What the new Batman movie 'Dark Knight Rising' says about us

Every movie reveals something about the culture that spawned it, and the new Batman movie, “Dark Knight Rises,” is no exception.

Most urgently, as of Friday morning, the pure evil shown in the movie was acted out in a Denver-area showing of the film. Details are still unfolding about what exactly happened in Aurora. But one thing we know for sure is that Colorado police bravely answered the emergency call as moviegoers were in distress; as men and women in blue rushed to the scene, they had no idea if they would confront one gunman, or an army.  They had no idea if the building was rigged with bombs or boobytraps. No matter what the danger, they had their job to do.  They did their duty.  That much we know. Friday morning, the killer is in custody.

Evil vs. duty is a key theme of “Dark Knight Rises." That is, we must frankly acknowledge that mayhemic killers and terrorists exist, and so we need courageous men and women to protect us.

So what does “DKR” say?  About us and our politics?  Is it the political message, as some have said, just more Hollywood liberal agitprop?  Despite early buzz based on the bare plot outlines of the film, as well as a few snippets from the trailer, the message of the film itself--in its full 165 minutes--is not at all what one might expect.

Because the two earlier Christopher Nolan “Batman” movies, in 2005 and 2008, were huge hits, and because this new film is getting such strong word of mouth--86 percent favorable reviews among critics, and 93 percent among sneak-peek audiences, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes -- it’s only natural that opportunistic politicos would seek to harness some of the film’s energy for their own point-making purposes.

The obvious “hook” into current-day politics, of course, is that the principal bad guy in “DKR” is  named “Bane,” which is, uh, pretty similar to “Bain.” As in Bain Capital.  As in Mitt Romney.   So observers can be forgiven for comparing this “Bane-Bain” similarity to HBO’s tasteless use of a decapitated George W. Bush head in the series “Game of Thrones.

Indeed, some on the right are in full fly: The headline atop Monday’s Drudge Report bannered, “DEMS TO USE ‘BATMAN’ AGAINST ROMNEY.”  And, in fact, some on the left, such as comedian Jon Stewart,  were positively eager to press home the Bane-Bain connection.   One has to wonder, though: Do anti-Romney political partisans really think that movie audiences are so stupid as to see a movie and then vote against Romney?  Evidently, yes.

For its part, the “DKR” team denies any such political intention.  And in fact, the character Bane dates back almost 20 years, to the 1993 DC comic, “Vengeance of Bane.”  So we might be inclined to take the filmmakers’ word for it, that they are not trying to influence the presidential election--in this instance.

Still, the movie does point the audience toward dissatisfaction with the real-world status quo--a status quo overseen, we might note, by President Obama.  At a posh society ball, a glam-sexy jewel thief tells billionaire Bruce Wayne/Batman, “The storm is coming . . . When it hits … you’re all going to wonder how you could ever live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”  That line appeared months ago in the trailer, and so “Occupy Wall Street” types, no doubt, have been looking forward to the whole film.

However, the jewel thief, played by Anne Hathaway, proves not to have any Robin Hood in her at all.  Indeed, in the context of the film, her line, heard toward the beginning of the film, seems more simply descriptive.  That is, a big storm is coming, and while the rich get hurt, so does everyone else in Gotham City.

At this point, we might step back and recall the context of the original Batman comic, which debuted back in 1939.   In that year, a decade had passed since the 1929 stock market crash, and yet Wall Street and the rich were still blamed for the ongoing hard times.  Indeed, political leaders, reflecting their class-conscious--even class-warring--constituents, had pushed the top income tax rate, 24 percent in 1929, up to 79 percent in 1939.  

Yet of course, even in those left-leaning times, there was still a fascination with the rich and their luxe ways.  After all, most people dreamed of being rich.

Enter Bruce Wayne, the Batman hero.  Wayne was wealthy, of course, but he had suffered deeply; his parents were murdered by a street-criminal in front of his young eyes.  Fearful of being psychically hurt yet again, he shunned romantic commitments, preferring the lonely solitude of his mansion.   In other words, in the minds of comic-consumers, Wayne had paid his dues, and then some.

In addition, as Batman, Wayne was using his wealth to helpful ends--thwarting crime.  He was, therefore, a “good” millionaire. Moreover, in his new life as a secret superhero, Wayne/Batman had to remain secretive about his identity; he was the opposite of flamboyant.  And who were Batman’s allies?  Why, the police: Commissioner Gordon and his true-blue team.  Indeed, the Gotham Police Department was righteous, although usually overmatched by sinister fiends such as the Joker.   In other words, Gotham City might be corrupt and full of colorful criminals, but the cops were okay.

