[Plot] The Two-Face Structure of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight

It’s been a while since I’ve done a good ol’ fashioned story deconstruction here on the blog, and what better story to do it with than The Dark Knight, which has not one, but two sequences of the 8 C’s?

I’ve been asked a couple of times about how the 8 C’s of Plotting would work in a tragedy setting, and The Dark Knight is one example of how the 8 C’s can work for both tragic and heroic storylines.

If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight, you might want to do so before you read on, because here be major spoilers.

First let’s do a quick Review of the 8 C’s:

  1. Captivation—what gets the audience interested in the character or predicament the character is in. Followed by the “Opening” sequence.
  2. Change—the inciting incident that sparks the story engine. Followed by the “Reaction” sequence.
  3. Complication—Whatever forces the MC to change plans. Could be a relocation; antagonistic meddling in the MC’s life; or a bad decision, mistake, or accident. Most powerful when it grows out of the REACTION. Followed by the “Preparation & Problems / Allies & Abilities” sequence.*
  4. Confrontation—the first confrontation between the protagonist and whichever antagonist or idea s/he will be facing off against in the Final Exam. Followed by the “Elation” sequence.
  5. Collapse—the near-fatal blow to the protagonist. Followed by the “Gloom” sequence.
  6. Comprehension—the Awakening, either figuratively or physically. When all hope seems to be lost, the Hero learns new information, regains consciousness, or gets help from someone or -thing. Followed by the “Action” sequence.
  7. Curveball—a surprise twist or unexpected obstacle. You know, a curveball. Followed by the “Final Exam” sequence.*
  8. Culmination—the climactic moment. Either the hero wins, or the hero dies (figuratively or literally). Followed by the “Resolution” sequence.

*Harvey’s Tragic story follow these same C’s, with two alterations.

The Dark Knight has a complex plot with several storylines. When I mapped out the story, I switched between Batman’s storyline (which includes Alfred and Lucius Fox), The Joker’s storyline (which includes members of the mob), Harvey’s storyline, Gordon’s storyline, and POVs from recurring players like Rachel, Reese, and the citizens of Gotham.

Here’s what my notebook looked like when I was done watching the film:

The-Dark-Knight-Storyline-Map

Storyline Map of The Dark Knight, by minute of film.

And just for fun, using that map, I can make an approximation of how many minutes of film was spent on each storyline and how that changed per act (or ~36 minutes):

The-Dark-Knight-Charts

In The Dark Knight, our protagonist is Batman / Bruce Wayne. Obviously his story is the main story—even if he is on screen for less than half of the movie!—so he will have all of those 8 C’s.

But Harvey Dent has his own 8 C’s, too. 

Here’s where this post splits. To read the main, encompassing plot first, continue on, and then read the tragic plot second. Or read the tragic plot first and then come back here to see how Bruce Wayne’s story was built around it. Or, to read in order of the movie’s chronology, start reading below and follow the teleport links back and forth between the two posts/plots.

Bruce Wayne’s 8 C’s

Prologue

The Joker and some thugs rob a bank. The Joker murders all his accomplices and establishes his recurring motifs of chaos and fear.

Captivation, Opening

Does Batman, who’s been in more than a dozen films, really need a captivation? Well, in The Dark Knight, if the opening scene with The Joker doesn’t captivate the audience by wondering how Batman will defeat such an agent of chaos, then the next scene might. The Scarecrow is trying to make a deal with some mobsters, and Batman appears—with a gun. But Scarecrow knows that Batman’s One Rule™ is that he doesn’t use guns, that he doesn’t kill, so that can’t be Batman. Another caped crusader with a gun appears. Fighting ensues, but then the Batmobile shows up in Intimidation Mode, and the Real Batman appears, takes out the bad guys, and neutralizes the imposters.

When he gets home, Alfred notices how badly of a beating Bruce took.

“Know your limits, Master Wayne.”
“Batman has no limits.”
“Well, you do, sir.”

