Understanding the Character: Two-Face


30 Days of Batman

The Joker may laugh, Catwoman may seduce, Scarecrow may frighten, and The Riddler…well, he’ll just riddle you, but it’s Two-Face who will utterly break your heart. When I was tasked to this assignment, Editor-in-Chief Clayton Davis and I had never once discussed my love for all-things Batman. How he managed to select Two-Face for me, my favorite of Batman villains — heck my favorite Batman character besides the caped crusader himself — out of the multitude of characters is the greatest example of a man with psychic abilities. I cannot stress my adoration of one of the most tragic villains in any fictional universe, and so it is my great pleasure to unravel the complexity, the sheer humanity of the Dark Knight’s greatest failure. You think Michael Corleone and Anakin Skywalker’s descent into evil is heartbreaking? Wait until you witness the dark path of Gotham City’s most trusted district attorney and do-gooder, Harvey Dent, as he becomes absorbed and transformed by the very criminal hell that he so judiciously fights against. And with a two-headed silver dollar to decide his fate and those around him, Harvey Dent/Two-Face goes down a plethora of journeys within the Batman multiverse, none of them leading to a road of happiness or salvation. Let us now peel back the layers of the sorrowful anti-hero known as Two-Face…

Two-Face made his first appearance in Detective Comics #66, which was released in August of 1942 at the height of World War II. At this stage of the greatest war known to man, America was fully committed to ending the reign of tyranny and genocide brought about by Nazi Germany. The tone of the war is deeply entrenched in this particular comic strip. In this Batman adventure, Harvey Kent (his surname before it was changed to “Dent”) is introduced as a district attorney who is about to bring down Gotham’s biggest “Fat Cat” criminal, Sal Maroni. Before Kent is able to put Maroni behind bars for good, Maroni throws acid on one side of Kent’s face in vengeance — Maroni believes Kent to be responsible for the death of his father. Becoming unhinged and ashamed by his scarring, Kent turns to crime, renames himself Two-Face, and takes Maroni’s silver dollar as his own personal good-luck (or bad-luck) charm, which he scars on one side. Batman and Robin then attempt to stop Kent’s crime spree, but Batman — even from the very beginning — has a soft and compassionate spot in his heart for Kent. He truly feels bad about Kent’s accidental scarring, and wishes to help in his recovery instead of placing him behind bars for the rest of his days. Two-Face’s only hope is a plastic surgeon who is currently locked away in a Nazi concentration camp. Impatient and unwilling to wait, Two-Face decides what he’ll do with the flip of a coin, but when the coin lands on its edge, there is no solution at hand…simply a continuous life of miserable existence. The fact that the cruelties brought about by Nazism is what prevents Kent from going back to living a normal, crime-free life speaks volumes about Kent’s entrapment within a world of chaos, disorder, and unspeakable evil. Even if Kent wanted to change his life for the better, he knows that whatever he does will always be impeded by unlimited crime and human cruelty. Therefore, rather than fight against the dark plague within his inhabited society, Kent decides to join it but lets a coin decide the course of every action instead of the crime lords and corrupt honchos that control Gotham from all borders.

You want my recommendation for best “Two-Face” origin story? Read Jeph Loeb’s ‘The Long Halloween.’

