HomeMoviesThe Case Against The Dark Knight: Burning the Forest Down

The Case Against The Dark Knight: Burning the Forest Down

We continue our The Dark Knight retrospective with staff writer Matt Gilbert questioning whether Nolan’s film holds up under scrutiny.

Tremble in awe, for a unicorn stands before you. That’s right. I don’t like The Dark Knight.

The movie changed the game for superhero stories, for Batman, for the Joker, and even for the Academy Awards. Its legacy is undeniable. But as a film, as a story with plot and characters and themes and drama, it simply does not work. As much as everyone hails and lauds this movie and credits it with their love of film or of Christopher Nolan or both, I will never see it as more than a very expensive and mildly entertaining blockbuster—and not for lack of trying.

This is not to say the problem is an overall absence of good. Plenty of good exists, here. Wally Pfister photographs the movie with a gorgeously crisp style and ingenious use of aspect ratios, bringing to mind the landmark crime thrillers of Martin Scorsese. A handful of scenes exhibit some genuinely jaw-dropping filmmaking on Nolan’s part. Some of the acting is utterly awe-inspiring (more on that later). Hans Zimmer’s score is phenomenal. But my problems with the movie transcend its simple components and delve deeper into how the film flows and functions as a whole. A problem that starts, I believe, with its director.

I make no secret of the fact that I broke free of the Nolan spell years ago. Inception, though flawed, is still his best film by far. Where I once sang the praises of The Prestige and Memento a lifetime ago, once I gained a more critical perspective and started noticing how different directors approach their films, I began to see Nolan more clearly for what he is: a gifted presenter masquerading as a proper storyteller.

The Dark Knight never fails to command our attention because Nolan’s staging and editing all create tight, narrative-driven, self-contained scenes. There are no badly-directed scenes in The Dark Knight. Where it falters is in the narrative tissue bridging these scenes to each other and the opening of the movie to its finale. This is why a significant portion of nearly every scene of the movie summarizes a scene before it, often immediately. Nolan can direct some breathtaking sequences both of dialogue and action. However, when it comes time to wrap up and go home, there is a nagging at the back of the mind and an unmistakable sense of emptiness that the overall story lacks the cohesion and tightness that gives the individual scenes weight and impact.

Part of the problem is that some truly silly and inane things are introduced in individual scenes that characters and audiences are forced to accept because the plot deliberately moves too rapidly to question them. For example, the notion that over 500 violent and corrupt criminals would be released from prison if a skeleton is ever found in Harvey Dent’s closet. Or Joker’s entire plan. Or the idea of the Joker naming targets with a playing card with three different DNA matches on it or on a nobody accomplice’s name tag. Or secretly using half a million cell phones as a private sonar system with unlimited range. We accept these things because they are delivered by characters we like, who sound certain and reassuring about them, but how many key components of this story actually make sense?

The fact of the matter is that this story only functions on a basic level if it plays out in the exact way that it does. Consider for a moment that Thomas Schiff is not captured by Harvey. How does he name Rachel Dawes as the next target? Or that, being a post-9/11 world, a billionaire cannot fly a private plane that close to the Hong Kong skyline. Or that Jim Gordon is not driving the armored van carrying Harvey to county. How does the Joker get himself captured to set off the chase for Harvey and Rachel?

Speaking of Gordon, what if the attack on the mayor had not come from the 21 gun salute. How does he then fake his own death? Does the Joker know Gordon will prioritize the convicts’ evacuation and how does his stunt on the boats work if he does not? What if Harvey does not walk out of Maroni’s car wreck completely unscathed? These moments are taken to be machinations of chance and the product of various characters’ intellects, but how does any part of the movie function in any other conceivable scenario?

The more one looks for such inconsistencies and unexplainable coincidences, the more they appear. You do not even have to look very hard. Unanswerable questions like these are unfortunately common across the Nolan filmography. His movies cast a spell that makes us want to believe them, so we do not ask questions when they quickly brush over convoluted or bizarre plot points. It is one of the things that holds Nolan back from being one of the greats. His movies crumble on rewatches, while the best filmmakers’ will get better.


None of this is helped by the Nolans’ and David Goyer’s canned dialogue that serves better on the film’s IMDb page than in a real conversation between human beings. “You wanna know why I use a knife?” asks the villain who used a gun in almost every single scene before that one. “I don’t want to kill you,” says the same villain who had a knife at Batman’s throat five minutes previously. “This town deserves a better class of criminal.” What does this even mean? “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” Yes. “Why should I hide…who I am?” Why does Harvey say this? What prompts him to respond to Gordon this way? “He’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian…,” you know the rest. Has Christopher Nolan ever heard a normal person speak? This line suggests to me he has not. The dialogue functions on an entirely different level and as an almost completely different movie from the set piece action sequences and only ever drags them down.

The embarrassingly semi-functional dialogue juxtaposed with Nolan’s famous “naturalistic,” Departed-esque visual style suggests a filmmaker brazen enough to believe he can have it both ways. That he can have a serious and gritty crime story on one hand and over-the-top cheesy comic book writing on the other. That he can ground his movie in “realism” while giving his protagonist some ludicrously plot-convenient weapons and technology. That he can thumb his nose at what superhero stories have always been but still borrow from their bag of tricks to fill in the gaps in his story as needed.

