Friends of Eddie Coyle lack, or eschew, Hitchcock’s visual flair, but they are films that know well how to build suspense and purpose around an action. In The Dark Knight, one senses that the film has to keep finding reasons to generate action and this will lead to our final point: the use of game theory and the irrational.

Potentially fascinating is a villain who doesn’t want anything. Think how many criminals in film seek to become legit and/or build an empire, want to destroy the world or avenge a grievance. The Joker makes a point of telling different versions of how he arrived at the horrible scars on his face, as though he is supposed to have a past that justifies his horrible actions in the present. He also sets up a bank robbery with apparently no interest in the cash but just to see how quickly he can get people to turn on each other, with each of the heist gang killing someone else to get a greater share of the money. The same with his half of the cash retrieved from the corrupt mob accountant, which he burns. But there is a difference between being irrational and unmotivated; the Joker seems more to be rational but without an underlying purpose. While Batman, Rachael, Dent and others want to clean up Gotham City, and the mobsters want to keep cleaning out the banks and making money, the Joker just wants to keep making mischief. But while Ledger offers a performance that captures well a person who knows that no situation is ever going to make him more uncomfortable than the fact of horribly living in his own skin, then he can at least constantly generate scenarios where people don’t feel very comfortable in theirs. However, that isn’t the film Nolan has made; though it is pretty close to the Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, by Todd Phillips, and nor should it have been: The Dark Knight is an action film, not a character study. It would be unfair to turn it into something it never claimed to be. 

Nevertheless, it might be fair to ask that the action, since it is usually generated by the Joker and with Batman and others playing catch me up, is a product of a particular type of imagination. Instead, the film offers an original villain to allow the film to arrive at predictable scenarios; hence the ticking clocks, the window-dangling, the heist and so on. More original is where he gives people, on two different boats that are rigged with explosives, the chance to kill those on the other boat and in turn save their own lives. Critics have invoked game theory here: why wouldn’t one boat detonate the other boat and save their own skins, especially when they are all going to die anyway if they don’t do it by midnight, where the Joker will detonate both? But if game theory is based on the assumption that the best result comes out of self-interest, then it makes sense for both sides to act quickly unless there is another pay-off that makes mutual self-interest a better option. In the way it is offered in The Dark Knight it isn’t as though there is a prisoner’s dilemma: no best-case scenario for all involved. In the typical take on the dilemma, “two prisoners are accused of a crime. If one confesses and the other does not, the one who confesses will be released immediately and the other will spend 20 years in prison. If neither confesses, each will be held only a few months. If both confess, they will each be jailed 15 years. They cannot communicate with one another. Given that neither prisoner knows whether the other has confessed, it is in the self-interest of each to confess himself.” So, “paradoxically, when each prisoner pursues his self-interest, both end up worse off than they would have been had they acted otherwise.” (Britannica) No such outcome is possible in the two boats scenario: the most cooperative option leaves all dead, which makes it odd that Nolan didn’t include an awareness on the part of those on both boats that Batman is privy to their dilemma and determined to stop Joker. Then, they could choose to blow up the other boat, and guarantee their own safety or decide not to blow up the other one and hope that Batman will stop the Joker in time. Then we would have the best possible pay-off (everybody is saved) and nobody has killed anyone, as opposed to a less agreeable outcome where you kill others and have to live with the guilt, or get killed. Cooperation would be the best option if they trust Batman can save them. Perhaps Nolan just wanted the veneer of game theory, or perhaps he wants instead to show the Joker leaving everybody uncomfortable in their skins as the Joker is in his, but probably what Nolan wanted above all else was to create a situation where Batman must once again come to the rescue: that he must find the Joker and save the people on both boats as the film utilises one again a ticking clock scenario. The novel becomes the predictable. The people on both boats act well and Batman saves their lives.

