Batman is a comic character who has been adapted for film and television more times than most. He’s had animated films and series and live-action adaptations that ranged from goofy to gritty. And while there are multiple amazing scenes through his vast filmography, there is one scene that stands out. There’s one scene that captures his skills, mindset, and morals. It’s a scene that showcases the caped crusader facing off against his greatest foe. It’s… perfect. I’m of course talking about The Dark Knight “Two Boats Scene.”
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Batman. The World’s Greatest Detective. Vengeance. The Dark Knight. He goes by many titles, but his symbol is unmistakable. His black and gray suit acts as a camouflage and allows him to blend into the dark alleys and rooftops of the night skies. It’s a stark contrast to the vibrant red and blue colors worn by his friend, and sometimes foe, Superman; though it’s no less iconic.
The character, created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane, first appeared in the 27th issue of Detective Comics all the way back in 1939. That story played out as a true murder mystery, with The Batman acting as a sort of masked Sherlock Holmes with advanced skills in hand-to-hand combat. The issue was so popular that Batman soon got his own, self-titled comic run, and Detective Comics was eventually abbreviated to just DC.
These days, the version most often associated with Batman is the one that was brought to life by academy award-winning actor Christian Bale in Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking Dark Knight trilogy. When Batman Begins released in cinemas in 2005, it showcased the vigilante in a way that we’d never seen him before; not in live-action anyways. And while Batman Begins gave the character one of the best comic book origins we’ve seen put to film, it’s his follow-up, The Dark Knight, that is widely considered to be the best of the trilogy. In fact, it’s regarded as one of the greatest comic book adaptations of all time. That’s impressive when you consider how Marvel has recently dominated the box office with the MCU. And while the entirety of The Dark Knight is an amazing spectacle, there is one scene in particular that showcases the heart and soul of the character. It expertly shows the contrasting ideals between him and his arch-nemesis. It shows his motivations. His skill. It’s everything you’d want in a Batman scene. It’s… perfect. I’m of course talking about… The Two Boats Scene. Oh yeah.
Prior to Bale’s gargled growl cementing itself into pop culture, we’d seen a variety of on-screen interpretations of The Batman. Adam West, who first played the titular hero in the 1960’s television series, brought an over-the-top, comedic goofiness to the role. It was a lighthearted, silly series that utilized Batman’s unlimited supply of gadgets and highlighted its comic book roots through the use of large graphic exclamations like “Bam!” “Pow!” and “Bang!”
The tonal shift from the Adam West series to the Tim Burton-directed Batman film in 1989 could not have been more drastic. Burton is known for his dark, gothic imagery and that stylized vision would lend itself perfectly to the character. After all, Batman lives in a city that is literally called Gotham. While Burton is widely known now, at the time he only had two feature-length directing credits to his name. PeeWee’s Big Adventure, and Beetlejuice. Burton chose to bring over his Beetlejuice star to take on the lead role of the Batman and fans were not happy… Big surprise. Michael Keaton was known as a comedian. A nice guy. His roles in films like Mr. Mom didn’t fill audiences with confidence in his ability to show off the darker side of the vigilante. They were, of course, wrong and Keaton’s version of the character is regarded as one of the best. Keaton would return in Burton’s follow-up Batman Returns, but amid complaints from parents and studio execs about the film’s dark tone and often scary nature, the character was taken in another direction once again. The direction of neon lights, ice puns, and nipples on the Bat-suit.
Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin effectively killed the franchise. It was universally panned by critics and audiences and is widely considered to be a low point in Batman’s long-running legacy. His next appearance would wipe the slate clean and give Batman his first proper on-screen origin. Batman Begins fleshed out the character of not only Batman but Bruce Wayne. It worked to establish the masked vigilante as a broken man, struggling to find peace following the tragic murder of his parents directly in front of him. With the groundwork laid, The Dark Knight was free to expand that universe and explore a Batman that was more confident and more competent. He’s in his prime and it’s a perfect time in his crime-fighting career to introduce his arch-nemesis… The Joker.
The opening moments of the film work to establish the Joker as a threat, unlike anything this Batman has faced before. The infamous bank heist depicts a well-organized and perfectly orchestrated robbery, led by a mysterious and ruthless man dressed as a clown. The henchmen, who wear clown masks to conceal their faces, speak of the mystery man like he’s a myth or a legend. And one by one they dispatch of their partners at the orders of the mysterious madman. It’s not about the money. The Joker proves over and over again that wealth is not one of his motivations. It’s about proving to the people of Gotham what he’s capable of. It’s about striking fear into their hearts and disrupting their norm.
These days, the Joker feels overdone. After all, Batman has one of the largest and most notable rogues galleries in DC, so continuously rehashing the same one or two feels redundant and unnecessary. But the Joker is a rare case. He is equally as iconic as Batman, and with Nolan’s trilogy set as a definite beginning, middle and end, it would be hard to conclude that arc without introducing the clown prince of Gotham. Heath Ledger delivered a career-best performance in the role, earning him his only Oscar win. Sadly, he would be honored posthumously as he tragically passed away prior to the film’s release.
