Monday, July 23, 2012

in defense of "The Dark Knight"

In one of the most backhanded compliments I've ever read, Corey Atad of the movie blog justAtad contends, regarding Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman), that the "film’s true strength lies in its nonsensical plotting." I'm going to argue that nothing about the Joker's machinations and actions is nonsensical. First, though, we need to review Atad's claims.

It's central to Atad's argument that the Joker, who stands at the heart of the film, accomplishes his nefarious ends in ways that make no logical sense-- that somehow stretch the bounds of credibility and plausibility beyond a thinking audience member's ability to suspend disbelief. Atad offers several examples of this purported nonsense:

1. The Joker's plot to rob the mob bank at the beginning of the movie makes no sense in its particulars and in its execution.

2. The Joker's subjection of two ferries-ful of people to his own version of the Prisoner's Dilemma contains several implausibilities.

3. The Joker's setup for his attempted assassination of Mayor Garcia, his subsequent capture, his orchestration of the capture of Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes, and his escape from Gotham's Major Crimes Unit (MCU) are events that are logically unconnectable.

Essentially, Atad's argument comes down to this: the end of this series of events, the Joker is right where he planned on being. How in the hell could he have foreseen Batman using that tech, or Dent taking the fall, or Gordon pretending to be dead[?] For [the Joker's] plans to work, he’d need to have built those wild card events into his plan right from the beginning, maybe even before the events of the film itself.

To respond to Atad's argument, I'll first address the specific examples he cites, and then will move into a more general discussion of the nature of the Joker, a nature that roots the Joker's plans and actions in the firm ground of plausibility. After all, I need only argue that the Joker's well-choreographed execution of his plans is plausible to make my point, since Atad's claim-- which is rather strongly worded-- is that the Joker's deeds are nonsensical. (I take "nonsensical" to refer primarily to the actions we see in the film, not the subtextual motivations of the Joker. Atad covers the Joker's motivations only cursorily.)

The Mob Bank Scene

At the beginning of "The Dark Knight," the story opens with a bank robbery. The bank is run by the Gotham mob, and is infiltrated by a party of men wearing clown masks, one of whom is the Joker himself. The other thieves are unaware that their ringleader is in their midst; they've been given their instructions before the heist begins. Two clowns tackle the phone lines on the bank's roof; three more clowns tackle the front counter area and the safe; one clown drives a school bus.

As each team member accomplishes a given task, he is killed by the other team member per the ringleader's instructions. The eliminations proceed like this:

1. Rooftop team, Clowns A and B: A kills B once B kills the phone line.

2. Front counter team, Clowns C, D, and E (the Joker): C kills D (the safe-cracker).

3. The school bus driver, Clown F, inadvertently kills C when he rams the bus into the bank. Clown E (the Joker) guns down Clown F.

Steps 1 and 2 strike me as straightforward. The Joker's instructions, given only to part of the team, would have been to kill the other team member as soon as he had accomplished his task. Fewer people to share the loot, right? That's motivation enough. Any possible implausibility has to be confined to Step 3. Atad complains:

The Joker’s plan to rob that bank makes no sense. Somehow, even with the mob controlling Gotham, he’s put together a crew of guys, none of whom have ever seen him before, organized them to rob the bank and kill each other off one by one at very specific intervals. Of course, this might all be somewhat possible, but then the next thing happens. A school bus crashes through the building, killing the last henchman at just the right time, and then the Joker gets in the bus and drives off just as a string of other buses are passing by as a way of hiding in plain sight. It makes zero sense.

Gotham is a fictional stand-in for a teeming metropolis like New York or Chicago ("The Dark Knight" was, in fact, filmed on location in Chicago), and in a city of several million, the Joker should have no trouble finding recruits without ties to the mob. The fact that the men don't know each other is immaterial; the Joker possesses enough charisma ("...the kind of mind the Joker attracts," rasps Batman later in the film) to put together as many teams-- of whatever size-- as he desires.

