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The Dark Knight: A Third Act in Three Stages

So I don't need to state the obvious and talk about how great The Dark Knight is, do I? It's hard to believe the film is ten years old this year and it still blows me away by how good it is. But for me, the thing I love the most is the third act. For most movies, this is usually the weakest section of the film, but it's handled here with such perfection and I think its one of the reasons the movie stands out in so many people's minds as being so great.

I know it's a sweeping statement to say that the third act is the weakest part of most movies, but it must be said that the third act is where a lot of critics come down hard on stories. There's actually a perfectly logical reason for why the third act is, shall we say, at risk of being the weakest. First, its because the third act is the last stage of the writing process. It's the stage when we are eager to start wrapping up the story and we don't tend to put as much creative energy into that section.  When writers re-read their work and start editing their work, they put a lot more energy into their first two acts than they do in the third act. Again, it's just a mental blockage issue. Finally, the fact that the story loses a lot of its intrigue or active questions is an unavoidable obstacle that the movie faces at this stage. A murder mystery will usually be done with the clues and investigation by that point.

The Dark Knight is a great case study on how to write a perfectly paced third act that is satisfying for the audience. The third act of the film naturally finds Batman closing in on The Joker and builds towards a gripping showdown between the two. For most films, this would be enough, but The Dark Knight includes a subplot within that climax; the prisoners and the civilians on the ferries deciding whether or not to destroy each other. This is a necessary subplot to run parallel to the showdown between Batman and The Joker because The Joker is physically out of his league in a one-to-one encounter with Batman. He is wearing a three-piece suit and he's not going to be much of a match in the long run. Hence the dogs and the hostages to heighten the tension. On top of this, they also add the scene on the ferries to heighten the stakes.

But that's not all - even after all of these events are resolved, Batman must still go and confront Harvey Dent, who by now has lost his mind and wishes to punish Gordon by killing his family. Batman, Gordon and Dent all engage in a tense philosophical debate about fairness and justice before Batman pushes Dent from the roof. In those final moments, Batman takes the fall for Dent's actions and escapes his pursuers.

This climax works so well because it is tense, thrilling and thematically appropriate to the story. But it also works because it is immensely satisfying - like a great feast that leaves you feeling like you couldn't eat another bite. Those three courses, the confrontation with The Joker, the civilians and the criminals on the ferries and finally Harvey Dent on the rooftop - it's a perfect recipe.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is another great example of this three-stage climax put into practice. We see our Protagonist Eggsy fight Samuel L. Jackson's henchwoman before finally killing them both. Meanwhile, running parallel to this, we see Lancelot trying to destroy a satellite while plummetting to earth in a barely functioning jetpack (of sorts). Finally, we see all the heroes surrounded by soldiers in a seemingly inescapable situation. Naturally, they do escape and it is most satisfying. Three courses.

One more example: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, concludes with our heroes infiltrating a party to hack a system. This scene alone is broken into three stages; gathering intel and interrogating the mark, while one of the team deals with the servers. Later, they are involved in a race across town, a shootout in a coms building and a race to stop the impending nuclear strike in a futuristic car park. Three stages here as well. I've found this to be the case in a lot of great third acts, particularly in thrillers, investigative dramas, and action adventure films. The mistake a lot of writers make when writing their climaxes is that they only include one. One showdown, for lack of a better word, can be satisfying of course, but including more beats to the overall conclusion can make for a more well earned final result. Hence, a more satisfying result. Think about this three-stage climax next time you are writing something and keep an eye out for it next time you are watching one of these kinds of movies.

(Image copyright: Warner Brothers)


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