Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #82

The actor:Aaron Eckhart
The character:Harvey Dent
The film:The Dark Knight
The quote:“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

The line is giftwrapped, the meaning painfully obvious even to anyone who’s never picked up a Batman comic or, perhaps more relevantly, to the wide audiences this movie was meant to move. Harvey Dent, with Batman’s help, survives an explosion which might have killed him but merely leaves him mangled and disfigured. He does not die as the heroic, tough-on-organized-crime district attorney who has the charisma and courage to change Gotham. Instead he turns into a criminal uncommon in appearance but common in effect. This is what passes for “Shakespearean” in the 21st Century, but that’s neither here nor there.

If The Dark Knight is an interesting movie, and I’ll grant that at least it’s a diverting one, then it’s interesting because of its considerations on control. “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” the Joker asks Dent at his bedside. It’s the kind of question a lawyer would ask, because the Joker absolutely has a plan. It is a plan so convoluted that it’d make a Bond villain’s eyes cross with confusion, a plan which prizes reactive chaos as opposed to imposed order. But it’s still a plan. It’s still a seizure of power. It’s still a method of taking control. Dent’s obsession with flipping a coin, to pretend that the theoretical fairness of a 50-50 chance is not about returning some control to himself, is not so dissimilar from the Joker’s protestations that he is on the side of chaos, not control.

I wonder what Christopher Nolan makes of this line. I wonder if it’s something he believes himself or if it’s just something neat for a character in a picture to say. Nolan will turn fifty-three within two weeks of Oppenheimer going wide. There’s a way to read Nolan as a more or less heroic figure. He is one of an incredibly rare breed, a person who can make a motion picture without relying on previous IP and basically guarantee a financial success for the studio. Like James Cameron, who has made a couple sequels himself (even if it’s based on his own work), Nolan has the name brand to signify a recognizable style, a tone that even people who don’t care about movies can recognize. While the cognoscenti don’t particularly accept Nolan, I don’t know that the guy is reviled or anything in critical circles. He doesn’t have the backers that David Fincher has, who he’s often compared to, but he doesn’t tend to get the eyerolls you’d associate with people who are trying harder to make “art.” Heck, you can even get some people to cheer him because of his fidelity to theatrical exhibition, or to his frequent preference for film over digital. Does he expect, after years of being a heroic figure in movies for so many people, casual or otherwise, to ultimately become a villain?

3 thoughts on “Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #82

  1. For my money, and spoken as someone who has seen way fewer movies, this is my pick for the top movie quote of the century so far. It has stuck in the public lexicon far longer and better than just about any other, it’s pithy yet nicely symmetrical in construction, and it’s constantly relevant in these times of cultural upheaval. We’ve all lost so many heroes – Rowling to transphobic brainrot, Ye to [screeching white noise], you can surely think of a few others – and after a certain point in the wake of #MeToo, the very idea of idolizing someone you don’t personally know has become suspect or downright distasteful. We’re all dreading the next time we learn that an artist we like crosses a line too far for us to keep following. Then factor in the divisiveness of events like the 2016 election and the pandemic. We just can’t see some friends and family members and loved ones in the same light again. The certainty of this line holds up. The idea it expresses is just part of life now.

    To be clear, you’re not a villain to me for putting this quote in this position! I’m just sharing my view and what it means to me.

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