Jonathan Nolan Clarifies That “The Dark Knight” Line About Heroes and Villains

Nolan co-wrote the film and came up with the line in question

Harvey Dent ad campaign
A poster touting the campaign of "The Dark Knight" character Harvey Dent.
Bobby Bank/WireImage

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” It’s one of at least two eminently quotable lines from the blockbuster film The Dark Knight — and it’s something that’s also become part of the broader pop culture landscape. The other? “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Both are elegantly phrased and aphoristic enough to be used in virtually any situation. (Including, one assumes, virtually any New Yorker cartoon caption contest.)

The 2008 film was written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, and the latter — whose most recent credit is the upcoming streaming series Fallout — recently clarified the origin of the line about heroes and villains. In the film, the line is uttered by one Harvey Dent, whose arc in the film takes him from idealistic political candidate to horrifically disfigured villain, and can be described as an especially memorable example of foreshadowing.

As The Hollywood Reporter‘s James Hibberd explained, Christopher Nolan has credited his brother with the line in question. In a more recent interview, Jonathan Nolan explained that the line was meant to resonate with both Dent and Bruce Wayne in different ways.

“The idea is there are people who put themselves on the line and so often that wager turns on them. It’s also that old idea of absolute power corrupting absolutely,” Jonathan Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter. “It felt uniquely resonant to the tragedy of Harvey Dent and the tragedy of Batman.”

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A quick survey of the internet suggests that Dent’s fateful line has entered wide use in a variety of situations, politically and otherwise. It’s worth pointing out that a very different line from the same film made The Hollywood Reporter‘s 2016 list of the top 100 movie quotes chosen by readers in the entertainment industry — namely, “Why so serious?” It’s fuel for the argument that The Dark Knight is the most quotable superhero adaptation of all time.

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