Years later Joaquin Phoenix would also win an Oscar for his performance in Joker. This was only the second time in history that two actors had won an Oscar for playing the same character. Previously, Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro had each won Oscars for their performances as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 respectively. The Joker works as the polar opposite to Batman. They are each twisted and broken in their own ways, but they lay at either end of a distorted moral compass. Batman believes that there is good in people, while the Joker thinks that deep down all people are driven by self-serving motivations and agendas; that goodness is a facade and that if chipped away, the true nature of mankind can be revealed for the dark and bitter core it is.
It’s that theory that drives the two boats scene. Throughout the film, The Joker has proven himself to be unimaginably evil and impossible to predict. His actions serve only to create chaos. He isn’t worried about wealth or status. As Bruce’s friend and mentor, Alfred, says… “SOME MEN JUST WANT TO WATCH THE WORLD BURN.”
Near the final act of the film, the Joker and his crew have taken over a building that’s under construction. Hostages are gagged and bound before being dressed with clown masks covering their faces. The same ones we saw in that opening bank heist. Their wrists are bound and what appear to be guns are duct-taped to their hands. It’s a disastrous setup as the S.W.A.T. Team prepares to make entry, their sights set directly on the hostages that they believe are the gunmen. Batman figures out the ruse, because… Well, he’s Batman and must work quickly to save the hostages from mistakenly being taken out by police. It’s a scene that showcases Batman’s quick thinking, combat abilities, and an array of gadgets from his utility belt. Primarily his iconic grappling hood which he uses to swing from floor to floor and even to pierce a tear gas canister on an officer’s vest, creating a distraction and disorientation.
Batman’s newest technologically advanced gadget gives him a batlike sonar vision, allowing him to effectively see through walls and floors as he rushes to prevent the massacre, orchestrated by the Joker, from happening. Lucious Fox, played by the fantastic Morgan Freeman, acts as Batman’s eyes and ears, guiding him through the building and alerting him to approaching threats. Batman is often on the wrong side of law enforcement. Viewed as a vigilante menace who can’t be trusted by many of Gotham’s boys and girls in blue. This scene showcases the difference in Batman’s approach to battling the criminals versus battling the police.
But while the action is part of what makes this scene so great, it’s not what makes it perfect. The hostages are only a minor part of the Joker’s master plan; pawns used to lure Batman into a checkmate, lose-lose scenario. The Joker can’t beat Batman in a fight and he knows that. The Joker wages his wars with psychological warfare, just as much as he does physical violence. He uses that psychological warfare to prove a point… that when backed into a corner, people are ruthless, selfish creatures who are willing to kill innocent strangers in order to save themselves.
There are two ferries in the harbor. One of them is filled with convicted felons, guarded by armed prison staff. The other, filled with ordinary civilians traveling home from work or a night out visiting family. Each ferry has an armed bomb on board with the detonator being possessed by the passengers of the other ferry. The Joker’s challenge to them, blow up the other boat and yours will be spared. This begs the philosophical questions… is one life more valuable than another. Do the convicts deserve any less mercy because of their past actions and mistakes? Self-preservation is as strong of an instinct as there is. Fight or flight kicks in, but what do you do when there is nowhere to flee and nobody to fight?
Tensions mount on either boat with passengers shouting to flip the switch and save themselves. But there’s a hesitation. The act of killing dozens of strangers with the flip of a switch is one that isn’t taken lightly. But the Joker has a timer on this experiment. They must choose before midnight or the bombs on both boats will go off. When a large prisoner bound by shackles stands and approaches the guard who holds the detonator, he tells the man to give it to him. To give it to him so he can do what should have been done already. The guard eventually does and the inmate throws the detonator out the window, ensuring that nobody can flip the switch and doom the passengers of the other ferry. It’s a moment that effectively proves the Joker’s theories and visions of mankind wrong. It showcases why The Dark Knight has gone to such drastic and insane measures to protect the people of Gotham. Because there is goodness. There is kindness. Beneath the grime and filth, there are people who deserve better than the darkness brought upon them by people like the Joker. They deserve a protector.
When the clock strikes midnight and both boats remain, the Joker is shocked to find that he was wrong. He prepares to detonate them both, but first pauses to ask Batman “Do you know how I got these scars?” A question that he’s asked several times throughout the film, giving a different explanation each time and further shrouding his past in mystery. Batman uses the pause to his advantage and breaks free from the Joker’s clutches, effectively throwing the Joker over the edge and to his apparent death. But, just like in the comics, Batman can’t let Joker die. He uses a grappling gun to catch the clown prince and pulls him back to face him. The Joker dangles upside down and the camera slowly spins until the upside-down view appears right-side up. It’s a dizzying visual display that showcases the Joker’s twisted view of the world. The Joker and the Batman. An unstoppable force and an unmovable object.
What’s your favorite The Dark Knight scene? And who’s your favorite actor to play the role? Let us know in the comments. Don’t forget to like the video and subscribe to our channel for more great content.