Atad's main complaint seems to be about the bus. It arrives with perfect deus ex machina timing, and neatly solves the problem of Clown C, who was about to shoot the Joker. This smells funny to Atad, but surely he must realize there's nothing logically impossible about this turn of events. (Plenty of people misuse the word "logic" when critiquing movie plots.) Could the Joker not have maneuvered Clown C to stand right where the bus would smash into the bank? Of course he could have! Did the Joker plan for such an event all along? Probably not, but there's no reason to call Clown C's demise logically impossible. As for the moment when the Joker drives the bus back out into traffic, slotting neatly into a line of school buses: this simply required a bit of foresight on the Joker's part. Someone as clever as the Joker would have had access to school bus schedules, and would have incorporated those schedules into his planning for the bank heist. Far from making "zero sense," there is nothing implausible or impossible about the Joker's planning and execution.

The Two-Ferries Scene

Atad writes:

...the ferry sequence, in which the Joker rigs two ferries to explode, one with regular passengers, one with prisoners, and then gives each one a button to detonate the other and save themselves. How did the Joker manage to set this up? How did he find the time? How could he know that people would be ferried out of the city? Who helped him? Where does he find these people to help him? Where does he have the resources and entry to stage this? Who knows. It doesn’t make sense.

At this point in the film, the Joker has broadcast a city-wide threat that has everyone thinking about leaving Gotham. He utters one caveat, though-- a dire warning for the "bridge-and-tunnel crowd" that, by the end of the movie, seems mostly to be an empty threat designed to maneuver people onto the water. Escape via ferry seems like the only viable choice, especially if the citizens need to avoid bridges and tunnels. The Joker has calculated well: the ferries are-- predictably-- filled, and at least two of them start chugging across the river, one filled with prisoners as part of a scheduled transfer. I see nothing implausible or nonsensical here. How did the Joker manage to set this up? Teamwork! I feel that this question has been asked and answered in the previous section: the Joker is charismatic enough to roust as much help as he requires from a dysfunctional, crime-ridden city of millions. How did the Joker find the time to fill the ferries full of explosives? The answer to this question is the same as the answer to the question of how the Joker was able to coordinate a bank robbery at the beginning of the movie. This requires a fuller discussion of the nature of the Joker himself. I plan to get into this later.

As for who helped the Joker, and where the Joker finds such people to help him: I think that these issues, too, have been asked and answered. Atad's question about resources, though, is worth addressing: obviously, the Joker can't realize any mayhem without purchasing power, which brings us back to the bank robbery and to the Joker's attempts at negotiating a fee with the mobsters. Note, too, that the Joker's main tools are, as he says, bullets and gasoline, both of which have the virtue of being cheap.

Have we covered everything? We've explained the Joker's solution for his manpower needs, his charismatic facility in motivating and coordinating his henchmen, and his ability to purchase the necessary materials to wreak havoc on Gotham. Questions of time and logistical detail are expository issues for the film's director either to deal with or to ignore. I'm glad Nolan ignores them: the film would have been four hours long otherwise!

Mayor Garcia's Attempted Assassination, the Joker's Capture, etc.

I need to quote Atad at length for this part.

The lack of logic in anything involving the Joker extends into every aspect of the film’s plot. Let me lead you through a crucial section of the plot, and let’s see if it makes any sense at all. So, the Joker kills a few people. At the scene of one crime, Batman finds a bullet hole in a brick. He somehow gets the idea, with some sort of magical technology, to do a series of experiments and recover a fingerprint off the bullet. This alone makes no sense, but let’s pretend that it does for the moment. So, Batman gets the fingerprint off the bullet, [which] leads him to a name and to an apartment where a cop is tied up and a rig is set up by a window overlooking a memorial service for the recently killed police commissioner. At a precise moment, when Batman happens to be looking through the window, the blinds go up, making the positioned snipers think something is happening and they start firing [into] the window. On the street, things erupt in chaos. We see that the Joker is down there, dressed as a police officer. An attempt is made on the mayor’s life, but Gordon takes the hit.