The Dark Knight is cinema but if it is generally regarded as the finest of superhero films, it isn’t always very good at what it proclaims to be. “Of course it’s cinema!” Waititi insisted of such films, “it’s at the movies.” But such playful pedantry seems suspect. We should also add, to protect ourselves from such meticulous mischievousness as Waititi’s, that Scorsese actually responded to a question about Marvel movies, and The Dark Knight is DC. But what seems vital to the superhero universe, whether DC or Marvel, is the desire to generate spectacle even it weakens other properties of film that have usually been vital to its development. The Dark Knight feels simultaneously undernourished and overfed, a work that looks like it is all protein but is instead based on the energy of carbs: a series of sugar hits that adds little to the broader notion of cinematic muscle. Scorsese has always known well the history of film and is surely aware that his own works, like Mean StreetsTaxi Driver and Raging Bull, have contributed to its development. We might say the best The Dark Knight offers, skilful entertaining and convoluted though it may be, is arrested development, adding little to cinema's possibilities, no matter if it remains undeniably a work of film.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Dark Knight

Arrested Developments

There is little doubt that over the last fifteen years, the most profitable way to make films is to make Superhero movies. Depending on how you define the genre (if it is a genre), between them four Avengers films, Star Wars and Black Panther took up six of the top ten places in the 2010s' box office, according to Box Office Mojo. (The other four were Jurassic World, Frozen 2, The Lion King and Fast and Furious 7.) It is a dispiriting list if one sees film as an art form rather than entertainment but, if occasionally a superhero film hints at aesthetic intentions, should we accept its aims or reject it a priori? Such a question was posed by Martin Scorsese and his answer backed by Francis Coppola and Ken Loach, with Ridley Scott also joining in. Scorsese reckoned, "honestly, the closest I can think of them as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances is theme parks." (Empire) There were plenty who disagreed, and many had skin in the game in dismissing Scorsese's claims: from Scarlett Johansson to Chris Evans, Taika Waititi to Robert Downey Jr. Most were respectful of Scorsese's right to an opinion even if it "didn't make much sense" (IndieWire), according to Downy Jr.

One may have many reservations about a type of cinema that lends itself to ever greater corporate power and what some see as a far-right mindset, evident in Alejandro Gonzlez Inarratu's remark, "the problem is that sometimes they purport to be profound, based on some Greek mythological kind of thing. And they are honestly very right wing" (NME). Yet to dismiss Christopher Nolan's Batman films as contrary to cinema would also rule out anything else by Nolan since The Dark Knight is consistent with his other work. Who would be inclined to claim that Memento, The Prestige and Dunkirk aren't cinema? Our broad agreement with Scorsese's remark can allow for narrow disagreement: that at least some superhero films are still clearly cinema. Like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg before him, Nolan is a director who gets his moment, not as interestingly or complexly as PT Anderson or David Fincher, but someone whose work has absorbed both the developing aesthetics of the last twenty years, and the further complications often demanded of narratives that at least superficially absorb game theory and the problem of an irrational villain. Looking at The Dark Knight, it isn't difficult to see the film through the prism of cinema, its formal choices and its characterisational and narrational demands. When David Bordwell was disappointed by the film it rested on all the cinema conventions he saw at work: "disguises, hostage-taking, ticking bombs, characters dangling over a skyscraper abyss, who's dead really once and for all?" (Minding Movies)

Bordwell has more than a point but to get us started let us discuss a little the film's form and compare a couple of 70s films' early scenes with the opening one from The Dark Knight. If Nolan's film is cinema, how does it compare to previous examples of films doing something similar: utilising a heist. In Charley Varrick, the film sets the scene leisurely. Don Siegel offers a crane shot that takes in the year the bank was founded, its name, a couple of kids playing on swings, and a yellow Continental seen initially in the distance pulling in outside the bank. The film cuts to the couple in the car, and then to a shot from behind their heads, as they look at a distant police car coming towards them. This is done in three shots. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates, we see a bank manager entering the bank, someone watching him do so, a truck and its workers dropping off money to the bank, and someone else looking on as they do so. What we have in both films is an economy of means but not an intensification of form, and we believe they can pass for typical examples of early 70s action cinema. The shots are there to give us information; they do not hyperbolise the situation. Vital to the sort of cinema Nolan practises, is this hyperbolised intensification. The first shot of The Dark Knight shows a travelling camera moving into a high rise building before one of the windows explodes. We cut to someone in a mask who has blown it out and then watch as he reloads and fires this time a rope to the other building. The film then cuts to a low angle shot of a man, seen from behind, at a street corner, a hold-all on his shoulder and a mask in his hand as a car pulls up and lets him in the back seat. We then cut back to the two others and are well aware that these five masked men are about to commit a heist.

