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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Obama

Puritan

For me, the Tea Party is right up there with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. So I certainly don’t mind watching their superpowers wane as they impotently wage war through shutdowns and debt defaults in their never-ending battle against their arch-nemesis, Obamacare.

But I do feel a personal connection to the Tea Party now. Or at least to one member of their roster. I recently reconnected with an old high school friend via (what else?) Facebook. Our cyber reunion wasn’t entirely Friendly. In the decades since we’d crammed Pre-Calc in his suburban basement, John has converted to an aggressively libertarian brand of fundamentalist Christianity (or, as he prefers to term it, “Christianity”). His profile picture is Obama photoshopped as Stalin. I accused him of melodrama, but he remains appallingly literal in his belief that the President’s re-election constituted a Socialist coup and collapse of the American experiment. Our email exchanges have since petered. But I will honor John and his right wing cohorts with an unlikely declaration:

The first American superhero was a Tea Party superhero.

“Oh! Lord of Hosts,” cried a voice among the crowd, “provide a Champion for thy people!”

That’s Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835. Thy people are his pre-Revolutionary New England ancestors under the tyrannical yoke of King James and his New World minions (AKA the Governor of colonial Massachusetts and his nefarious redcoat guard). In answer to the cry of oppression, Nathaniel conjures the Gray Champion!

“Suddenly, there was seen the figure of an ancient man, who seemed to have emerged from among the people, and was walking by himself along the centre of the street, to confront the armed band. He wore the old Puritan dress, a dark cloak and a steeple-crowned hat, in the fashion of at least fifty years before, with a heavy sword upon his thigh, but a staff in his hand, to assist the tremulous gait of age.”

I know, a shaky old guy, not very superheroic, but hang on. He has superpowers: “while they marvelled at the venerable grandeur of his aspect, the old man had faded from their eyes, melting slowly into the hues of twilight, till, where he stood, there was an empty space.”

Yep. He can apparate. Hawthorne gives us an origin story and mission statement too. “Whence did he come? What is his purpose? Who can this old man be?” whispered the wondering crowd. Glad you asked: “That stately form, combining the leader and the saint, so gray, so dimly seen, in such an ancient garb, could only belong to some old champion of the righteous cause, whom the oppressor’s drum had summoned from his grave.”

That’s right. He’s supernatural too. And while immortality is a nice trick, his real powers are rabble-rousing and monarch-busting: “ his voice stirred their souls,” and before “another sunset, the Governor, and all that rode so proudly with him, were prisoners, and long ere it was known that James had abdicated . . .”

The tale ends as any good comic book should, with the promise of further adventures: “whenever the descendants of the Puritans are to show the spirit of their sires, the old man appears again. . . . His hour is one of darkness, and adversity, and peril. But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader’s step pollute our soil, still may the Gray Champion come . . .”

That’s good news for John and any like-minded Tea Partiers. Hawthorne places his supernatural do-gooder at their namesake event, the dumping of 342 chests of East India tea into Boston harbor. The old guy makes rounds at the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill too.

I doubt John has read “The Gray Champion,” though I’m fairly sure The Scarlet Letter was on our high school English syllabus. I won’t declare Hester the first superheroine, but she is the first character in fiction to sport a letter on her chest, beating Joe Shuster’s Superman by nearly nine decades. The “A” starts as punishment, but Hester embroiders her own meanings into the symbol, and eventually the town rechristens her “Able” and “Angel” in appreciation of her selfless if not quite superheroic service.

The Gray Champ has her beat though. Midwife to the poor is noble and all, but the Tea Party would rouse our whole land from its sluggish despondency. According to my high school Friend, the harsh and unprincipled administration of Obama lacks scarcely a single characteristic of tyranny, violating the rights of private citizens, taking away our liberties, and endangering our religion. These, apparently, are evil times. Hawthorne agrees:

“‘Satan will strike his master-stroke presently,’ cried some, bemoaning the deformity of any government that does not grow out of the nature of things and the character of the people. On one side the religious multitude, with their sad visages and dark attire, and on the other, the group of despotic rulers. Pray and expect patiently what the Lord will do in this matter!”

A literal Godsend, the returning Gray Champion would probably forgo street protests and broadcast his message nationally. Though he might have trouble claiming a share of camera time. Would even Fox News have room for a bearded Puritan between the soul-stirring voices of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Karl Rove?

He might launch his own website instead, but my friend John already shares regular posts from Political Outcast, Vision To America, and Conservative Byte. The last includes a photoshopped Emperor Obama in a crown and kingly regalia. A commenter adds: “’Dictator’ Obama has infiltrated the entire system of government with radical muslims, gays and completely ignorant self serving idiots pushing their own agendas.”