So, now everyone thinks Gordon is dead. Bruce Wayne is going to a press conference to reveal himself as Batman, but at the last second Harvey Dent pretends that he’s Batman. He gets arrested, and then when he’s being transferred in a heavily guarded convoy, the Joker shows up. There’s a chase, Batman shows up, apparently not to the Joker’s great surprise. Things happen, and just as Joker is about to get the upper hand and take Batman’s mask off, Gordon shows up, alive, and saves the day. The Joker is hauled off to prison, where he gets put in a cell with a guy, inside whom he’d planted a cellphone bomb. During that, he also reveals to Batman that he’s managed to kidnap both Dent and Rachel Dawes, and they are in two different buildings, each set to explode. I’ll stop here, just because I could go on right to the end of the film, but let’s take a look at the logical problems here.

Okay, let’s pretend for a moment that Batman using the fingerprint tech makes sense, and that Gordon would actually be able to pull off that fake death bit. Even more illogical than those things is that at the end of this series of events, the Joker is right where he planned on being. How in the hell could he have foreseen Batman using that tech, or Dent taking the fall, or Gordon pretending to be dead. For his plans to work, he’d need to have built those wild card events into his plan right from the beginning, maybe even before the events of the film itself. There’s just no way he could have known far enough ahead that he’d be in that prison where he’d have the guy with the cellphone bomb It makes no sense at all.

What Atad refers to as the Batman's "magical technology" is none other than a souped-up version of the sort of equipment used by law enforcement agencies for forensic ballistics. There's nothing magical (if by "magical" Atad means "implausible/nonsensical/illogical") about the Batman's methods (see this Guardian article, published in 2008-- the same year "The Dark Knight" came out-- for more information on fingerprint retrieval from fired bullets). Once again, we can dismiss Atad's claims that something about the film "makes no sense."

As we move from Atad's digression about Batman back to his meditations on the Joker, we confront the issue of the "wild-card events" that the Joker could not possibly have anticipated. Could the Joker have known that Bruce Wayne would be standing at the window whose blinds snapped up at the appointed moment? No, but then again, the Joker's plan wasn't contingent on Wayne's presence: the snapping-up of the blinds would have done its job of distracting the snipers regardless of whether Wayne was in that apartment at that time. Could the Joker have known that Gordon was still alive? I don't think so, but he could easily have anticipated being caught and being placed in MCU holding. Having prepared for this contingency, the Joker would have readied his Plan B: the Exploding Fat Guy.

Atad gets it wrong when he writes, "The Joker is hauled off to prison, where he gets put in a cell with a guy, inside whom he’d planted a cellphone bomb." The Joker is actually sequestered in an interrogation room. At first he's worked over by Batman ("Never start with the head!"), then he's left with an angry cop, six of whose friends the Joker has killed. The Joker overpowers this cop and brings him out of the interrogation room at knifepoint, demanding his one phone call. This is the call to Exploding Fat Guy, who obligingly explodes, tearing apart the MCU and allowing the Joker to escape. How was Exploding Fat Guy maneuvered into getting caught and being placed into the MCU? Again, it comes down to the Joker's charisma in dealing with criminals. Fat Guy was given a sacred mission after he had undergone a bit of surgery to implant the phone bomb. But I have to say that spelling all of these details out for the viewer... well, it ruins the joke. As I mentioned before, I'm glad that Nolan didn't waste time on exposition.

The Nature of the Joker

Atad isn't entirely wrong in his assessment of who and what the Joker is. Atad sees the Joker as a force for chaos whose motivations remain largely opaque to the viewer. This is at least partially true: at the end of the film, the Joker speaks of himself and Batman in terms of the unstoppable force and the immovable object, destined to be in eternal conflict with each other. The Joker also offers us a glimpse into what makes him tick, such as when he describes himself to Harvey Dent as a dog chasing cars, but because he is inherently a liar (hints of the demonic here), we can't trust that the Joker is revealing his essential self. He calls himself an agent of chaos, for example, but his methods are ruthlessly methodical and, in the final analysis, obsessively repetitive: his constant modus operandi is to maneuver the people around him into harming each other. The Joker's character demonstrates, if nothing else, that insanity and rationality are not mutually exclusive. For all the Joker's railing against people with "a plan," the Joker is the consummate planner.

