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Jonathan Nolan Explains the Origin of ‘The Dark Knight’s’ Most Famous Line

Recently, Christopher Nolan made an interesting admission: The most famous line from his fan-favorite Batman film, 2008’s The Dark Knight, wasn’t his creation and was a line that he initially didn’t quite get. Nolan said his brother, frequent collaborator and co-writer Jonathan came up with the prophetic line, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

“I’m plagued by a line from The Dark Knight, and I’m plagued by it because I didn’t write it,” Nolan told Deadline last month. “My brother wrote it. It kills me, because it’s the line that most resonates. And at the time, I didn’t even understand it … I read it in his 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?’ And then, over the years since that film’s come out, it just seems truer and truer. In [Oppenheimer], it’s absolutely that. Build them up, tear them down. It’s the way we treat people.”

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At the South by Southwest Film & TV Festival earlier this month, The Hollywood Reporter asked Jonathan Nolan about his thought process for coming up with the line. As viewers will recall, the dialogue is spoken by Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) early in the film while they’re having a chat in a restaurant (video below).

“It came later in the script,” recalled Nolan (Westworld, Interstellar), who was at the festival to promote his upcoming Amazon sci-fi action-drama Fallout. “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 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.”

Continued Nolan: “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. It’s also that old idea of absolute power corrupting absolutely. It felt uniquely resonant to the tragedy of Harvey Dent and the tragedy of Batman. The fact that it resonates with people beyond the film is gratifying. I was proud of that line.”

Indeed, the line cleverly foreshadows what is literally going to happen to Dent (going from a heroic DA to murderous monster), but also what happens to Batman in terms of his public perception (going from a vigilante with widespread support to taking the blame for Two-Face’s murders in order to uphold Dent’s mob convictions). Both characters have a similar hero-to-villain arc, but one is kept secret, while the other is a false perception.

As Christopher Nolan noted with his comparison to Oppenheimer, the line is now sometimes used when the public turns on a popular figure. It’s a cycle of build-up and tear-down that sometimes seems to happen faster than ever in the age of social media.

Nolan’s upcoming Prime Video show Fallout (showrun by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner) is based on the massively successful video game franchise and tells the story “of haves and have-nots in a world in which there’s almost nothing left to have.” Set 200 years after a nuclear apocalypse, it will follow the “gentle denizens of luxury fallout shelters,” who are forced back into the harsh world they’ve kept at bay. Ella Purnell (Yellowjackets) stars as Lucy, an idealistic vault dweller whose ideals are tested when people harm her loved ones, while Walton Goggins plays The Ghoul, a bounty hunter on the surface who’s hiding his past. Fallout is set to premiere April 11.

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