In fact, who needs the Gray Champion in the age of Facebook? The reason we have the second amendment, shouts John on his homepage, is TO DEFEND OURSELVES AGAINST OPPRESORS LIKE OBAMA. “Government of the people is GONE. People will only be ignored so long, then they will act. God help us all.”

Meanwhile, the venerable stranger, staff in hand, drew near the advancing soldiers, and as the roll of their drum came full upon his ear, the old man raised himself to a loftier mien, while the decrepitude of age seemed to fall from his shoulders, leaving him in gray, but unbroken dignity. Thus the aged form advanced on one side, and the whole parade of soldiers and magistrates on the other, till, when scarcely twenty yards remained between, the old man grasped his staff by the middle, and held it before him like a leader’s truncheon.

“Stand!” cried he.

The eye, the face, and attitude of command; the solemn, yet warlike peal of that voice, fit either to rule a host in the battle-field or be raised to God in prayer, were irresistible. At the old man’s word and outstretched arm, the roll of the drum was hushed at once, and the advancing line stood still.

At least that’s what happens in a black and white world of pure good vs. evil. Our world, however, is considerably Grayer.

Unless you’re a member of the Tea Party.

puritan

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Eisenhower and Kennedy

Eisenhower warned about the War Machine. He called it the military industrial complex, and three days before handing the Oval Office to Kennedy, he said we must guard against its acquisition of unwarranted influence and the disastrous rise of its misplaced power.

Stan Lee wasn’t listening.

Or if he was, he took it as a challenge.

“I gave myself a dare,” says Lee. “The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military. . .  So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army . . .  I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats . . .”

Thanks, Stan.

Tales_of_Suspense_39

Marvel later retooled Iron Man into a literal War Machine with James Rhodes, a high tech soldier taking orders in the military’s chain of command, something Tony Stark weapons manufacturer steered clear of.

War Machine

But Tony wasn’t the first Iron Man.

Neither was the 1939 Bozo the Iron Man. George Brenner built him for Quality Comics. Originally a mad scientist’s robot minion, he was dubbed “Bozo” by Hugh Hazzard, the playboy detective who ended his crime spree and reprogrammed him into a sidekick. DC pulled his plug in 1956 when they bought Quality.

Bozo the Iron Man

Stan Lee pulled the name off the scrap heap and handed it to Marvel second-string artist Don Heck in 1962. Bozo was big enough for Hugh to crawl inside, but Heck drew a modern-day knight in a suit of electromagnetic armor. Like the Tin Man of Oz, he also has heart problems. Remove the chest plate, and Tony’s stops. Heck liked to draw the playboy industrialist sitting around hotel rooms, plugged into wall jacks as he unglamorously recharged.

He eventually upgraded to an implant, which makes him a cyborg too. Like the Automaton.  The first movie cyborg, from Harry Houdini’s 1920 silent serial The Master Mystery. A mad scientist removes his brain and wires it into a robot. It was supposed to be a scary, Frankenstein-like monster, but based on the photo stills, the costume designer could have worked for Sesame Street.

The Automaton

Also, the cyborg thing is a hoax. The Automaton is just a clunky metal suit, same as Heck’s, before Steve Ditko refurbished it.

If the 1920s seem like a long leap to find the original Iron Man, then charge your rocket boots. Next stop is the 1590s.

Edmund SpenserFaerie Queene

The first Man of Iron was soldered by Edmund Spenser in his epic poem The Faerie Queene:

“His name was Talus, made of yron mould,
Immoueable, resistlesse, without end.”

If you’re rusty on Renaissance English, that’s “iron mold,” “immovable,” and “resistless,” all War Machine synonyms.  Talus’ other superpowers include speed (“him pursew’d so light, / As that it seem’d aboue the ground he went”), invulnerability (though a bad guy “streight at him with all his force did go,” Talus was “mou’d no more therewith, then when a rocke / Is lightly stricken with some stones throw”), and strength (“But to him leaping, lent him such a knocke, / That on the ground he layd him like a senseless blocke”). And that’s just from his first adventure.

Like Bozo, this yron man is also a sidekick. The executive half of Spencer’s dynamic duo is Artegall, the Knight of Justice. Talus originally worked for his mentor guru Astraea, “to execute her stedfast doome,” before she “willed him with Artegall to wend, / And doe what euer thing he did intend.” She also gives Artgall a nifty sword “Tempered with Adamant,” same as Wolverine’s claws. Together “They two enough t’encounter an whole Regiment.”

