The Dark Knight on Heroism: Part 2


Batman - a heroic symbol

Another week and The Dark Knight is still the number one movie in the country and in clear second on the all-time list of high grossing movies.  You’ve probably seen it by now.

The balance between chaos and order was the main theme of the film, but the theme from Batman Begins continued to make its presence felt.  The power of symbols to affect people was made clear and it’s an interesting point to consider in heroism.

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Unless you become a symbol.  Harvey Dent’s statement is pessimistic but it certainly reflects a lot of what we see in the modern world.  The intrusive nature of the media into anyone who receives any sort of fame increases the rate at which heroes start being seen as villains.  In Australia we have the Tall Poppy Syndrome – when someone becomes admired (grows too tall) they are often cut down to size.

Very rarely someone is able to escape this villainization.  Nelson Mandela is one example.  He has had flaws pointed out repeatedly over the decades, but his overall reputation has been that of a hero.  He’s a rarity.  The list of the most famous heroes may as well be a list of people who died – perhaps before they became villains.  Gandhi, MLK, Princess Diana, Lincoln…

There are plenty of examples of those who lived long enough for things (or perceptions) to change.  Mother Teresa stands out for me here.  She did some amazing work but she lived long enough for many stories to emerge about alleged character flaws.

Back to Batman.  Harvey Dent showed the fragility of the human character.  He was the White Knight, but the Joker “brought him down to our level”.  Gordon explained why Batman was running; “because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…and so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…a dark knight.”  I disagree that he’s not a hero, obviously.

Batman is a symbol and as such, he can survive to continue being a hero.  Alfred tells him, “Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it. But that’s the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.”

So what do we do?  Become symbols or try to be Nelson Mandela?  Comments welcome, of course.

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7 Responses to The Dark Knight on Heroism: Part 2

  1. Bolaji August 24, 2008 at 4:13 pm #


    This is an interesting post. What does it take to become a symbol? That may be a good follow up article to this one.

    In considering whether one wants to become a symbol, versus becoming like Nelson Mandela… one would need to figure out what a symbol is. From the movie, it would appear that Batman as a symbol was:
    1. Something consistent, that people could count on
    2. Something reliable, that got the job done every time
    3. Something above/outside the law.

    That third one was key for Batman. Batman is a vigilante. He does live outside the law. And is vilified for it, but also appreciated for it (because of the good he does with #1 and #2).

    When one lives within the law, one has to compromise… and that’s often where the best laid plans become watered down with politics and consensus.

    While becoming Nelson Mandela is unlikely for most people (he may be one in a lifetime)… becoming a symbol may be even less likely than that.

    Although now that I consider it – good, heroic people who die before they can become vilified are martyrs… and they are used as symbols after their passing.

    Worth looking into further… maybe with examples of other people who have become symbols.

  2. Bolaji August 24, 2008 at 4:13 pm #

    Sorry, meant Matt, not Harvey! 🙂

  3. Matt Langdon August 28, 2008 at 7:28 pm #


    Thanks for the comment. I like the proposal to write about symbols. Maybe after my third viewing of the movie – this time in IMAX.

    Initially, I think to be a symbol you really have to represent something. Batman – justice. Gandhi – peace. Monroe – sex. The rest of a symbol’s personality fades away.

  4. Nathan Bowers August 28, 2008 at 9:00 pm #

    How can we choose to whether to be a hero or a symbol? Becoming a symbol is really just achieving the next level of heroism; becoming the ultimate hero.

    What is a symbol? A symbol is regarded as representing something else. A hero is a hero by always standing by his/her principles and applying their boon, whatever it may be, to anything and everything that they can to make this a better world for everyone. I cannot think of anyone that is a symbol that cannot be also called a hero (a symbol for anything heroic that is; while Marylin is considered a sex symbol she almost certainly can’t be referred to as a hero. Or maybe she can, but for lets put that on the discussion queue for now).

    Being regarded as a symbol is a way of being honored by representing your beliefs/actions in the minds of others, and even people that have achieved this prestigious honor are not without enemies that hope that they live long enough to see the symbol become the villain. Mother Theresa, who is arguably THE symbol for kindness, was criticized by the Indian Magazine “The Telegraph” who referred to her as “the Saint of the Gutters”, also mentioning calls for “Rome to investigate whether she did anything to alleviate the condition of the poor or just took care of the sick and dying and needed them to further a sentimentally-moral cause”. Nelson Mandela can also be observed as a symbol, not here, but in South Africa where his influence is strongest, which creates the question: when can one be considered a symbol? Does the majority of the population have to agree, or is a few changed lives enough?

    I don’t think there’s a decision to be made whether or not to become the hero or a symbol, the decision is whether or not to cross the line of heroism into being immortalized as a symbol by taking that one extra step, by proving to your neighbors or your mom or to Commissioner Gordon that you are worthy to be regarded as a symbol.

    A Letter to the Editor:
    Thanks for the comment on Mr. Long’s blog, this is definitely a great site 😀

  5. Matt Langdon August 28, 2008 at 9:13 pm #

    Thanks Nathan – a very well thought out comment. Welcome to the site.

    Mother Teresa certainly had a lot of critics and is an example of a hero with flaws. The observer needs to decide whether the heroic attributes outweigh the flaws.

    I think a symbol, as with a hero, is determined by observers. The number required is up for argument.

  6. TrentLinger August 29, 2008 at 3:54 pm #

    i think nathan brought up some good points. being a symbol is just a matter of opinion, and i can’t think of any heroes than can’t be viewed as symbols in at least a small degree…

    but being a hero seems to be a more solid title because its not easy to argue whether or not someone’s a hero than, but it is a lot easier to argue whether or not someone’s a symbol.

    :] i think we should shoot for hero :]

  7. Matt Langdon August 29, 2008 at 4:06 pm #

    Thanks for dropping in Trent. That’s a very good point about heroes all being symbols in some way. Being a hero means having one or many of a set of attributes, so simply by having those attributes the hero can become a symbol of them.

    I agree – let’s tackle the definition of a hero 🙂