The Cognitive Dissonance of Batman’s Dilemma or Why did it end that way? **Major Spoiler’s Included**

What to be or what not to be...a split identity.

What to be or what not to be...a split identity.

Below is a comment/question from a reader about Batman:The Dark Knight, one that a few people have asked me, so I imagine it will be on the minds of many more people, and so it should probably be addressed with an article unto itself. Watching the film again you’ll notice that everything dealing with Bruce Wayne throughout the film leads to what we’re about to talk about. While my answer may not be sufficient for some, it will give you something to chew on. ***And yes there are spoilers that give away the end of the film included in this post!!!*** If you want to read my spoiler free review go here. But avoid reading the comments at that post because this question is included.

I enjoyed the movie, but had a big problem with the end. Why was it necessary for Batman to take the blame for Harvey’s killings? I remember they mumbled something about the Joker having an alibi, but what about the Joker’s many minions. Or a copycat Batman? Or an “unidentified assailant?” Or literally anyone else at all? Definitely brought the movie down from an A+ to a B+ for me. I know almost all big movies have plot holes, but this one seemed particularly egregious. Maybe I missed something and need to watch it again.


It’s an exquisite question, one a good friend of mine had asked me a few days ago. So that people don’t think it’s a flaw of the film, which it’s not, I’ll go ahead and answer. You may not buy it but it will give you something to chew on.

Firstly, Joker did have an alibi, he was in prison while many of the murders that Harvey Dent was responsible for were taking place.

There’s a theory in Psychology called Cognitive Dissonance, it’s one of my favorite tools to use as a writer. It states:

In psychology cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling or stress caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a fundamental cognitive drive to reduce this dissonance by modifying an existing belief, or rejecting one of the contradictory ideas.

In Bruce Wayne’s case his dissonance is, “Do I hold onto the life I once had with Rachel?” or “Do I take hold of what Batman is and truly spread fear among the criminals of the city?” The truly tragic irony is that by trying to save Harvey he was saving for himself a way out of being Batman. With Harvey around as that shining force he wouldn’t need to don the costume anymore.

But with Rachel killed in the process he solidifies his own path to remain Batman. Again ironic and again tragic. Many times throughout the film we see Bruce Wayne unable to control his vigilante impulses. In the interrogation room he slams the Joker’s head against the glass. In the final moments of the film he battles Gordon’s men. Is this who he wants to be or who he has to be?

That final decision is Wayne ending the dissonance within himself. And everything in the film leads to that decision. So while it may seem unnecessary it’s actually far more necessary than you might imagine.

Certainly Batman didn’t have to take the blame for the murders. But he chose to. What does that say about his character? And who he decides to be. Just before doing it he quotes Harvey, “Die while you’re a hero or live long enough to become the villain,” and then continues, “I’m not a hero.” And he’s not a villain. And from the way Harvey Dent is treated in this film he knows that a hero is someone you look up to, someone that can’t have any faults. It’s the type of light at the end of the tunnel Gotham or any city ravaged by crime needs.

This film is about people making decisions about who they are and how Batman should be perceived and about what it takes perhaps to truly have an effect on the criminal intent. In that final moment Bruce Wayne, after not being sure how far he should take Batman, decides what Batman should be for himself and the people. It’s how he appears and is perceived. If he were the hero that Harvey Dent is, the citizens would hold him to a much higher standard. People would dress up like him and put themselves in harms way. It’s not the kind of impact he wanted to have on the city, as he states at the beginning of the film.

There’s something very telling about the story Alfred imparts when about burning down the jungle to get the thief. If Batman were the Harvey Dent kind of hero, he knows he wouldn’t be able to do what needs to be done to get a criminal like Joker, as Alfred did. He knows as a hero higher standards will be placed upon him. And with those higher standards come a much higher level of courtesy, one Batman can’t always afford to have. One that won’t hold as much water for the bad guys in the long run. Again, especially bad guys like the Joker.

He knows he can’t be a do-good fighter with crazies that don’t have a code or follow any sort of rules. From the get go we’re told that the Joker doesn’t even follow the code of a bad guy. But imagine you were that thief and you knew Batman killed cops even to get the job done. How much more frightened would you be of him?