But Art prefers words over swords. He’s a diplomat at heart. He throws a Solomon-like puzzle at a serial killer squire to expose his guilt, and talks a tyrannical Gyant into recognizing the flawed logic in its false hero rhetoric. Of course all this word-mincing is made possible by his trusty page who carries “an yron flale,” the proverbial big stick for Art’s foreign policy.

It’s the dogged Talus who has to hunt down and retrieve the rogue squire (“Him in his iron paw he seized had”), and then “forced him” to obey Art’s punishment: to wear the murdered Lady’s head around his neck like an albatross.

Thanks, Talus. Good boy.

Pages of Justice are also handy for castle storming (“at the length he has yrent the door”), mob dispersal (“hid themselves in holes and bushes from his view”), and executions (“And down the rock him throwing, in the sea he drouned”). He has no qualms dispatching women either (“Over the Castle wall adowne her cast, / And there her drowned in the durty mud”). In fact, he has no qualms of any kind. It doesn’t matter if his target offers prayers, cash or sex, “he was nothing mou’d, nor tempted” and “Withouten pitty of her goodly hew.”

Basically the guy is a drone.

Dec. 17 airpower summary: Reapers touch enemy forces

Like our Commander-in-Chief, Artegall just has to give the lethal nod. Talus, “swift as swallow” and “strong as Lyon,” is well-suited to Obama’s “light footprint” military strategy. “At the end of the day,” writers David E. Sanger in The New York Times, “Mr. Obama’s favorite way to use force is quickly, secretly and briefly.” The yron drone is his perfect war machine:

“And lastly all that Castle quite he raced,
Euen from the sole of his foundation,
And all the hewen stones thereof defaced,
That there mote be no hope of reparation,
Nor memory thereof to any nation.”

But drones are under fire themselves. In the Showtime series Homeland, they convert a loyal U.S. marine into a Muslim suicide bomber when collateral damage includes 72 children.

Brody_holding_Isa

Since “for no pitty would he change the course,” a drone like Talus has a tendency of “burning all to ashes,” and so can, according to Ben Emmerson, cause “disproportionate civilian casualties.” Last month, the special investigator for the United Nations Human Rights Council started looking at “drone strikes and other forms of remotely targeted killing” to determine “whether there is a plausible allegation of unlawful killing.”

This could be bad news for Obama, Artegall, Hugh Hazzard, Tony Stark and any other Knights of Justice using heartless Bozos to do their dirty work.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Avengers aren’t wild about Iron Man either. General McChrystal says drones are “hated on a visceral level” and create a “perception of American arrogance.” New Secretary of State John Kerry wants to make sure “American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone.” Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wants a court to oversee targeted killings. Commentator David Brooks, even while lauding Obama’s not so “perfectly clean hands” as a Machiavellian necessity, wants the same. I’m not sure how John O. Brennan, our new CIA director and the man who’s been holding Talus’ leash for the last four years, feels, but protesters shouting at his confirmation hearing were very clear:

“Drones Fly Children Die.”

Feinstein puts the annual number of accidental drone deaths in “single digits.” The war machines have been at it since 2004, so you can do the math. The Council on Foreign Relations counts over 400 total strikes, with a death toll over 3,000, most of them Al Qaeda.

Ed Craun, a colleague in the W&L English department, tells me Talus represents the Law of Retaliation, lex Talonis, the biblical eye-for-an-eye. The merciless shove-it-down-their-throats mentality you would except from a military industrial complex. So Artegall spends Book 5 learning to temper that unwarranted influence. By the end, Artegall still employs his Iron Man for military operations (Ed likens one adventure to a search-and-destroy mission in the caves of Afghanistan), but when the War Machine wants to attack an insolent hag, Artegall reins him in:

“But Talus hearing her so lewdly raile,
And speake so ill of him, that well deserued,
Would her haue chastiz’d with his yron flaile,
If her Sir Artegall had not preserued,
And him forbidden, who his heast obserued.”

Artegall knows when to listen to General Eisenhower.

Does the U.S?

Rise of the Drones by Lev Grossman

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chameleon

The supervillain of Amazing Spider-Man #1 is a little-remembered master-of-disguise called the Chameleon. He later received an alter ego (Dmitri Smerdyakov) and backstory (abused brother/servant of Kraven the Hunter), but in 1963 he was just a guy with a face as featureless as an Oscar statue’s.

oscar-statuette

Which is why I’m asking the Academy Awards to name a new category after him: Best Shape-shifting Performance in a Motion Picture.

