[Editor’s Note: One of my students recently submitted this analysis of The Dark Knight theatrical trailer for his required weekly journal. I was gratified to see the application of my “how to read a trailer” worksheet, and impressed by his close attention to the short film text and interpretation of its marketing and promotional work.]
The first minute of the first theatrical trailer for The Dark Knight is narrated almost entirely by the Joker. “You,” he says, “have changed things and there’s no going back,” over scenes of Batman riding his motorcycle through the streets of Gotham, landing on a car and crushing it, watching vigilantly over the city from atop a building, and sitting alone, unmasked and contemplative. The time between cuts is leisurely, with scenes ranging between 4-7 seconds and paced to the deliberate and growing volume of booming bass drums.
The shots fade into/out of black; the music enhancing the viewer’s anxiety as The Joker makes his first appearance seconds after he’s compared himself to Batman (Christian Bale), declaring them both “freaks” in the eyes of the world. This trailer and the Joker’s portrayal were both highly anticipated, given actor Heath Ledger’s unexpected death just months before the movie’s release.
At the 30 second mark, the music decrescendos to silence as the screen once again fades to black, before fading up to reveal a full body shot of the Joker, as if responding to the audience’s anticipation. He is standing alone in the street, holding a shotgun. The contrast between the men is shown by the Joker’s menacing stance compared to Batman standing as the lone centurion of Gotham in a prior shot. Immediately after the glimpse of the Joker, a building explodes and the trailer cuts to a single playing card, “the Joker” burning in the rubble. Chaos, carnage and bright, hot colors are the Joker’s signature, whereas even in action, Batman is portrayed in clean, orderly and composed shots, featuring a cool color palette..
At the 46 second mark, The Joker’s voice over is replaced by dialogue of Commissioner Gordon (played by Gary Oldman), who describes the results of his investigation of the Joker to the district attorney: he possesses no identification and has no other alias; he wears custom-made clothes and carries nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. On screen, we are shown a row of knives on a table as we learn about a man who came from nothing and has nothing to his name but a set of weapons. This man is dangerous, not merely because of his weapons but because he has absolutely nothing to lose.
As the scene fades to black, the Joker’s voice is heard in the darkness, “Good evening, Commissioner:” a typically innocuous, even cordial comment, that now sounds twisted and creepy. At the 1 minute mark, the scene fades up to reveal a close-up of the Joker’s face, exposing his scars, clown make-up and an empty look in his eyes. This cut is followed by another close up of Joker saying his famous line, “why so serious” as more buildings explode and scenes are shown of the Joker causing havoc in the city.
Next, the trailer alternates between scenes of the Joker’s destruction and Batman’s frustrated attempts to find and stop him. Losing his legendary cool, Batman grabs a henchman by the throat and yells, “where is he??” Bruce Wayne appears at the 1:11 mark, in a the scene captioned by dialogue between Wayne and his trusted confidant and butler, Alfred (played by the brilliant Michael Caine). Wayne admits that people are dying and he doesn’t know what to do. Alfred responds that Wayne will need to become an outcast in order to save the people of Gotham. This suggestion, of course, brings the viewer back to the notion, initially proposed by the Joker, of how similar he and Batman are.
Alfred’s remarks are set over more scenes of Batman chasing and the Joker causing violence and destruction. The editing pace increases, with cross cuts between the Joker’s rampage and Batman’s pursuit, although Batman seems invigorated by his friend and bolstered by allies, including Lucius Fox (played by Morgan Freeman) and Commissioner Gordon.
These alternating scenes build to a confrontation between the two antagonists: At 1:49, the Joker shoots an 18-wheeler truck, flipping it over length-wise as the audience hears his voice-over as the shot fades-to-black: “This was all part of the plan.” Batman finally tracks him down and the two enemies face off (Batman on his motorcycle, The Joker standing defiantly), guns blazing in a deserted city street.
The trailer ends with a shot of The Joker from the rear, his head turned partially towards the audience but not into the camera: “Let’s put a smile on that face!” he growls, making clear to the audience that he revels in chaos and destruction.
In the final seconds of the trailer, words appear on screen for the first time, as The Dark Knight title fades in from black in bold letters, along with an outline of Batman’s crest. French horns fill the darkness with a familiar theme, carried over from the first Batman Begins and signaling a triumphant note of hope.
The trailer making skills that predominate in this trailer include music and sound design and, of course, editing. Presumably, this trailer was designed to appeal to young, male audiences who enjoy graphic novels (comics?) and violent action films (fighting, vehicle chases and explosions.) But since the antagonists do not possess “super powers” but are merely (albeit extraordinary) human beings, the film also appeals to those audiences interested in suspense, psychology and dramatic conflicts between order and chaos, justice and ruthlessness. Of course, the star cast, acclaimed director and top-flight special effects speak for themselves.
I think the trailer does its job well, satisfying audiences pent-up demand for a look at the New Joker, who is portrayed masterfully by Ledger, while presenting and extending the familiar and popular characteristics of the Batman legend and movie brand: justice, vengeance, solidarity and hope.
Michael Liu is a 2nd year MBA student studying finance at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Prior to graduate school, he spent 7 years as a consultant and accountant for various financial services firms. He has been a life long fan of all things Batman.)
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.