Articles, Blog

The Dark Knight — Creating the Ultimate Antagonist

October 10, 2019

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 antagonist — Se7en. Batman and Gordon investigating a crime scene… Discovering fingerprints that lead them to
the apartment of the suspect — only 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. They’re competing for the soul of Gotham. The stakes are personal, first and foremost. So now we’ve 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 they’re 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. And as always please like and share and subscribe
and consider supporting this channel on Patreon. And most importantly — thank you for watching! “The Dark Knight”

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  • Reply Matt Eland September 9, 2019 at 4:22 am

    I love everything about this from the analysis to the presentation. What did you use for the animations?

  • Reply Nameless King September 10, 2019 at 1:31 pm

    The Joker possesses madness, wit and genius, all tangled up in one twisted mind. Arguably the compelling characteristics as to why he is considered by many as the greatest villain of all time.

  • Reply K Lekkergoed September 10, 2019 at 4:45 pm

    5:49 now I wonder what would happen if the Joker met Sherlock.

  • Reply Taco Man September 13, 2019 at 8:46 pm

    David S. Goyer wrote both TDK trilogy and Man of Steel and in both The Dark Knight and Man of Steel, the hero and villain have the exact same goals. In MoS, Superman and General Zod were fighting to protect their people so although their was a world engine that could destroy the world, Superman IS earths protector and this was a way of him becoming the person he was meant to be, while also fighting someone who wanted to restore the civilization he had lost by terraforming someone elses world. Comparing Supermans finale versus Batmans is idiotic considering both would automatically have a sequel. It was just more understandable for Man of Steel since it was the first one while TDK was already a sequel

  • Reply Peter Lom September 14, 2019 at 12:15 am

    Nice analysis and but a GREAT difficulty to understand the need to discuss so seriously a banality (my apology for being the only person to attack this film).

    If the limit is entertainment, Dark Knight stands well at 5 or 6 of 10: banal score and perpetual conflict –

    Popeye was here before; Bruce Lee in fight sequences and absurd-banal stories is better; Star Wars with the originality does not compare;
    big human issues – why not e.g. Men's Destiny by Sholokhov; temporary incompetence – Fellini's 8 1/2).

    Why these superheroes living in trivially absurd world and exist only in US blockbusters?

    Is it because French, English, Irish, South Americans, Russians, Italians, Turks cannot create them? NO, no, no 100x.
    Is it because US needs to pose super-banal problems in a format of entertainment in order not to solve them but to procrastinate (aka is it because we need the next sequel to the current blockbuster book or film or TV series thus to kill the time)?

    Great individual who glides, kicks, punches, defeats legions of enemies and comes to discuss and contemplate his incompetence whilst all we need is the last and minimal problem

    (destroy – or not – a protagonist who creates problems for a mass of people but this would stand against his principles
    which in this case is 5th commandment – "Thou shall not kill").

  • Reply azooz doss September 14, 2019 at 2:52 pm

    no the ultimate is KARS

  • Reply Ben Fulghun September 14, 2019 at 10:27 pm

    Very well done 👍

  • Reply Greg The Flying Whale September 14, 2019 at 11:09 pm

    batman is truly the best superhero in the whole superhero universe

  • Reply Fabian Roland September 15, 2019 at 4:31 pm

    Complex antagonists are a great thing.

  • Reply j.k. 123 September 16, 2019 at 11:12 am

    Let's see if Joaquin Phoenix's Joker is able to surpass Heath Ledger’s Joker.

  • Reply Troy Wright September 17, 2019 at 11:07 pm

    The joker loses. He is surprised to see batman at the construction site (no back up plan for luring him in then)
    He is surprised when the boats don't blow each other up, and tries to manually detonate them, thereby breaking his own rules. Rachels death and Harvey's descent were only strike backs. The joker himself gets busted, put in prison, is never seen again. He's finished.

  • Reply Ben Carpowich September 18, 2019 at 2:26 am

    Bottom Text

  • Reply Daniel Natzke September 18, 2019 at 4:02 am

    Brilliant video.