Purposes of these opening scenes:

  • Tell us Batman’s One Rule™ through another character
  • Show us that citizens underestimate and devalue Batman’s job, thinking anyone can do what he does
  • Show us that villains (even petty thieves) seem to be the only ones who respect Batman
  • Show us that the line separating Bruce from The Batman is disappearing
  • Suggest that maybe someone else could take over Batman’s job (via Alfred)

Teleport to: [Harvey’s Captivation & Opening] [Harvey’s Change, Reaction]

Change, Reaction

Bruce gets a look at Lau’s finances, commissions a new suit from Fox, and then crashes Harvey’s date with Rachel.

After Bruce meets Harvey, however, he decides he likes him. Maybe Harvey Dent is exactly what Gotham needs. Maybe if Bruce helps Harvey out, he can retire the Batman.

Bruce agrees to hold a fundraiser to provide for any of Harvey’s political needs.

This decision points us to Bruce’s initial, immediate goal: Prepare Gotham to retire the Batman.

Then the story switches to a reaction segment from the bad guys’ POV: a reaction of Lau, the mob, and eventually, The Joker.  The Joker has stolen money from the mob (in the prologue), Lau has removed the rest of the mob’s money to China, where Harvey Dent doesn’t have jurisdiction. The Joker points out the flaw in the plan—Batman doesn’t need jurisdiction—and proposes that the mob pay The Joker to kill Batman.

The Joker skitters away, and Lau tells the mob he’s already removed all of their money, which causes a huge complication for Harvey and Lt. Gordon.

Teleport to: [Harvey’s Complication]

Complication, Preparation & Problems (Allies & Abilities)

Bruce’s complication is the same as Harvey’s, but for a different reason. Now Bruce can’t retire the Batman until he takes down the mob by bringing Lau in to testify against the mob.

Thus begins Batman’s Preparation and Problems / Allies & Abilities sequence:

  • Fox sets up Bruce with a new Bat-suit, oxygen and stabilizers to jump out of a plane, and a Sky Hook to pick him up again—without the plane landing.
  • Fox lets us know that the new suit has a flaw. Fox: “The spread of the plates gives you weak spots. You’ll be more vulnerable to gunfire and knives.” Bruce: “How will it hold up against dogs?” Fox: “It should do fine against cats.”
  • Alfred gets Bruce a plane and an alibi: “Billionaire absconds with entire Moscow Ballet.”

—A brief break to show The Joker killing Gambol and introducing more murderous chaos as an initiation for new thugs.—

Problem 1: Hong Kong

  • Fox plants the sonar-tech mobile phone when he visits Lau, which sends imaging and also causes a power outage in the building allowing Batman to fly in.
  • Batman successfully dives out of the plane and then later “flies” into the building.
  • Batman takes down security, captures Lau, and exfiltrates with Lau in unbelievably perfect timing, avoiding the Hong Kong police and catching the C-130 plane roaring above.

Then we switch back to Harvey, who takes Lau to trial, creating enemies and exhibiting flaws. Remember how one big aspect of the second act is the B story? We get a lot more development of Harvey Dent in this section.

Teleport to: [Harvey Going after the Mob]

Problem 2: The Fundraiser

After the Mayor warns Dent about what might happen and The Joker kills and dangles the faux-Batman body, we come back to Bruce Wayne’s POV:

  • Alfred assumes that the fundraiser is to impress Rachel, and Bruce corrects him: it’s about Harvey.
  • Wayne sees the news footage of The Joker killing the Batman impersonator he’d met in his first scene of the movie. The Joker broadcasts that he’ll keep killing people until The Batman takes off his mask and turns himself in.
  • Bruce throws the fundraiser for Harvey and endorses him.
  • The police find the DNA on the fake Batman’s body: it belongs to the judge, the commissioner, and Harvey Dent. They recognize the clue as a threat.
  • Bruce hints to Rachel that his retiring could now be feasible, thanks to Harvey.
  • Gordon arrives to rescue Commissioner Loeb. The judge is killed in a car bomb. Loeb is fatally poisoned by his own whisky.
  • The Joker arrives at the fundraiser. Bruce puts Dent in a sleeper hold and hides him, takes out a thug, and turns into Batman.
  • The Joker is threatening the guests until Rachel yells at him to stop. The Joker grabs Rachel, Batman attacks The Joker, and The Joker drops Rachel out the window. Bruce dives out the window and saves Rachel.