The viewer is probably meant to be too impressed by the pace and camera positioning to question the logic of the sequence, and this is central to the type of shift from the 70s to the 2000s: that while before action was usually consistent with logic to generate the logistical (a sort of logics of space), we might believe that the effect The Dark Knight wants to achieve is to overpower the viewer with sensation: that the camera's purpose isn't chiefly to provide us with the content of the scene but the tension in the form. Both the shot moving in on the building where the window is then blown out, and the one where the man waits by the side of the street as the camera moves in on the mask, and then shows us the car pulling into the same space as we see the mask and part of the car in the same shot, are impressively done, adding to the tension before the heist that often films will reserve for the heist. In both Charley Varrick and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, there is no excitement generated in the shot choices before the robbery. Nolan insists there should be.

However, the danger here is that the hyperbole generates a problem if we think of the film not chiefly as an experience there to entertain us, but one that shows us people with purpose and motivation. We might wonder if the best way to commit a heist would be to blow out a window in a nearby building: wouldn't that draw attention to your actions even before you've entered the bank, especially when heists are all about how quickly you have to get in and out? Why draw attention to yourself before the heist has even taken place? Secondly, would someone about to commit a robbery have in his hands the mask he is going to use to disguise himself? The shots are impressive but the logic off: it works well enough if we remain focused on the excitement of the event; less so if we muse over the characters' motivations.

After the film's release, plenty critics were quick to notice parallels with 9/11, with the New York Times seeing "it as something of a commentary on the war on terror", but rather than viewing the film as a commentary on it, perhaps better to see The Dark Knight as a representational absorption of the attack on the World Trade Centre. As the camera in that opening shot moves in on the building, it may bring to mind the planes moving in on the Twin Towers, and the explosion a minor version of the eruption. Here of course we have a point of view shot that only the terrorists would have possessed, but this can be seen as Hollywood's ability to create control over powerlessness: to give formal shape to a trauma that was perhaps all the more evident in the images that were captured so amateurishly on people's video cameras. Nolan can seem to be alluding to the atrocity of 9/11 within the aesthetic mastery of Hitchcock: that opening shot could bring to mind the beginning of Psycho, with the maestro's camera moving in on a building in Phoenix where Marion and her lover are post-coital.

We can also think of the scene where the Joker (Heath Ledger) kidnaps and kills someone masquerading as Batman (Christian Bale). We watch the images on television as the Joker has recorded the footage of his victim strapped to a chair and frightened for his life. Nolan may have said, in the context of the commentary on terrorism critics saw, that "really, my co-writers, David S. Goyer and my brother Jonathan, and myself tried pretty rigidly to be not aware or conscious of real-world parallels...We just tried to write the most entertaining script possible within the terms of the storytelling that this genre of film demands and to meet audience expectations." (Sight and Sound) If this is true it may be even more cynical than if it were deliberate, as though real-world events can be ransacked for entertainment purposes but the filmmaker needn't even attempt to claim a social purpose behind the imagery. Yet Nolan is showing how technology changes the way the villainous can gain publicity; that the Joker, like Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists, have access to the means of production through video cameras. While the IRA and the PLO created events that the media would then turn up to film (like the Munich Olympics attack or a rooftop protest at Wormwood scrubs), Al Qaeda and ISIS could film the material themselves, showing atrocity after atrocity and putting the footage online.

One needn't claim the IRA, the PLO and ISIS are all equally villainous. That isn't the point: the question is how would an organisation seeking political autonomy, yet without much access to the media, gain the necessary publicity? Al Qaeda and ISIS didn't need the media; they had their own publicity machine and distribution outlet the Joker likewise. The film must know that when showing someone strapped to a chair fearing for their life, the image will conjure up atrocities far beyond the shots the film shows us. Even if the film were to claim these images are evident on our screens generally, as we find in films like Saw and Wolf Creek, we may note that these films came out after the release of the Daniel Pearl execution in 2002. By 2004, videos showing various internationals killed in Iraq and elsewhere had become almost commonplace. Just as Nolan takes an aspect of 9/11 imagery and returns it to the virtuosic in the scene where the window is smashed, so in the recorded video he utilises the most rudimentary of handicam work to suggest how fearsome the Joker happens to be.

