clock menu more-arrow no yes
christian bale as detective batman in the dark knight Warner Bros. Pictures

Filed under:

The Nolan brothers’ obsession with mystery brought The Dark Knight’s Batman back to his roots

The World’s Greatest Detective rises

Take a screenwriting course in the United Kingdom and you’ll come across a term known as “Tom Hanks Intelligent”. Tom Hanks Intelligent (THI) is the idea your hero should be “exactly as smart enough to get out of a situation they were stupid enough to get into”. It’s a concept for would-be filmmakers to calibrate how aware their protagonists need to be to maximize dramatic effect of a story.

Classic heroes abide by the ratio: John McClane is THI, Indiana Jones is THI. As the name suggests, Tom Hanks has played a lot of characters who are THI: think Captain Miller, Jim Lovell and Scott Turner. THI is the bedrock of many a superhero film, helping audiences relate to heroes who can fly, shoot lasers, run at superspeed and conceivably should be able to deal with all of their problems in 25 minutes.

THI is a great concept that’s largely denied us from seeing “The World’s Greatest Detective” version of Batman in live-action films. Bob Kane initially conceived the character as a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Zorro and a Leonardo da Vinci doodle of a bat suit, yet the swordsman, rather than the sleuth, is more typically depicted. A Grant Morrison “Optimum Man” version of Bruce Wayne, where he has a plan for every scenario, makes for a less dramatic protagonist that one who wants to be half ninja, half armored boxer.

The Dark Knight, thanks to a pressurized scenario and the obsessions of its creators, presents an unlikely candidate for an $180 million blockbuster: Batman the Thinker.

the dark knight batman bullet scene Warner Bros. Pictures

Director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter/brother Jonathan Nolan’s filmography is littered with a love for puzzles, film noir and mystery. The brothers are precise filmmakers, relying on a specific set of tools to create their bombastic brand of IMAX friendly mysteries. Nolan brother films frequently ask the audiences large thematic questions at their onset, and then let loose their characters to pursue the best answers to said query. For The Dark Knight, the question is “To what ends will you go to protect what you love when an unpredictable threat arises?”

The film doesn’t go full matryoshka doll mystery like other Nolan collaborations like Inception, Memento, The Prestige and Following, but there are particular scenes, deep breaths between more hyperventilating moments of tension, that offer viewers a tantalizing glimpse of Batman, the intellectual, rather than Batman, the Crossfit gym member. With the Joker on their brains, viewers may not even notice what they’re seeing.

When we first find Batman in detective mode, he meets Detective Gordon following The Joker’s bank heist. A small exchange tells us that Batman has been supplying marked bills to GCPD to help them make drug busts against Gotham underworld. It’s a sensible bit of detective work, as Batman hasn’t quite understood the unique nature of his foe.

Later, Detective Batman’s tactics become more elaborate, his brand of police work creating friction for Gotham P.D. — the government employees want normal procedure — but ultimately resolving Gordon and Dent’s plans for dealing with the crooked account Lau. Within moments Batman is assembling CIA equipment to capture Lau in the thrilling IMAX scene in Hong Kong.

These detective snippets flit in and out of the film as Batman employs increasingly elaborate detective techniques, which in turn lead to more elaborate action scenes as he tries to keep up with the Joker. Take the ballistics scene that follow the deaths of Commissioner Loeb and the mob trial judge. Faced with finding the Joker’s hired gunman, Batman arrives at a crime scene, and extracts a fragment of bullet riddled wall from the scene. It’s his intention to try and replicate the replicate firing process from the gunman in his apartment abode so he can get greater clues as to how The Joker operates. Through his findings, Batman eventually reverse engineers an image of the bullet before it was fired and gets a fingerprint that allows him to continue his chase.

As a real life piece of crime investigation, the ballistics scene is complete nonsense. Youtube commentators suggest not only should the criminal’s fingerprint be on the bullet casing rather than the bullet, but all such information would have been erased by the heat of firing the bullet. But the scene remains, perhaps as a nod to the ridiculous magic that campier versions Batman sometimes conjures, a silly, thrilling way to get from Point A to Point B action beats. Whatever the case, it’s a reminder that sometimes, Batman has tools other than his fists, a philosophy that becomes increasingly tied to his moral victory over the Joker.

The quasi-detective work comes all comes to a head with the Caped Crusader’s reveal of the sonar device to Lucius Fox. Again, the technology at play here is… somewhat nonsense (at least for 2008), but it works as Batman and Joker continue their “think-then fight” descent to madness.

By the time the film concludes, Batman’s detective work will have faded from viewers minds, nestled snugly between “Tom Hanks Intelligent” and “storing explosives in his fillings and the surface of the moon” and having done their duty as the connective tissue between the bullets and booms. We may never truly get the version of Batman that Ra’s al Ghul so admirably describes as “Detective” in film. It could be possible that a Batman that truly adheres to the “Optimum Man” could not work over a two hour story, be it in concept or fan interest. But in The Dark Knight, it was there — imperfect snippets from two masters of neo-noir and mystery.


Carl Anka is a writer and broadcaster who believes everything deep down is a wrestling storyline. Tweet him about it @Ankaman616.