From then on, Two-Face faced a roller coaster of journeys, one of which includes a name change from “Harvey Kent” to “Harvey Dent” to avoid confusion with the Man of Steel, Clark Kent. As the Batman comics continued through the years, the writers didn’t seem to know what to really do with Dent’s Two-Face. He was too gruesome to be showcased on the kid-friendly television series of the 1960s (Clint Eastwood was a possibility for the role), and instead was known as “False-Face” so that way the fanboys couldn’t completely object — although I’m sure that had no calming effect on the fans whatsoever. Rather than try to flesh out the character to greater depth, the writers at the time created pseudo-versions of Two-Face with similar afflictions: Paul Sloane, George Blake, and Harvey Apollo. The three are more like imposters of Two-Face rather than completely new versions, and as such Harvey Dent’s return to the Batman multiverse was all but guaranteed. By the time the mid-1970s rolled around, Harvey Dent had returned in full force. Dent’s character throughout these decades was practically given the yo-yo treatment. One minute he was cured, his face reconstructed through the help of makeup and facial surgery, and back in the good graces of fellow buddies Commissioner Gordon and Batman/Bruce Wayne. Then before you knew it, his “Mr. Hyde” personality would be triggered by some event, and Two-Face would once again emerge as one of Gotham’s most dangerous threats, his insanity the driving force of his dark tidings. Basically, Two-Face was flip-flopping more than your average politician, and it was high time some brilliant comic book writer step in to really take the character of Harvey Dent back to his roots, uncovering the tragedy and humanity of this lost soul without recycling what had become a caricature of the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde persona. That writer, who not only reinvigorated the character of Harvey Dent/Two-Face but also the Batman comic-verse as a whole, was none other than Mr. Frank Miller. In 1987, Miller published his semi-genesis comic book story of the rise of Batman, entitled Batman: Year One. In this graphic novel, we are introduced to Harvey Dent, Gotham’s young district attorney who is a loyal friend and political ally to Commissioner Gordon and Bruce Wayne. This trio of men are all committed to bringing some light to Gotham City’s seemingly impenetrable darkness, impossible as that may be, and set their sights on Carmine “The Roman” Falcone, the head mob boss in Gotham. The tight bond the men form in their unity against Gotham’s underworld makes what occurs in Jeph Loeb’s sequel, Batman: The Long Halloween (the greatest graphic novel I’ve ever read, by the way), all the more tragic. In 1997’s The Long Halloween, Batman, Gordon and Dent are still attempting to bring the Falcone family to justice, but they find themselves in a bit of a moral quandary when a serial killer, known only as “Holiday,” begins to murder members of the Falcone family one by one on each major holiday. Do the trio of justice enforcers sit by while Holiday gets rid of the troublesome Falcone family, or do they follow the law by prioritizing the apprehension of this serial killer, whose brutal murders have incited fear in all of Gotham? This moral debate divides Harvey Dent and Bruce, placing great strain on their once unbreakable friendship. Dent is planning on having a child with his wife Gilda, but only feels safe enough to start a family when the Falcones are all gone. Batman/Bruce Wayne wishes to uphold the law by letting Falcone and his men stand trial for their crimes, not let their fates be decided by the gruesome killings of a vigilante’s handiwork. When Dent’s old nemesis Sal Maroni is about to testify against Carmine Falcone, Maroni throws hot acid from a medicine bottle at Dent’s face before he is about to take the stand. Dent, like in Detective Comics #66, goes ballistic when he finds his face disfigured, kills his doctor at the hospital and then escapes. When Batman learns of Dent’s murderous actions, he then suspects Harvey to have been Holiday the entire time, his quest for vengeance against the Falcones more believable now that he’s turned into a cold-blooded killer. All Harvey Dent wants is to pave a peaceful existence so that he and his wife can start a family, but everyone’s suspicions of him as the killer, not to mention his unfortunate scarring, is anguishing to see unfold. I will not disclose the true identity of “Holiday,” because that’s one of the greatest reveals in any form of fiction I’ve ever encountered, but let’s just say that Miller and Loeb’s characterizations of Dent/Two-Face put him back on the path of his originally intended place within the Batman universe. The Two-Face origin story above is what I deem as the “Definitive Two-Face” arc, but what did film and television of the 1990s offer the character our tragic villain?

In Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Harvey Dent is the newly elected District Attorney of Gotham, played rather invisibly by the charming Billy Dee Williams. Because Dent’s character was so minimal and underused in Batman, plans were scrapped for the character’s return in Batman Returns; Catwoman, Penguin, and Max Shreck served as the primary antagonists of the film instead. Just when we (happily) thought that the character of Two-Face wasn’t going to be introduced in what was becoming a downward spiral of a movie franchise, Tommy Lee Jones was cast as the multiple-personality coin-flipper himself in the justifiably maligned Batman Forever. The film does a lazy retelling of Two-Face’s facial scarring, caused by Sal Maroni’s acid-slinging (haven’t we heard this before?), and has Two-Face blame Batman for not stopping this tragedy from occurring. Again, without a deep friendship and brotherhood established between Wayne and Dent, why do we even care or blame Batman when Jones’ Two-Face does in fact turn into Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde? Batman Forever does nothing but play up Two-Faces’ insanity and multiple-personality disorder — any focus in trying to humanize this villain is nonexistent in the film. Hell, even Mr. Freeze was humanized somewhat with the subplot of his frozen wife in Schumacher’s more offensive Batman & Robin! Let’s pretend this version of Two-Face never existed, shall we? Moving on…

Animated or not, this is television writing at its finest.

