Tuesday, July 27, 2010

“The Dark Knight” Plot Analysis: Act I

There are two lines of energy fueling the plot of Nolan’s second Batman film to its inevitable entropic unraveling. Interestingly, both these power sources (or power vents) are characters: Bruce Wayne and the Joker. This stands in contrasts to many movies, including Nolan’s Inception, in which the plot is driven primarily by plot.

Let’s start from Wayne. Nolan was able to dispense with the familiar origin story in Batman Begins, so by the sequel Wayne’s motivations have evolved. His need and use of Batman has detached from the seminal act of violence in his childhood and taken on a life of its own that perpetuates in the context of the real, present world of his adult life after the introduction of Batman into Gotham City. (Those of us that are adults, are our particular paths any different?) He is not so much avenging his parents, as he is adapting to the political and criminal realities that he has in fact instigated.

In The Dark Knight, Wayne is motivated by his ability to show his city a different way, that good people can stand up to the criminal corrosion that seems to touch everything. Before Batman, change was unthinkable. But by one person fighting for good—albeit in a very dramatic fashion—people start to think that it can be done. The few good cops, the few good lawyers, the few good politicians, and a few good Samaritans gravitate around the Batman example. They pull others into their orbit. Strength comes with numbers. Confidence comes with strength. The first result is that within a single year, all the once-fearless crime bosses are scared to go out at night. The second result is Harvey Dent, who ends up convincing the cops and the politicians to arrest all the crime bosses on RICO charges. This would have been unthinkable twelve months earlier, and the Mayor gives his nebbish reasons why it simply can’t be done—but Batman has shown that it can, and has cleared the way for Dent, his political and legal counterpoint, to take over his job and bring it into the light of day.

Truth be told, Batman may have only resulted in the arrest of a handful of criminals in that first year. But because of the demonstration that crime can be opposed, the rest of Gotham City stands up to do the rest.

This all happens—Batman wins, plans his retirement—before the Joker asserts himself to the people of Gotham. But because these things happened, the Joker then asserts himself with overwhelming force.

In the first act of the movie, Joker is a small-time bank robber with a little flair. The bosses and the cops don’t take him seriously, and the public doesn’t even know he exists. The character’s motivation has always been uncomplicated: sow chaos. In the film, this is his only desire. He does not want money, a fancy lair with an expensive car. We never see him eat, drink, sleep or satisfy sexual urges. He is chaos personified, which makes him a durable canvas to project generations of audience anxieties—in this case, terrorism.

Joker understands the major impediment to sowing chaos in Gotham City is Batman. His plan is simple: work with the crime bosses to kill Batman, so the city can return to its former chaotic state, in which he will play a large role.

At the end of act I, Joker is loosing. Dent has arrested all the bosses. The streets will be clean for a year and a half. Like he told the bosses, “Dent is only the beginning.” So in Act II, Joker dramatically increases his terrorism, adding a mega jolt of energy into the city that speeds up the flow of entropy toward chaos.

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