My nomination goes to Lincoln.

Much of the credit for mutating Daniel Day-Lewis into our 16th President belongs to the make-up team. I think Spielberg tricked a few of the camera angles too (something Kenneth Branagh did to lesser effect for Robert De Niro in the 1994 Frankenstein). And he probably set his casting director a maximum height requirement as well (when Spielberg shot War of the Worlds in my town, all our local extras had to stand below Tom Cruise’s mighty 5’ 7”).

lincoln-daniel-day-lewisabraham-lincoln-1865-4001

But Hollywood gimmickry can’t match Day-Lewis’ own Chameleon-like superpowers. At 6′ 2,” he had to stretch himself another two inches to achieve his Lincoln-esque stature. Which might sound easy if you weren’t simultaneously stooping, creating the air of a freakishly tall man desperate to look shorter (because back then Tom Cruise would have been a titan). Add Lincoln’s implausibly high voice, something Day-Lewis imbues with both humility and gravitas, and you have an impersonation equal to the Chameleon’s framing of Spider-Man when he stole those defense plans after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Day-Lewis isn’t the film’s only successful shapeshifter. But his is the only performance that erases the presence of the actor. For all her talent, Sally Fields in a period dress remains Sally Fields in a period dress. The rest of the equally admirable cast of character actors never quite escapes the Where’s Waldo effect. As in: “Hey look, isn’t that the guy who plays Professor X on Alphas?”

But it’s not Day-Lewis who should accept the film’s Chameleon award. It’s Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner. They’re the ones who shapeshifted 2012 into an improbably identical 1865. They’ve proven that the scifi truism, “the future is just like the present only more so,” applies to the past too. Or at least whichever historical snapshot a film-maker decides to dust off and frame anew.

It’s not hard to see why they tackled Lincoln in the age of Obama vs. the Tea Party. A President synonymous with racial change wins a legislative battle in a bitterly divided Congress through the power of compromise. Sound familiar? Spielberg even timed its release during the current lame duck session of Congress, same political timeframe as the film. If Obama had lost in November, or the legislative battle about the fiscal cliff been averted, Lincoln would lose many of its superpowers.

Instead, majority leader Harry Reid adjourned the Senate early last Wednesday for a 5:00 screening, followed by a Q&A with the director, writer and star. (Spielberg had already attended a screening with Obama at the White House.)

But it’s the House of Representatives who should be watching. Tommy Lee Jones reprises his role as Two-Face to give today’s Tea Party a civics lesson in principled compromise. Are you listening Speaker Boehner?

Political shapeshifting isn’t spineless, it’s noble.

“When you think about what we’ve gone through, ” says President Lincoln, “the country deserves us to be willing to compromise on behalf of the greater good.” No, wait. That was Obama last week, talking about the debt deal. (These time travel plots are so confusing.)

Thaddeus_Stevens_-_Brady-Handy-crop"The Hunted" PremiereJOHN BOEHNER-AP PHOTO

I assume it’s coincidental that Tommy Lee resembles Thad Stevens less than he does John Boehner. To be fair, it’s actually Boehner who is a more attractive version of Jones. As if Boehner had been cast in a real life adaptation of the film. But instead of ending slavery, Boehner has to save America from the Debtpocalypse.

Or is that Governor Norquist’s job? Like Thad, the author of the sacred “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” bit the ideological bullet and endorsed Boehner’s “Plan B,” what would have been a tax hike on millionaires to prevent one on everybody making over $400,000 (the amount, coincidentally, Congress sets for the President’s salary).

But the Tea Party still said no, as they will to any compromise. Lincoln is just too hard a history lesson for the GOP to study right now. They just watched their last flag-bearer, the human Etch-A-Sketch Mitt Romney, go down in ignoble flames after his failed attempt to shapeshift into a moderate a month before election day.

No Academy Award nominations for that performance.

twofacemakeup

Even worse for Republicans, the formerly soft-spined President Obama has leaned to flex his re-election muscles. He’s even promising gun control next. It all makes for a thrilling legislative drama. A subgenre of the political biopic I only just discovered. If I’d known the plot of Lincoln wasn’t the President’s life but the passage of the 13th Amendment, I might have stayed home. I’m lucky I didn’t.

If Congress can pass a cliff-averting fiscal bill, the whole country should feel lucky too. Then we can all stay home and watch the Academy Awards together.

I predict Lincoln wins in a landslide.

December 2012 114

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It was fun while it lasted, but let’s face it. The election is over. Why wait till November to vote? In fact, why wait till January for the Inauguration? We could get both out of the way this week.