These comments needn't be taken idly: if film form develops it doesn't only do so through technological change. It often comes about through technology meeting sociology. If so many films adopted handicam for action sequences it wasn't only because the technology was suddenly available. It was as much that the technology became pertinent to a perceptual affiliation. Bordwell looks at the use of the camera in action films, including the Bourne trilogy, and notes that "pans, zooms, and movements of the actors are seldom allowed to come to rest before the shot changes. This, he says, creates a strong sense of jerkiness and visual imbalance" as he emphasises the formal choices the filmmakers adopt. But it is when Bordwell quotes a comment by the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass, that we might see the sociologically inflected. "Your p.o.v. is limited to the eye of the character, instead of the camera being a godlike instrument choreographed to be in the right place at the right time." (Minding Movies) No event made this more manifest than 9/11, where footage was caught on home video cameras: the magnitude of the atrocity and the impoverishment of the means of filming it in such strong contrast to each other.

While the sort of camerawork Greengrass offers had been used before 9/11, in films like Husbands and Wives, The Idiots and The Blair Witch Project, action cinema usually emphasised visual assertion over perceptual uncertainty. The major 90s action films from Demolition Man to Face Off, and the disaster films like Armageddon and Volcano, offered the viewer an experience that may have occasionally adopted a shakier point of view when someone was in trouble and trying to get a clear sense of an action. We see it when Nicolas Cage is trying to shoot John Travolta without harming his daughter, whom Travolta has in his grip and with a gun at her head. But overall, the purpose was to present action as the privileged domain of the filmmaker, not something that reflects the precarity of character. When Greengrass made Bloody Sunday in 2002, it may have been based on an event in Derry in 1972, but it felt like a modern work in the frenetic way in which those involved were trying to make sense of a situation that the camera was reflecting. It wanted to capture a past social event within a contemporaneous form. Part of what the Dark Knight does however is recuperate the assertive, to absorb the edginess of films post-9/11, but at the same time to show a control once again over the material by, for example, evoking 9/11 in the opening shot yet containing it within Hitchcockian control rather than the perceptually erratic images that caught the towers coming down.

Nolan's importance in contemporary Hollywood cinema rests partly on this combination he more than most revitalised the action film without suggesting a lack of confidence in the Hollywood idiom, nor a return to a pre-9/11 aesthetics. If we think again of the heist sequences from Charley Varrick and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, they insist on giving the viewer time to attend to the details, but in The Dark Knight, the lack of time given to the details is vital to the film's energy even if potentially it leads to numerous weaknesses in the script. When the bank manager asks, "do you have any idea who you are stealing from?" as he starts firing, we never find out as a minute later a smoke grenade goes off in his mouth. Why he doesn't pull it out is odd too, since he seems despite being shot to have the use of both hands. The film has no interest in this character except as spectacle: he gets involved in the action and allows for an amusing moment as the Joker hooks the grenade to the back of the bus he is driving off in and the safety catch gets released. This is potentially where an immense problem resides, with the action film returning to the certitude of Hollywood control but without logistical precision. It is fine if a film wants to convey the happenstance nature of events that the viewer doesn't have an awareness of, but if a film does possess that potential awareness, if it insists on creating a God's eye narrative view as The Dark Knight does, then improbabilities pile on top of improbabilities even as (and in some ways because) the form increasingly suggests complete control.

We can think here of a scene several commentators have pointed out. The Joker turns up with his henchmen at a high-end gathering and one moment after Batman arrives, the Joker holds Batman's great love and ex-girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) next to a smashed window as Batman tells the Joker to let her go. A poor choice of words, the Joker says, as he does exactly that and Rachael falls to what looks like her certain death, before Batman flies out the window. He rescues her as they both come to a relatively soft-landing that leaves her breathing heavily in what plays like a post-coital tangle. But where is the Joker, still terrorising people upstairs? We don't know as the next scene jumps to something else. The film insistently tells us that the Joker just likes to create chaos wherever he goes but was he happy with throwing Rachael out of a window and seeing Batman rescue her? Perhaps. Yet the Joker's purpose was to get Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who just before the Joker breaks in has been locked in a room for his own safety by Bruce Wayne. What happened to him; how was he released; did the Joker try and find him or was he content to leave the building after throwing Rachael out of a window even though he must have known that Batman, since he can fly, will be able to save her?

