Saturday, August 09, 2008

Dark Knight: Two-Face

Now, I've thought often about the character of Two-Face; he's one of my favorites. In fact, I've written about him on this blog several times. Unlike most people, what I was anticipating in the Dark Knight film wasn't Ledger's performance as the Joker (the trailers were pretty solid clues about that), but Eckhart's performance as Two-Face, and what the script would give him to work with.

Yes, Ledger's take on the Joker was very important and powerful. But the Joker's reputation as a solid character didn't necessarily rely on Ledger doing well. If Ledger had not acquitted himself so finely, it would have been taken as a reflection on Ledger, not the Joker. But Two-Face needed to be done well in this film to establish a broader public reputation as a serious Batman villain. He may be almost as famous as the Joker within the comic book world, but the only exposure to him most people have had is Tommy Lee Jones' performance in Batman Forever, which didn't really do the character justice.

But how do you do a character like Two-Face justice? First and foremost: don't portray him as a split personality. He wasn't portrayed that way when he was introduced, and to do so vastly oversimplifies and weakens the character. The Ventroliquist/Scarface is a split personality. Harvey Dent is a man whose concepts of morality have broken down and Two-Face is the man who forges a new concept of morality to work from. As I have said before, Two-Face isn't Harvey Dent's problem, he's Harvey Dent's solution. And, with unexpected wisdom, Christopher Nolan wrote Two-Face exactly that way. That alone makes the Dark Knight a great film in my eyes (although, there are certainly many other reasons, as well).

Note only did Dark Knight's Two-Face meet my high hopes it exceeded them; it taught me something about Two-Face, it gave me a perspective on him I'd never had before. Someone finally showed me that Harvey Dent is a perfectionist and a control freak.

Gordon's men aren't "pure" enough for him, even though they're helping Gordon and him clean up Gotham. His effort to clean up Gotham gangs isn't just about justice, it's about tidiness and control. Remember the courtroom scene with Rachel, where he plays -- lies, really -- about letting Rachel take charge of the case if his coin comes up tails? It won't, of course, because it's a two-headed coin. It's rather a cruel trick to play on her; I mean, is that really an appropriate thing to do to ones co-worker and fiancee? Dent uses the coin as a mechanism of control, or, as he puts it, he "makes his own luck". He doesn't believe in luck, or fate, or chaos; only control.

And, like a good attorney, he works the law to his advantage, redefining justice in a way that suits his purposes. The biggest example is the hat trick of the use of RICO laws against the Gotham gangster. His pointless grilling of the asylum lunatic he captures is another; "This is craziness," Batman points out, "you can't control it through sheer force of will." But even trying to gain control of the Joker situation by claiming that he is Batman is an example of Dent's need to control everything with his own plans.

Now, I'm not saying that's bad per se; but it doesn't work out perfectly well for Harvey, does it? In his comic book origin, it's the scarring of his face that sends him around the bend, as a perfectionist pretty boy like Dent isn't well equipped for such a thing (if anyone is). In the filmic origin, it's the essential unfairness of what happens to him, his own failure, that undoes him. He did everything he could to control the situation; but he couldn't. He couldn't "make his own luck", and he doesn't know how to handle a world where he can't be in control. Thus, the Joker easily seduces him into adapting by abandoning control of his decision and abrogating them to a flip of his coin.

The coin releases Dent from further moral dilemmas. It creates a form of "justice" -- or, at least, the fairness of even odds -- that seems more adapted to this world he now sees he cannot control, where justice cannot always be forcibly imposed. It's not something he's tied to, or controlled by; it's something he uses to relieve himself from the burden of controlling the world. The relief is very evident in the scene where he put a gun to his own head to decide whether he lives or dies to pay for his role in Rachel's demise. There's no tension at all in the decision, it's no more difficult for him then deciding whether to shoot Batman or Gordon's kid.

