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  • Hi. I'm Michael.

  • This is Lessons from the Screenplay.

  • When I think about why The Dark Knight works so well, the answer always seems clear:

  • The Joker.

  • Good evening ladies and gentlemen.”

  • There have been psychopathic villains before.

  • Other antagonists with elaborate, twisting plans...

  • But there's something special about The Joker.

  • But putting The Joker character into a movie clearly does not automatically make it great.

  • So what’s special about The Joker in The Dark Knight?

  • Is it just Heath Ledger's excellent performance?

  • Yeah.”

  • Or is there something more going on?

  • Today, I want to investigate this.

  • To examine the function of an antagonist in a story

  • And break down why The Joker is the perfect opponent for The Dark Knight.

  • Exceptionally Good At Attacking the Hero’s Weakness

  • Let's begin with a quote from Robert McKee's Story:

  • “A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally

  • compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.”

  • So an antagonist must be powerful.

  • The more powerful, the harder the struggle for our hero.

  • And the harder the struggle, the more compelling the story.

  • But that's a little vague.

  • What does powerful mean in this context?

  • John Truby has a good piece of advice about how to make the antagonist powerful in a specific way:

  • Create an opponent who is exceptionally good at attacking your hero’s greatest weakness.”

  • The Joker is exceptionally good at attacking Batman’s greatest weaknesses.

  • Much of Batman’s power comes from his ability to intimidate.

  • From his physical strength.

  • And The Joker delights in creating situations that nullify Batman’s strength.

  • Like when he’s captured Rachel and Harvey Dent.

  • Where are they?!”

  • You have nothing."

  • "Nothing to threaten me with."

  • "Nothing to do with all your strength.”

  • The Joker turns Batman’s strength into a weakness.

  • He can do this because he doesn’t fear death, in fact he wants Batman to kill him.

  • “C’mon I want you to do it."

  • "Hit me!”

  • Because he knows Batman’s morality takes the form of one rule: he doesn’t kill people.

  • So the more chaos The Joker causes, and the more people he kills

  • The further he reveals that Batman’s moral code can also be a weakness.

  • Because the only way to truly stop The Joker is to kill him, something Batman can never do.

  • But the Joker’s plan isn’t just to beat Batman, it’s to show Gotham his true colors.

  • He does this by pressuring the protagonist into difficult choices.

  • According to Robert McKee:

  • TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—…“

  • “…the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the

  • character’s essential nature.”

  • So in every story, the forces of antagonism must increasingly apply pressure to the protagonist

  • Forcing them to make more and more difficult choices.

  • Choices which reveal their true nature.

  • As far as pressuring the protagonist into choices that test and reveal character, that

  • is quite literally The Joker's plan.

  • After 45 pages of pretty boring set-up, on page 46 the screenplay kicks into gear when

  • Batman is faced with the first in a series of conundrums.

  • "You want order in Gotham?"

  • "Batman must take off his mask, and turn himself in."

  • "Every day he doesn't, people will die."

  • By refusing, at first, to give in to this terrorist demand, we the audience see that

  • Batman has what it takes to do what’s right.

  • But The Joker proves to be unstoppable, always one step ahead of Batman

  • In a sequence that I realized is very similar to another movie with a great antagonistSe7en.

  • Batman and Gordon investigating a crime scene

  • Discovering fingerprints that lead them to the apartment of the suspectonly to find

  • that it’s all part of the antagonist’s game.

  • Even The Joker’s plan to purposefully be caught is similar to Se7en.

  • Detective!”

  • Throughout all this, the pressure on Batman increases as people keep dying.

  • The people of Gotham turn against Batman, until the pressure is too much and Batman’s

  • true character is revealed.

  • "Today I've found out what Batman can't do. He can't endure this."

  • Batman decides to turn himself in.

  • Harvey Dent claiming to be Batman and taking his place is the only thing that stops him from doing so.

  • The most revealing choice Batman makes is when The Joker pressures him to choose between

  • Harvey Dent and Rachel.

  • "Which one you going after?"

  • "Rachel!"

  • In choosing Rachel, Batman reveals what he’s unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good

  • of Gotham.

  • The limit to his resolve.

