10 Jul 2011
Ever since it’s release in 2008, I’ve been struggling to come to terms with The Dark Knight. For whatever reason, I never felt on the same wavelength in my enjoyment of the film as many audience members and critics. Was it a good movie? Sure. Was it a great movie? That’s a question that I would have to think on, and my ultimate answer would probably be no. If you asked me if Batman Begins was a great movie though, I would probably say yes. This would lead me to ultimately say that Batman Begins is better than its sequel, The Dark Knight. This of course would be against what is probably the majority opinion, in that The Dark Knight is a superior film than its predecessor to the point that many have come to the conclusion that The Dark Knight is the best example of a Superhero film in Cinema history.
So since 2008, I have been searching for the answer in why I might think this. Is it because I’m not a sophisticated film-viewer as surely many would suggest? Of course not. This type of labeling is childish and baseless at best, since everybody has their own opinion, and to lessen other opinions in this manner is simply cheap. Is it because my tastes are simply different, and I do not appreciate the tone the movie was going for? No, in my opinion, I appreciate a dark film as much as the next film-goer, of course if it’s well-done. Which leads me to ask, is there a flaw on the film’s surface? No, since the action, mood, acting, etc. is all quite compelling. What about something more fundamental perhaps? Could that weigh me down in my opinion of the film? What follows is an essay on the reason why my answer is, “Yes.” And it all has to do with the concept of “Stakes.”
Stake: “A share or an interest in an enterprise.” – Dictionary
When I say that a movie has “stakes,” it usually defines a possible cause and effect relationship. If X does Y, then Z will happen in order to achieve V, for victory. This is the simplest explanation of it, and it is the most common storytelling trope because it is the most universal one. Everybody wants something. In movies, it’s to enjoy, usually by engaging with the piece. How you do this leads us down a deep rabbit hole of storytelling, so let’s start with the Villain, who is looking to achieve a goal, and is an obstacle in Hero achieving their goal
Stakes are inevitably tied to the villain. One of my main problems with The Green Lantern film was the issue of stakes connected with the villain. Hector Hammond can do stuff with his mind, and Parallax feeds off of fear, and is coming to Earth to feed, but none of the stakes inevitably seem that important. Sure, you see people running away and both villains killing people, but there’s never anything for you to grab onto to care about the interests of the villain.
What does Magneto want? To let the oppressed mutants rule over the oppressive humans. If the X-Men didn’t do anything to stop him, humanity would either be eliminated as we know it, or be put in a very bad position. What does Lex Luthor usually want? To get rich off of real estate. If Superman did nothing, Luthor would kill millions in order to create prime real estate, usually by sinking a portion of the country. The stakes may seem a little ridiculous, or overblown, but they are still stakes. If X does Y, then Z will happen in order to achieve V, for victory. In Green Lantern, if Hal Jordan doesn’t do anything, then a bunch of innocent people are killed simply for the fact that the villains are angry. There is no achievement involved here, they’re simply doing it to do it, or as a way to get revenge.
It is here where I must point out the fundamental difference between doing something to achieve something, and doing something reactionary. Revenge is a reactionary action. It’s all in the motivation. Motivation is often the key to a back-story. Tony Stark is held captive by terrorists and sees that the world is in a weapon’s war that is hurting people. When Tony gets his revenge by killing the terrorists, he completes his back-story and moves on to his ultimate goal, which is to protect people from getting hurt in this weapon’s war. Thus he dons the Iron Man persona, and protects the world of bad guys. Of course, this is also considered motivation. Tony Stark is motivated to stop the bad guys to keep innocent people from getting hurt. But it is also a goal. There is a huge difference between motivation and goals, although they can sometimes act as one driving force in a character.
In The Dark Knight, Joker’s driving force and ultimate goal could be considered “chaos.” Which leads me to the idea of, can stakes or a goal simply be an idea?
The answer to this question is dependent on the idea, since many ideas often translate into actions. If you have the idea of “control,” the actions would translate into you gaining “power,” which translates into you being an “authority,” which means that you tell people what to do.
Sometimes there can also be the concept of multiple stakes happening in a film dealing with larger and smaller concepts, usually intertwining together. In Transformers 3 for instance, the Decepticons want to enslave Earth to rebuild their home planet. That’s the main goal. To achieve this goal however, they have to obliterate Chicago to use as a base to enact the plan. Since the stakes of the whole human race getting enslaved by a bunch of robots to rebuild a planet is a bit grand and too hard to grasp, the film has smaller stakes to give you a very real taste of what will happen. In this case, it’s multiple shots of Chicago being destroyed, and its inhabitants being killed. The film shows you multiple shots of destruction in the city overlayed with music from Linkin Park to illicit an emotional reaction from you. You can’t really get attached to the idea of humanity being enslaved, so you attach yourself to the idea of the well-being of Chicago. You like Chicago and its inhabitants, and when you’re threatened, you’re more likely to invest yourself in seeing through their well-being.
