Jul 06 2012

Learning Writing Skills from The Dark Knight

(Please see the movie before reading this review).


1. The conflicts really help make the relationships memorable. One element which worked out unusually well was the depth provided by protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts (e.g. Gordon conflicting with Dent over who blew a case, Dent respecting Batman but hating Bruce Wayne, Lucius vs. Batman over libertarian issues, cops pressuring Dent to surrender Batman to Joker, Batman vs. Dent over threatening to kill a deranged patient, Dent angry that Batman saved him rather than his girlfriend, Batman vs. a misled SWAT team, Gordon suspecting most of his own unit of possible corruption, etc). The plot has a lot of angles, but each of these conflicts is very easy to follow and is consistent with the character development. I think that the protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts help give all of the characters something to contribute to the plot. In contrast, if (say) the Thing were cut out of the Fantastic Four movies or Violet were cut from The Incredibles, I don’t think the plot would change much.


1.1.  Few, if any, superhero movies have accomplished as much with antagonist-vs-antagonist conflict. For example, Joker orders a hit on Coleman Reese, Joker fights with mob leaders, Joker turns on his own goons, and turns Dent into Two-Face (both physically and morally). One reason that the bank heist at the beginning of the movie is so memorable is because all of the antagonists involved are criminals—in contrast, many superhero movies have the superheroes warm up by taking down faceless bank robbers who receive no development.


2. The characters generally have complex motivations. Probably the most notable example here was Joker trying to prove that everybody is fundamentally as crazy as he is (and that people are only as moral as conditions allow them to be). It made him much more interesting than just another villain trying to make a ton of money or accumulate power without any particular agenda in mind. I’d also recommend checking out how Batman and Gordon conceal Two-Face’s misdeeds to help keep hope and inspiration alive.


3. The use of side-characters is phenomenal. Except for maybe Avengers, I don’t think any other superhero movie comes close in terms of character/plot development or creating interesting scenes. Take, for example, the ferry scene. Batman isn’t directly involved and none of the characters on-screen actually have a name. How many series are there where minor characters could have a compelling scene which develops the plot and the villain? Some other interesting examples where Batman isn’t present:

  • Joker’s opening bank heist. If I had to pick a single movie scene which did the best job of introducing a villain and developing his personality and modus operandi in a memorable way, this would be it. The heist is fittingly anarchic and unpredictable in the best way.
  • Joker’s pencil scene.
  • Lucius vs. Coleman Reese. (“You think your client, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, moonlights as a vigilante and beats criminals to a pulp with his bare hands? And your plan is to blackmail this man? … Good luck with that”).
  • Gordon/MCU fighting with Dent/DA’s office about who blew the bank seizure.
  • Joker in the MCU cell—the cell-phone bomb was a clever touch, but I thought his goading the veteran cop (Stephens) into an imprudent confrontation was most memorable here.


4. I found it very refreshing that so many of the characters are so competent.

  • For example, Dent figures out that Gordon is working with Batman because he finds it unlikely that a city cop would have access to lightly-irradiated bills and radiation scanners. Gordon even comes up with a plausible excuse (federal assistance).
  • Batman puts together a fake business deal with Lau to get a better look at Lau’s finances. Coleman Reese figures out that something is amiss and it leads him to Batman’s secret identity.
  • Dent’s use of the RICO Act was clever and he handles himself remarkably well after his star witness tries to kill him in court. Relatedly, Dawes’ interrogation of Lau is not bad.
  • Dent’s Batman-Cincinnatus comparison and Dawes’ Batman-Caesar comparison were interesting.
  • If you assume that the warden on the ferry wanted to blow up the other ship to save himself, but was not willing to be held accountable for doing so, the nameless prisoner’s approach is brilliant. It essentially amounted to “I’ll blow up the other ferry and take the consequences–when the police ask what happened, just say that I would have killed you and you didn’t have any choice.”
  • Some of Joker’s observations actually make sense, which helps establish him as something more than a one-dimensional psycho. For example, he points out that planned/expected events aren’t as shocking, even if the plan is absolutely horrific. (For example, blowing up a military convoy wouldn’t induce nearly as much fear as assassinating the mayor). I think his point is arguable–people are much more bothered by, say, the death of a child than the death of an elder (the elder’s death is anticipated). In contrast, I’d point out Avengers’ Loki as an example of a villain who’s not totally idiotic but doesn’t really get anywhere in terms of provocative ideas.