If the film were offering a narrow point of view there would be no reason to expect the film would return to what is happening in the building, but The Dark Knight offers this assumption of omniscient narration in its cross-cutting between the various stories, yet doesn't return at moments when the storytelling seems to demand it. It is a problem when form becomes sensation: when the film feels it has achieved its aim as set-piece and then ignores its duty as narrative. Maybe returning to the Joker would have seemed anti-climactic after the excitement of Batman saving Rachael but this gives credence to many who insist that the contemporary blockbuster is all about the action rather than the story. Some critics like Geoff King have analytically shown that those attacking modern Hollywood's lack of narrative are too categorical in their claims, taking to task Justin Wyatt. Wyatt says that "perhaps the most striking result of the high concept style is a weakening of identification with character and narrative. The modularity of the film's units, added to the one-dimensional quality of the characters, distances the viewers from the traditional task of reading the film's narrative." King reckons nevertheless that high concept films of the eighties, like Top Gun and Flashdance, "still revolve closely around the aspirations and fate of their central characters; goal-driven figures existing within strongly cause/effect structured narratives." (New Hollywood Cinema)

However, while King is right to call into question some hasty dismissals of films that emphasise spectacle and high concept, and while we can agree with him that the films usually have goal-oriented central characters who drive the story, what they often don't have are subsidiary characters with defined motives and purpose. Even if we accept the Joker as irrational he is at the same time constantly cooking up plans, bringing to the boil the tensions he creates. We will return to a couple of these later, but our point is that even if the Joker creates chaos for its own sake, he wants to follow through on at least his momentary preoccupation. In the scene where he drops Rachael out of the window, his purpose is to find Harvey: as he arrives at the venue, he tells everyone he has only one question: "Where is Harvey Dent?" But if Wyatt and other critics like Timothy Corrigan and Mark Crispin Miller have a point, it rests on the emphasis on the spectacle to the detriment of narration. If the through-line isn't narrational but sensational, the scene can end when Batman and Rachael land on the top of a car after falling through the air. "It is all about creating the most technically advanced, immersive experience for the audience" Nolan says. "I think it's incumbent on exhibitors but also on film-makers to provide the audience with a reason to leave their homes and pay money to come and see a film. The resources we have to make these films are colossal." (Sight and Sound) Why bother with the intricacies of plot lines when you have the money to pursue spectacular through-lines?

If we accept that The Dark Knight is cinema, we might wonder if it is good cinema. When Scorsese reckons it is closer to a theme park, we can see why: that opening scene where a couple of the criminals careen down a rope to the other building, and Batman's rescuing of Rachael, are excitingly woozy moments. But they call into question the plot rather than further it. It might seem like their purpose is chiefly to generate the giddy feelings one has when on a rollercoaster or the sidewinder. We have shown that Nolan is a filmmaker following in traditions that include Hitchcock and Don Siegel, but if he has learned to push their perspective to generate greater intensity, to create an ostensibly deeper sense of immersion, we might wonder too if this has become so much the purpose that other areas of cinema which have been developed over more than a hundred years are getting ignored. Nolan may believe that "we should be using the resources to create the best possible image we can." (Sight and Sound) However, we might say that there are numerous ways greater suspense and identification could have been offered if Nolan has learnt a bit more from previous masters. If cinema is much more than a fairground ride, it usually rests on it being in dialogue not just with an audience's immediate demands but cinema's ongoing capacity to generate fresh ways to think and feel. The Dark Knight is clearly cinema, but though the reviews when it was released were almost entirely positive, and though it received numerous Oscar nominations rare for a superhero film, it was keener ransacking cinema's past for predictable convention rather than for nuanced tension. As Bordwell insisted when he commented on the hostage-taking, ticking bombs etc. The film draws undeniably on film history, but does it do so with much ingenuity?

