[VoxSpace Selects] How ‘The Dark Knight’ Changed The Way We Told Stories Forever

Creating A Calming Affect Out Of The Utter Chaos

For many movie academicians, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight might just fall short in achieving a timeless cult hit status. Yes, there will always be a better movie than this, and yes there will always be a better story to tell. Perhaps even this very story, of a beaten superhero taking on a driven maniac, could be made into something even more spectacular in the time to come.

However, personally, The Dark Knight will be that one movie, that one bright moment in the plethora of cinematic moments that I’ve seen growing up, which I shall consult back to before I start writing anything at all. It is, what they say, my go-to movie, which helps me understand various aspects of storytelling, sometimes hidden deep within the layers of contemplation and chaos.

As the title speaks for itself, as a story writer, The Dark Knight changed the way I approached a story. Again to say that this vigilante crime drama is one of the finest movies ever made would be a far-reaching conclusion. But then, if The Dark Knight still remains a benchmark of how superhero stories should be as, translations to the silver screen go, then maybe it does deserve its iconic status.

Lesson One: Every Character Needs To Have Their Own Individualistic End Goal To Achieve

The first thing that The Dark Knight showcased with a splendid flourish is the way it took its own time to unravel. It wasn’t shaky and stupidly ambitious. The film was based on an airtight story developed by the Nolan brothers, which then commanded respect from its actors and in some ways dared them to infuse themselves into the characters.

A challenge was thrown to fit the glove. One which was eventually, and quite so magically, achieved by the casting of Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart among others. An intelligent story requires the intellect of the actors playing the roles, in addition to their inherent skillset. An intellect that understands and compels the actors to delve deep into the minds of the characters and figure the why’s and who’s of them. When one sees the characters in the movie, from a writer’s perspective, you come to realize that every character is in search of something. That became one of the most important lessons I learned from the movie.

Much like in life, every character that you see in a good story needs to have something, a tangible and quantifiable goal which they are striving towards. You see, isn’t that the very essence of life? In most of the Indian movies, across any genre, we often see that the main leads have an ambition, a goal, a tangible endpoint, and all the other characters are either aiding or hindering the journey of the main lead. What it does is that the side characters have no individualism, and thereby no character growth.

It is in Nolan’s Dark Knight that I saw a range of characters having their own agenda, their own singular missions, which sometimes aligned with or fell apart from the main lead’s journey forward. The magic, of course, came when I realized that, the characters, say for example Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, The Joker have their own missions that they want to achieve, and in doing so they tend to fill certain parts of Batman’s tangible goal.

Isn’t that just brilliant writing? Inadvertently helping the overall arch of the story of Batman, while still staying true and on-course towards their own singular missions is a nuanced way of telling a story. Everyone is different, and everyone has a different agenda in life. That is when you create characters which are essential, relevant and also establish a world around the main lead which breathes and lives on its own.

Lesson Two: Create A Character Growth Arch For Both The Protagonist And Antagonist And Make Them Confront Each Other At A Stage

When we speak of The Dark Knight, most of us remember Heath Ledger and his immortal portrayal of the antagonist within the movie- The Joker. We remember his smirks and bows, we remember his maniacal laugh and his unpredictable howls, his maddening calmness and his solemn destruction. There is something very affluent and fluidic about the way the character is written.

Right from the initial frame of the movie, where we see Ledger’s Joker waiting at a crossroad, poetically holding his mask, to the last frame in which he is strapped upside down and lets out his eerie laugh while throwing a challenge at Batman. We get to understand that there is some sort of inherent calmness within this character, which contradicts the forceful predicaments of Batman. We see an anti-thesis to established normalcy.

He is theatrical in his want of shock and awe, and yet surgical in his ideas and execution. From starting with utter chaos, where the Joker’s henchmen tiredly pull of the bank heist, to being absolutely in control at a warehouse anticipating ferries to be blown up, the Joker has an unparalleled character arch which defines, quantifies and contrasts that of the Batman. In his own words, the Joker starts off as ‘A Dog Chasing Cars’ to being ‘An Unstoppable Force’.