Of course, Two-Face isn't an entirely different person than Harvey Dent, and how he uses the coin is proof of that. I remember being shocked when the coin spared Maroni; "Wait," I thought, "Is Two-Face just going to let Maroni go with equanimity? That's hard to believe!" Of course, he didn't. Having abided by the coin flip, he immediately redefined the process to get his own way, and shot Maroni's driver (thus killing Maroni). Two-Face, like Harvey Dent, still works the system. He still manipulates others and the world, he's just let go of controlling himself.


Rob Pugh said...

Also, use of the coin gives him a method of pseudo-control in a given situation.

Honestly, when you look at it, Dent as a type A control freak makes the most perfect sense. Kudos to Nolan [and Goyer, one would think] on teasing that thread out to perfection.

Type A's are generally the ones who go most batshit crazy when things don't go their way.

Michael said...

It's too bad that the ending of the movie makes it such that we won't be seeing Two-Face in a future movie.

Scipio said...

Actually, Michael, it's a carefully worded scene; it's perfectly ambiguous and can be interpreted either as him living or him dying.

paperghost said...

"Actually, Michael, it's a carefully worded scene; it's perfectly ambiguous and can be interpreted either as him living or him dying."

Interestingly, the novel of the film (written by Denny O' Neil, I think) states that he is indeed dead.

If they bring him back for 3, that would be a curious conflict..

Anonymous said...

I've been waiting to see how much you enjoyed tDK's Two-Face.

I attribute you with teaching me how to handle a proper Harvey. So to see it brought to life so expertly had to be giving you nerd-shivers.

I consider my enjoyment magnified thanks to your insights into Mr. Dent.

Thanks Scip.

Kevin T. said...

I think that Heath Ledger's unfortunate death makes it much more likely that we'll see Two-Face again--in fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they edited the final cut to make the ending more ambiguous about Harvey's final fate. Thus the difference with O'Neill's book. (Of course, this is a big guess.)

Captain Infinity said...

Interestingly, the novel of the film (written by Denny O' Neil, I think) states that he is indeed dead.

If they bring him back for 3, that would be a curious conflict..

Meh. Ian Malcolm died in Jurassic Park (the novel, not the film) but Crichton brought him back for the second book. When a character in the book said they heard he was dead, Malcolm's response was basically "You heard wrong."

Diabolu Frank said...

I thought Bruce Timm and Paul Dini had a similar handle on Two-Face in "Batman: The Animated Series" and a particularly great story from the first "Batman Black & White." I think a good deal of credit is due them. My interest in the character originated there, and was also among the few seeing "Dark Knight" mainly for Eackhart's Harvey Dent. The main difference with "TAS" was that mentally instability was established as part of Dent's makeup before Two-Face, where, as you rightly noted, it was a combination of personality defects and outrageous circumstance in the movie.

One other thing-- it seemed to me the press conferance served other ends, like managing Wayne's interest in Dawes by focusing all of her attention on himself in the event of temporary incarceration...

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, that's it! As soon as I saw him flip that damn two-headed coin and lie about it, I knew I was going to get something much closer to "my" Two-Face than I'll likely ever see in a Batman comic again. Plus, ego! A wonderful way to cinematize this character for the big screen, you put your finger right on it. Looking around the web, I'm quite surprised at how invested people seem to be in Harvey staying dead -- to hijack a phrase, surely a man that damaged is worth spending some more time on?

Let's hope so!

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that if Harvey really died in the movie, Gordon wouldn't have felt the need to state that their collective hopes died with Harvey's "reputation", rather than with Harvey himself. And it really wasn't that much of a fall, was it? Not that it wouldn't be oddly apt for Two-Face to die from falling two stories.


Scipio said...

"And it really wasn't that much of a fall, was it?"

That's why they had Maroni specifically mention earlier that a fall of that height wouldn't kill him.

The Shadow said...

It would certainly be interesting to see Two-Face in the third movie, but ever since I heard Goyer say they were looking to use villains that haven't been portrayed in movies yet, I'm interested to see who they could bring into the fold.

Anonymous said...

