A film’s opening scene is arguably the most important one in the entire film. Designated with the task of hooking an audience from the beginning and making them remain invested in the story to keep with it for the next two hours or so, it is often one of the hardest scenes to get right.
Types of Openings
This is why so often anymore we see films that start at the end or somewhere in the middle and then flash back to a more toned down and (sometimes) boring part of the story where it would have started chronologically.
When an audience is shown the exciting and important parts of the plot without an explanation, it is more likely they will want to keep watching and find out how the story and its characters got to that point.
It is much more impressive when a filmmaker can tell their story chronologically and still get the same effect out of an audience – catching their attention and immediately enthralling them in the story they are about to tell.
There are very few films that have such a strong success in doing this, but it can be done.
Undoubtedly the Best
One film that has always stood out to me as one of the greatest opening scenes in film is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. In this post, I will look at how Christopher Nolan immediately grabs the audience, how he perfectly creates the tone for the rest of the film, and ingeniously introduces us to the main antagonist.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is one of the darkest, most realistic superhero movies to ever grace the screen. While all of the films in the trilogy are extremely well made, it is the second film – The Dark Knight – that is undoubtedly the best. And it was the best right from the first six minutes. The film opens with a glorious shot of the Gotham City skyline -the sun is out, the sky is blue, and the buildings are towering into the clouds. Immediately, though, you know something is amiss.
Thanks to the musical score, a low, intense “hum” begins playing before the picture even comes into view. The chord becomes louder and higher pitched as the camera moves in on one of the buildings and, suddenly, a window is blown out. Two men in masks are in the building loading up a grappling hook to shoot across the street.
Already, your heart and mind are racing as an audience member with the musical score and action, trying to figure out what is going on.
We cut to a man standing on the sidewalk with a bag over his shoulder and a clown mask hanging down by his side. A van squeals into the shot and the man hastily puts on the mask and gets in. This quick scene makes a point of showing the clown mask in the man’s hand. This is the first hint of the Joker being involved in this film.
We go back to the window and see the first two clowns now ziplining over the city via the grappling hook. This shot is beautifully done and amazing to watch, and only builds more on the intensity of the scene.
Familiar Name Drop
We come back to the clowns in the van talking about the job and loading up guns. They mention the guy who planned it is sitting the job out, and drop his name – “The Joker”. The two on the roof have a similar conversation while they break into a power box, discussing that he wears make-up and that is why they call him “the Joker”. If you are a fan of the comics and character, the verification of the name drop and conversation about the Joker’s appearance in the film is a whole nother level of excitement added to the scene.
When we come back to the three clowns from the van, they are running into a bank guns-a-blazin’. Not even a minute into the film, and you are already hooked on what is going to happen, who is behind it all, and teased with the main antagonist of the Joker.
And there is still an entire bank robbery to witness and behold.
Emphasis on Devious Acts
Once the actual bank robbery begins in the opening scene, it gives the audience an even deeper idea on how meticulous the Joker and his plans are. It also ultimately sets the stage for the rest of the film – gearing audiences up for a mind-bending crime thriller full of underhanded and devious acts that only the most genius and conniving mind can conjure.
The robbery starts with the clowns in the bank making their now hostages hold onto grenades, pulling the pins so that if they let them go they will explode in a matter of seconds. An extremely dark and clever way of taking care of them. Nolan makes sure the audience sees this nice and clear with a close-up shot of one of the clowns performing the act.
No Honor Among Thieves
We go back to the roof where the two men are working on the alarm. As soon as the one says he is done, and there is no problem, the second shoots him in the back – killing him before running down to the bank’s vault. Nolan really knows how to keep the audience on their toes and throw a curveball like this at them just when they think they understand the situation.
The Unexpected And Impressive
Back in the bank, one of the clowns points a gun and threatens people not to move, when a sudden shotgun blast blows out of an office behind him and kills him.