This confrontation with the Joker is just one “problem” in the “preparation and problems” segment. It might be his major confrontation in the scope of his immediate goal to bring the mob to justice and retire the Batman, but it isn’t the “Confrontation” of the entire story of The Dark Knight.

As a sequel to this scene, Bruce has to come to terms with the identity of The Joker.

BRUCE

I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They’ve crossed a line.

ALFRED

You crossed it first, sir. You’ve hammered them, squeezed them to the point of desperation. And now, in their desperation, they’ve turned to a man they don’t fully understand.

BRUCE

Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. We just have to figure out what he’s after.

[…]

ALFRED

Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money… they can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

  • At the murder scene of “Harvey” and “Dent,” Batman appears and retrieves fingerprints off the bullet
  • Reese, the accountant, approaches Fox with evidence of Batman’s identity in an attempt to blackmail Bruce Wayne
  • Wayne and Fox show off their detective and technological skills to find an apartment where a shooter might be

Teleport to: [Harvey’s Threats from the Joker]

Problem 3: The Parade

  • Bruce—as Bruce Wayne, not as Batman—arrives at the apartment and finds police bound and gagged
  • The honor guard—Joker and his thugs in disguise—aim at the Mayor. Lt. Gordon jumps in front of the Mayor and takes the shots
  • Wayne looks out the window and is shot at by a police sniper (another of many examples of the police acting against him, thinking him a villain)
  • Dent grabs the thug wearing Rachel’s name

Then we get into some sequels to this scene.

  • Batman hides in the shadows as the police tell the Gordon family that Lt. Gordon is dead
  • Batman arrives at Maroni’s
  • Harvey tells Rachel she’s targeted and that she needs to hide, that she’s not safe with the police
  • Batman tortures Maroni to find the Joker
  • Batman catches Harvey “torturing” the Joker’s thug and tells him he’s going to turn himself in

Teleport to: [Harvey Goes Rogue for Rachel]

Confrontation, Elation

Rachel approaches Bruce after Harvey tells her that Batman is going to turn himself in. Bruce explains why he needs to do it:

BRUCE

I’ve seen, now, what I would have to become to stop men like [the Joker].

Maybe Bruce is referencing his episode with Maroni, or maybe he means the type of man he saw Harvey was becoming in order to stop the Joker. Bruce Wayne’s One Rule™ is to not kill, and he just saw Harvey threatening to kill a thug.

BRUCE

You once told me that if the day came when I was finished… We’d be together.

RACHEL

Bruce, don’t make me your one hope for a normal life—

BRUCE

But did you mean it?

RACHEL

Yes.

Bruce and Rachel kiss. This is the elation—Bruce has hope that he can retire the Batman and that he will get to be with Rachel. He and Alfred destroy all of their files in the Bat-Bunker. Alfred gives some more wisdom that foreshadows and will inform the ending:

ALFRED

Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman … he can be the outcast. He can make the choice no one else can face. The right choice.

All of this might feel like a gloomy period, but Bruce believes that his choices will give him what he wants. He’s at peace.

Then we segue into Harvey’s confrontation (the midpoint) and his elation scene.

Teleport to: [Harvey’s Confrontation, Elation]

Another Confrontation

After the Joker is captured, the police discover that Harvey is missing.  Batman interrogates the Joker, and he doesn’t go easy on him. During this confrontation, the Joker is having fun with Batman and the police. He also draws some parallels between himself and Batman, showing their parallels and how well they foil each other.

JOKER

You. Complete. Me.

 

JOKER

Don’t talk like them–you’re not, even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re a freak like me… they just need you right now.

Then the Joker reveals his latest trick. He shows he knows Batman better than Batman ever could have guessed. He shows that he’s had the upper hand this whole time.

Teleport to: [Harvey’s Collapse]


But seriously: if you’re reading this in consecutive order, go to Harvey’s POV. Bruce’s collapse comes from Harvey’s.


Collapse, Gloom

Bruce’s collapse is the same as Harvey’s. With Rachel’s death, any other reasons for Bruce’s retirement are lost.