Boy, Gordon and Batman thought people would lose faith if they knew Harvey turned into a murdering psycho--just imagine the loss of faith if the people find out Harvey became a murdering psycho and then had his death faked by public officials more interested in keeping up Harvey's rep than pursuing justice!

Man, that was a long sentence.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this commentary on TDK has been great. I don't have much to add, besides that I'd like to see - if I may - a similar post with your speculation on if and how the Nolan brothers (and Goyer) would create a 3rd film. Characters, plot... Robin? Should they reuse the Joker? And if so, who should play the part?

I've read several times interviews of either Bale or Christopher Nolan where they stated they would like to eventually make a third and final film. And Bale flat out denying to participate if Robin was even hinted at and generally not being so hot on a JLA film.

Personally, I don't know where they could go from here. Maybe these two films worked as a filmic Year One. You know, who he is and how he came to be - I think Batman/Wayne wasn't a fully developed character until the end of TDK.

However by then, he's left in such a terrible and depressing state, that he really needs either a girlfriend (Catwoman) - which is even hinted in the 2nd film - or a really, really good friend (Robin). And that alone can't compare to the plot and acting found in TDK. Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

I really don't think anyone would use Two-Face in the third film. He wouldn't be caught dead an odd-numbered picture.

-Citizen Scribbler

Scipio said...

Far be it, Julian, for the kinds of me to imagine how a genius like Nolan could follow up this film. I mean, after the first film, could you have imagined this one?

Suffice it to say that it's all about finding the right conceptual hook for the character that continues to develop the themes already introduced. For example, around the comic book store, the "common wisdom" is, "Well, they couldn't possible use someone silly like the Penguin after this!"

Yet, the Penguin (just to pick one example) could easily be made to fit thematically with logical extensions of these issues.

In the Dark Knight, an antithesis is presented between the Old-style Mobster and the New-style costumed criminal (personified by the Joker). The Penguin could represent the synthesis of these supposed opposites, since he is both a crimelord anxious to maintain a public aura of respectability and a deformed villain capable of bizarre excesses, and personal combat with Batman.

When Batman, defender of the city, has been branded a criminal, who better to pit him against than the Penguin, a criminal, who (for example) is running for mayor?

Etc. ...

GatchamanDave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"shot Maroni's driver (thus killing Maroni)."

I didn't see Maroni's corpse, but I saw Dent's. And doing a Robin origin without Boss Maroni would be just wrong. As would be including Two-Face in any chapter other than the second.
I can see Batman taking the rap for a dead Harvey Dent's crimes, that's kind of romantic, but if Dent is alive, and Batman is covering up him, then he's abetting a murderer. Is that how Batman rolls?

Rob Pugh said...

Pre Crisis though, Maroni had nothing to do with Robin, only after Year 3 was Zucco part of the Maroni/Falcone mob. So needing a Maroni for Robin, not so much, really.

Rob Pugh said...

Sorry, that should've read "Dark Victory/Year 3"...

Anonymous said...

I'm remembering Maroni in the crime-boss role from the pre-revisionized original origin of Robin, circa 1940. But there's ample precedent for thinking I'm remembering it wrong. Zucco, huh? Well, good, then, because that means they WEREN'T laying the groundwork for a Robin origin in the next DK movie, so I kind of like being wrong about that.

LissBirds said...

I know this is an old post to comment on, but I have to say, your blog post on Two-Face knocked me out of my chair.

After seeing TDK, I thought the biggest flaw in their interpretation of Two-Face was that he was lacking the split-personality. (And backstory into his troubled childhood.) I whined and whined to my comic friends about how they missed an essential part of his character. But I *did* enjoy Nolan's interpretaion anyway.

I know I know why. After reading your post, it makes perfect sense to ditch all that split personality stuff. Your interpretation of the character is *much* creepier and complex. The scene in the limo with Maroni and the driver was key. Thanks to you, now I know precisely why he's always been my favorite villain of all time. It's a shame that currently in the DC universe he's been reduced to a stereotype.

Very insightful post. Thank you.