Film is an art form. Sometimes we forget that because our lives are saturated by movies that have forgotten that film should enrich us and evoke wonder in order to transform. That doesn't mean they have to be boring. It just means they have to be thoughtful and aspiring for something more than just to entertain you for two hours. We would like to spend this section spotlighting films that we think make us think, reflect and see things all the better.
Master of Chaos
The Greatest Opening Scene in Superhero History
Opening scenes can be things of beauty. The filmmaker is well aware of first impressions and the importance of drawing in and captivating an audience from the start. But many times, opening scenes are a thrill and a rush of frenzied spectacle and they miss out on an opportunity to do more than just entice and introduce a main character to us. They miss out on the opportunity to give us in a single scene the very answer to the riddle of the film.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is certainly a triumph in terms of spectacle and movie making. By far not a perfect film, but certainly one that holds its place as one of the greatest superhero films of all time (I personally reserve that place of honor for the Christopher Reeves Superman and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2). Nolan, a director known for his love of spectacle, even at times to the detriment of his own movies, gives us in this opening scene not just spectacle, but the very key to the whole film.
The scene opens with a man holding a clown mask in his hand while he waits for his fellow thieves to pick him up. The camera places more importance on the mask because it is a clown mask and therefore an immediate introduction to our villain and also because he is not wearing it. Why is he not wearing the mask? The Joker hates masks. He is a man of authenticity in the sense that he is dead set on people coming face to face with who they really are. One of his prime objectives during the film is to get each person, and most especially Batman, to take off the mask. Not the physical mask but rather the psychological mask. The mask that betrays who he truly is. The Joker will incessantly test Batman to see if he will make the right choice according to his principles time and time again. But when the mask is off, is he the same man? Or is he too a fraud? The film will delve deep into the notion of facades and having to make choices that force the facades to come crashing down, and this small opening detail illustrates this notion for the viewer.
The scene is a robbery. We quickly find out that each member has a specific task to accomplish which he has been given by The Joker himself. None of the accomplices are keyed in to the whole picture, but rather they have been instructed only on their particular role in the robbery. This is a revealing element for it sets up one of the main truths that The Joker will try and establish during the film – that every action no matter how small it may be plays a part in the general chaos of the corrupt world that we live in. Chaos is a well ordered and caused reality. Its paradoxical but true. We will witness throughout the film, The Joker speaking about chaos and how he is an agent of chaos, but in reality he is its cruel mastermind. Every move The Joker makes is calculated and contrived. His robbery is planned out to the smallest details. This is not a crazy man. This is not a man of chaos. This is a highly disciplined and staunchly principled man who understands that every evil action of Man plays into the chaos of the world.
The corrupt cops and mobsters surrounding him perform their small acts of bribery or robbery and tell themselves that these are but small compromises that have no effect upon the grand scheme of things. But The Joker knows this to be an illusion, a facade. Every action of theirs is consequential and he is going to prove to them this truth. He sets out during this film to show them what all of their actions lead to on a grand scale. He will destroy hospitals, he will explode cars, he will burn stacks of wealth, and ultimately he will set out to destroy men who are looked upon as pillars of virtue and truth, namely Harvey Dent and Batman.
The other revealing element to this scene is who he is stealing from. This robbery will set the whole chain of events into play. He is robbing the mobsters which is a declaration of war. He knows that this robbery will do two things: it will cripple the gangsters and it will lure the Batman out to confront him.
The Joker has no desire to fight the Mob; all they want is money and pleasure. The Joker has no need for these things. He truly is a man with principles. He believes in something bigger than what these small minded men declare fealty to. They have no principles and they are so very predictable in everything that they do. Wherever the money is - there they will be, and so The Joker wants to do away with these fakes.
“I imagined a world without Batman” he says to The Chechen and then goes on to say that it is a world that bored him. He wants to confront Batman. He is not interested in men that are devils like the mobsters or angels like Harvey Dent. We see how he first does away with the Mob and then makes quick work of Dent. His eyes are set on one single prize: the Batman. However, he does not want to get rid of Batman. He has no interest in having him eliminated. Rather he wants to watch him act and react to everything that he throws at him. Why? Because Batman is no angel and is no devil. He is both. He flirts with both realms and fights to stay true to the principles that he believes in, and The Joker wants to see him squirm at each life altering decision. He respects Batman. He sees him as one of his own. A man that, unlike the cops and mobsters, will not drop his principles at the first sign of self gain or profit. He will try and do what is right according to his principles of justice and the common good. And that is not always an easy choice as it sometimes brings destruction upon himself for the good of the city. This is the sort of battle The Joker wants to take part in. He finds it fun, interesting, and will do everything in his power to keep the show rolling. It is this similarity that draws us in and makes us entranced by The Joker's "show".
Do you ever wonder why The Joker is almost everybody's favorite villain? Out of all the villains in the Comic Universe, The Joker is the one we most enjoy watching. Why? Because deep down we identify with him as the other side of the coin, the more dangerous side, the more unhinged side, but still the side which is human and strangely still realistic. All the other villains might entertain us, but The Joker we identify with. It's like watching a man lose him temper in public or two men fighting. We know it's wrong, we know it's unhinged, but there is something mesmerizing about it because there is something so deeply human about it. The Joker and The Batman are the same human condition: hurt, weak, marked by scars and haunted by demons. The only difference is how they reacted to those scars and the paths they chose in struggling with those demons. Some days we are The Batman, some days we are The Joker.
At the end of the robbery the bank manager yells at The Joker about his lack of criminal dignity. “The criminals in this town used to believe in things…honor and respect. What do you believe in?” The Joker responds: “I believe that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stranger."
This is the central idea of both the villain and the entire film. The popular saying is that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but The Joker in fact perfects this saying with his even truer statement. What does he mean? Are these just crazy words spoken by a madman? Not at all. What does The Joker mean by “stranger”? By stranger, in fact, is not meant crazier but rather different. Every action that we do makes us stranger, meaning it changes us in some way. It might make us stronger, but it could also make us weaker. But no matter what it is, the action that we do will affect us and the world around us in some way, big or small, and that will have consequences.
This is the ever present thought of The Joker. Each small act of the different robbers changes the outcome of a bigger plan; each story of his scars tells us of the actions of his wife and father and how it affected him; each action of Harvey Dent, from the arrogance of the coin flip to the “going rogue” with the mob boss, has an effect and of course every action of The Batman has consequences, whether that be to save his lover or save the future of the city that he so loves. No matter who or what it is, everything makes us a stranger to the person that we were before and the world that we lived in before.
The final image of this scene is a school bus being driven out of the bank by The Joker to join up with a long line of other school buses. It is a marking detail. The Joker is here to teach us about ourselves, about society. After all, The Dark Knight is ultimately about society at large. Nolan has never been good at character development. He is a man of grand ideas and spectacle. He wants us to learn from The Joker, a man that comes as a herald of chaos and a prophet of the destruction to come. It is just one school bus out of many, and we are just one out of millions, but that one life and the choices that we must make are not isolated events. They are choices that will take their place in the long chain of events that will bring order or chaos. It is a haunting reminder. But we mustn’t forget that we are human. We are Batman. Men and women struggling with both good and evil. But no matter what we choose, there is always the chance, like our hero, for redemption. So remain hopeful, and in the words of The Joker: “Why so serious?”