The Dark Knight's Most Famous Line, Explained By The Guy Who Actually Wrote It

There's no one way to play Batman. With "Batman Returns," star Michael Keaton cut more than half his lines, making for a broody, mysterious Dark Knight that fit perfectly among the more outlandish freaks that populated Tim Burton and production designer Bo Welch's nightmare fairytale landscape. For his Dark Knight trilogy, however, Christopher Nolan wasn't afraid to let Christian Bale's Batman bellow multiple lines using his now-famous guttural growl.

Both approaches worked, but there's no doubt Nolan's trilogy presented a much more quotable Dark Knight. Several of Bale's most striking Batman lines have now been solidified in pop culture history, with perhaps his infamously overwrought "Swear to me!" from "Batman Begins" being the most salient example. But Bale's Batman wasn't the only part of Nolan's trilogy that proved infinitely quotable. The director's scripts were a treasure trove of meme-able lines, many of which found their way into mass culture almost immediately.

One line, in particular, has uniquely persisted in the culture ever since it was uttered by Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent in "The Dark Knight": "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." It was odd to learn, then, that director Christopher Nolan didn't even understand the line. While doing the press rounds for "Oppenheimer," Nolan revealed to Deadline that his brother, Jonathan Nolan, wrote the dialogue in question, adding:

"It kills me because it's the line that most resonates. At the time, I didn't even understand it.[...] I read it in [Jonathan's] draft, and I was like, 'All right, I'll keep it in there, but I don't really know what it means. Is that really a thing?'"

Now, Jonathan has stepped in to clear things up once and for all and explain the most well-known line he's ever written.

Jonathan Nolan explains his 'see yourself become the villain' line

Casual Christopher Nolan fans might not realize how integral Jonathan Nolan has been to his brother's career. The British director, whose "Oppenheimer" absolutely dominated the 2024 Oscars, has collaborated with his brother numerous times, with Jonathan co-writing "The Prestige," "Interstellar," and, of course, "The Dark Knight." In the latter's case, after "Batman Begins" scribe David S. Goyer hammered out a story, Jonathan Nolan set to work on drafting the script over six months, checking in with his brother, who was working on "The Prestige" at the time, throughout. Chris Nolan then stepped in and the brothers refined the script together.

One small element Christopher didn't have any input on, however, was the "see yourself become the villain" line. As we know, the director didn't understand the line at the time, which is pretty surprising given this is the man who bought us the time-bending action of "Tenet," which even a seasoned filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino couldn't understand. Thankfully, Jonathan has now provided us all with more insight into the line itself. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the "Westworld" co-creator said:

"It came later in the script. We've done a version or two of the script where we were looking for something that would distill the tragedy of Harvey Dent, but that would also apply to Batman."

The tragedy of Harvey Dent in "The Dark Knight" was, of course, his slow transmogrification from Gotham's upstanding "White Knight" defender to depraved villain bent on revenge. Meanwhile, Batman takes the fall for Dent's post-transformation crimes, thereby becoming a villain in the eyes of Gotham's citizens. In that sense, when Dent delivers the line earlier in the film, it's a grim portent of things to come for both he and Bruce Wayne/Batman.

The 'see yourself become the villain' line refers to Batman and Harvey Dent

That wasn't all Jonathan Nolan had to say about what is arguably his most famous contribution to "The Dark Knight." Specifically, the writer explained how his line is more than just a way to foreshadow the events that would befall Harvey Dent and Batman and refers to the paradox at the heart of Batman as a character. He said:

"The richness of Batman is in the way this principled, almost Boy Scout-like figure is wrapped up in this kind of ghoulish appearance and his willingness to embrace the darkness. So I was looking at Greek tragic figures."

In this sense, the symbiotic relationship between hero and villain and the way in which the dark informs the light and vice versa, speaks to the way in which Batman has been, to borrow a phrase from Tom Hardy's Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises," "molded by the dark" without necessarily becoming consumed by it. Meanwhile, Dent's arc in "The Dark Knight" sees the character very much consumed by the dark, making the pair — and by extension the archetypes of hero (or perhaps antihero) and villain — two sides of the same coin (as represented by Dent's defaced silver dollar).

Jonathan Nolan's line also contains the DNA of a famous idiom

As if that wasn't enough to clear things up, Jonathan Nolan had more to say about the "see yourself become the villain" line. Breaking it down in sections, he said:

"The first part of that line is 'you either die a hero' — and that part's important, because not everybody wants to be a hero; it's engaging in heroics that puts you in this space, where you have this binary outcome. The idea is there are people who put themselves on the line and so often that wager turns on them."

Nolan continued to lay out how this line speaks to Lord Acton's aphorism about how "absolute power corrupts absolutely." The writer claims that his dialogue "felt uniquely resonant to the tragedy of Harvey Dent and the tragedy of Batman," who both grapple with power in its many forms throughout "The Dark Knight."

Nolan wrapped up his comments by stating, "The fact that it resonates with people beyond the film is gratifying. I was proud of that line" — which is understandable given its cultural impact and the textual richness contained within. While Jonathan Nolan, like his brother, sometimes has a tendency to produce convoluted scripts (just try to follow "Westworld" without getting confused at least once), this line in particular speaks to the Nolan brother's talent for distillation and remains deserving of the recognition it has since received.

Jonathan Nolan's latest series, "Fallout" is set to tackle modern politics using the "M*A*S*H" approach, and will debut on Prime Video April 12, 2024.