By taking the blame Bruce Wayne does far more than allow Harvey Dent to die a hero, he allows himself to become that much more of a myth among the people and the scum of Gotham. Now he’s truly something to be feared, and like all of the decisions in this film their are consequences for these characters and Batman will have to live with being seen as a true vigilante for a long time.

This is Bruce Wayne committing himself to Batman and what Batman should and needs to be. Something he spends the entirety of the film trying to figure out and for a long period hoping to leave behind. That’s why his decision is both noble and tragic. He can no longer go back.

Disillusioned no longer.

Disillusioned no longer.

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15 Responses to “The Cognitive Dissonance of Batman’s Dilemma or Why did it end that way? **Major Spoiler’s Included**”

  1. Stacie Says:

    Brilliant explanation! Thanks for clearing that up for me. Batman has always been the dark, lonely figure and even if it’s not what he wants to be, it’s the only way he knows how to be…effective.

  2. ryan Says:

    I…think I like it. Well done, Phil. At the start, I was afraid your explanation would be more of a “poetic/it fits the theme of the movie” type of explanation, which is fine, but Batman isn’t supposed to know he’s in a movie. But you had a practical “facts on the ground” explanation as well. Good show.

  3. Phillip Says:

    ryan, thank you. i’m glad it was worth a little bit.

  4. Phillip Says:

    Update: after a second viewing all of Two-Faces killings take place after the Joker is out of prison (duh, Phil!) So his only alibi is that he and all of his men are holding people hostage in a building…which is a pretty good alibi. Though I’m having a difficult time figuring out who the fifth person he killed was. The bad cop, Eric Roberts and the driver, himself (if that counts?) but #5. Someone brought this to my attention and I couldn’t figure it out. A cut scene perhaps and too many lines of dialogue to cut around after they trimmed it out?

    • Wolfe Says:

      Actually, the Joker has no alibi for the five in question. He even called in the last two to the police. The five deaths were:

      1.) Batman impersonator (Hanging)
      2.) Judge Surrillo (Car Bomb)
      3.) Police Commissioner Loeb (Poisoning/Acid).
      4.) Richard Dent (Gotham DMV employee)
      5.) Patrick Harvey (Gotham DMV employee)

      All of these were done well before the assassination attempt on the mayor’s life and before Gordon was supposedly shot. The killings that Two-Face actually committed were not explained to the people of Gotham. All we know is that Commissioner Gordon and Batman didn’t want Harvey Dent taking the rap.

  5. Charles Says:

    Ok, I’d just like to point out a few things.

    First of all in the earlier portion of your explaination, you emphasised that it was ironic that Batman tried to save Harvey:

    “The truly tragic irony is that by trying to save Harvey he was saving for himself a way out of being Batman. With Harvey around as that shining force he wouldn’t need to don the costume anymore.”

    You might need to watch the film again since nothing was ironic. What really happens in the jail scene where Rachel and Harvey are shown to be trapped in warehouses full of oil drums, is that Batman immediately makes the decision to save Rachel first right after the Joker discloses the two locations. However, the Joker switched the two addresses such that Batman actually saved Harvey without intending to. It all went according to the Joker’s scheme to set Harvey up as his ‘ace-in-the-hole’. Yes, the Joker joked about not having plans when he really did 😛

    The fact that Batman went for Rachel says more about him than anything else. Maybe with Harvey out of the picture, he could have Rachel for himself (I don’t really like my explaination either, but its a possibility). Despite Harvey’s ‘white knight’ status, batman could not ignore the fact that his heart was with Rachel all the way.

    Secondly, by blaming everything on himself, Batman has essentially turned the world against himself. He would be hated everywhere with a high price on his head. Even though he believes that as a symbol, he can remain untainted, his job as a vigilante has just gotten infinitely more difficult. Notice that throughout Begins and Dark Knight he behaves with indifference towards the police, preferring to abide by his personal codes rather than societal laws. I mean would it be that difficult to at least get the police on his side. Realisticly, wouldn’t working with them be better off in the long run and seriously, does killing cops (even indirectly) justifies his aims? The real question I’m trying to get at here is, practically speaking, is Batman’s way, the best way?

    Batman to me, crosses the line.

  6. Phillip Says:

    Charles, thank you for the conversation.

