Film discussion

Unbelievable Scenes! – The opening of The Dark Knight

Unbelievable Scenes! is a new series at Set The Tape, zeroing in on, well, unbelievable scenes. 

As DC’s Justice League ‘fills’ cinemas, Nicholas Lay kicks things off with a look back at the iconic opening of arguably the greatest comic book feature of them all…

Remember the buzz that preceded The Dark Knight? The untimely death of Heath Ledger in January 2008 may have sent public interest in Christopher Nolan’s follow up to 2005’s Batman Begins into overdrive, but the viral marketing campaign and initial trailers that came before had fans fired up even as 2007 came to a close.

In December, a surprising, yet significant promotional event took place in IMAX theatres. Playing in front of I Am Legend was the entire five-minute or so introduction to The Dark Knight. Now, if you missed this, it is probably because you, like many of us, sensibly refused to waste an IMAX trip on I Am Legend. A poor quality cam version of course appeared on YouTube, but back then it was still surprisingly easy to avoid spoilers. The reaction the sequence received from those who did watch it, however, only contributed to the excitement of those of us who had to wait until the following July. Would it live up to the hype? In hindsight, such a question almost seems foolish…

What immediately stands out about the The Dark Knight’s opening is its context. From Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) to Nolan’s Batman Begins, each introduction had either featured Batman or at least taken place at night. Here, the Joker’s bank heist takes place in broad daylight, with the opening shot establishing the sleek Gotham (Chicago) skyline. Within seconds of the window exploding to reveal two clown-faced companions up to no good, Nolan gives us the first of many iconic shots. A third robber stands by the side of the road, calmly waiting for his ride with his back to the camera; mask in hand. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score whines eerily as we close in on the mask, before thudding into action mode as the car pulls up and the robber springs into gear.

Nolan and his brother Jonathan’s limited expository dialogue does a fine job of misdirecting the audience by focusing primarily on the Joker, while also implying he is not among the robbers now closing in on the bank. Looking back, his presence is far more obvious – he remains mute and the camera lingers on him constantly – but at the time the magic of movie adrenaline had most of us caught up in the moment. At the same time, the simple exchanges are wonderfully descriptive, with the alarm guy casually referring to the Joker’s makeup as “war paint”. Subconsciously, an unhinged hard man image replaces that of Jack Nicholson’s chemically-bleached party animal.

The genius of the heist itself is that each event directly demonstrates elements of the Joker’s personality and influence, and plays a significant role in building the platform for his reveal. His colleagues shooting each other in the back, their (and our) realisation it is a mob bank and therefore an insane venture, his “miscounting” the manager’s remaining ammo, the arrival of the school bus and his subsequent nonchalant murder of the driver; all of it succeeds in masterfully defining and developing the Joker’s character before the audience has even seen his face.

The idea of such slick organization and execution taking place in the middle of a major city in broad daylight is of course fairly ridiculous, but in the universe that contains Gotham it was planned by the Joker, so naturally it makes sense that it went off without a hitch. By the time the last robber stands leaning over the wounded manager and sticks what appears to be a grenade in his mouth, we know this is the man himself. So perfect is the combination of Zimmer and Newton’s score, Ledger’s delivery of the immortal, “Whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you stranger”, and the final extreme close-up of his glorious, makeup-covered mug, however, that the reveal itself still sends the same shiver down the spine as it did almost ten years ago.

Even then, the Joker is not finished. As his impeccable plan culminates in him pulling the school bus out into a line of identical yellow and black beasts, a wire pulls the pin keeping the grenade in the manager’s mouth from blowing his head off. His eyes widen, but of course it is only a harmless smoke grenade. The Joker has mugged everyone in his path, Batman is nowhere to be seen, and the audience is already out of breath.

And The Dark Knight is barely five-minutes old…

What do you think is the best scene in The Dark Knight? Let us know.

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