The Tragedy of Harvey Dent

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March 2, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

“Emotion is always the enemy of true justice”

-Two-Face…from Batman Forever

I don’t know if this is a uniquely American trait, or something that’s reflective of humanity as a whole, but if there’s one thing we love watching more than someone’s fall from grace, it’s their quest for redemption.  When this aspect of villainy is applied to anyone, be they real or fictitious, they automatically become more layered, nuanced, and therefore less “evil” for it.  That’s why we don’t hate Darth Vader as much as we hate the Emperor, and why we don’t hate Lebron James as much as we hate Dwight Howard.

For anyone who was once a paragon of virtue, but had then become corrupted into becoming a heel, there’s a sliver of hope that’s afforded to them that they will come to their senses and abandon their newfound devious ways.  We know that they’re not completely evil, just misguided, and that lack of guidance and clarity of judgment automatically makes them more interesting and therefore less loathsome.  This is only a small part of why Two-Face is the second most important villain that Batman has ever dueled.[1]

Now, this isn’t to say that he’s the second most important or powerful, by no means; that distinction goes to Ra’s al Ghul.[2]  But, in terms of emotional currency and effects they have on Batman, barring the Joker, no one is more important than Harvey Dent.  Because Batman couldn’t save Harvey Dent, he now has to deal with Two-Face, a living reminder of Batman’s failure.  No matter what he does, and in spite of whatever victories he may achieve, so long as Harvey Dent is not redeemed, Batman will forever be a failure.  Every time they clash, the dark knight is aware of this fact, and it’s for this reason that unlike with his other rogues, Batman doesn’t want to defeat Two-Face, instead, he wants to redeem him and restore Harvey Dent to the man he was prior to his fall from grace.

As a four year old in the spring of 1995, eagerly awaiting the release of Batman Forever, I had already decided that Two-Face would be my favorite villain of all time, across any medium.  The fact that Harvey Dent was not only a friend to Bruce Wayne, but an ally to Batman in the war against crime, and the subsequent tragedy that turned him into Two-Face was something that instantly gripped me.  He was a good man, who was brought down by not only the external forces he was fighting against, but also by his own personal demons, all the while everyone else stood by without lending a hand.  When acid was hurled in his face by a crime boss, all the repressed psychological trauma he had endured over the years erupted to the surface in the form of Two-Face, a very literal manifestation of the id.  When written correctly (Jeph Loeb), Two-Face isn’t evil, he’s simply an exhibition of all the repressed anger, rage, and want of Harvey Dent.  He isn’t a thug who wants to cause reckless destruction or perpetuate crime.  Quite the opposite, in The Long Halloween the only difference between Harvey Dent and Two-Face is the means through which they achieve their goals.  They share the same noble goal that Batman and Jim Gordon aspire to, but Two-Face will get there by any means necessary.  Instead of legally apprehending Mafioso Carmine Falcone, Two-Face simply murdered him as that too would have shattered his criminal empire.  But, because Two-Face is, ideally speaking, not evil but misguide, he still allowed himself to be arrested for the murder of Falcone.

The fall of Harvey Dent and his subsequent descent into madness is particularly accessible because it draws upon the tragedy of his turn from upstanding figure of justice and goodness into a force of chaos and rage, but also constantly parlays the idea that there is still hope for redemption.  Batman’s war on crime will not be complete until Harvey Dent has been restored, and it’s because Gotham lost the most important symbol of goodness in Dent.  More so than even Batman, Gotham City needed Harvey Dent to instill a newfound sense of hope and faith in the legal system, that justice still mattered as opposed to vigilante tactics pursued by the Bat.  But instead Dent was forcibly consumed by the chaos and evil that plagued the city.  The worst part about it is that there were witnesses to Harvey’s fall, but they all failed to come to his aid.  They saw the cracks in his mental fortitude, but still could not ease his Sisyphean burden, Batman was at the trial on the day Dent was scarred, but reacted too late to the tragedy from which Two-Face was born, and still countless times people have failed to purge the Two-Face persona from Dent.  It was a fall from grace that could have been prevented at many points, and unfortunately for Harvey Dent, because good men did nothing for him evil flourished.

Beloved stories such as The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, which shed light on the transformation of Harvey Dent into Two-Face, have unfortunately been rendered nonexistent since the reboot of the DC Universe.  No longer is Harvey the shining beacon of hope and goodness as he was prior.  Instead, as told in recent issuer of Batman and Robin, Harvey Dent was a self-serving defense attorney who became the district attorney of Gotham because he was offered a better deal.  After he prosecuted his former clients (which I’m pretty sure is illegal), she murdered Dent’s wife Gilda, and scarred Two-Face.

This new Dent spits in the face of what made the Harvey Dent of the old DCU so human, and so multi-faceted.  Harvey Dent was goodness, and hope, but he was corrupted by opposing forces, because of his dedication to his virtuous ideals.  Now, he’s a self-serving back-stabber who is impossible to sympathize with.  Originally, Batman had reason to lament and hold himself responsible for failing Harvey Dent in his time of need, but now, since the reboot, Batman doesn’t really owe him anything because Dent is such a bastard.  It destroys his fall from grace, if he was never of a high moral fiber to begin with.  That’s the crux of the fall from grace cliché, the loss of purity and decency in exchange for corruption and selfishness.  In the old DCU, we had hope that Harvey Dent could overcome Two-Face, because there was still a morally righteous and innately good man deep beneath the physical and mental scars.  The new Harvey Dent offers no such righteousness or decency, and because of that it’s hard to care about him, or believe Batman’s investment in Two-Face.  And to destroy that which makes Two-Face important and stand out to Batman is a disservice to the character and to the great storytelling that made Two-Face so captivating in the first place.

[1] Obviously, the Joker is #1…obviously.

[2] But most of this is really predicated on his daughter Talia and her love for Bruce Wayne.  Without Talia, Ra’s is just the hippie version of Osama Bin Laden.


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