‘Dark Knight’ Explores Yet Another Side Of Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent

Aaron Eckhart follows in the footsteps of Tommy Lee Jones, Billy Dee Williams and others who portrayed the schizophrenic DA.

What if Barack Obama were killing off bad guys in his spare time, all in the name of “change we can believe in”? What if we discovered that Mahatma Gandhi had inspired all those movements for civil rights by secretly doing away with those who opposed him? What if a crusading attorney general for a city known as Gotham was exposed as breaking the very laws he claimed to enforce, revealing a dark side that lusted for … $1,000-an-hour call girls ?

OK, maybe that last one isn’t so much of a stretch.

The themes of “golden boy” politicians, the fine line between enforcing the law and breaking it, and the Jekyll-and-Hyde hidden lives of those who represent us existed long before such scandal-inducing names as Clinton, Spitzer and Nixon. And for 63 years, they’ve fueled the story of Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, who’ll receive a vivid new chapter when Aaron Eckhart brings the character back to the big screen next week in “The Dark Knight.”

“I was familiar with Dent as much as I knew he was an iconic Batman character,” the “Thank You for Smoking” star said of the scarred Gotham City district attorney. “I didn’t know the ins and outs of Dent. But when I got the part, thank goodness, [director] Chris [Nolan] sent me the comic books, and I started to do research and I met people. It’s funny, because when people knew that I was going to be Harvey ‘Two-Face,’ they came out of the woodwork, and the most unlikely people were coming up to me with facts. It was like baseball facts, like the 1932 World Series, third inning. … How do you know this stuff?”

The fact is that although Joker, Penguin and the Riddler make up the holy trinity of comicdom’s most vividly painted supervillains, it is Two-Face whose visibility has grown the most over the past two decades. When the character made his first appearance in Detective Comics No. 66 (August 1942), the legendary Bob Kane and Bill Finger conceived of him as another gimmicky villain, along the lines of the Dick Tracy villains so popular at the time. But as the decades passed, Dent’s backstory became far more complicated. (You can check out the evolutions of the Joker and Batman too.)

“It speaks to that core in all of us, which is that we have a light side and a dark side,” explained comic book writer Jeph Loeb. “He’s just a goofy guy with half a face who flips a coin and decides whether or not that should be the reason to commit crimes, until you realize who he was and why he believes in anything.”

While many things about Harvey have changed over the years (like his cheesy dependence on committing crimes at, say, two o’clock on February 2 in honor of his name), certain key elements have remained largely in place: his crusader’s representation of Batman’s better instincts; the acid bath that opens his eyes (eye?) to the unfair flipside of life; Batman’s guilt over not being able to save him. And then, of course, there’s the coin — a long-standing cinematic device that Kane and Finger reportedly swiped from the 1932 film “Scarface,” and which was most recently recycled by Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men.”

“I don’t have the coin,” Eckhart said. “I enjoyed playing with the coin, but I don’t have it. I didn’t keep it.”

When Batman really came into his own with the 1960s TV show that bared his name, loyal comics fans wondered where Two-Face had gone. The character had fallen on hard times, making only a handful of recent comic appearances while being phased out for more “kid-friendly” villains. The campy nature of the Adam West show sought to maintain that tone.

“Yeah, but the Riddler was dark. And obviously, they would have made him pertinent for that time,” Eckhart argued of the character’s omission. “I would have liked to have seen him, because I watched that show.”

In 1971 writer Dennis O’Neil returned Two-Face to prominence as one of Bruce Wayne’s key enemies, and later work by Frank Miller, Grant Morrison and Andrew Helfer gave Dent a complicated backstory that dug deeper into his schizophrenia. Various books have explored what would happen if Dent could surgically repair his appearance (it still won’t fix his mind) or if his coin were taken away (again, bad results), but it wasn’t until 1989 that Dent took baby steps toward true superstardom in Tim Burton‘s “Batman.”

None other than Billy Dee “Lando Calrissian” Williams was cast in that movie as an unscarred Dent, a role Burton had hoped to develop further in the sequels he’d never make. In the years that followed, Two-Face would adapt to the kid-friendly leanings that had once kept him in the background, leading to Tommy Lee Jones becoming the first actor to ever take on both sides of the role.

“I thought he died,” Lee replied recently when we told him Eckhart was bringing the character back. “Aaron is a good actor. He can take care of himself. But that makeup is difficult!”

“It’s a different movie, it’s a different tone,” Eckhart said of TLJ’s performance in 1995′s “Batman Forever.” “The tone of that Batman is completely different than Chris’ vision.”

And as fans will soon see, the look of the character is quite different as well. But at his core, Harvey is still tapping into those same shadowy themes that he has for decades.

“Chris has taken [Two-Face] in a slightly more realistic, darker tone,” Eckhart explained. “I love Harvey Dent. When I read the script, I was amazed by the trajectory and transformation that Harvey has. Given the fact that the Joker is in the movie and propels the action, I was surprised by how much Harvey had to do, and what a light he is in the movie. It’s interesting to get to know Harvey as an altruistic leader of Gotham City who wants to clean up the crime, and confronting the issues that others won’t confront. And then to see his transformation into Two-Face, I think that the audience is going to have a little more empathy and understanding.”

Summing up his modern spin on the duality of a villain who’d leave his crimes up to the flip of a coin, Eckhart added: “If you notice who Harvey Two-Face disposes of, it’s not random. It’s not. It still has a sense of justice attached to it. Ultimately, Harvey still can’t get away from his own true nature.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Dark Knight.”

For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.