The Joker bombed Gotham Central and got away, with Lau.

Alfred reads Rachel’s Dear John letter to Bruce, telling him that she’s going to marry Harvey Dent.

Bruce blames himself for Rachel’s death and Harvey’s injury. Gotham has lost its hero. Gotham needs its “white knight.”

Reese is on the news ready to tell the world who Batman is in an exclusive interview. He knows it’s Bruce Wayne.

The Joker does away with the Chechen and takes over as the crime boss of Gotham. He’s not done with Batman, so he calls into the news station and says he’ll blow up a hospital if someone doesn’t kill Reese before the hour is up.

Comprehension, Action

This dilemma forces Bruce to act. He tasks Alfred with checking for hospital admissions among Gordon’s officers while he speeds off. Batman works by night, so this is a job for Bruce Wayne.

First Action: Reese vs Hospitals

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSXL58MPPQc

Meanwhile, the Joker has been feeding Harvey his own Comprehension.

Teleport to: [Harvey’s Comprehension, Action]

Second Action: Spying on Gotham

Another comprehension, this time for Lucius Fox. Lucius discovers where Bruce has been funneling Wayne Enterprise’s Research and Development funds: to infiltrate all the phones in Gotham with Sonar technology, allowing Batman to spy on the entire population. Bruce Wayne is not only starting to break his own moral code, but he’s causing others to break theirs as well. Lucius agrees to help Bruce find the Joker but once the job is done, he’ll resign.

The Joker has just threatened the entire city, forcing a mass exodus and upping the stakes even further.

Teleport to: [Harvey’s Second Action]

Third Action: Duel of the Two Ferries

Gotham plays into the Joker’s gloved hands, again, for yet another social experiment.  One ferry is piled with prisoners, one is populated with innocent civilians. He’s loaded both with explosives and given the detonator to the other ferry.

Teleport to: [Harvey’s Third Action]

Fourth Action: SWAT vs Hostages

Batman knows where the Joker is: he’s at the Prewitt Building.  Batman and Gordon know that hostages are somehow involved. Fox helps Batman get visual on the building with the sonar tech.

SWAT arrive to take out the thugs in clown masks guarding the hostages.

Gordon gets a call from Harvey via Barbara’s phone and leaves to save his family and confront Harvey.

Batman discovers that the hostages are in the clown masks, and the thugs are the ones pretending to be hostages. The SWAT team goes after the clowns, pitting Batman against Gotham’s “Extra” Finest. He takes them out to save the hostages. Finally he gets to the Joker.

Curveball, Final Exam

One thing that The Dark Knight does extremely well is keep the audience guessing. This sequence is so intense, so fast paced, that we would think it’s the climactic scene.

  • Batman is attacked by dogs—his new suit’s weakness.
  • The passengers on the civilian ferry voted to detonate the other ferry. The prisoners on the other ferry are closing in on the corrections officers holding their detonator.
  • The Joker attacks Batman, stabbing him in the ribs.
  • The pilot of the civilian ferry refuses to push the button. He sets the detonator down.
  • A prisoner on the other ferry intimidates the warden, trying to convince him to hand over the detonator.
  • A business man reasons that the prisoners should die, takes the detonator.
  • The warden hands over their detonator. The prisoner throws it overboard.
  • The Joker stops beating Batman to a pulp to see the result of his experiment.

THE JOKER

If we don’t stop fighting, we’re going to miss the fireworks.

BATMAN

There won’t be any fireworks.

  • The business man sets down the detonator, unable to do the deed. He sits down and waits for the clock to strike.
  • Nothing happens. Neither ferry blows up. The Joker takes out his own remote.
  • Batman fires his scallop blades from his arm. The Joker releases him. Batman kicks him over the edge of the building and grabs the remote.
  • The Joker laughs as he falls, then jerks to a stop thanks to Batman’s grappling hook. Batman kept to his rule—he didn’t kill The Joker.

Gotham’s decision to not kill, even when their own lives were on the line, reaffirms Batman’s life work of saving the city. He never stops losing hope in Gotham.