5. There are so many unusual choices by so many characters. This was critical because, with such a large cast, most characters didn’t get all that much screen-time and had to make themselves memorable quickly. For example:

  • Dent outs himself as Batman to bait Joker. Batman/Wayne doesn’t interfere.
  • Joker passes on short-term destruction in favor of a larger goal—for example, he doesn’t detonate the ferries after the passengers declined to pull the trigger.
  • Joker crowdsources villainy—e.g. “If Coleman Reese is still alive an hour from now, I’ll blow up a hospital.”
  • Bruce Wayne rams a sports car into a pickup to save an enemy who has tried to blackmail him with his secret identity. This is probably the most dangerous thing he did in the entire movie, and he did it to save a villain.  One impressive aspect of Batman is that he really puts himself on the line for his moral code, much more than (say) Superman.
  • Batman gives complete control of his bleeding-edge surveillance system to Lucius rather than himself. How many superheroes are concerned enough about being corrupted by power to take such a precaution?
  • Lucius resigns–“As long as this machine is here, I won’t be.” I really like it when side-characters have opinions and agendas of their own rather than just going along with the heroes.
  • Joker burns the money because it’s worthless to him.
  • Joker turns on his goons. I like that it’s not immediately clear why. (Are they worthless to him?)
  • Alfred doesn’t pass along Rachel’s letter to Bruce (reinforcing the theme that hiding the truth might be desirable sometimes).
  • Even though Dent hates Bruce Wayne, he tells Rachel to go to Wayne’s penthouse because it’s the safest place in Gotham.
  • Dent gets angry that Batman apparently chose to save him rather than his girlfriend. (Well, no; he chose to save Rachel but Joker gave him Dent’s address–thanks to Goat for clearing up my misread here). It’s an unusual form of survivor’s guilt.  By the way, it might have been more interesting if Batman actually did choose to save Dent, because the city needs Dent’s help more than it needs the Wayne-Dawes romance. (“The needs of the many…”)
  • Gordon pins the “murder” of Two-Face and Two-Face’s crimes on Batman. Batman agrees to this arrangement. One issue here: why doesn’t Gordon try pinning it on a criminal that had a motive to kill Dent? In particular, Joker and the mob strike me as plausible suspects. Joker repeatedly attempted to assassinate Dent and one mob member drew a gun on Dent in court.


6. Compared to Batman Begins, Dark Knight spends much less time on Bruce Wayne, especially in scenes with characters that don’t know he’s Batman. In Batman Begins, I think it was about 50% Batman and 50% Wayne, but TDK does maybe 80-20%. I think this was a shrewd decision because BB’s Bruce Wayne scenes tended to drag a bit. For example, Bruce Wayne’s side-plot about taking back control of his company from Earle in Batman Begins could have been removed entirely.  The main point I would take away from this is that superhero authors don’t have to spend much time on the alternate identities of the protagonists. Indeed, if there are a ton of characters clamoring for time, it might be better not to.


7. The pacing was some of the best I’ve ever seen. First, the plot is exceedingly efficient. Except for maybe a brief fundraiser for Dent, all of the scenes contribute something (e.g. advancing the plot and/or developing characters). Except for a brief scene with two murder victims named Harvey and Dent, I can’t think of any scenes which could have been easily removed. In contrast, in Batman Begins, I think the entire side-plot about Wayne taking back control of his company from Earle could have been removed and the opening 45 minutes could probably have been halved. Second, plot threads don’t all resolve at once. For example, the ferry scene starts to unfold, which prompts Batman and a SWAT team to storm Joker’s building. The ferry scene makes the SWAT scene more desperate and urgent. Likewise, Wayne sees Coleman Reese on a talk-show (in the process of revealing Batman’s secret identity), but they get interrupted by another breaking development and Reese’s scene gets resolved 10 minutes later. Drawing out the scene here helped give the audience time to worry about Reese is threatening to do and wonder how other characters will deal with it. Finally, there was maybe half an hour between Alfred first mentioning the nihilist bandit in Burma and Bruce asking if they ever caught him. (“We burned down the forest”).