  • Reply Daniel Natzke September 18, 2019 at 4:05 am

    9:39 What the heck? Is he stomping Batman or someone else?

  • Reply John Cambridge September 18, 2019 at 8:52 am

    I never think of other antagonists in the movie that you wanting more when you watching them other than heath ledger’s joker…he was just beyond everybody else…like Michael Jordan in basketball..heath was that good..

  • Reply himanshu bhardwaj September 18, 2019 at 4:37 pm

    this video taught me "how to watch a movie".

  • Reply omonil Biff September 19, 2019 at 9:39 am

    Probably one of the best vids I have ever seen on YouTube.

  • Reply Patricia Bartosik September 21, 2019 at 8:41 pm

    Great video and I can relate.

  • Reply lvl 50 boss September 22, 2019 at 2:51 pm


  • Reply Matt Doherty September 23, 2019 at 2:23 am

    0:35 😂💀

  • Reply 芸薹ない September 23, 2019 at 3:32 pm


  • Reply Madison K September 25, 2019 at 5:35 am

    I love your videos so much Michael but this is definitely my favorite. Kudos

  • Reply KingQwertzlbrmpf September 25, 2019 at 10:02 am

    Let's be fair, while most of the greatness of the Joker comes from him being the perfect antagonist for batman, a lesser man than Heath Ledger wouldn't have been able to truly pull out the potential of the joker. Although to be even fairer, from what i saw in the trailer of "joker", Joaquin Phoenix might be able to rival Heath Ledger.

  • Reply Spencer Graham-Thille September 28, 2019 at 1:58 am

    Did Christopher Nolan direct this video? My goodness.

  • Reply Joker September 28, 2019 at 5:54 pm

    I'm still the best

  • Reply TheWonderGirl23 September 29, 2019 at 4:31 am

    I think the irony of the Joker is human society only lets people be as good as they let them be. The fundamental flaw of humanity is that we’re self serving individuals who agree to a collective thought of social contract that often shows humanities hypocrisy.

  • Reply Acrum 62 September 29, 2019 at 11:57 pm

    5:30 is a beautiful shot

  • Reply Retro Electro October 1, 2019 at 7:02 pm

    “Was it just heath ledgers excellent performance?”


    Well that was probably the shortest video essay I’ve heard in my entire life

  • Reply Carlos October 2, 2019 at 2:29 am

    Great job 🙌🔥

  • Reply Dylan Haze October 4, 2019 at 2:23 am

    can you do a dare devil vs punisher please!!

  • Reply Omar Guendeli October 5, 2019 at 1:14 am

    Rewatching this after 2019 Joker

  • Reply Muhammed Fajir.v.a October 5, 2019 at 10:08 am

    What happens to the Joker at the end of the movie?

  • Reply Sherhan Mahmud October 6, 2019 at 2:49 am

    Rises: How to heighten the stakes and show our hero at his/her utmost ultimate downfall and emotional turmoil.

  • Reply Angry Sidra October 6, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    laughs in joaqin phoenix

  • Reply Giorno Giovanna October 6, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    Saitama would disagree with Robert Mckee and punch him………………….. once.

  • Reply Greg Pettis October 7, 2019 at 12:09 am

    Society teaches us to hate straight white males. Those who can overcome this great evil succeed in life. Those who don't become incels

  • Reply Team SMSD October 8, 2019 at 7:28 am

    I’ve returned to take a few notes on this one, hehe…

  • Reply N D October 8, 2019 at 10:51 am

    Joker just wants to bring him to his level. Batman's refusal to join him makes him interesting to play with.

  • Reply ChrisofSpades October 9, 2019 at 12:05 am

    How can I make a review without getting into problems with copy right? I want to use clips from movies

  • Reply EXEJON October 9, 2019 at 7:52 am

    So, was the NWO the greatest villain faction in all of wrestling?

  • Reply Bjorn Ervig October 10, 2019 at 4:30 am

    League of Assassins, Talia al Ghul, Nyssa Al Ghul, Lady Shiva, David Cain were left in the dust.

    Anarky and Joker in the same film would've been an interesting.

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