Now, one might say, “Why have the larger scale problem anyways?” The simple answer to this is the fact that it makes the film seem “epic.” You don’t see the whole world being obliterated in Independence Day, although the concept is still there. American cities are being destroyed since Americans won’t be as invested in seeing Paris being obliterated for example. But you only get these scenes of mass destruction only shown a few times. Most of the time, it’s from the point of individuals you can relate with running to escape the destruction. Thus why you follow the mother & son escape their car and hide in room in a tunnel to save themselves. And since people like dogs, you also see a dog along with them trying to escape the destruction. You don’t follow the other people in the tunnel, but only the people that you’ve spent time with before in the movie. You haven’t spent time with the people in the car in front of them, so you have no investment in whether they die or not, besides the fact that they’re human beings. However, everybody likes dogs, so even though you haven’t learned about the dog’s back-story, you still root for the dog to escape the destruction because he is a dog.
Setting stakes requires gaining emotional investment. Sometimes, the filmmaker doesn’t go about it the right way though. Michael Bay for example is often criticized for instance by gaining easy emotional investment simply by portraying flamboyant acts of patriotism, whether it be a group of soldiers winning a battle, or the good guys standing in front of an American flag. Why are you supposed to be invested in them? Because they’re American, that’s why.
Now while this rule of easy ploys of emotional investment are frowned upon for getting you to relate to heroes, because heroes are supposed to be more complex, the same doesn’t necessarily have to apply to the villain. Sure, it would help, but sometimes it’s just easier to use a universally hated villain. In Saving Private Ryan for instance, the focus isn’t supposed to be on the relationship between the good guys and bad guys. The bad guys simply act as an obstacle in achieving the ultimate goal in saving Private Ryan. The film simply wants to focus on the relationship between the good guys and each other. Therefore the villain can be Nazis, and it be OK. Everybody hates Nazis. You don’t have to spend anytime telling you why the good guys are still good even if they kill these people. The same usually goes for Zombies. Granted, there has been a trend in recent years of making these usually unsympathetic villains sympathetic, such as the way The Walking Dead approaches Zombies, but for the most part, you can get away with defining nothing about these villains simply than the fact that the villains are this group of people.
Ultimately though, Stakes cannot be so easily set in the case of the hero or a unknown villain. If the villain isn’t something as enigmatically hateable as a Nazi, where it has been established that you can root for the defeat of this group, the reason must be defined. Imagine the first time seeing a James Bond movie for instance. Imagine that you know nothing of the character of James Bond, his back-story, or what he does. Now imagine if a James Bond movie only showed Bond going after the villains, but never showed you why. You wouldn’t be invested because you didn’t know the reason Bond was beating up and killing all these people. In fact, it would make him seem quite heartless and cold, if not evil himself. But because you usually see the villain’s plans, or their devious deeds before Bond meets with them, or is sent after them, you are invested in Bond taking down this villain. The villain is defined. The stakes are made clear. If James Bond doesn’t stop the bad guy, then World War 3 will start, or whatever. Point is, what was unknown about the villain before is now made known.
There is a possible exception however in the fact that sometimes only the Hero has to be established. If you didn’t know about the villain beforehand, but had seen a James Bond movie, you’d probably already know that James Bond is in the right by wanting to take down this guy whose motives you may not know, but that doesn’t matter because you trust James Bond. There is however a downside in this however, in the venue of predictability. Many people felt the show 24 went downhill as it went along simply because it became too predictable. You love Jack Bauer, so you’re going to root for him, but you’ve seen enough episodes of 24 where you can say, “That person is using a PC instead of a Mac, that must be the mole!” That is why you must present different motivations, back-stories and tells to make a compelling villain in a series. Once you start repeating, you can predict the outcome, which takes out your emotional investment, unless you just love Jack Bauer THAT much.
To create the perfect set of stakes, you must have a combination of back-story, motivation and emotional investment derived from the other two elements in the equation. For an example of this, let’s take a look at Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In the film, the goal is to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant. It’s a simple goal, an object, with a well-known backstory that people would want for different reasons. Indiana Jones wants it so it can be kept safe, or in a Museum to be shared by the world. These are his character goals, and of course he has the charm and personality for your continued liking and investment in his character. He also has the added back-story element in that he’s going against his rival to achieve the goal, and in beating his rival to it, he would get a personal sense of satisfaction after his rival takes the Idol he worked so hard to get earlier in the film. On the other side of Indiana Jones in the quest is the Nazis. They’re an easy enemy to hate already, and you have the added detail that they want it for personal gain, in that it is believed it would make them invincible. That’s another reason for you to hate them: You don’t want Invincible Nazis. Then to make the enemy more identifiable, you have Belloq, Indiana’s aforementioned rival. He works for the Nazis and leads them in their hunt for the Ark, which is already enough reason to dislike him, but he’s also a rival of our hero and wants him killed, and he wants the Ark for personal reasons, mainly power, respect and of course, money. All of these are easy reasons for you to root against the bad guy, but they’re still effective. Add to that the way the villains in the film act, and it’s not hard to be invested in seeing Indy win out over them.