  • In the comments below, DMH argues that the Hong Kong sequence could have been deleted because it might have been more interesting and appropriately mysterious if Gordon found Lau tied up in his office without Batman showing us how he did it.  I think that would work, although I would then recommend setting up the sonar surveillance device in some other way.


8. There are some really subtle thematic touches. One of Joker’s goals is to show that human planning (“scheming”) cannot work and that life is anarchic. The symbolism of Dent’s coin is very effective here—both sides have a face, so when he bases decisions on a coin flip early on, he’s carrying out an orderly plan. After the coin gets scarred during the bombing, it becomes a truly random coin (anarchic rather than orderly). Additionally, Two-Face subjects people to life-or-death coin flips. He himself was the winner (loser?) of such a coin flip when Joker gave Batman the chance to save Dent or Rachel.


9. Even though it’s generally an excellent and extremely well-executed movie, I did have some quibbles. Notably, the visual design on Two-Face and Batman’s heavily-autotuned voice could have used some work. In terms of the writing quality, the only thing that comes to mind is that Harvey Dent downgraded from possibly the most interesting character in the movie to a vaguely ridiculous sideshow after he becomes Two-Face. His motivations got less believable and the Batman-Dent-Joker triangle became less interesting.

14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Learning Writing Skills from The Dark Knight”

  1. Chihuahua Zeroon 06 Jul 2012 at 8:05 pm

    …Now you make me want to see the movie.

    I should have seen The Dark Night a long time ago.

  2. B. McKenzieon 06 Jul 2012 at 8:16 pm

    I highly recommend it. In particular, I found it vastly more enjoyable and better-executed than Batman Begins.

  3. Anonymouson 07 Jul 2012 at 12:16 pm

    I think TDK is like Madoka Magica, where it all depends on how you interpret things personally. Some will tell you it’s the greatest and some will tell you it was a complete waste.

  4. aharrison 10 Jul 2012 at 9:58 am

    I think it’s a bad comparison to make to compare Batman to Superman in terms of who’s risking more to keep up their moral code. Let’s be honest, how much does Supes really have to risk thansk to who he is and how his powers operate?

    But then, that’s why Batman is by far my favorite of the two characters. Superman is boring because he’s almost never really challenged personally. When he is, it’s with krytonite that almost immediately reduces him to completely incompetent, or he’s challenged with a situation where he’s having to put others on the line instead of himself. For Batman, the stakes are almost always personal in terms of life and limb and he never hesitates to plunge right in.

    In terms of TDK, I think it was highly successful in bringing out the scariest aspects of the Joker’s nature without letting you retreat into the comfort of being able to laugh at him like most portrayals do. And, if you did laugh, it was the most nervous, uncomfortable laugh you were capable of (pencil trick anyone?).

  5. B. McKenzieon 10 Jul 2012 at 12:02 pm

    “I think it’s a bad comparison to make to compare Batman to Superman in terms of who’s risking more to keep up their moral code. Let’s be honest, how much does Supes really have to risk thanks to who he is and how his powers operate?” Well, that would indicate to me that Superman’s powers are not as dramatically effective. Batman’s decisions are more likely to result in interesting consequences. Likewise, I think that it’s usually best to avoid weaknesses like Kryptonite because going from “largely unchallengeable” to “helpless rag doll” is not conducive to great fight scenes. In contrast, the most comparable situation for Batman (getting caught out of uniform) actually could be sort of interesting–for example, when the League of Shadows attacked Bruce Wayne at his birthday party. Even though he didn’t have access to his weapons, he wasn’t helpless–he still saved the party-goers and put up some fight.

  6. deadmanshandon 10 Jul 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Seriously? My posts were removed despite the relevance of the points they made? I just lost a lot of respect for this site.

