It's the 10-year anniversary of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight this week, and the internet is undergoing a bout of retrospection, as fans of all kinds discuss the legacy of this Oscar-winning superhero movie, a film which elevated the genre in the eyes of fans and critics. There will be a potent exploration of this acclaimed Batman movie’s complex themes. There will be giddy exclamations of unapologetic appreciation. There will be legitimate critiques about the film’s success, failings and cultural impact.
And there will also be complaints about the plot holes.
For those who don’t know, a “plot hole” is just a gap in storytelling logic. It can take the form of an inconsistency, a coincidence, a contradiction, a lack of explanation, or a simple solution to a problem that never gets addressed. For example, in John Ford’s classic western Stagecoach there is a long chase sequence in which the antagonists are trying to stop a speeding stagecoach. They never shoot the horses, even though that would immediately stop the stagecoach. That’s a pretty big plot hole.
The Dark Knight has a ton of plot holes. After The Joker throws Rachel off of a building, for example, Batman saves her, and then the movie cuts to the next scene. The Joker was right behind Batman, left alone with a room full of defenseless hostages, and it looks like Batman didn’t do a thing about it. Plot hole.
There’s also a giant state-of-the-art computer that Bruce Wayne builds under a scientist’s nose without a scientist’s help. Plot hole.
Also, pretty much all of The Joker’s plans rely on wild coincidences. Plot hole, plot hole, plot hole times infinity.
Make no mistake, these (and any other plot holes like them) are legitimate critiques of The Dark Knight. They highlight flaws in the story’s construction and it’s interesting to discuss them, especially if you know the movie well. But not every critique of a movie is equal. If the movie is doing everything else right, a plot hole can be forgivable. Heck, it can even be important.
Case in point: Stagecoach, the film whose entire climax depends on a giant plot hole. When asked why they didn’t shoot the horses, director John Ford famously replied, “Because that would have been the end of the movie.” In other words, logic isn’t always entertaining. Sometimes a filmmaker has to consciously rely on a plot hole in order to tell the story they are telling.
The plot holes in The Dark Knight operate this very same way. Batman saves Rachel and doesn’t go back for The Joker because it’s too early in the film for him to catch The Joker, so there’s not much point in showing him going back up to the top of the building because The Joker had to escape anyway. He doesn’t go back because he either had to fail, or because if he succeeded, “that would have been the end of the movie.”
Batman builds a spy technology supercomputer behind Lucius Fox’s back because the most important part of the scene is Lucius Fox’s reaction to Bruce Wayne going too far by invading people’s privacy. The filmmakers could have found a million ways for Batman to locate The Joker at the end, but they wanted to illustrate how much the hero was willing to compromise his ideals in order to protect the city. If Batman simply uses that computer then the film irresponsibly justifies the invasion of privacy, so someone needs to present an ethical counterargument. Since Batman doesn’t have many confidantes that character pretty much has to be Lucius Fox, which means Lucius Fox couldn’t have helped build the computer, and which also means that pretty much nobody else could have helped either.
The Joker’s plot hole-ridden schemes work very much the same way. Thematically, Batman needs an arch-nemesis who represents extreme chaos, as a counterpoint to the hero’s extreme order. So the villain’s schemes have to appear unpredictably random, but they also have to work out in The Joker’s favor for most of the film, because he wouldn’t have been a formidable opponent for Batman and, well, “that would have been the end of the movie.”
If everything else about a movie works, the plot doesn’t necessarily have to. We enter a movie theater having already agreed to suspend our disbelief. The movie is responsible for creating an environment in which our disbelief is rewarded. If the characters are fascinating, if the ideas are intriguing, if the pacing is brisk enough, and if the movie is sufficiently entertaining, a couple of logical consistencies can be forgivable. In the case of The Dark Knight, they might even be required.
If a movie is poorly crafted, plot holes are obvious while you’re watching it for the very first time. The characters aren’t interesting and the action isn’t exciting enough, so your mind is free to think about why the story doesn’t make sense. In other words, a plot hole is usually only a problem if the movie has other, bigger problems. And you can frequently tell how big those problems are by how quickly you notice the plot holes.
Alfred Hitchcock referred to a phenomenon he called “Icebox Logic” - which has since been retitled “Fridge Logic” - in which the audience enjoys a movie, drives home, goes to get something from the fridge and only then comes to the realization that the plot doesn’t make sense. He also said that Fridge Logic isn’t a huge problem, because if it took the audience that long to figure out that there was a plot hole, that means the movie was spectacularly entertaining. Nowadays if you find a plot hole in Raiders of the Lost Ark or Back to the Future it can be a major news item, because it took the fans that long to find it. Then again, if it took the fans that long to find it, that only proves once and for all how amazing those movies are.
The Dark Knight is, make no mistake, amazing, and spectacularly entertaining. The film’s breakneck pace and absorbing characters and pressure cooker intensity play just as well now as they did in the theater on opening weekend. But by now we’ve had time to go to the fridge thousands of times, so it’s easier for us to notice all the little flaws. It’s also easy to forget how little impact they actually have on the film when we’re not actively watching it, because the hypnotic power of great cinema is hard to recapture by memory.
So talk about the plot holes in The Dark Knight all you want. Talk about the plot holes in Star Wars and Citizen Kane and The Matrix and Toy Story and The Fast and the Furious and X-Men and so on and so forth. But always remember that plot holes, by themselves, are no great cinema sin.