Batman, on the other hand, starts off at a point where he has everything under control. He understands his city, Gotham, like no one else, and of course its scourge of criminal mob. He knows and he understands everything until he doesn’t anymore. Gradually, Batman’s character grows from being an established authority to becoming absolute chaos. He starts off as an inspirational vigilante who firmly believes in the moral root code of societal goodness. And yet in the final moments of the movie, we see that in order to get hold of the Joker, Batman betrays the society and its rules of safekeeping.

If someone were to study the arches of the Joker and Batman, one could see that they represent the inversely proportional tendencies to the truest form. The Joker is everything that the Batman isn’t. Add to that, Batman needs to become the Joker, perhaps break himself, and remould himself as a lesser evil, to fight the larger one.

It is interesting to note that all through this fight there is one another thing that shows an incredible amount of change. Gotham City and its people. From being passive and detached to the happenings around them, to taking things literally into their hands. There is a stark difference between the city which was under the protection of Batman, and the one which is under the mercy of the Joker.

All to say, that another thing that I learned from The Dark Knight is that growth is required as much to an antagonist as it is to the protagonist. Perhaps because it’s the temporal clash of two differing ideologies and philosophies at a singular time which results in a catastrophe.

Lesson Three: Establish Patterns And Consistencies But Be Brave To Break Them

In the midst of all this, we see Commissioner Gordon and DA Harvey Dent dabbling with different personality aspects of Batman and the Joker, as per their circumstantial convenience. While Commissioner Gordon shows unwavering trust in the system and the society, thus reflecting the thoughts of Batman, Harvey Dent is shown as becoming a Joker driven character by the end of the movie.

Of course, the beauty of the movie lies in not just establishing a status quo in terms of characters but also flipping them as and when required. When I say, Commissioner Gordon, is a believer of the system, and Harvey Dent a challenger of it, we then see in one particular scene that Harvey Dent risks his life and puts himself in the mouth of danger by telling the world that he is The Batman and placing his utmost belief in Batman and the system to save him.

In the very same scene, we see Commissioner Gordon, presumed dead from an earlier event, for a moment walking away from the system, and helping Batman in nabbing the Joker. I have observed that these two scenes work like magic, because, from the beginning, Christopher Nolan defines these two characters very clearly in terms of their allegiances. And then flips it. Isn’t that how you establish chaos in a story? You take an established pattern and make a mockery of it by the middle of a story and leave it to the viewers to wonder if things will ever go back to being normal. And then, on these sensitive pads, infuse seismic events such as the Death of Rachel, and you establish a feeling of ‘all is lost’. And therefore, I learnt my third important lesson in the art of storytelling. Being Consistent but Doing Inconsistent.

If you were to truly understand the word of the Joker when he claims that ‘I Am Just An Agent Of Chaos’ you instantly and quite subliminally understand that he is not lying. He is morally wrong, diabolical even, but he is not in any instant throughout the story, lying, which is perhaps the most basic crime we ever do. Contrast that with the existence of Batman himself. He starts lying from the moment he dons the cape and the cowl. Batman is a lie, trying to do good. The Joker is a truth, trying to do bad. That is the consistency between the characters, which is often challenged.

The Joker is challenged by the mob when his vision of ‘We’ll… kill the Batman’ is dismissed as ridiculous. He is offended when small-time crooks call him a freak and a liar. That shows how much the Joker believes in his vision of truth. And to prove the point, he literally delivers on his words as the story unfolds later.

On the other hand, Batman, who is challenged by the Joker no less, to show the city who he is, hesitates to do so. He seeks strength from his lies. Batman, or in this instance Bruce Wayne, lies to himself that he doesn’t have feelings for Rachel, or that he can protect the city or that he is a speckle-free inspirational figure far above the suspecting scum of the city. It is this dichotomy of consistencies and inconsistencies that make the characters clash, not just at a physical level but at an ideological level, constituting one of the greatest ever moments of good vs bad conflicts in cinematic history.