The Joker is also paradoxical in the sense that he has a disturbingly accurate understanding of human psychology, which allows him both to map out his projects and to recruit his henchmen, but he seems to be missing one important insight about the power of human charity and compassion. This is the significance of the ferry scene: ultimately, the Joker's self-blinding narcissism is unmasked by Batman, who accuses his enemy of assuming that all the citizens of Gotham are just as base and vile as he, the Joker, is.

Trying to get at the Joker's innermost motivations may be an impossible task. Perhaps Alfred, Bruce Wayne's faithful, skilled homme à tout faire, comes closest to an accurate assessment of the Joker when he tells Bruce Wayne that "some men just want to watch the world burn." There may be no deeper explanation for psychopathy than psychopathy itself. If there is any sense in which the Joker represents something implausible or illogical, it's that he seems gleefully unburdened by any need to be truthful or sensible. As in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, Christopher Nolan's Joker has a multiple-choice past (cf. the two origin stories about the Joker's facial scars), and while he seems to be out to prove a point, it's unclear just what point the Joker is trying to prove.

Although I think Corey Atad's article is thoughtfully written, I find myself in fundamental disagreement with his assessment of the story's plot. Far from being a string of nonsensical contrivances, the story of "The Dark Knight" makes perfect sense to the extent that every action the Joker takes can be rationally explained, at least at the logistical level, if not always at the motivational level. Far from being illogical or nonsensical-- an extreme claim if ever I've heard one-- the story's twists and turns follow a plausible, sensible path from beginning to end. My own reading of "The Dark Knight" is that it is a study in two forms of insanity that, together, straddle a blurry ethical divide. Bruce Wayne isn't the most likable character, either; Rachel Dawes senses this about him and stays away. "The Dark Knight," a bit like Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, presents us with two sides of the same ethical/psychological coin.



Surprises Aplenty said...

"After all, I need only argue that the Joker's well-choreographed execution of his plans is plausible to make my point, since Atad's claim-- which is rather strongly worded-- is that the Joker's deeds are nonsensical."

I saw the full movie at the theatre and have seen fragments on some movie channel or another, but it's been a while so my problem with your claim may simply be the fault of my memory.

Still, I remember one scene where the Joker, apparently sincerely, describes himself as 'not a planner' (paraphrase, not a quote) or 'not a long term planner' but 'more of an improvisor'. Again, I am certain he conveyed this idea but I can't say in what precise words nor when in the movie he did so.

It was only a movie, so my ability to suspend disbelief is somewhat strengthened, but I find myself leaning more towards Atad's view than yours.

Kevin Kim said...

The fact that the Joker plans carefully is evident throughout the film. The hospital explosion is a good example: all those charges had to be carefully placed to achieve maximum destruction.

Are you convinced, based on the evidence of the Joker's precisely choreographed actions, that he really is an improviser at heart? I don't doubt that the Joker can think on the fly, but he seems more like the person who-- like a sharp chess player-- has a contingency plan ready for any eventuality. Exploding Fat Guy, for example, didn't necessarily have to be prepped for that specific situation (i.e., breaking the Joker out of the MCU), but it must have been nice for the Joker to know that the Fat Guy option was available to him.

Surprises Aplenty said...

Well, I am convinced that I sorta remember him claiming that.

Kevin Kim said...

I can check IMdB's entry on the film. I'm sure it's full of nifty Joker quotes. That, or I can re-watch the movie, since I've got it on iTunes.

At a guess, you're referring to the part of the movie in which Harvey Dent is strapped down in the hospital gurney and the Joker has that little talk with him, mocking people who feel that any given disaster is "all part of the plan," thus making that disaster intelligible, while the Joker himself is the guy who comes along and flips their plans upside-down.