The film often offers the momentary clever over the sustainably intelligent: it will allow for an immediate witty pay-off rather than the motivational slow-burn release. Early in the film, one of the heist villains says that if the joker were so smart he'd have gotten a bigger car, unaware the person he is talking to is in fact the Joker. The villain says that he is betting the Joker wanted the other man to kill him as soon as they loaded, and the Joker says that his own job was to kill the bus driver. What bus, the villain asks and, at that moment, after the Joker looks at his watch, a bus reverse crashes into the bank, killing the villain. Joker then kills the bus driver, puts the smoke grenade into the bank manager's mouth and drives out and onto the busy road joining a troupe of buses that his own can get lost within. The film cleverly shows that when the villain says what bus, sure enough one comes along and immediately kills him, and in turn, the Joker does what he says he will do: kill the bus driver. He then leaves and joins a procession of buses so he will be a hard man to catch. But what are the chances that more than half a dozen buses are passing at just this time and that the Joker's bus can neatly be lost in the line of them? And anyway, wouldn't a bus that has reversed itself into a solid stone building be showing a few signs of damage easily distinguishing it from the other buses?

Some might insist this is splitting hairs, but it is more likely that a viewer looking for coherence would be tearing their hair out. The Dark Knight is a superhero film, so we can accept that it defies the laws of physics, but what if it seems constantly to be defying its own internal reasoning? When Batman rescues Rachael we may have no problem with Batman able to fly through the sky to save her, but we might wonder why the Joker lets her go unless he is buying time to look for Dent without Batman's presence. After all, Batman can easily rescue her; and the Joker doesn't look for Dent as far as we know. If we accept that a film like The Dark Knight is interested in spectacle over story, it rests on it so often allowing weak reasoning to produce strong action. It is a spectacular moment when the bus reverses through the bank, and again when Batman rescues Rachael, but what Nolan hasn't learnt from Hitchcock, or even Siegel or Yates, is that action is the consequence of narrative logic and not the cause of it: narration shouldn't be there to generate action sequences; more that action sequences may be the inevitable outcome of narration. If one feels that a bus reversing into a building, and later a ten-ton truck flipping over and a hospital getting blown to pieces, seems consequentially weak, next to the spectacularly strong, then it rests on what motivates the deeds and the subsequent nature of the actions. The truck's flip is part of capturing the Joker, but no sooner has he been imprisoned he escapes again, when he is left without handcuffs in a cell with only one man keeping an eye on him. This, the most wanted man in Gotham City. The combination of implausibilities and hyperbolies gives rise to the feeling that the film, like many a modern blockbuster, isn't interested in story.

How could it have learnt from films by Hitchcock, Siegel and Yates? Let us ignore Hitchcock for the moment but see aspects of the Hitchcockian in Charley Varrick and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, films that despite their relative lack of visual flair, show how they have learnt from others how to generate purposeful tension. That early heist scene in the former film plays out over the course of the whole story. When in The Dark Knight the bank manager asks the Joker does he know who he is dealing with, the answer is more or less yes, though little is made of this: when he gets involved with Gotham gangsters it has nothing to do with the money stolen but instead with the gangsters hiring him to kill Batman. In Charley Varrick, the answer is no. The titular character has robbed a bank just to get by. The heist goes wrong and his wife gets killed but, when he and a colleague add up the money, they realise they have a large fortune that makes no sense. They were robbing a small bank but for some reason a huge sum of cash had been deposited in it. The news reports only $2,000 has been stolen. Charley works out this is laundered gangster money and the rest of the film is predicated on how to find a way of staying alive in an intricate plot that involves giving the impression he is happy to give the money back, even though he knows that won't be enough (the gangsters will still kill him). He will thus have to fake his own death, made possible partly through an early scene where he swaps around dental records. At the same time, the other characters have clearly worked through motivations, including the killer who comes after Varrick, and the respectable front for the gangsters, the bank president Maynard Boyle, who realises that he and the bank manager could be seen by the gangsters to have arranged the robbery themselves, since they were the only ones to know the money was deposited there.