At least that’s what they’re doing over on Earth-1610. Marvel Comics moved Inauguration Day to Wednesday September 26th.  And who’s that guy in the flag suit with his hand on the Supreme Justice’s Bible?

Write-in candidate Captain America of course.

The Earth-616 version of the character died four years ago, so it’s a hell of a comeback. It also says a lot about Presidential politics.  (Why, for instance, do candidates limit their flag-wearing to lapel pins?)

I’m not sure if Marvel is leaning left or right this election cycle. Their masked Commander-in-Chief has no party affiliation, and his earlier incarnations have bounced all over the political spectrum. In the 50s, he was a right wing Commie-basher. But he thawed into a liberal in the 60s, and even discarded the flag outfit briefly in the 70s.  More recently, he protested against Marvel’s version of the Patriot Act, but then surrendered rather than see his nation further divided. (Not the sort of high minded compromise we see much in our current Tea Party climate.)

Although DC elected Lex Luthor back in 2000, it’s rare for Presidential politics to bleed so deeply into comic book culture. Usually things flow the other direction. Americans love to talk about their politicians in terms of superheroes.

Look at Mitt Romney. Newsweek called him “Plastic Man” for his political shape-shifting (it didn’t help when his own campaign likened him to a human Etch-A-Sketch). The New York Times Magazines went with “all-business man, the world’s most boring superhero.” Rush Limbaugh drew the unfortunate Bain/Bane comparison during the Dark Knight Rises release. And, most recently, James Carville dubbed Romney’s running mate “Wonder Boy,” a thinly masked variation on Batman’s Boy Wonder.

Commentators throw plenty of leotards at Obama too. A New Yorker essay about the President’s family history was titled “An Origin Story,” and a June New York Times op-ed about his then flagging campaign appeared under the headline: “Captain America?”

Obama has provided a few of the superheroic comparisons himself. His ex-girlfriend Genevieve Cook told biographer David Maraniss that his desire to “play out a superhero life” was “a very strong archetype in his personality.” While first campaigning for the White House in 2008, he joked at an Alfred Smith dinner that right-wing rumors about his birth certificate were true: “I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the planet Earth.” His website even featured a photograph of the Illinois Senator posed in front of a Superman statue.

Mitt Romney is a Superman fan too. When asked last winter which superhero he like to be and why, he went with the Man of Steel. He didn’t say why, and from his expression (and 1947 birthday), Superman may be the only superhero he’s ever heard of.

Obama had a fuller explanation for his other favorites. He told Entertainment Weekly: “I was always into the Spider‑Man/Batman model. The guys who have too many powers‑‑like Superman‑‑that always made me think they weren’t really earning their superhero status. It’s a little too easy. Whereas Spider‑Man and Batman, they have some inner turmoil.  They get knocked around a little bit.”

Obama has been knocked around a bit himself, but like Captain America or any other good superhero, he’s back from the grave. National polls have him moving 4 points ahead of Romney, and his lead in the electoral votes promise a November blow-out.

But if you can’t wait that long, tune your Bat Dials to Brazil. Their October elections promise to usher in a horde of masked do-gooders. Campaign laws there allow candidates to use almost any name on a ballot, so how better to grab attention than throwing on a leotard?

My favorite is Piracicaba city council candidate “Geraldo Wolverine” and his slogan: “Vote for the guy who has claws!” There are five Batmen (Batmans?) running too. But fear not Obama fans, it looks like the President is going to win big down there too. Sixteen candidates are using his name. One copycat (“Obama BH”) explained:

“Barack Obama is more than a politician; he is an icon.”

That doesn’t make the guy a superhero, but it does look it will get him a second term in the Bat Cave.

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Last summer while I was visiting my parents in Pittsburgh, Christopher Nolan was shooting Dark Knight Rises at Heinz Field. I could have huddled in the stands with a few thousand other unpaid extras, watching the Steelers dress up as their alter egos, the Gotham Rogues. It’s a winter scene, so the crowd had to pretend to shiver as they sat in parkas in 90 degree heat all afternoon. But no one complained. They were grateful just to be part of the show.

And that pretty much sums up the Dark Knight trilogy.

Erinn Hutkin from Chicago’s Suburban Life phoned me last week to ask why Batman is so popular, why this movie was so highly anticipated. I’ll tell you what I told her.

