Pass the Popcorn: City of the Dark Knight (Issue #5)

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay.

I saw it for a third time last night and now I just have to post one more City of the Dark Knight before letting this movie go (as promised two weeks ago).

You may not be surprised to hear that after three viewings within three months, the “pencil trick” has lost all its magic (so to speak). As the Joker walks into the room, I’m sitting there thinking, “here comes the pencil trick.” And of course that sucks all the life out of it.

But much more important, every time I see this movie the story of Harvey Dent comes across more fully and more believably. Since Dent has been mostly in the background in my posts on this movie, today we’re going to be all Dent all the time.

Part of the reason the Dent story made less of an impression on me during the first viewing is just my own idiosyncratic way of experiencing movies. I generally don’t “look ahead” mentally while watching a movie. I know lots of people do that, and God bless them. Among regular moviegoers, those who look ahead are probably in the majority. One very dear friend of mine, who has worked in Hollywood full time for about twelve years now, looks ahead so diligently and is so intimately familiar with the conventions of the medium and the imperatives of storytelling that she claims no movie ending has ever surprised her – yet she also claims this has no impact on her enjoyment of movies. (And I guess the latter claim must be true, or she wouldn’t work in Hollywood.)

But that just isn’t how I’m built. It isn’t a conscious decision; I just don’t do it. I experience the movie as it comes. In some ways it’s better, in some it’s worse. Despite my friend’s testimony, I can’t help but think that plot twists and surprises must be much more enjoyable for me than for her. And I have a lot more patience for slow-paced movies like Heat, Unbreakable and Ghost Dog. I’m not sitting there thinking, “come on, come on, get on with it,” because I’m not looking at where we’re going, just at where we are. On the other hand, foreshadowing has to be pretty blatant before I’ll notice it. (One clever little movie, The Opposite of Sex, has the main character – a teenage girl – narrating the movie as it happens, on the pretense that she’s in control of what’s on the screen. In the first scene she’s packing up to run away from home, and she puts her father’s pistol in the backpack. Narration: “Oh, and this part where I take the gun? That’s like, duh, gonna be important later! My English teacher says that’s called foreshadowing.”) And if things happen early in a movie that turn out to have more significance later, I’m slower to catch up.

On second and subsequent viewing, however, you can’t help but look ahead. And when you do that, the Dent narrative comes across much better. The second time, when things happened like Dent saying “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” I noticed them and said, “oh, I see what they’re doing here.” But it was still coming across all in bits and pieces. The third time was the charm – I saw the whole Dent narrative pull together. On the third viewing you’re bearing these things in mind from beginning to end – for example, one of the keys to the Dent narrative is that Dent knew all the time that Wertz and Ramierez – the cops in Gordon’s unit who got Rachel killed and him disfigured – were dirty. I don’t think I realized the full importance of that until the third viewing.

Obviously Chris Nolan was counting on you to look ahead. From the moment you hear the name “Harvey Dent,” you’re supposed to be thinking, “oh, he’s going to become evil.” And given the core audience for this movie, I’m sure that was a very sound decision. The movie is much more economical this way – sound economy being a precondition of artistic achievement.

It also helped that I now understand the Joker’s plan better. (Yes, in spite of his claims, he has a plan.) When he says to Dent “introduce a little anarchy” and hands him a gun, he’s not mainly inviting Dent to go out and kill Maroni – which is what I thought the first time. Obviously he does hope that Dent will go out and kill Maroni, which is why he plants the idea with Dent that killing Rachel was all Maroni’s idea. But what he mainly wants is for Dent to kill him, just as he previously wanted Batman to kill him. That makes the whole scene make a lot more sense.

The Joker tells Dent that the world is controlled by “schemers” who make “plans,” and that everybody organizes their lives around the “plans” even if the plans are horrible. Now let’s look at this from Dent’s persepective. All his career he’s been fighting to clean up Gotham. And what has been his primary obstacle? Not the bad guys, but the system. He has Maroni dead to rights, and Maroni walks. For that matter, years ago he had Wertz and Rameriez dead to rights on corruption and racketeering charges, and they walked, too. And then the system let Gordon set up his own little unit and put these dirty cops to work on Dent’s cases. And even after Gordon and Dent round up a whole city of full of bad guys by taking advantage of the broad racketeering laws, and Dent gets a judge to sign off on it, he still has to go to the mayor and beg for permission to prosecute the cases – over the vocal objections of the police commissioner (Gordon’s predecessor). Examples like this could be multiplied.

After a track record like that, is it any surprise that Dent, lying in that hospital bed, was receptive to the Joker’s message that the legal system’s “schemers” with their “plans” are not essentially different from the mafia’s “schemers” with their “plans”? That the real problem is the futility of trying to do things by “plans” at all?

But – and here I’m sort of half expositing the movie and half speculating to fill in the blanks – Dent is not the Joker. Dent will not become simply an “agent of chaos.” He resents the system because it stands in the way of justice, and he’s still motivated by a desire to see justice done. So when he rejects the system, he doesn’t (at least from his perspective) simply set himself up as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, because that’s not how justice works. Instead, he sets up a new “judge and jury” system of his own, one that will substitute for the real judges and juries who have proven so ineffective (their “plans” are “horrible,” as the Joker puts it). This leaves him to serve simply as prosecutor (he decides whose “cases” will come to the bar) and executioner. And the system he sets up – “chance,” as embodied in the coin toss – is “fair” not only in that it has no favorites but also in that it is not subject to all the other forms of human weakness and corruption. There will be no crazy, arbitrary rewriting of the rules by ideologically blinded judges or by self-serving, scheming politicians and police. How could there be, when chance by definition has no plans?

The temptation to set aside all civilized procedure in the pursuit of justice is a perennial one, inherent in the nature of a human race whose members are each good enough to desire justice yet evil enough not to be able to carry it out without the need for checks and balances. It is partly this temptation that makes Batman so popular in the first place, as this movie clearly understands. (“What gives you the right?” demands the Batman imitator. “What makes you different from me?” The crushing rejoinder “I’m not wearing hockey pants” is good for a laugh, yet the question remains.)

It’s a temptation that must be strictly avoided, because it never ends according to plan, as the Joker knows only too well – that, of course, is why the Joker starts Dent down this road in the first place, because he knows that Dent will end up an agent of injustice rather than of justice. He wanted to do the same with Batman. When Batman throws him from the building, he laughs with glee on the way down because he thinks he’s won. When Batman ropes him and hauls him back up, he says “you really are incorruptible, aren’t you?” That line is his admission of defeat, at least as far as Batman is concerned. But a moment later he drops the hammer: he admits defeat with respect to Batman, but (correctly) claims victory over Harvey Dent.

And in this game, the good guys have to win every time. The bad guys only have to win once.

Unless, of course, the good guys break the rules.

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