Lesson Four: The Reason Of ‘Spectacular Hook Points’ For A Story

The fourth thing that I learnt by watching The Dark Knight over and over again is the fact that there needs to be something spectacular in the story. Something you won’t see coming. Spectacular in the gravity of an idea or a concept, or spectacular in terms of nuance and meditative, or perhaps even the physical speculation of an incident.

You see, a story is as a story can be. From an academic point of view, a well thought out story, with clearly defined characters, predefined motives and plot twists, should be enough for an involving experience. However, I have observed many a time that these are just the base required for the delivery of a spectacle. A dash of unexpectedness. From the times of Shakespeare to O.Henry, to John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, JK Rowling or Steigg Larsson, we are always left in awe and admiration of their stories because they deliver something beyond the usual perfect story.

They emphasize on creating a spectacle, either in terms of how their characters behave or the lengths they could go to (classic Pathos of Shakespeare) or the visual mastery of fantastical elements (for example JRR Tolkien or JK Rowling). Nolan understands this in his art of filmmaking and storytelling techniques and infuses enough elements of spectacular standpoints within the story. Of course, he enjoys the advantage of making a Superhero film, which actually requires spectacular CGI effects and heart thumping action set pieces. He could have easily relied upon them to deliver the spectacle, perhaps like Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman) or Peter Jackson (Lord Of The Rings). But this is where he shines. He seeks to validate the physical spectacle with visceral spectacle as well.

For every ‘Bus Crashing into the Bank’ scene, there is ‘Bruce Wayne’s financial sniff out of Lau Enterprises’. For every ‘Midair Abduction of Lau,’ there is an ‘Orchestrated simultaneous attack of the Joker’. For every ‘Batmobile thrusting out of the Tumbler’, there is a ‘Joker clapping in a congratulatory stance for the new commissioner’. Perhaps this is what makes The Dark Knight, both a viscerally and physically stimulating experience.

Yes, often, when you consider a novel or a storybook, you have the liberty to indulge in less spectacle or more introspection. Inversely, when you write a screenplay, you can still indulge in higher spectacle value and lesser meditative experiences. However, when you tell a story, and it is true to any story from Folklore to Non-Fiction, from Fanfiction to Mythology, you remember a story in mind because of its spectacular high points. Those are which give you the wings to imagine. A flight of fantasy if you will. Thus, my storytelling techniques started from purely bland abstractness to infusing spectacular incidents which would enthral, amaze, discern and disorient the readers.

In the end, these are the things which are the factors to create memories in real life, don’t you think?

Lesson Five: Always Think Of Your Story In A Visual Sense

Nolan’s Dark Knight is a well-constructed story and an even better-visualized movie. Of course, I do not claim to have the knowledge of cinematic tools to bring the deservingly rewarding experience to life, but I do believe there are a few things I can talk about.

The gritty mood of seriousness and intellect envisioned across the city, which commands you to sit up and take notice of the ongoing things. The colour schematic is muted with a deeper influence of blues and blacks. Of course, to show that Batman and the Joker are much alike than different, a certain sense of common colour palette is maintained between them.

We see that the stakes are high and ruthless right from the start of the movie. The Joker is unflinching in his acts of violence. Batman is considerate in his morality when he goes out of his way to help Harvey Dent. Add to that the urgent and melancholic score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, brings a sense of duality to the table which is unmistakable.

How can one forget the now classic ‘the Joker interrogation scene’, where perhaps we see, for the first time, that Batman is mortal and psychologically wounded. And it is also the first time we see that the Joker has the unnerving authority over everything around him.

As the movie progress, strong ideals and philosophies clash together and bring out serene aftermath where Batman is left with a higher amount of guilt and failure. He has been broken by his own code. He has been imprisoned in the chain of his own morals. He is a prisoner of his own gifts. And thus, the movie comes to a conclusive shot of Batman, now defeated and broken to the bone, riding into a tunnel of the city he could proudly walk around earlier, and emerging into a metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel.

As a measure of hope that someday he would come across a small window of an opportunity, to walk back into the palace of belief and trust he had constructed over years. Perhaps towards a day when he would not waver in his actions, or to stitch himself back to become a reformed person and perhaps to become something other than just The Dark Knight.