In television, the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series develops the Two-Face origin story in a much different, more internally personal way. Although I prefer Jeph Loeb’s Two-Face characterization the best, there was something about this animated two part episode, simply called Two Face, that touched me on a profound level. In this story, Harvey Dent already has a bad side to him, a temperamental side if you will, called “Big Bad Harv.” This hidden part of his personality was first created during childhood when he beat up a bully. That paradox of violence and justice teetered within Dent like a see-saw until one began to outweigh the other. After a mob boss named Rupert Thorne (no Sal Maroni — what a relief!) discovers a psychiatric file of Dent’s which heavily details the personality of “Big Bad Harv,” Thorne blackmails Harvey in the hopes of using the weakness of “Big Bad Harv” to his advantage. Dent loses control to “Big Bad Harv” by this provocation, and gets scarred at a power plant during a shootout. By trying to save his life from a thug’s gunshots, Batman accidentally originates Dent’s facial scarring when the scattered bullets cause an explosion, burning off half of Dent’s face as a result. Dent subsequently becomes the gangster and crime lord we all know him to be, but it’s his romance with his fiance Grace that really pulled at my heartstrings. Even with “Big Bad Harv” in total control, Two-Face still loves Grace but the two know that nothing will ever be the same again now that Harvey has committed appalling crimes and looks like a monster. Grace is the one thread that Two-Face has to his former self, but by the episode’s end it becomes clear that the thread will soon unravel forever.

Finally, we have the characterization that the majority of film-goers know and love — Christopher Nolan’s “Two-Face” played so perfectly by Aaron Eckhart in 2008’s The Dark Knight. In the film, Eckhart’s Dent yearns to champion his title of Gotham’s “White Knight” by upholding justice and due process of law amidst the corruption, crime, and greed that afflicts Gotham City. Dent is overly kind, noble, and righteous when it comes to his by-the-book methods, but it makes him who he is, leading Batman and Commissioner Gordon to believe that Dent is the man who will lead Gotham to brighter days. Unfortunately, when *SPOILER ALERT* Dent’s fiance Rachel Dawes (former childhood love of Bruce Wayne) is killed in an explosion set up by The Joker, Dent transforms his honest crime-fighting into a chance-driven vengeance against all those who destroyed his life, including — you guessed it — Sal Maroni. The hospital scene where Joker talks to Harvey Dent, convincing him that there’s nothing left to live for except to exact revenge, completely encapsulates the tragedy surrounding the character of Two-Face. He finds himself in circumstances that are completely unfair, caused by an unfixable and unjust society, and no matter how hard he tries to be a good and decent human being, the only way he can fully make a change is to go down the seedy path of criminality. In Gotham, criminals have all the power; they make the rules and bring about change — to Harvey Dent/Two-Face, that power is what can sustain his existence now that everything else in his life has been taken away. So what is the fate of Harvey Dent/Two-Face currently? Ironically enough, in both the comics (canonically speaking) and Nolan’s film franchise he is presumed dead. In Paul Dini’s The Streets of Gotham, a comic circulation that ran from 2009-2011, Two-Face’s story arc ends with one of his henchmen stabbing him, his body found disposed of in the middle of a lake. As we all know in The Dark Knight — or, I should like to think so — Dent/Two-Face falls to his death at the hands of Batman during the coin-flipping of chance that finalized the death of Commissioner Gordon’s son in Dent’s mind. Rather than reveal to the public Dent’s plummet into crime, Batman takes responsibility for Dent’s murders and rampage across Gotham. In the end, it is Harvey Dent, not the villainous Two-Face, that the people of Gotham will remember. In the comics, perhaps it was finally time for Two-Face to be put out of his misery after a life of being torn by two opposing personalities. Of course, this is the Batman multiverse, so Two-Face/Harvey Dent will never truly be dead, but I do ask you this: is it best that Harvey remain dead, or do you hope someday, somehow he can return to his former glorified position as Gotham’s most trusted district attorney? Would it be more poignant if he reclaims his hero status and doesn’t correct his facial scarring? And the big question I’m still wondering is this: Is there even the slightest possibility that we’re in for a major, MAJOR shock during The Dark Knight Rises? You all know what I’m referring to. It has to be something kept totally under wraps by all involved, but is it a stretch to even suggest that Aaron Eckhart might miraculous come back in Christopher Nolan’s final entry in the series as Two-Face? I know it’s likely impossible, but I for one am not discounting anything until I see the finished product. In total, I hope you’ve come to appreciate Two-Face a bit more, and hopefully many can seek out the popular story arcs of Harvey Dent/Two-Face that greatly flesh out his humanity as opposed to the predictable Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde syndrome that’s threatened to nullify his significance as a great character study.

I leave you all with a quote from The Dark Knight that perfectly sums up Two-Face, his relationship with Gordon and Batman, and his criminal rationalization: “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time. But you were wrong. The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance.” — Harvey Dent/Two-Face