Batman is the kind of make believe we love to mistake for reality. Usually superheroes give us exactly the opposite: blatantly larger-than-life abstraction. Men who fly. Men with impossible bodies. Men made of pixels limited only by the imagination of their computer animators. The biggest difference between the Superman cartoons of the 1940s and the barrage of superhero films of the last decade is technological. Hollywood has gotten more skilled at portraying the absurd.

Batman is different. Even “Bat-Man,” Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s 1939 original, stood apart from the other leotards. No alien rocket, no magic ring, no transformative laboratory catastrophe. He’s just a vigilante in a freaky suit.

There were plenty of non-superpowered crime-fighters before him—the Shadow and his gangs of 1930s mystery men—but Batman was the lone comic book hold-out. Even his origin story was a throwback. When Superman decides to champion the oppressed, there’s no motive. He could as easily rule the planet. The core of the superhero formula (regular Joe gets powers, dedicates himself to justice) is psychological nonsense.  Stan Lee fixed that in the 60s, but Finger and Kane found it first. Like so many of those other mystery men, Batman is all motive: BLAM! BLAM! in a back alley. His war on criminals isn’t ad hoc mission. It’s revenge. No magic bat swoops down and bites him on the neck. He transforms himself.

Christopher Nolan and his script brother, Jonathan, capitalize on that. Their Batman is made of flesh and crunching bone. He inhabits a world that looks a hell of a lot like ours. Tim Burton’s Gotham was phantasmagoric. His second movie was literally an amusement park. Nolan’s second Batman opened on street level Chicago. Joel Schumacher’s villains were cackling cartoons in campy costumes. Nolan’s are grotesquely broken human beings, not a superpower in sight. In fact, the most incongruous thing in Dark Knight Rises is the batsuit. It barely belongs.

But this doesn’t make Nolan’s vision any less artificial. Where Burton cast Mr. Mom, Nolan went for the naked guy with a chainsaw in American Psycho. Both choices are wonderfully silly. But we’ve been trained to experience Nolan’s mass consumer product as “gritty realism.”

Which is why it’s so hard to divorce Dark Knight Rises from its very real world context. This Batman wears his political colors on his bruised and bloodied knuckles. He doesn’t just war on crime. He wars on terror. The Nolans upgraded Heath Ledger’s psychologically devastating Joker to stadium-bombing terrorism and revolutionary anarchy. Joker wanted Batman’s soul. Bane wants America’s.

Despite the Obama campaign likening the villain Bane to the villainous Bain Capital, and Rush Limbaugh accusing liberal Hollywood of brainwashing voters against the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney isn’t the allegorized bad guy of the film. If anything, he’s the hero. Romney grew up in the same neighborhood as Bruce Wayne. The 99%, on the other hand, are played by Ann Hathaway. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” says the world’s sexiest Robin Hood. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

Bruce is a 1%-er devoted to championing the status quo. He’s a vigilante because that’s what the job requires. Government brutality is unethical and, worse, ineffective. Nolan makes that clear from the opening scene. A CIA agent interrogates prisoners at gunpoint, ready to toss their corpses from a plane. Any sympathy—he’s only trying to protect us from Terrorism—tumbles through the open door too. America can’t employ violence without corrupting itself and fueling its enemies. We need a proxy. We need a guy in a freaky suit.

Or a three piece suit. In which both Christian Bale and Mitt Romney look significantly better. And expectations couldn’t be higher for either millionaire. Have the words “Oscar buzz” and “superhero” ever travelled in the same sentence before? Batman Begins grossed about $200 million, while The Dark Knight topped $500. Sequels aren’t supposed to do that. Neither are Presidential runs. Romney’s 2008 campaign was a flop, but the sequel raised over $100 million last month alone.

But Dark Knight success was largely due to the late Mr. Ledger, a performance gapingly absent from Rises. Instead we get Hathaway slinking next to Berry, Pfeiffer, and Kitt on the Catwalk of fame. Nolan fans might remember Tom Hardy from Inception (though probably not from that other franchise closer Star Trek 10, in which he plays Captain Picard’s younger yet equally bald clone). Bane is another bald villain, but this time Hardy has to roar his lines through a high-tech Hannibal Lechter mask. It’s a little better than Darth Vader, but Hardy’s eyes are only so emotive.

