Trailblazing Trailers: The Dark Knight (2008)

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

The trailer series for The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, was bound to be excellent. But I don’t think anyone was expecting this.

Batman Begins was an interesting experiment with the rebooting of the Batman franchise, but no one knew exactly what to expect from Christopher Nolan’s followup. When news first spread that the sequel’s primary antagonist would be The Joker, those familiar with Jack Nicholson’s iconic portrayal of the character were dubious. When news came forth that Heath Ledger (then best known for playing romantic leads and his Oscar-nominated role in Brokeback Mountain), speculation grew even higher. Fanboys doubted the actor’s range and ability to bring forth the nihilistic chaos the character was known for in the noir-heavy comics on which Nolan based his trilogy.

This trailer shut those boys the hell up, and set Heath Ledger on the fast track toward winning that Oscar.

The most daring feature about this trailer is that it doesn’t contain footage from the movie. Rather, it gives us ~35 seconds of dialogue, interspersed with an minimalist visual narrative that speaks volumes.

Breaking It Down

Let’s follow the storyline of the trailer to extrapolate why it manages to be so effective.

The clip begins with Bruce Wayne/Batman (BW) in conversation with Alfred (AP), laying out the themes for the movie in an exquisitely crafted discussion:

BW: “I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They’ve crossed a line.”

AP: “You crossed the line first, sir. You hammered them, and in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”

AP: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.”

AP: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

And then, like an apparition, that voice:

The Joker: “Starting tonight, people will die. I’m a man of my word. HeeeheheehahahaheehaHEEHAHAHAHEEHA-“

Yes, it’s beautiful language, and by it’s end, we’re all excited for the movie. But what’s beneath the surface here? What’s the subtext? Why do we leave it so excited for what’s to come?

I can point to two things that make this trailer so powerful:

One:

The dialogue is a microcosm of the movie’s plot (and a continuation of the plot from the first movie). We’re familiar with the fact that Batman has been trying to root out Gotham’s crime, but like a cancer, it just spreads everywhere. From the dialogue, we see he’s been successful, but we also see that his success comes with a price.

Escalation.

Read the dialogue between Bruce Wayne/Batman and Alfred again:

“They’ve crossed the line.”

“You crossed the line first, sir. You hammered them, and in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” [emphasis mine]

This sets up The Dark Knight’s central premise: a terrorist, but more than that, an agent of pure chaos, let loose upon Gotham City. And why? Because Batman came along, pushed them into a corner, and forced them to improvise a solution.

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.” [emphasis mine]

The mob is clearly not in control of a man like this. What could they use to control him? They’d have no incentive, no muscle strong enough, to force him to do anything. He’d be free to do whatever he pleased.

This sets this film firmly apart from Jack Nicholson’s version of the Joker, a decidedly capitalist version of the character. This incarnation would be a feral dog unleashed, with no motivation other than to create havoc however he pleases.

Damn.

Two:

That glorious visual narrative.

When you first start watching the trailer, you assume it’s just a black screen that will eventually fade into footage. Instead, you get those streaks of blue-white light, over and over again, punctuating the dialogue at exactly the right moments. It takes about thirty seconds to realize the figure those streaks will eventually show: the Batman symbol.

By the time the symbol is fully displayed (“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”), it’s no longer fully intact. It’s already started disintegrating:

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 10.15.24 AM

And once it’s nearly finished disintegrated, we see what’s been waiting for us on the other side (flying toward our faces in time with the Joker’s maniacal laughter):

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 10.18.24 AM

Chaos.

After seeing all of that in action, how could you possibly resist seeing that movie?