Once you have a general understanding of this formula, and how to establish it, you can work with it and twist it. You can make concepts such as anti-heroes, who are despicable people who you still find likable. Then there’s movies like the Godfather, who don’t really establish likable characters, but know how to establish compelling characters. Then you have movies like Law Abiding Citizen, which in my opinion, masterfully weave your expectations of the villain and hero. In it, Gerard Butler‘s character is openly murdering and torturing people, but you kind of root for him since he’s getting revenge on the people and system that screwed him over. What he’s doing isn’t that great, but everybody around him is worse, until the minute that it’s not. About half-way through the movie, the role of the hero and villain switch, as the characters keep moving down their respective paths. Jamie Foxx’s character starts regretting his poor decisions, and Gerard Butler starts killing innocent people on his way to his ultimate goal. It all changes as the result of the actions in one scene where the scales tip where you change your favor from one character to the other.
So, now that we know exactly what “stakes” are, how to achieve it, and what effect it can have on a movie, let’s turn our attention back to The Dark Knight and the Joker.
Ultimately, for me at least, the answer in whether the character works is a little bit of preference and execution.
In Batman Begins, the stakes are laid out, first in the fear toxin, then in Ra’s Al Ghul setting out to destroy Gotham. The villains have clear motivations. The heroes have clear motivations, and the way that all of it is executed is very well-done in my opinion. Scarecrow is kind of left behind, but Ra’s Al Ghul’s plan is stopped, and the character is killed (although that’s kind of debatable at the moment until we see The Dark Knight Rises), but his death still keeps in Batman’s personal code, which itself endeared us to like Batman. Then at the end of the movie, you see Batman being cool, then he’s presented with the problem of the Joker for the next film, then he leaps of the building and flys away like Batman does. Seeing this gives me an immense feel of satisfaction. All of the plotlines have been resolved in this film, all the goals have been achieved, the smaller goals at least, we have the anticipation of seeing Joker in the next film, and we end with Batman doing something cool.
This is in stark contrast to The Dark Knight. The stakes are that Joker wants to create chaos, and until he is stopped, people will die. As stated before, this is kind of abstract, that doesn’t really create something that translates into identifiable action.In the end, Joker does create Chaos, but he’s stopped from creating anymore chaos, but only for a little bit since Joker has a habit of escaping jail really easily. Therefore, he’s kind of free to go create chaos again, so that goal is not truly put to rest. But the actor who played him cannot play him anymore, so we’ll simply have to take a meta-fact that the goal is achieved since we’ll probably never see him again. This resolution to me simply isn’t satisfying from a storytelling and “stakes” prospective. I will hold off on commenting Batman’s story for now, since it is the 2nd part of a 3-part trilogy, as yet still not resolved, but let’s just say I don’t have any anticipation to see the 3rd film except on a meta-level, where I want to see what Christopher Nolan‘s follow-up to Inception will be, or how he’ll handle the character of Bane, etc. Now here’s some typical counterpoints to these arguments:
“The Point of the Film Is That Some Men Just Want To See The World Burn. There Doesn’t Have To Be Any Stakes”: OK, I see the point the film was making, but just because I see the point doesn’t mean I have to agree with it. Sure, it’s more realistic, but what’s realistic doesn’t always translate into what’s interesting. In this case, I don’t think it translated into something as interesting as the film was going for, although this opinion is obviously a personal one for people who see the film to make.
“Not Everything Has To Be Resolved”: True, but it’s the storyteller’s job to make you interested in these storylines either never to be resolved, or to be resolved at a later point. Again, I think they could have done a better job with this.
“Whether You’re Invested Or Not Is Completely A Matter of Personal Opinion. It Doesn’t Have to Have Stakes, It Just Has To Be Interesting”: Very true, if it can be pulled off. Most of the time it isn’t. In this case, I don’t think it was. But again, it’s a matter of personal opinion.
“It’s Just A Bloody Movie. Watch It. Get Over It. Don’t Think Too Hard About It”: Is it JUST a movie? Or is it the springboard for a grander discussion, and for this overlong analysis of a very important and universal element of storytelling? I agree with the discussion element of it, but if you don’t want to think of it that way, it’s your right.
In the end, I still like The Dark Knight. I just don’t love it. If you do, that’s great. If you don’t, that’s fine. If nothing else, I hope you enjoyed the discussion, and maybe learned something. I know I enjoyed it.
Tags: 24, ark of the covenent, bane, Batman, destruction, disaster, dog, end, enlightenment, film, goal, goals, green lantern, hero, idea, ideas, independence day, iron man, jack bauer, james bond, Joker, law abiding citizen, matt damon, michael bay, movies, nazi, nazis, partiotism, plot, plot point, plot twist, power, raiders of the lost ark, revenge, saving private ryan, stake, stakes, steak, story, storytelling, superman, sympathy, terrorism, The Dark Knight, tony stark, transformers, transformers 3, vampire, villain, writing, zombie