Still, the spectacle almost works. If Bane’s British accent is a bit muffled, well, so is his character. Does he want to Occupy Wall Street or behead it? The villain is a brawny reboot of the first 20th century supervillain, the guillotine-crazed Citizen Chauvelin of Baroness Orczy’s 1905 superhero ur-text, The Scarlet Pimpernel.  That author, unlike Nolan, was a deposed aristocrat, so I get why she pits her hero against French revolutionaries—those  “savage creatures,” as she terms them. But Batman belongs to the same ruling class elite as the Pimpernel. And Gotham’s proletariat is still “animated by vile passions, and by the lust of vengeance, and of hate.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Nolan literalizes the underclass by moving them to the sewers, but it’s those regular Joes working the cement trucks you really have to watch out for. They’re the devoted pawns of Bane’s socialist rhetoric, unaware that their leader is using them as political theater. The revolution is being televised to the humbled Bruce’s prison pit, which, although located somewhere in dusty Asia, is as accessible as the suburbs of Gotham.  Will Bruce regain his spirit and climb out in time to disarm the nuclear bomb?!

The retraining sequence and rematch bear an unfortunate resemblance to Rocky III, which pitted its symbol of American exceptionalism against the Evil Empire. America has since moved from cold war to class war. If Bane is a political parody, he’s Evil Obama. Dark Knight Rises is a right wing morality tale aimed at the 99%. Protest financial greed and look what happens!

But even though Warner Bros. has a lot to gain from the Romney’s promised 10% corporate tax cuts, they’re hedging their bets. Dark Knight Rises gives us a split ticket, Batman-Catwoman, a superheroic feat unthinkable but in the reality-warping universe of “gritty realism.” The now penniless Scarlet Pimpernel lends Robin Hood the keys to the batcycle and together they defeat Citizen Bane before retiring anonymously to the middle class.

I predict Dark Knight Rises will retire into its own anonymity long before the Oscar race. If it has any impact on White House politics, it will be as yet another horror story in the gun lobby saga. No superheroes swung to the rescue of the twelve theater goers murdered in Colorado opening night. That’s a real world tragedy far far beyond the reach of even the grittiest realism.

Instead of social revolution, the rest of us get what we always get, a Hollywood-financed extravaganza, right down to the grassroots. My son came home from summer camp every day last week spattered in black paint and Gorilla Glue. They were building a cardboard batcycle to be parked in front of our smallville theater opening night. It rained all weekend, so we never got to see it. My son didn’t complain though. He and all the other Batman campers were just grateful to be there.

Let them eat popcorn.

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When I read that both President Obama and Mitt Romney are Star Trek fans, I pictured that episode where the aliens are half white and half black. Their bodies are literally divided down the middle. Except—and here’s the subtle civil rights allegory—the planet actually has two races: half of the population is black on the left side and white on right, while the other is white on the left and black on the right. Instant hatred! The episode ends with the two surviving aliens jogging in place with images of their burning planet superimposed behind them. Kirk mutters something profound, and then off zooms the Enterprise to its next FX-challenged adventure.

Although New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich didn’t pursue the Star Trek connection further, his description of both Romney and Obama as “shy” and “analytical introverts” does fit the Trekkie stereotype. I’m left wondering which series the President and the Republican nominee liked most.

Leaving Voyager and Enterprise to the Ross Perots and Ralph Naders of the Federation, I see a major political divide between Next Generation and the original. Maybe it was the result of changing Cold War politics (late-sixties MADness vs. the collapse of the Evil Empire), but creator Gene Roddenberry traveled light-years between his shows.

The Prime Directive (Thou Shalt Not Interfere) was originally a devil’s advocate position voiced by the devil-eared Spock whose inhumanness rendered him a cultural relativist incapable of passing judgment. Kirk, on the other hand, shot from the moral hip. Week after week, the captain of the space cowboys employed a kind of frontier vigilantism that, while technically violating Federation policy, put each episode’s hapless species on the right track.

Alien civilizations had a way of sacrificing noble individualism to evil collectivism, usually dedicated to a false god or a planet-dominating supercomputer or a planet-dominating supercomputer disguised as a false god. It could even be the result of good intentions gone very very bad, like those people who tried to make war more peaceful by firing pretend bombs at each other and then peacefully reporting to crematoriums when they were told they had “died.” Whatever the problem though, Kirk fixed it.

In the age of Glasnost, however, Roddenberry recast his Enterprise with a crew of Spock-minded relativists. Suddenly the Prime Directive really was Primary. Remember that planet where the inhabitants had to “retire” at sixty? That meant reporting to a crematorium so their children didn’t have to pay elder care bills. Barbaric, right? Kirk would have had that planet fixed in under 50 minutes. But Jean-Luc’s Enterprise sails off in the last shot, having supported the sixty-year-old alien guest star’s decision to accept his people’s custom.