So as we can see, the Batman series showcased a brooding plutocratic hero as its star, but the supporting cast of good guys were working-class stiffs, stoically doing their dangerous job.   A good mix of characters in 1939, and for the seven decades since.

Returning to today, we might ask: So where does such working-class-hero-thinking fit into the current political debate?  How does it fit into the contemporary American environment?  The answer: The working class, now morphed into the middle class, is in many ways on its own.

On the one hand, regular folks aren’t a part of the one percent, that’s for sure.  Indeed, since they lack access to big capital gains breaks and offshore accounts, it’s a safe bet that that most of them are paying a greater share of their five- and-six-figure incomes in federal taxes--both income and FICA --than, say, Mitt Romney is paying on his seven- or eight-figure income.

On the other hand, the middle class is working, or would like to be.  There’s little appetite among the middle class for economic dependency, and no desire to slip into a culture of poverty.   So it’s little wonder that 83 percent of Americans, for example, support work requirements for welfare recipients.

In other words, if the Obama administration’s recent decision to loosen up work requirements for welfare recipients receives more attention in the heartland, it is likely to play badly.

In the 60s, presidential candidate Richard Nixon won middle-class voters by calling for “law and order”-- a Batman-ish theme. In the 90s, Bill Clinton won most middle-class votes by promising to defend the interests of Americans “who work hard and play by the rules.” Another Batman-ish thought.

So which party, and which presidential candidate, today, speaks better to these people in the middle--to these swing voters?   We’ll know that answer in three-and-a-half months.

But back to “DKR.” The film offers its own take, sitting somewhere in the middle. The rich of Gotham City--over the last seven decades, promoted from millionaires to billionaires--are described as “decadent,” and yet, in contrast, the movie insists on a vision of virtuous civic responsibility.

As another female character tells Wayne, “You have to invest if you want to return balance to the world.”  That is, if you have wealth, you have to give something back.  In the context of the film, that’s less of a lefty redistributionist thought and more of a conservative sentiment about the duty of the rich to be voluntarily charitable--a sentiment expressed many times in the Bible. And so in “DKR,” despite some initial hesitation, Bruce Wayne-as-Batman willingly returns to caped-crusader-ing and rescues Gotham City.

And in his heroic efforts, Batman is helped by the Gotham cops, many of whom lay down their lives in the fight against Bane and his forces. Indeed, in some moments, “DKR,” which was filmed mostly in Manhattan, brings up aching resonances of 9/11; we see haunting images of men in blue, finding their way through the mist and darkness, bravely confronting evil.

The main evil character, of course, is Bane--who has no bad-businessman characteristics whatsoever. In fact, Bane proves the point that there’s something much worse than rich people who don’t share. He is, simply, a monster, and the murderous mob that he unleashes--most of them sprung from the city jail--is almost as monstrous.  In other words, the movie is saying, what we really need to fear is not decadence from above, but rather the maleficence from below.  Is that a left-wing thought?

Meanwhile, aside from Wayne, the rich people of Gotham City fall into two groups: first, a few genuine evil-doers, who work with Bane--and they, of course, deserve their fate--and second, the bulk of the rich who are simply helpless and incompetent.  The message of the film is that the latter group should be glad to pay taxes to have their lives saved.  That might not be a libertarian thought, but it is certainly a law-and-order thought.

By the end of the film, balance is restored, and we are reminded that the enduring virtue--and safety--of America comes from its working people, even if these proletarians have to be led by a brave billionaire. Indeed, the new hero-in-the-making--a cinch to be the star of the next sequel--is pure working class.

So if politicians and pundits insist on grabbing hold of this movie to make their partisan points--and they will--they should realize that the profiles in courage in the film are the selfless rich and the courageous folks in the middle. That’s where the “DKR”-influenced vote, if there is one, will go in the November elections.

But no matter how the presidential candidates stack up this year, the likely success of the new Batman film will remind us of two things.

First, the American people like to see those living in privilege, like Bruce Wayne in the movie, are using their resources for the good of the nation. If billionaires wish to keep paying low taxes, they might think more about what they are willing to do to help America--and sending US jobs to China, for example, is not helpful.

Second, as the killings in Aurora, Colorado remind us, in the real world, we need brave men and women who will always be ready to step forward to protect us. So for its own defense, society needs to honor those who put more than money at risk in the course of their jobs.  Those who put their lives on the line deserve a higher status in our society--higher, frankly, than they have now.