  • But with The Joker, things are never that simple.

  • Throughout the film, The Joker forces Batman into choices that reveal who and what he cares

  • about when the pressure is really on.

  • Batman is forced to face his true self.

  • Let’s look at our final point.

  • Competing for the Same Goal as the Protagonist

  • How do you make sure your antagonist is the right one for your hero?

  • After all, The Joker may be the right antagonist for Batman, but completely inappropriate for

  • a different protagonist.

  • Let’s go back to John Truby.

  • "It is only by competing for the same goal that the hero and the opponent are forced

  • to come into direct conflict and to do so again and again throughout the story."

  • This concept helps distinguish your antagonist and make sure they are the right one for your hero.

  • So how are Batman and The Joker competing for the same goal?

  • Both of them have their own vision of what they want Gotham City to be.

  • Batman is fighting for hope, for a Gotham City without crime.

  • For law and order.

  • And The Joker

  • Upset the established order and everything becomes chaos.”

  • Batman versus The Joker.

  • Law and order versus chaos.

  • In their final scene together, The Joker even has a line that makes it very clear that he

  • knows what their battle is all about.

  • You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham's soul in a fist fight with you?"

  • They are both competing for the soul of Gotham, and only one of them can win.

  • I want to take a moment to underline this point further, because it shows that a relatively

  • measured but specific threat can be extremely compelling.

  • In the finale, the only lives in danger are a few hundred people on the ferries.

  • Batman is not racing against time to stop the villain’s random-machine-of-destruction.

  • When the villain’s plan is to destroy the whole world, on a meta level we the audience

  • know that can’t happen, because there’s probably going to be a sequel.

  • But The Joker could have blown up both ferries, and the film could have had an

  • Empire Strikes Back-esque ending.

  • A powerful set-up for the next film.

  • Again, Batman and The Joker aren’t competing for the survival of humanity.

  • Theyre competing for the soul of Gotham.

  • The stakes are personal, first and foremost.

  • So now weve seen how The Joker is exceptionally good at attacking Batman’s weaknesses.

  • How he pressures him into difficult choices as they both compete for the soul of Gotham.

  • But what is cumulative affect of these things?

  • What is the greater function of The Joker?

  • With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man you don’t fully understand either.”

  • Throughout the script, Alfred hints at the lessons Batman needs to learn.

  • 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.”

  • In the beginning, Batman believes that criminals are simply after money,

  • that there is a logical order to things.

  • But he learns not to underestimate his enemies, that his strengths can become weaknesses.

  • Batman grows wiser because of the Joker.

  • Know your limits, Master Wayne

  • Batman has no limits.”

  • Well you do, sir.”

  • Under the pressure of the antagonist, Batman learns that alone he does have limits.

  • But with the right allies, they can overcome any challenge.

  • Batman’s resolve deepens because of The Joker.

  • People are dying, Alfred."

  • "What would you have me do?”

  • Endure, Master Wayne.”

  • And in the battle for Gotham’s soul, he learns that he’s able to make the difficult

  • choices no one else can.

  • You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

  • “I can do those things because I’m not a hero.”

  • “I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be.”

  • Batman becomes the Dark Knight because of The Joker.

  • The Dark Knight shines as an example of what happens when the forces of antagonism grow

  • from the protagonist.

  • When they're inextricably linked.

  • When theyre two sides of the same coin.

  • The Joker isn’t a great villain because he has an insane laugh and acts unpredictably.

  • He’s great because he has a profound and specific affect on the story, and on the protagonist.

  • “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”

  • The Joker is the perfect antagonist for The Dark Knight.

  • Hey guys!

  • I had a lot of fun putting this video together, but I'd be lying if I said it was easy.

  • It actually went through a lot of changes but I ultimately I learned a lot.

  • And I want to share what I learned with you!

  • So as a thank you for all my supporters on Patreon I'm going to be doing a blog post

  • detailing the process of making this video.

  • Everything from early version of the script to early rough cuts of the very different

  • video that it was.

  • And even the screenplay for the film with all my notes in it.

  • So look for that on my Patreon.

  • If you have any questions about the making of this video leave them in the comments below

  • along with any suggestions for future screenplays for me to analyze.