One of my favourite things about the Batman universe is its malleability. As has been demonstrated by the Silver Age comics, the 1960s Adam West TV series and the recent Christopher Nolan movies, Gotham City and its denizens can be modified to suit any particular tone and theme, all the while maintaining the core traits of the setting and characters. Bob Haney’s excitable 1970s globetrotter is as true to the character as Frank Miller’s hardened libertarian crime fighter. Likewise, the Joker maintains his glee and twisted sense of humour whether he is harmless (Cesar Romero) or malicious (Heath Ledger).
But there’s no better example of this thematic pliability than Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, Gotham’s physically—and psychologically—scarred former district attorney and one of Batman’s most iconic villains. Two-Face has been depicted in nearly every media adaptation of Batman, most recently Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and in each one of those instances the character’s origin and personality has been changed to fit the themes at play. The following are three of the best, in chronological order:
Batman: The Animated Series – “Two-Face,” parts 1 & 2 (1992)
WB’s Batman: The Animated Series was a defining part of my childhood, it being my first introduction to all things Caped Crusader. It could also be surprisingly dark and complex for a show aimed at kids, but then again, all of the best are. A fine instance of this occurs in the first season’s “Two-Face,” quite fittingly a two-part episode, which details the animated series continuity’s origin for Batman’s signature deformed villain. Rather than being scarred by acid, the cartoon Dent is mutilated by a chemical explosion while chasing after a crime boss.
The seeds for Dent’s later decisions are sown early in his life, when guilt brought on by acting on his angry impulses leads him to repress his more negative feelings. This inadvertently causes a second personality, “Big Bad Harv,” to manifest when pressured or overly-irritated. Mobster Rupert Thorne acquires Dent’s psychological profile on election night and demands that the DA ease up on his investigations or else have his skeletons exposed to the public. Big Bad Harv explodes on Thorne and his men, ultimately resulting in the explosion that disfigures him. In the aftermath, the Big Bad Harv personality takes over for good, “Harvey” only acting out through flips of the coin.
The two-parter came out just a couple years after an issue of Batman Annual that explored Two-Face’s origin in greater detail—and one that our next example, The Long Halloween, took elements from. Though the episodes decided not to follow that issue’s lead and depict child abuse in Dent’s past, that facet can still be felt in cartoon Dent’s childhood problems. “Two-Face” also depicted tolerant and supportive attitudes toward mental illness and the treatment thereof through Bruce Wayne’s sympathy for Dent, and keeps with the series’ trend toward providing sympathetic back stories for its villains (being responsible for the Emmy award-winning “Heart of Ice,” which rebooted Mr. Freeze as a tragic monster).
Batman: The Long Halloween (1996-7)
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween is one of the great Batman stories, and tied with Year One and R.I.P. as my personal favourite. I could go on and on about how excellent it is, but that’s too long a tangent for this article and the comic deserves an essay of its own. But one of the miniseries’ strongest points concerns itself with the downward spiral of Harvey Dent, who is one of the central characters along with Batman and mob boss Carmine “The Roman” Falcone.
While most variations on Two-Face’s origin are fairly compact—this article’s two bookending examples take place over a period of days—the fall of Harvey Dent plays out over The Long Halloween’s year-long duration. As with TAS’ “Two-Face,” Harvey’s story-arc touches on childhood trauma, specifically hinting at an abusive father, but here the DA’s fall from grace can be attributed more to a kind of moral corrosion brought about during his crusade against the mob. It’s glimpsed here and there during the earlier chapters—a snarky comment about a mafioso’s murder, a risky ploy that essentially uses another as bait—and takes more and more control as Dent encounters roadblocks, tragedy and treachery. The pillars of the legal system he used to praise start to look more like obstructions; this friction eats away at his resolve, much as the acid does to the left side of his face months down the line. And when Salvatore “The Boss” Maroni finally does hurl the bottle of acid during a tense cross-examination, it is merely the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Again, it’s a slow-burn, but one that feels more conventionally tragic than like a supervillain origin. And it fits with the transitory nature of The Long Halloween, a story that is essentially about change and how it affects people for better or for worse: Batman goes from outlaw vigilante to a proper crime fighter; the mob falls, the freaks take charge, etc. It’s a gradual, bloody revolution illustrated in Sale’s idiosyncratic twisted noire fashion, and Dent is caught in the crossfire. He emerges on the other side alive, but has been morally and physically contorted to fit the new paradigm.
The Dark Knight (2008)
While Heath Ledger’s Joker is (deservedly) the most memorable performance in the second part of Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy, Aaron Eckhart’s Dent and his turbulent character arc can easily go toe-to-toe with it. Back before the movie’s release, I was initially apprehensive upon learning Dent would gallivant about as Two-Face in The Dark Knight rather than saving the villain for another movie, but ultimately the decision worked for the best and in a manner befitting the film’s themes.
TDK’s characterization of Dent draws substantially from The Long Halloween, as do many of the film’s plot elements. You have an incorruptible district attorney going up against the mob, betrayal within the department, vengeance against a crime boss, all that. But, keeping his story arc consistent with the film’s themes, some significant attributes of Harvey’s downfall are lifted from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 Joker-centric story, The Killing Joke—attributes which, in that volume, applied to Commissioner Jim Gordon.
In The Killing Joke, the Joker abducts Gordon and, over the course of one traumatic night, subjects him to a veritable choreographed dance sequence of torment: stripping him nude, beating him senseless, and forcing him to look at lewd photographs of his wounded daughter, Barbara. The Joker’s intent is to send the commissioner over the edge, proving that all that separates the Clown Prince of Crime from the rest of humanity is “one bad day.” Gordon proves himself to be the stronger man in the end, not only enduring his night of physical and psychological torture but commanding that Batman should take the Joker in on their terms, rather than crossing the line and beating him into submission.
A similar scenario plays out in the latter half of The Dark Knight, with the Joker forcing Dent to go through one bad day of his own. Dent is betrayed by a corrupt police officer, abducted and, in spite of Batman’s intervention, mutilated; to boot, his fiancée is killed. As if his optimism hasn’t been shattered enough, the Joker enters his hospital room and psychologically manipulates him even further, turning him against the system he’s championed during the entirety of his career. Unlike Gordon, Dent doesn’t stand firm but gives in to his baser natures, arming himself with a handgun and chance and embarking on a bitter rampage that supplies the film’s tragic climax. Rather than being for the sake of adaptation—“Two-Face does this in the comics so he should do this in the movie.”—Dent’s downfall jives perfectly with Batman and the Joker’s “battle for Gotham’s soul.”
So there we are: the same character, undergoing similar trials and tribulations and making the same moral decision and employing the same methods, but each time for a different reason that serves the larger themes of the relevant story. All three instances exemplify adaptation at its best and are virtual textbooks on the subject. Storytellers pay heed.