Once again, aided by the intense, dark beat of musical score, both of these acts show and prepare the audience for the violence and intensity to come in the rest of the film.
The manager comes out of his office, weilding a sawed-off shotgun and begins shooting at the remaining two clowns who try and hide together behind one of the counters. When they are together under cover, the one asks the other if the manager is out of ammunition. To which the second nods affirmatively. The first clown stands and gets shot. The second then hops out and shoots the manager down. The first clown pops back up, having only gotten shot in the shoulder and yells angrily at the other for not knowing the manager still had one shot left.
The second clown does not seem too hurt by it. It almost seems like he used the first as bait of sorts to shoot the manager himself. Being able to show this in a character who has not spoken and is wearing a mask is extremely impressive on the actor’s and Nolan’s part.
The first clown then runs into the vault room with the remaining clown from the roof. They have another quick exchange about the Joker, and how he must be crazy because the bank they are robbing is in fact a mob bank.
Once the vault is unlocked, the first clown asks where the other one from the roof was, to which the remaining roof clown replies that the Joker told him to kill him when he was done cutting the alarm. The first clown then says the Joker told him something similar, and shoots him.
All of this seemingly random killing of each other now has a bit of an explanation to it. But it still makes the audience wonder why the Joker instructed so much killing. The clown from the roof speculates it is one less share to give money to, but why kill so many of your own loyal men?
After getting all of the cash from the vault, the remaining two clowns pile up the duffel bags full of cash by the bank’s entrance. The first clown cocks his gun and points it at the second, saying he bet the Joker told him to kill him once the bags were loaded. The second clown responds that he is actually supposed to kill the bus driver. The first clown confusingly asks “What bus driver?” only to be answered by a school bus blasting through the doors and running him over.
This particular part in the scene is actually quite funny, and shows that, though very different, the film will still have some funny moments mixed in with its dark and intense violence. It also plays a bit of an homage to the Joker as a character, given his comic book counterpart constantly makes light of horrible and violent situations.
The last remaining clown loads the bags onto the bus with its driver, and then promptly shoots him as promised. This almost “casual murdering” the Joker has his men doing not only gives the audience a sense of the tone and action they will be experiencing throughout the rest of the film, but it also really emphasises how the Joker is going to be as a character.
It is important to recognize that throughout this scene, we never see any of these robbers’ faces as an audience. So while the scene has thus far given the audience an idea of the Joker’s character and his psyche through his plan and robbery, we still have not been introduced to any character properly. And just as the opening scene is about to come to its end, the audience gets one.
The last clown is stopped by the dying manager from earlier with the shotgun. He is going on about how the crime in Gotham is just getting worse and how the Joker just killed all these hired guns, why would he not kill him. The clown answers by walking over to the manager, sticking a canister in his mouth to stop his ranting, and removing his mask to reveal he was, in fact, the Joker.
Not only is the twist genius and extremely well done in general, but the reveal of the make-up and face of the Joker is so dark and creepy that it cannot be forgotten. By not revealing the Joker and his look to the audience sooner, Nolan puts us in the same position as the characters in the film – we do not know what to expect from the Joker. So when the clown removes his mask only to reveal the face of another, creepier clown, the audience is just as surprised and speechless as the character.
Knowing now that this was in fact the Joker all along, the scene has a whole new meaning and feeling to it. Another one of the Joker’s games.
The whole time the others were talking about him, he was right there listening.
When he nodded about the manager’s shotgun being empty, he was most likely lying to get the other clown shot and save himself.
The killing was in fact just a game for him, making it so that he would be the last man standing in the robbery.
Christopher Nolan did an amazing job with the entire film, but the opening scene of The Dark Knight is one that will be discussed and praised for years. Being able to grab an audience immediately, express the tone of the entire film, and introduce an antagonist with such a flawless twist in a matter of five minutes is no minor feat. The Dark Knight is the film with the best opening scene.