The film has one or two plot holes but overall Charley Varrick unravels from its initial heist and any action comes out of necessity. It makes sense that the bank manager in Charley Varrick wouldn't give up the cash easily: his life really is on the line if he does. The bloody action that comes out of his reluctance to open the safe straightaway, as the police turn up after hearing about the number-plates, leads to mayhem. But this isn't just a convenient retarding device all the better so that the police have time to arrive: we later find out that the bank manager has a very good reason to protect the bank's interests: he knows as Varrick's gang do not that there is three-quarters of a million dollars there. No such evidence is apparent in The Dark Knight: the bank manager fades from the film and the money stolen becomes inessential to the plot. It is an opportunity for mayhem, quickly forgotten.

Charley Varrick can seem visually knocked off and its action sequences competent but hardly inventive, yet Nolan could have learned at least from how to construct action that has causes and also consequences. Very few of the scenes in The Dark Knight do, with perhaps only the death of Rachael and the atrocious injuring of Dent transforming the plot, as Dent becomes a villainous and bitter figure after losing his loved one. Most of the time the action is spectacular but inconsequential in contrast to The Friends of Eddie Coyle where the action is usually unspectacular but very consequential. The opening heist would seem to have nothing to do with the plot which shows us central character Eddie Coyle selling guns, but amongst those he sells to are the gang who pull off the heist. In time we discover that Eddie is up on a charge for rumrunning that could put him away not for the first time, and the police need info that will lock up the gang and thus allow him to go free. Eddie has given the police info on a young and impetuous gunrunner who has been showing Eddie little respect but that isn't enough. They want info on the heist gang who have committed another robbery that went wrong. The police raid the gang and it is assumed Eddie was responsible but we find out the person who has done the grassing is the very person hired to kill him: his old friend and fellow informer Dillon, who was also the man Eddie was protecting: it was Dillon whom he wouldn't name on the rumrunning charge.

We describe the plots of both Charley Varrick and The Friends of Eddie Coyle to see that, as in Hitchcock's work, what matters isn't always the action but the reasons for it: the interlocked motives that lead out of the heist in The Friends of Eddie Coyle and to the death of Coyle at the end. To understand the film is to understand the motives of others: that the gang will assume Eddie has told on them because he has a good reason to, and he is the one who sold them the guns. But, more importantly, Dillon will know this is what they will think, and can thus not only give the police info they want, but also get paid by the gang for taking out Coyle. For all the talk of Batman and the Joker sharing similarities (you're just a freak, like me, the Joker says), there is little understanding in the film of how the characters might think. Sure, there are moments when the Joker has been thinking ahead a little, but often other characters aren't thinking with him. When Batman gives the two addresses Rachael and Dent are soon to die in when the ticking bombs go off, Batman takes him at his word and goes to rescue Rachael when that is the address where Dent happens to be. It is clear to the Joker that Batman would want to save Rachael over Dent so why wouldn't he give Batman false information?

When Corrigan, quoted by King, says, complexities of character "have been replaced these days ...by the most solid and unflinching displays of untramelled personality and pure image" (New Hollywood Cinema) we can half agree by seeing how The Dark Knight is much more interested in creating the opportunity for action rather than attend to what generates it. This needn't be an either/or, but with Hitchcock's work, the famous set pieces aren't isolated actions but inevitable consequences of thought-through behaviour. When in Strangers on a Train, Guy absent-mindedly leaves his engraved lighter on the train after speaking to the strange, Bruno, this will lead all the way to the famous carousel ending, with Bruno there to plant the lighter linking him to the murder that Bruno committed. Both Charley Varrick and The Friends of Eddie Coyle lack, or eschew, Hitchcock's visual flair, but they are films that know well how to build suspense and purpose around an action. In The Dark Knight, one senses that the film has to keep finding reasons to generate action and this will lead to our final point: the use of game theory and the irrational.