But whether or not the Joker really did make such a claim about himself (i.e., not being a planner-- "Do I look like a guy with a plan?"), I can't trust what he says: like Regan's demon in "The Exorcist," he's an inveterate liar, and all his actions indicate meticulous planning.

Corey Atad said...

I'm honoured that someone would so thoughtfully deconstruct one of my posts. Seriously, this was a great read.

Obviously we disagree on particulars but generally agree on the larger themes of the film. What I'd say in response to your defence is that while I acknowledge that each individual incident in the film is generally logical (though not always realistic), the idea that the Joker could make his plans work so far ahead and with so much flow and still incorporate events that are left up to chance makes the character's actions illogical. Not in the specifics, but in terms of how they play out.

But as I saw, I think this is only goes to reinforce the thematic weight of the character. It's impossible to know what he's going to do next because his actions don't conform to the normal ability of a person to plan things out. He has some kind of super-sense for actions and psychology, and it's beyond the realm of the believable, but that's what makes him so scary.

Anyway, loved reading this. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin,

My questioning of the Joker's abilities was in the recruitment: how the f--- did the Joker recruit so many guys who were so freaking dependable?

I could suspend disbelief with the overall plot, and the specific plans. But once it became clear that the Joker's motley assortment of random strangers were working together flawlessly, AND hadn't drawn any bad attention their way in the planning-preparation phases of the whole thing - I checked out.

So I agree with your point (the plot is fine), but I don't see - even in a movie - how so many random strangers could pull it off, as advertised.


Bratfink said...

To me, The Joker is summed up by Alfred's words: Some men just want to watch the world burn.

I read Atad's piece and I agree with you. I LOVE 'The Dark Knight'--my favorite 'superhero' movie to date.

The tv series with Adam West ruined The Joker; he really was a psychopath and not just a funny guy. In 'The Dark Knight' The Joker was terrifying, which is how he should be.

This was not a guy you wanted to mess with or get on the wrong side of.

Kevin Kim said...


I think your memory's in perfect working order. The Joker does explicitly disavow being a planner during the hospital scene, although his actions throughout the movie imply otherwise. And for what it's worth, if the Joker's preaching any sort of metaphysical gospel, it's that chaos is fair. This is consistent with the Joker's being the mirror image of Batman: he's fighting for his own brand of justice.


I agree: the Joker's a sinister enigma.


Thanks for stopping by! Although we generally disagree, I enjoyed reading your post. I found your blog via Steve Honeywell's "1001 Plus" blog. Your post's catchy title got my attention.


I get the feeling that the Joker's crew was composed of people who were at least a little touched in the head, which may explain their reliability. That, plus the Joker's uncanny ability to inspire loyalty among the downtrodden, and even to turn "white knight" Harvey Dent to the dark side.

John from Daejeon said...

To me, and a lot of other "Justice League/Justice League Unlimited" fans, the biggest flaws in Nolan's films happen to be that most of us who really follow The Bat were hoping to see either Lois Lane or Diana as his love interests, but it must have been hard for him to pick and choose his way through 1000's of previous Batman comic book plots and hundreds of hours of television. Maybe the limited time of a movie worked out for the best, as I don't know what the world would have done had the Joker's main squeeze actually been included in the film (other than her probably being behind the scenes and helping the Joker out from afar).

Yet even though we are/were somewhat disappointed, maybe Marvel's successful mining of their source material will lead DC to do the same and bring the likes of The Question (and his girlfriend, Batman's daughter aka The Huntress) and Batman Beyond to the big screen.

Well, I'm going to disappear back into Arkham and The Batman universe for a while, it's a shame that more of those who only follow the odd Dark Knight movie don't delve into the the wide world of Batman comics, graphic novels, television programs, or games. They are missing some truly great stuff as even my 10 year-old nephew can attest to when he straps on LEGO Batman's Power Suit and enters
Gotham from his living room.