The Dark Knight holds a special place in the heart of superhero cinema. The film’s depiction of two of the biggest villains in Batman’s rogues gallery is considered iconic. The audience fell in love with Heath Ledger’s depiction of the Joker and despite the actor’s untimely passing, his performance awarded the film the first Oscar in a major category for a superhero film: best actor in a supporting role.
One of the unspoken strengths of the film however is Aaron Eckhart’s performance as Harvey Dent. The actor delved deeply into the creation of the character going so far as to study split personalities and the psychology behind the character in order to bring him to life. Dent becomes the quintessential anti-hero but is he really an antagonist to Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, or the true hero of The Dark Knight? On the film’s 10th anniversary, let’s break down why the film is less about Batman and more a story that centers around Harvey Dent that actually makes him the hero.
Who is Harvey Dent?
Harvey Dent was Gotham City’s newly elected District Attorney, elected on a promise of bringing an end to the city’s crime wave. Dent threw himself into his career and ultimately inspired the city to rally around him, giving him the nickname “Gotham’s White Knight”.
Dent’s crusade earns him the ire of multiple criminal syndicates who flourished under the previous corruption in the city that Dent meant to disrupt and destroy. While initially against Batman’s presence, Dent ends up teaming up with the Dark Knight and Jim Gordon – all three of them motivated by a desire to protect Gotham and its inhabitants. Their efforts are initially successful with Batman bringing the mob’s money laundering man to justice. But, it all ends in tragedy as Harvey falls victim to the mob’s hired multiple thugs, whom, along with the Joker, are determined to bring Dent, Batman, and Gordon down.
Harvey Dent meets his metaphorical end in a warehouse full of gasoline. After listening to Rachel die, he’s burned alive. Driven mad by grief, he becomes Harvey Two-Face, the vicious manifestation of his desire to protect Gotham City and protect the weak of Gotham City. According to Eckhart, Two-Face is Harvey’s wish fulfillment.
“Harvey dreamed of doing what he might later be doing as Harvey Two-Face.”
What led Harvey Dent to consider so many violent acts has to do with a long comic history including an abusive police officer for a father and a mother whom he failed to protect. Both the comics and the film paint a portrait of a man consumed by a desire to do good, even if the cost is his own soul.
A District Attorney Willing to “Shake the Table”
Dent’s willingness to shake the table, to attack excessive policing and Gotham City Corruption, earns him the enmity of Gotham City’s Police Department. As the prosecutor responsible for the police department’s Internal Affairs division he makes a number of enemies. Known as Harvey ‘Two Face’, Dent is unwilling to compromise on his ethics and holds everyone to his same – seemingly – unreasonable pure standard of living. While this strains Dent, it gives him an opportunity to think outside the box. Dent’s talent and knowledge of the law allows him to actually use the law to protect people, something it fails to do in Gotham.
Simply put, Harvey Dent does what Batman can’t do, something that Batman alludes to throughout the film. After catching Dent attempting to exact some vigilante justice of his own, Batman chides Harvey for roughly handling mobster Sal Maroni’s Thug. Batman promises that the good that Dent is trying to do for the city will be undone if they find out about Harvey’s actions.
It’s ultimately that inherent goodness that the Joker and the mob set to undermine and discredit. Both Batman and the Joker realize that Dent was an ordinary man who represented a pinnacle of hope to the city.
Batman: You’ll be in a padded cell forever.
The Joker: Maybe we can share one. You know, they’ll be doubling up, the rate this city’s inhabitants are losing their minds.
Batman: This city just showed you that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.
The Joker: Until their spirit breaks completely. Until they get a good look at the real Harvey Dent, and all the heroic things he’s done. You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you? No. You need an ace in the hole. Mine’s Harvey.
The Joker recognizes the value of symbols and Harvey has become one. Only dragging Gotham’s true hero through the mud would leave the city’s spirits broken forever. While Batman did the work, it had to be Harvey, Gotham’s true hero, who fell in order to make people stop believing in hope.
A Man Willing to Sacrifice Himself for Others
The audience in The Dark Knight is first introduced to Harvey Dent when a mob wise-guy points a gun at him during a court case. What could turn into an episode of Law and Order with several casualties turns into a powerful moment for justice in Gotham City. Dent risks his own life to grab the gun, punch the gunman, and disarm him instead of beating him senseless.
Dent has an advantage over Batman in this case, the District Attorney can rely on the police to protect him and people in the courtroom. With his declaration of “If you want to kill a public servant, I recommend you buy American,” he turns what could have been a terrifying moment into a combination of a publicity stunt and a move to restore people’s faith in Gotham City’s leadership.
It’s a powerful moment and far different from Bruce Wayne’s actions in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan goes out of his way to paint Batman as a true vigilante, a character who could do good or bad. Dent, in a single moment, restores people’s hope and faith within the confines of the law. It continues throughout the film with Dent doing his best to trust in Gotham’s law enforcement community. When you compare his trust to Dent’s willingness to shake the table, he becomes a far different character from Batman who works in the shadows and causes harm in order to keep people safe. Dent is a white knight, riding to protect people and do battle, a truly heroic figure.
You Either Die a Hero, or Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become a Villain
Both Harvey Dent and Batman have a long history in comics that The Dark Knight manages to portray excellently. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was based on some of the most critically acclaimed Batman comics in history . The actors delivered an emotional story filled with pathos and heart. Despite being a Batman film however, The Dark Knight was less about Bruce Wayne’s continued struggle to reign in the chaos of Gotham City. As the final installment of the franchise went on to prove, this is a low point in Batman’s story where he very nearly loses hope that his attempt to save the city will actually work.
The hope that he loses is Harvey, and the film states that over and over again. It goes to great lengths to prove that Harvey’s desire to do good no matter what the cost, his willingness to sacrifice himself, and his desire to protect people makes him heroic. Batman states that he’s the hero they were supposed to protect multiple times during the climax, even as Dent falls past the point of no return.
Two-Face: The joker chose me!
Batman: Because you were the best of us. He wanted to prove that even someone as good as you could fall.
Two-Face: And he was right.
Bruce Wayne has no allusions about his heroism, especially in relation to being Batman and just what it took to become Batman. Harvey is able to do what he does in the light — which makes him Batman’s hero — and any person who’s batman’s hero is a clear protagonist. Making a literal argument that Harvey Dent technically died before becoming the villain Harvey Two-Face might be an easy way to proclaim that Harvey Dent lived up to his iconic line “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain,” but the truth is that Batman sees Dent as the hero he was all the way up to the end of the film.
As the film hits it’s 10 year anniversary, The Dark Knight, the first superhero film to be critically acclaimed and show that superheroes could be more than popcorn fare for children. It’s protagonists and antagonists are iconic characters of cinema. Ledger’s performance will forever be the standout of the film, but it’s important to set the record straight about the film’s true heroic figure. Batman is a heroic figure, but his story is part of a longer arc, one that concludes with The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce Wayne truly rises and fans have put him in the spotlight during his lowest point for far too long. The Dark Knight’s true hero is Harvey Dent, a character who technically lives up to his creed and dies before he becomes Harvey Two-Face, the film’s villain.