Potentially fascinating is a villain who doesn't want anything. Think how many criminals in film seek to become legit and/or build an empire, want to destroy the world or avenge a grievance. The Joker makes a point of telling different versions of how he arrived at the horrible scars on his face, as though he is supposed to have a past that justifies his horrible actions in the present. He also sets up a bank robbery with apparently no interest in the cash but just to see how quickly he can get people to turn on each other, with each of the heist gang killing someone else to get a greater share of the money. The same with his half of the cash retrieved from the corrupt mob accountant, which he burns. But there is a difference between being irrational and unmotivated; the Joker seems more to be rational but without an underlying purpose. While Batman, Rachael, Dent and others want to clean up Gotham City, and the mobsters want to keep cleaning out the banks and making money, the Joker just wants to keep making mischief. But while Ledger offers a performance that captures well a person who knows that no situation is ever going to make him more uncomfortable than the fact of horribly living in his own skin, then he can at least constantly generate scenarios where people don't feel very comfortable in theirs. However, that isn't the film Nolan has made; though it is pretty close to the Joaquin Phoenix's Joker, by Todd Phillips, and nor should it have been: The Dark Knight is an action film, not a character study. It would be unfair to turn it into something it never claimed to be.

Nevertheless, it might be fair to ask that the action, since it is usually generated by the Joker and with Batman and others playing catch me up, is a product of a particular type of imagination. Instead, the film offers an original villain to allow the film to arrive at predictable scenarios; hence the ticking clocks, the window-dangling, the heist and so on. More original is where he gives people, on two different boats that are rigged with explosives, the chance to kill those on the other boat and in turn save their own lives. Critics have invoked game theory here: why wouldn't one boat detonate the other boat and save their own skins, especially when they are all going to die anyway if they don't do it by midnight, where the Joker will detonate both? But if game theory is based on the assumption that the best result comes out of self-interest, then it makes sense for both sides to act quickly unless there is another pay-off that makes mutual self-interest a better option. In the way it is offered in The Dark Knight it isn't as though there is a prisoner's dilemma: no best-case scenario for all involved. In the typical take on the dilemma, "two prisoners are accused of a crime. If one confesses and the other does not, the one who confesses will be released immediately and the other will spend 20 years in prison. If neither confesses, each will be held only a few months. If both confess, they will each be jailed 15 years. They cannot communicate with one another. Given that neither prisoner knows whether the other has confessed, it is in the self-interest of each to confess himself." So, "paradoxically, when each prisoner pursues his self-interest, both end up worse off than they would have been had they acted otherwise." (Britannica) No such outcome is possible in the two boats scenario: the most cooperative option leaves all dead, which makes it odd that Nolan didn't include an awareness on the part of those on both boats that Batman is privy to their dilemma and determined to stop Joker. Then, they could choose to blow up the other boat, and guarantee their own safety or decide not to blow up the other one and hope that Batman will stop the Joker in time. Then we would have the best possible pay-off (everybody is saved) and nobody has killed anyone, as opposed to a less agreeable outcome where you kill others and have to live with the guilt, or get killed. Cooperation would be the best option if they trust Batman can save them. Perhaps Nolan just wanted the veneer of game theory, or perhaps he wants instead to show the Joker leaving everybody uncomfortable in their skins as the Joker is in his, but probably what Nolan wanted above all else was to create a situation where Batman must once again come to the rescue: that he must find the Joker and save the people on both boats as the film utilises one again a ticking clock scenario. The novel becomes the predictable. The people on both boats act well and Batman saves their lives.

The Dark Knight is cinema but if it is generally regarded as the finest of superhero films, it isn't always very good at what it proclaims to be. "Of course it's cinema!" Waititi insisted of such films, "it's at the movies." But such playful pedantry seems suspect. We should also add, to protect ourselves from such meticulous mischievousness as Waititi's, that Scorsese actually responded to a question about Marvel movies, and The Dark Knight is DC. But what seems vital to the superhero universe, whether DC or Marvel, is the desire to generate spectacle even it weakens other properties of film that have usually been vital to its development. The Dark Knight feels simultaneously undernourished and overfed, a work that looks like it is all protein but is instead based on the energy of carbs: a series of sugar hits that adds little to the broader notion of cinematic muscle. Scorsese has always known well the history of film and is surely aware that his own works, like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, have contributed to its development. We might say the best The Dark Knight offers, skilful entertaining and convoluted though it may be, is arrested development, adding little to cinema's possibilities, no matter if it remains undeniably a work of film.


© Tony McKibbin