What is truly ironic is that same naturalistic and cynical pastiche comes astoundingly close to making The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan’s best film yet. The first two hours of this movie are a taut, tense and wonderfully-inspired crime thriller. It both understands Batman as a character and is unafraid to interrogate the very idea of him. We get a great story with themes and progression that closes in an unbelievable final action sequence with the police caravan chase. Then the movie even holds a magnifying glass over its hero and villain in the interrogation room before dropping everyone’s jaw with the death of Rachel Dawes and the birth of Two-Face. The Joker gets away. The battle for good and evil rages on. The White Knight of Gotham falls to the bottom and we even get a maybe tease of what is to come.


But the movie then continues for another 45 minutes and everything falls apart. The tight narrative and pacing is gone. The Joker’s antics get more convoluted and less believable. The sonar concept gets the most unsatisfying payoff as the movie punts it away before bothering to make any real point about individual privacy as a price of collective security. The quick and clever thinking that gets Gordon the commissioner job in the first place evaporates as he takes the Joker’s hostage game at face value.

All this movie needed to do was move the brilliant shot of the Joker maniacally hanging his head out the police car window to the end of the film, right after Gordon and Harvey’s conversation in his hospital room about his old nickname at the MCU. If it had done that, and moved its blow-up-the-hospital and ferry gambits to the follow-up movie, we might have had, in this critic’s opinion, a flawed superhero movie almost as great as so many believe this one to be and maybe even still have Heath Ledger around to shoot the next one.

But just as every cloud has a silver lining, so too does the extra 45 minutes of The Dark Knight by gifting its viewers with the conclusion of a truly stellar performance. While Christian Bale’s Batman drones on in his silly throat cancer voice and his Bruce Wayne bears all the appeal of bran flakes painted taupe, one performance in this incredible cast meteorically rises above the rest to take its rightful place as one of the greatest performances in the entire superhero genre. One performance that needed these extra 45 minutes to bookend his character arc with both finality and purpose. I speak, of course, of Aaron Eckhart.


No performance in this movie and very few across the entire genre command my attention and respect more than Aaron Eckhart’s of Harvey Dent. He could not fit this character more if he tried. He is the bright-eyed, handsome, too-good-to-be-true face of optimistic good that Batman wishes he could be. He is a superhero without a mask with the powers of keeping criminals off the street rather than pushing them simply by believing in a Gotham City free of its plague of organized crime. He is the one character in the entire franchise capable of looking through the smoke and the grime around him and seeing the Gotham of tomorrow that no longer needs a Batman and he takes real steps to pull it into reality.

Eckhart embodies all of this the moment we see his solid-gold smile, yet he somehow manages to bring the charm and complexity and elements of humanity the rest of the movie is starved for. He commands the only meaningful character arc of the entire movie nearly effortlessly. He is pragmatic enough to recognize that Batman is a product of and response to the city’s crime and not a symptom of it. His faith in the one is a byproduct of his belief in the other. And Gotham punishes him for it. When Batman fails to save Rachel, he loses his faith in both. Thanks to Eckhart, Harvey is as tragic as he is captivating. So much so that by the time we get to the climax of his story at 250 52nd Street, he commands the screen like no one else in the picture, with more tragic sympathy than every other character in the trilogy combined.

Aaron Eckhart crushes this role. This was set to be his star-making turn. In another world, Heath Ledger lives, he loses the Oscar to Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder and a decade-long debate rages over who gave the best performance of the movie. “Ledger was crazy,” some would argue. “But Eckhart was tragic,” others would respond. “But Ledger disappeared into the role!” “But Eckhart plays an all-American hero politician optimist so well you forget it’s even a performance.” “The party scene is great!” “The mob meeting scene isn’t.” “Ledger commands the entire movie!” “The writing is so tilted towards his character how could he not?” And on, and on.

Ledger’s death, while undeniably tragic, veiled The Dark Knight with an atmosphere of mourning and menace. The gravity of Ledger’s fate haunted every frame of the movie and suctioned all the remaining oxygen out of the room for anyone else. We as a society failed Aaron Eckhart with the way we treated and talked about this movie. Because he is legitimately great and unbelievably ready for a booming career he never received.

I cannot even count the number of times I have returned to this movie in hopes of getting the components to finally click. I’ve read and watched dozens of critiques and analyses thinking I have finally found the take, the opinion, the piece of the puzzle I was missing that let everyone get swept up and carried away by this movie while my feet remain planted firmly on the ground. I can watch this movie. I can appreciate its good, even great, aspects. I can study it for both filmmaking technique and shortcomings. And every time I come away from it as though I just finished sitting through a three hour lecture.

The Dark Knight is a fascinatingly-directed, gorgeously-stylish crime thriller with a superhero twist. A significant portion of it is even tense and compelling. But, in my eyes, there are too many structural weaknesses, continuity gaps and technical blunders to warrant the reputation of being the game-changing cinematic cultural icon it undeniably became.

See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.


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