Then comes the Curveball.

BATMAN

This city just showed you it’s full of people ready to believe in good.

THE JOKER

Till their spirit breaks completely. Until they find out what I did with the best of them. Until they get a good look at the real Harvey Dent, and all the heroic things he’s done.

You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for the soul of Gotham in a fist fight with you? You’ve got to have an ace in the hole. Mine’s Harvey.

(Batman hauls the Joker up, nose to nose.)

BATMAN

What did you do?

THE JOKER

I took Gotham’s white knight. And I brought him down to my level. It wasn’t hard–madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.

Catching the Joker didn’t end this story. To save Gotham, Batman has to deal with the fallen white knight. It’s time for his Final Exam.

Teleport to: [Harvey’s Confidence, Final Exam] [Harvey’s Culmination]


Batman’s Final Exam pits him against Gotham’s crème de la crème: Harvey Dent. Switch to Harvey’s POV for their showdown.


Culmination, Resolution

Batman and Gordon were both willing to sacrifice their lives for their city. Both of them desperately wanted to save Harvey—they needed to save Harvey—but when Harvey turned bad, Batman had to give up his One Rule and take him out to save Gordon’s son.

GORDON

The Joker won. Harvey’s prosecution, everything he fought for, everything Rachel died for. Undone. Whatever chance Gotham had of fixing itself … whatever chance you gave us of fixing our city … dies with Harvey’s reputation. We bet it all on him. The Joker took the best of us and tore him down. People will lose all hope.

BATMAN

No. They won’t.
(Looks at Gordon)
They can never know what he did.

GORDON

(Incredulous)
Five dead? Two of them cops? We can’t sweep that under–

BATMAN

No. But the Joker cannot win.
(Batman crouches to Dent’s body)
Gotham needs its true hero.

(Gently, he turn’s Dent’s head so the good side of his face is up. Gordon looks from Dent’s face to Batman. Understanding.)

GORDON

You? You can’t–

BATMAN

Yes, I can.
(Batman stands. Faces Gordon.)
You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things because I’m not a hero, like Dent. I killed those people. That’s what I can be.

GORDON

No, you can’t! You’re not!

BATMAN

I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be. Call it in.

[a scene of Gordon speaking at Dent’s funeral, praising him as a hero and knight.]

GORDON (Voice Over)

They’ll hunt you.

BATMAN (Voice Over)

You’ll hunt me. You’ll condemn me, set the dogs on me. Because that’s what needs to happen. Because sometimes…the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.

Gordon and Batman decide to sacrifice the truth in order to preserve and protect Gotham’s sense of good and faith in justice. At Harvey’s funeral, he’s portrayed as a hero and martyr.

Gordon destroys the Batsignal.

Alfred burns Rachel’s letter to Bruce Wayne, protecting his heart.

Lucius types his name into the sonar machine, and it self destructs.

In the final scene, Batman flees the scene, pursued by police. Batman is now officially a vigilante. He is the Dark Knight.

What an ending, right? I admit I never really liked Christopher Nolan’s trilogy because I could NOT for the life of me take Christian Bale’s Batman voice seriously. Even watching the final scene again now—though I’ve been hardcore geeking out over this movie for months—I still can’t get over how ridiculous it is. The cut of that final video above was intentional—no silly voice.

Anyway, now that we’re finally thought the movie, and you’ve hopefully read Harvey’s storyline all the way through, too, let’s get to the theme at the heart of the movie. 

It’s not Justice, because “justice” is a word, not a theme. Justice is an idea. A theme is a statement, a question, an argument.

For Harvey, justice means retribution and punishment. At first, Gotham City’s code of ethics was his authority. When he became Two-Face, it was chance.

For Batman, justice means serving the greater good, even if it means sacrificing what’s important to him and breaking his own moral code.

Ultimate thematic question of The Dark Knight:

Is justice really just if it doesn’t serve the greater good?


Have you ever written an antagonist like a tragic hero? Did The Dark Knight inspire you to try something new with your plot?

Writing brings people together, and so does Batman. Share this post on social media! ❤

2 thoughts on “[Plot] The Two-Face Structure of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight

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