    Actually your grievance about my comment didn’t go unnoticed by me in the film. In fact, the fact that he clearly says “Rachel” as he leaves to rescue whoever he leaves to rescue read more like a lame slate of hand by Christopher Nolan than a switcheroo the Joker had concocted. You’ll notice there is no reaction from Batman as he comes in to rescue Harvey. He goes straight to him, grabs him and rescues him. Then there’s not another word or thought throughout the remaining course of the film that would suggest that the Joker intentionally switched addresses on Batman. It’s a weak story point either way you cut it. But with the lack of surprise on Batman’s face as he goes in to rescue Harvey you can only guess that he knows what he’s doing. He shows enough support towards Harvey in the first place, that it’s just as plausible that he does go to him. He also knows that Rachel believes in Harvey…and as characters go, Rachel is the least interesting character in the film, merely a catalyst. Another reason for Batman to not want to save her (that was a joke.)

    As for the second thought…that’s what being a vigilante is, it’s supposed to be difficult. You’re supposed to work above and outside the law. It’s a psychological Batman is playing. With the police on his side he’s just another cop, following the rules. Bad guys don’t follow the rules, so why be afraid of a cop. In order to put fear in the hearts of the people that would destroy and spread fear among the people of Gotham he has to “appear” to be above the laws of cops, above those rules…that doesn’t mean he will practice that mantra. But he has to “appear” to. And to be seen as someone that would kill a cop so that justice is realized makes him a loose canon, someone willing to do anything to get the job done…though we know he won’t. But it’s that appearance that he needs. I think for Batman to do his job properly, it is the best way, yes. Notice, he allows his super surveillance to go up in flames. He’s not about crossing the lines. He just wants everyone to think he will.

    Also, the moment he sets himself up as a beacon of hope to the people the less he will be able to do, he ties his hands behind his back immediately, which would allow him to be tore down much more easily, and in a way that would tarnish what he stands for completely.

  7. Charles Says:

    Ah, so it’s all about the psychological games. At first I actually thought he killed a few cops himself during the showdown in the skyscraper lol.

    And I think I got my definition of the word vigilante wrong ><. Just looked up wikipedia:

    ” A vigilante is a person who ignores due process of law and enacts their own form of justice in response to a perception of insufficient response by the authorities.”

    I think i’ll see Batman in a new light from now on. Thanks for that Phil (^_^)

  8. Phillip Says:

    Actually if you haven’t read “The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller, you really should. That and, if you’re old enough, “Watchmen” by Alan Moore. Both of those (now graphic novels) will make you look at Super Heroes in a much different way then I ever could in this write up!

  9. Phillip Says:

    I’ve now had several people tell me they saw Batman react to seeing Harvey Dent when he realizes it’s not Rachel. It doesn’t change Batman’s final decision or reasons to become The Dark Knight, but it would show that at that point in the film Bruce Wayne and Batman are still in many ways one person with one goal. His final decision at the end indeed splits the two truly creating alternate personas.

  10. Ryan II Says:

    Hey Phillip,

    First I just wanted to say I really enjoyed your explanation of the ending and themes in the movie. Also I want to point out that Batman was in fact surprised to see Harvey in the warehouse. In the movie you can kind of tell but it might be hard to realize it with him wearing the mask. Also if you read the official script for The Dark Knight it reads that Batman is surprised to see Harvey and not Rachael. My own thoughts on the matter are that he did set out to save Rachael but upon seeing Harvey knew that Gordon was heading to the other address. Despite Batman/Bruce’s feelings he was their and he had to save Harvey. To run out and leave Harvey to his fate would of put him in the same league of the people who he has sworn to fight.

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  12. Jeff Says:

    i read part of this and agree for the most part about the cognative dissonance theory it works for me but I would ask some questions….Is your Father (in some cases Just a Mother or Guardian) your hero?? (to many children they ARE heros) and as THAT kind of hero…do they have any flaws??..(are they not human and thus because they are human HAVE flaws like we all do??) there are many writers that hold to the Idea that there are no perfect heros….(knowing myself and humanity like I do, I agree with this idea) there are no perfect only human heros (other than in some imaginations) therefore…Batman (as an advancely gifted and talented human) can be allowed flaws. of what i read your post/blog of why he chose the way he did is a solid one. minus the part “heros can’t have flaws”

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