  7. B. McKenzieon 10 Jul 2012 at 3:49 pm

    I’m sorry if I’m wrong in this assessment, but I was pretty sure you were trolling–for example, comparing a movie which scored more than 90% on Rotten Tomatoes to Howard the Duck (link not safe for work) raises some red flags about your intentions and/or sanity. As for relevance, I personally didn’t think the conversation was helping aspiring authors learn new techniques or otherwise perfect their writing skills. I thought the tenor of the conversation was much closer to “I hated scene X” than “scene X could have been done better with Y and Z” or “[another work] was more effective because it did Y instead of Z.”

    Your level of self-regard is not a plus, either.

  8. Linebylineon 14 Jul 2012 at 10:22 am

    I get really confused whenever people talk about Joker being all crazy and unpredictable for the sake of it. If he wants to show that scheming doesn’t work, he has a funny way of showing it. Maybe I didn’t watch the same movie you guys did, but to me it seemed like he had every detail planned out, down to the second.

    The opening bank robbery is as intricate and precise as a Swiss watch. He later times a car bomb to blow up at the exact moment the occupant reads the contents of an envelope. He is surprised when the hospital blows up just a few seconds later than he expected. He manipulates people and plans for how he knows they’ll react, just like Batman is famous for doing.

    Interestingly enough, I think one of the movie’s themes is that when you throw the world into total anarchy, that’s when people are at their most predictable. And Joker takes advantage of exactly that, e.g. by crowdsourcing his villainy, or by turning Dent into his pawn. It nearly worked on the people on the ferries, too.

    There’s a veneer of craziness to everything Joker does, and I think it’s clear he’s trying to convince people that life is anarchic and their plans will come to naught. But he doesn’t believe it as a general principle. He just uses it to manipulate others.

  9. Tessaon 21 Jul 2012 at 10:01 pm

    I still have no idea how they fit all of that into one movie… Also, don’t make this the first movie as part of a marathon or whatever. Most other movies (Hancock) just PALE in comparison.

  10. B. McKenzieon 22 Jul 2012 at 12:01 am

    “If he wants to show that scheming doesn’t work, he has a funny way of showing it.” True. Perhaps he was lying when he made that speech. He is an unreliable character (e.g. he gave Batman the wrong information about which hostage was at which location).

    He also claims (when he’s burning the money) that all he needs are basic supplies like guns, ammunition and cheap explosives. However, his goons sometimes use really elaborate equipment (like the wire launchers to take down the helicopter and whatever the goons used to rappel into the bank).

  11. Linebylineon 22 Jul 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Not to mention the “You want to know how I got these scars?” variations.

  12. Edgukatoron 31 Jul 2012 at 7:45 am

    I think there was another point to the Lau scene that might make it important to keep. If Lau had just turned up, bound, in Gordon’s office, it plays far too much into the “mystery” of Batman. It would be “just something Batman can do” rather than the act of a man at the peak of his intellect, physicality and technology.

    It got me thinking about one difference between BB and DK. In DK, the “super powers” of Batman get explained. Where characters just disappear into the rafters in Batman Begins, and things like the bat attractor seem a little far fetched, in Dark Knight even his most “super-heroic” powers (say, the sonar) get an explanation.

    In DK, he is a man pushed to heroic extremes, which plays into the “everybody’s just like me” theme… Joker is trying to trying to prove anyone could be just as mad as he, which begs the question “could just anyone be Batman, given the right circumstances?”

  13. Juion 31 Aug 2012 at 8:39 am

    The dark knight is my most favourite film ever.

  14. Nayanon 06 Oct 2012 at 11:08 pm

    I dont understand how someone can compare ‘TDK’ to ‘Howard the duck’. It is such a brilliant film. Many scenes have hidden deep meaning.

    In the last scene, two face flips the coin 3 times ( for batman, himself and Gordon’s son) and outcomes of the coin foreshadow the future of these characters. Batman received bad side and later he had to take the blame for all the crimes two face had done. Two face received good side and later he was honoured and called the white knight. Gordon’s son received good side and he survived.

    Ferry scene is a great example of game theory used by police

    During the chase scene, when joker takes over driving the vehicle after the driver is killed, the bullet holes in the windshield forms a smiley which represents joker.

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