“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) utters those words memorably in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, not only coining a new quotable quote in cinematic history, but also providing the film with a central point of order. But what if instead of Dent living long enough to see himself become a Batman villain he instead died a hero?
The Dark Knight throws a huge ethical curveball that determines the rest of the film, with The Joker (Heath Ledger) forcing Batman to choose who to save from a firey Catch-22: his childhood friend and crush Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), or Dent, the white knight of Gotham. We know how this choice plays out in the historical context, but it leaves an interesting question in its wake. What if that choice went a little differently, and instead of Harvey Dent being spared from certain death, Rachel Dawes was actually rescued as a result? It’s time to play another game of “What if…” with DC Comics history, but before we get into what could have happened, let’s start at what actually did happen in The Dark Knight.
What Happened When Batman Saved Harvey Dent?
After an intense interrogation session, The Joker tells Batman/Bruce Wayne that both Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes have been kidnapped, and are just minutes away from dying in an explosion. With only enough time to save one person, The Joker tells him the locations of both Harvey and Rachel, leaving our hero to depart.
Batman chooses to save Rachel, while Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) moves to save who he thinks is Harvey. But in actuality, The Joker has used Bruce’s love for Rachel as an Achilles’ Heel, and it leads him to being tricked into really saving Harvey.
When time runs out, Batman barely saves Harvey Dent from dying, and the explosion catches a trail of gasoline and burns half of Harvey's face, scarring it for life. Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon and his men are moments too late, leaving Rachel to be killed in a fiery blast. Throughout the rest of The Dark Knight, the newly born villain Two Face, formerly known as Harvey Dent, goes on a rampage.
Killing members of the Gotham mafia, as well as threatening the Gordon family, Harvey eventually falls to his death. His dirty secret history as a villain is hidden, and Batman is officially framed for his murder, in order to preserve Gotham's faith in its white knight, and ultimately its soul.
What If Batman Saved Rachel And Not Harvey Dent?
With The Dark Knight’s history firmly in mind, let’s play out the alternate scenario. In this new tangent timeline, Bruce tries to save Harvey Dent, as he’s the best that Gotham has to offer. In turn, Jim Gordon is sent to save Rachel Dawes, but as this is a brilliant Catch-22 scenario, Bruce Wayne actually saves Rachel, leaving Harvey to die in a fire.
As Harvey Dent is now dead, this kicks off two important events that would change the ending of The Dark Knight. Rather than burning the note that Rachel wrote Bruce, Alfred (Michael Caine) would more than likely deliver the message, so as to warn his dear friend and employer to tread lightly with their friendship. However, the relationship between Rachel and Bruce is probably going to be fractured at this point, and for one big reason.
Just as Harvey Dent thought that Batman let Rachel Dawes die in The Dark Knight’s course of established events, Rachel just might think that Bruce let Harvey die so she could fall into his arms. After all, Bruce Wayne isn’t above doing what he has to do in the business world to get what he wants.
The Joker’s plan to push one of Gotham’s legal eagles to the edge wins out, as Rachel Dawes becomes unhinged, and dedicates herself to avenging her dearly departed lover. So even if Batman apprehends The Joker, he’s still got an enemy in the shadows, as Rachel could very well be the grounded Christopher Nolan version of Harley Quinn: a professional who, through prodding and grooming by The Joker, has psychologically snapped and will do anything in the name of chaos.
How Could Rachel's Survival Affect The Dark Knight Rises?
This scenario has even more wide reaching complications, when you take into account how The Dark Knight Rises plays with the events that previously occurred. Rather than using Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman as a co-antagonist, Bane (Tom Hardy) would have an even better weapon in his arsenal: someone who knows the true identity of Batman.
With Harvey Dent still dead, but without any of the incriminating acts that would compromise his legacy, the Dent Act and Commissioner Jim Gordon’s career would both be intact. But as a result, Bane would now have the ultimate trump card: the ability to announce that Bruce Wayne is Batman, with a demented Rachel claiming that Batman killed Harvey in cold blood.
Cue an even more hostile environment where Batman is still a wanted man, and Bruce Wayne still finds himself being targeted by the world at large. Only, instead of these two threads being told in separate strands, it becomes one gigantic free-for-all where the Caped Crusader isn’t safe at all.
Harvey Dent’s tragic death would only push the stakes up higher, as with Batman being singled out as the guilty party in his death, the city would want blood for the death of its fallen angel. And the inmates of Blackgate Prison would still be more than happy to hunt The Bat, as he put quite a few of them away in his time.
Does It Matter Who Batman Saves In The Dark Knight?
Looking at the chain of events that occur in both scenarios, the path of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises leads to another, greater question about Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent’s fates: does it really matter who Batman saves in The Dark Knight? The answer, based on this exercise and the trajectory that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was always going to take, yields an emphatic no.
No matter whether it was Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes that was saved by Batman/Bruce Wayne, the story ultimately comes down to the fact that the moment Bruce Wayne became Batman, the split between who he is to the public and the person he defines himself as with his actions was always going to cause some sort of event.
Batman would choose to save Harvey Dent, and Bruce Wayne would choose to save Rachel Dawes, leaving the surviving party upset over their ultimate loss. No matter who lives, the need for vengeance would be strong; and much as Bruce Wayne created Batman to punish those he felt responsible, a new evil would rise in the same sort of capacity to try and defeat him.
Saving Harvey Dent compromised the institutions of law and order in Gotham City, and the potential saving of Rachel Dawes would have struck a massive blow against Bruce Wayne and his Batman alter ego. Either way, Gotham was going to be in the crosshairs, and Bruce would still need to remove himself from the equation so that the city he loves could survive.
If there’s any consolation to be had in the alternate universe where Rachel Dawes survived The Dark Knight’s ultimate coin toss, it’d be the act that her potential heel would have opened a brand new path to revenge. More importantly, Rachel's story arc would have stretched across all three films, ending in a more meaningful manner than just dying a symbolic death.
But, of course, there’s still an argument to be had as to who would have made for the better villain, and which scenario would have left Gotham City better off in the end. Which is why we’re going to open that decision to further discussion, through the poll below. So vote which path you prefer, and don’t forget to explain in the comments just why you chose that scenario.