The opening scene of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) is an exploration of theoretical and physical spaces. The theoretical spaces refer to the architecture of a plan designed at the hands of Joker, who organizes a bank robbery and constructs a plan that results in the murder of each member of his team. The physical spaces refer to the use of architecture in this scene – buildings, staircases, desks – which assist in the design of this plan.
The film itself begins with architecture; an image of a building is the first shot of the film. The building’s window blasts into pieces as a man in a clown mask launches a cable onto a nearby roof. The masked man zip lines from one building onto the other, followed by an accomplice. The scene continues with one of these masked men moving from the roof into the building itself through a staircase. Christopher Nolan moves his characters – and his audience – through architectural spaces during this opening scene, while also exploring theoretical architectural designs that exist at the hands of the film’s villain, Joker.
In an interview with Wired, Christopher Nolan has expressed his interest for architecture. "The only job that was ever of interest to me other than filmmaking is architecture.” In Inception (2010), he brings architecture to the forefront of his narrative. It’s no wonder then that Chicago – a city that has been labeled as the architectural capital of the United States – has been the stand-in for the fictional Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe. The city of Chicago, and its diverse architecture, lends itself to his vision.
The opening scene of The Dark Knight is set in Gotham National Bank. The actual building that stands in for this bank, however, is the Old Chicago Post Office. This shows us that Christopher Nolan chooses his locations based on architectural design rather than a building’s actual function. In our research for this scene, we located the building on Google Earth and analyzed the actual location. The roof used for the opening scene is, in fact, the actual roof of the building used in the film. Christopher Nolan doesn’t choose another location that best suits his vision and instead uses the actual space where the scene takes place.
In examining the actual space of this post office, we also noticed that sections were added for the production of the film. There is a cubicle section that holds the office of the bank manager. There are also five stand-up desks in the main lobby. These additions all relate to the architectural spaces of this scene and play an integral part in the narrative of the film and its characters. The diagram we have presented also highlights the fact that the cubicle section creates a blind spot for the goons. Chuckles, upon entering, grabs a security guard standing at the corner of the cubicle section. The bank manager, sitting in the corner of this cubicle, is overlooked. This blind spot is the reason why Chuckles is killed. The stand-up desks that are added in this space become the reason why Joker survives the bank manager’s gunshots.
The opening scene in many ways departs from familiar conventions of bank robbery films. The robbers usually go after their hostages and use hostages as a form of leverage with officers. The goons instead hurt themselves and kill off their own instead of threatening their hostages. The goons also never go after the doors or lock them once inside. There is no interference from the public. In bank robbery films, we often see a citizen walk up from the street and knock on a locked door, suspiciously looking inside, curious if the bank is closed. In this scene, there is no contact with the outside world and the outside world never interferes with the space inside the building. In Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), for instance, chaos spills into the streets and into public spaces during a shootout after the bank robbery, whereas in this film, chaos is contained within the space itself.
The bank robbery scene explores architectural spaces and how specific spaces also become inhospitable environments for chaos, and more specifically, ordered and constrained chaos. This scene also expands on the Chaos Theory, exploring the relationship between chaos and order and vice versa. Joker himself is also a self-proclaimed “agent of chaos.”
In our diagram, we presented specific moments in the scene when each goon was killed. In specific, we have highlighted the fact that each goon only goes so far in their respective spaces.
Joker’s meticulous plan is carried out in specific detail during this scene. Joker’s famous line, “It’s all part of the plan” reinforces the notion that he has a plan for each move he makes; although, later in the film, we also hear him remark, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” It’s apparent then although Joker has concocted a plan that will result in the death of each goon, he is equally unprepared during moments of unpredictable chaos.
The goons each have a role and a responsibility during the bank robbery. They each have a job as far as the robbery itself is concerned and each goon will also kill off another member of their team. Happy (1) and Dopey (2) are our duo on the roof. Happy is a vault specialist and Dopey is an alarm specialist. Chuckles (3) and Grumpy (4) are the two masked goons that pick up Bozo (5) in their car. Bozo is later revealed to be the Joker himself. Grumpy’s role is dealing with the tellers of the bank, Chuckles’ role is dealing with the security guards and Bozo’s role is dealing with the hostages. The bus driver (6) is the only goon that appears at the end of the scene.
Happy kills Dopey as soon as he finishes his role in the bank robbery, which is disarming the alarm. The plan that Joker has, however, where each goon will kill another goon is faced with additional chaos when it’s disrupted. In gathering up the security guards, Chuckles is killed by a hiding bank manager. Chuckles, as a result, never carries out his responsibility of killing another goon. Chuckles’ death disrupts Joker’s ordered chain of events and alters his original plan.
Happy is killed by Grumpy as soon as he carries out his role, which is opening up the vault. The paradox here for us during our research was whether Grumpy was supposed to be the goon that killed Happy, or whether that was Chuckles’ original responsibility. In our analysis, we discovered that Grumpy is the only goon that walks into the bank with a duffel bag full of extra duffel bags. This suggests that he was the only goon who had intentions of entering the vault and filling up the money in his bags – further suggesting that it was his responsibility – not Chuckles’ – to kill Happy. Chuckles, by process of elimination, would have killed Grumpy as soon as he returned. The rest of the plan unfolds in sequence. The bus driver kills Grumpy and Joker kills the bus driver. Joker’s plan to be the last man standing at the end of the robbery is completed with the final death of the last member of his team.