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In Defense of ‘The Dark Knight’

If it isn’t obvious yet, I am a comic book fan. And for as long as I can remember, Batman’s interesting mixture of superhero action and psychology has enthralled me more than any other hero. So naturally, I’m a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But in a strange twist, I’m perfectly capable of admitting that it has its flaws. Granted, I feel like it does so much so well that talking about its problems is a waste of time, but they’re certainly there.

But there’s one issue that people like to point out that I just can’t get behind. Any time someone brings it up, I find myself scratching my head and biting my tongue. I’ve kept quiet about it for so long and I just can’t do that anymore. The “issue” I’m talking about is…

The ending.

I trust you know how it concludes, but just in case you don’t I’ll bring you up to speed: Former Gotham City DA Harvey Dent loses half his face (also his girlfriend), goes insane, and sets off on a killing spree against those who wronged him. It all leads to a final showdown between Dent and Batman. When words fail, Batman tackles Dent and this results in Dent falling to his death. Unwilling to tell Gotham that their White Knight veered from his path of righteousness, Batman decides to take the blame for the murders, leading to a police manhunt as he escapes into the night. To me, it hits all the right notes. For others, it’s awful.

Those who stand against it say it’s because it lacks logic. “Batman taking the fall is so stupid”, they say, “why not blame the Joker instead? That would make more sense”. And yeah, maybe it would. But how satisfying would that really be?

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I’d like to direct your attention to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. We all know how that ends, it’s downright iconic. But the original plan was to end it like the book, with the shark getting stabbed by a harpoon and dying as a result. Maybe that works in a literary sense, but when brought into a visual medium it’s definitely lacking. By this point, the audience wants to see this thing get its comeuppance,

This was the feeling of everyone who wasn’t Peter Benchley (who was famously removed from the set because he disapproved of what they wanted to do), so they decided to go a much more impressive, albeit completely unrealistic, route. The results speak for themselves: there’s a now-famous line followed by a giant, gore-filled explosion, and the audience gets their pay-off. And it achieves this all without logic.

Spielberg and company knew what they were doing. They tossed out the more believable choice in favor of the grander one. Maybe it wouldn’t hold water in the real world, but it isn’t about that. A film’s primary function is to engage and entertain, and sometimes that means kicking logic to the curb so it can benefit not only the narrative, but also those who have chosen to watch it. If it can be handled well enough, then it absolutely works.

For me, The Dark Knight is one of the cases where it works. It’s shocking, it’s powerful, it drives the point home, and when you take the genre into account, it takes a risk. But most of all, it’s illogical. Of course it would make more sense for them to say it was the Joker. Heck, it would make even more sense if they just came out and told everyone that Dent went insane. But there are reputations that have to stay intact, and Batman has to be the hero that Gotham deserves, so even if it doesn’t quite mesh with reality, it works on an incredibly satisfying level. Quite frankly, it’s the type of ending that more films should strive for. So why then do all these naysayers exist?

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Besides the usual answer of “not everyone is going to like everything”, I think part of it can actually be traced back to the film itself. Nolan’s Batman series has gained a reputation for being a little more steeped in realism than some of the other comic-based works out there. But it’s important to understand that while it may be more realistic than others, that does not mean it’s completely realistic. It’s still about a man who dresses up like a Bat to fight bad guys. It leaves more than enough wiggle room when it comes to the abandonment of regular thought.

Yet they continue on, and I can’t help but wonder about what they would change. If they had the opportunity to go back in and rewrite that last minute of film, without changing anything that happens prior, how would they end it? Would they truly let it all fall on the Joker? Or would they end it on a much quieter note, with Batman leaving the scene and Gordon standing alone with Dent’s body?

Personally, I wouldn’t touch a thing. When Batman utters the line “I killed those people”, it still shocks me. And Gordon’s monologue (though a little overdramatic) coupled with the shots of Batman speeding away makes for a final moment that I won’t soon forget. It did its job then, and three years later my opinion on it hasn’t changed. I don’t think it could have ended any other way.
– Billy Bitterman