Is Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ an Aristotlean tragedy?

(an assignment for the Storytelling for the Screen module)

British-American director Christopher Nolan’s second Batman-movie, The Dark Knight (2008) brought an interesting new turn to the decade’s trending movie genre, the superhero genre. It presented the fall and almost complete destruction of the titular hero; as instead of triumphing over the main villain in the end as in most superhero films, the protagonist found himself losing the battle against the anarchic Joker. Apart from the obvious plot device of having a hero fall, the film introduced other elements familiar to the classic Greek tragedies described in Aristotle’s Poetics, such as reversal of situation and recognition. Whether The Dark Knight can truly be seen as an Aristotlean tragedy or not is the main question of my essay, as I discuss certain plot elements that lead (or not lead) to this conclusion.

The Dark Knight (a sequel to Batman Begins in 2005) deals with the escalation of crime and criminals following the introduction of Batman to Gotham. In this second movie, Batman is still considered an outlaw or a vigilante, but he is somehow accepted by police forces. Most people appreciate what Batman is doing for the city and its citizens, so the openly hostile attitude of the police towards Batman is forgotten. But following the common law that every action brings a reaction to life, Batman finds the reaction to his actions in the form of the Joker, a mysterious criminal (or terrorist) having only one agenda: bringing chaos to Gotham. The Joker seems to be always a few steps ahead of Batman and every other police force in the city, mainly because – in his opinion – chaos is always superior to order. That’s why certain events in the film lead to one end: even though the Joker is captured, it was all part of the plan, as Batman realizes that he cannot win this battle.

According to Aristotle, tragedy seeks to imitate the characters and actions of people of a “higher state”. In my opinion, “higher state” could mean that they are of a high rank (as some sort of leaders, kings or officials), but it could also mean that their morals and “principles” in life are of a higher quality, more appreciated by society. If we think of Batman as a character, this description remains right regarding him, especially in this movie. In general, Batman is used to be depicted as an outlaw, an enemy of police forces, but in The Dark Knight he is presented as somewhat more appreciated by Gotham. As the story begins, Batman stands on a higher state of appreciation, and that’s what makes his fall in the end powerful. But why does Batman fall in The Dark Knight?

Interestingly, the film features another character, Harvey Dent, whose fate – in my opinion – is also a fine example of classic tragedies. In the movie, Harvey Dent is an ambitious district attorney of Gotham. He’s trying to put an end to organized crime in Gotham. Thanks to a successful raid (and the help of Batman) he manages to arrest hundreds of known criminals in the city, which makes Harvey a public hero. Nolan and his fellow screenwriter (and also brother) Jonathan Nolan even go further to call Dent the White Knight of Gotham, showing that Harvey Dent is really the same character as Batman – but without the illegality. That is what makes an interesting parallel between the two protagonists, as they are both at higher ranks and they both fall in the end. As Harvey’s girlfriend gets killed by the Joker, he goes mentally unstable and begins to kill off every police officer responsible for not being able to take down the Joker in time. In the final scene of the movie, Harvey is confronted by Batman. Dent is planning to kill another police officer (and his son), and Batman sees no other choice but to kill Harvey Dent himself by pushing him off of a high building and literally falling to his death. Interestingly, Batman falls after Harvey from the building, pointing out  that this murder means the end of Batman’s uncorruptable principles, too.

If you think of a classic Greek tragedy such as Oedipus, the inevitable fate plays a huge role. Oedipus hears from a seer that he will murder his father – in order to escape his fate, he runs away, but certain events lead to the conclusion that he kills his father seemingly just because he ran away. It was inevitable that he will kill his father, and in my opinion this inevitability plays a role in The Dark Knight, as well. Actually, this role is played by the Joker himself. The Joker has no real agenda or goals he wants to achieve; he just wants to play around with the people of Gotham, especially with Batman. When the Joker is first confronted with the Batman, he says to the protagonist that eventually he will kill someone “tonight”. It is known in Nolan’s universe of Batman-films that Batman never kills anyone; it’s one of his main principles. As the Joker says this, Batman jokes that he may be (implying that he may kill the Joker if nothing else works against him, but he implies this only in a humorous manner). But as the film ends, we see that Batman kills Harvey Dent as a desperate final attempt to put an end to the chaos, initially caused by the Joker. As the Joker plays the part of inevitable fate, as soon as he says that Batman will kill someone, it becomes a fact that this would happen; a plot element very reminiscent of classic tragedies.

I’d also like to point out that The Dark Knight features two plot devices also reminiscent of Aristotlean tragedies: the reversal of situation and recognition. Although recognition is a storytelling device often used in today’s films, it still has origins in classic Greek literature, and it couldn’t be left out. In the end, when Batman captures the Joker, the Joker tells Batman that he corrupted Harvey Dent and literally talked him into killing people. A powerful moment of recognition, as Batman realizes that even though the Joker is captured, he won this battle and nothing can be done about it. But as it is stated in Poetics, “The best form of recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation…”[1], and this film features a moment such as the one described above. In the middle of the movie, the Joker is captured by police forces and is taken to a cell at police headquarters. Batman goes in to talk with the Joker in order to find out his goals. It seems like the Joker is in a bad situation and Batman is in control – but a few moments later, the situation is awfully reversed. It turns out that the Joker planned to be caught; he literally wanted to be captured so that he can blow up the headquarters and kidnap one of the important inmates. But before that, the Joker reveals to Batman that he also kidnapped Harvey Dent and Dent’s girlfriend, Rachel, who Batman is secretly in love with. The Joker goes on saying that they are both wired to explosives and because of the short time they’ve got, Batman can only save one of them. I think this is a great example of a horrible recognition throughout a reversal of situation. If the film ever featured great examples of classic tragedy elements, this was the moment.

Even though The Dark Knight was not intended to be a tragedy, it certainly features plot elements and character fates that are reminiscent of the classic genre. As recognition, reversal of the situation and the overall fall of the main hero play a huge role in this story, it can be seen as a tragedy, even though it’s only a second film in a trilogy, thus the ultimate fate of the main protagonist remains to be solved in the final movie. But I think that in The Dark Knight itself, Batman’s fate is as close to Aristotlean tragedies as it gets.

Gergő Hahn, M00404804

Bibliography

[1]Aristotle: Poetics by Aristotle and S. H. Butcher 2010. Published by ReadaClassic.com

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