Week after week, the Next Generation crew embraced the views of aliens. Remember when Riker dressed up in skimpy shorts as was the custom for males on the planet of the Amazons? When an Admiral’s son is raised by enemy savages, Picard disobeys orders and lets the boy stay with the adoptive father, siding with Nurture over John Wayne Nature. Even individuality-crushing technology was user friendly now, with a Pinocchio android and a Reading Rainbow cyborg. When Kirk encountered an android endowed with its creator’s consciousness, he set his phaser to kill. But TNG helped Data’s human mom live a happy and fulfilling retirement in her new android body.

So which of Gene Roddenberry’s universes do Romney and Obama endorse?

As far as I know, not even the Republican Party is considering replacing Social Security with retirement-age euthanasia, though it would certainly rein in health care costs (obviously the policy would not include 1%-ers who would instead opt to retire as immortal androids). Since Obama assumed charge of the military’s terrorist Kill List, I’m guessing he’s not about to start dropping pretend bombs on Afghanistan and wait for the Taliban to peacefully incinerate themselves. Both Republicans and Democrats vacillate on Middle East Prime Directive policy according to who happens to be sitting in the captain’s chair on the Oval Office bridge, but Republicans seem more prone to view Islam through supercomputer-posing-as-false-god glasses. They are also a party of Kirks when it comes to not embracing alien customs, whether Spanish-speaking or gay-marrying.

Bottom line though, both Obama and Romney prefer TNG‘s seven-season longevity, basically two terms in office. The original series barely survived three years, before achieving its godlike status in reruns (also a likely fate for the first African American President of the United States).

At least both candidates draw the line at campaigning in Amazon-tailored short shorts. We really don’t need to confirm which of their legs are all white and which are all black. But for a joint political ad, I suggest the two of them jogging in place with images of the U.S. economy burning in the background. At the very end, the electorate can zoom off to another galaxy in search of a less bold political environment.

One where Gene Roddenberry’s contradictory scifi vision doesn’t look like weak-minded flip-flopping, but a sincere desire and willingness to test new and old ideas, to look for compromise in an endlessly evolving universe.

Unfortunately, today’s voters would only want to know whether he’s blue on the right side and red on the left side, or red on the right side and blue on the left side. Instant hatred! Too bad we don’t have Captain Kirk to beam down and fix our divided-down-the-middle nation.

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It was a big weekend. Obama officially launched his reelection campaign, the French equivalent of a Tea Party President lost his, and The Avengers swept box offices. The Monday was also the anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Coincidences? Obviously. But revealing ones.

The Avengers is a love-to-hate-you letter to Adolf Hitler. Marvel Entertainment is telling us that without a supervillain to focus us, America can’t reach its superheroic potential. And it’s not just any supervillain we need. The Cold War’s Evil Empire only gave us nuclear deterrents. Global warming just gives us something to bicker about. But Hitler, he gave us unity.

Nazi nostalgia is ingrained in the superhero formula, but director-scriptwriter Joss Whedon makes it explicit. Nordic ubervillain Loki declares his dictatorship in Germany, and the star-spangled Captain America is the first to sock him on the jaw. The World War II hero is the heart of the film, showcasing the “old fashioned” patriotism that launched Golden Age superheroes and still keeps them afloat.

But America has changed in seventy years. Our worst enemy isn’t a Democracy-stomping dictator. It’s ourselves. We’re like a bunch of superpowered leotards bounding off in contradictory directions. We waste our time smashing our hammers against each other’s shields. The Avengers are at their worst while Loki is chilling in his cell. No threat, no unity.

Once things start exploding though, we know how to rally. Democracy is messy, but when it really matters, it works. Even narcissists like Tony Stark, the ultimate 1%-er super-CEO, eventually fall into line. Those equally self-righteous religious types finally stop talking about Asgard and start taking orders from the American flag. Why? A cop on the street voices the question, and Whedon answers: anyone standing on the front line blocking bullets for you (or whatever those shiny blasts of energy are) is the guy to get behind.

Being truly democratic, the team also includes some of our darker sides on its roster. Black Widow reminds us of all the blood on our national ledger and our collective need to atone for it. And lest we think the ledger ended with the sexy Soviet Union, Hawkeye murders his victims right on screen. But it’s okay, he was brainwashed by a demagogue, so let’s not torture ourselves by counting up the number dead (in, say, Afghanistan or Iraq). It’s the lesson that matters: America is always angry, always capable of unthinking destruction, but we can learn to control that rage and use it for good.

The trick is how to inspire unity. Nick Fury learns that barking orders isn’t enough. You have to make us want to be a team. Sure, trading cards are dorky, but they’re about childhood. They’re about believing in simple truths. So what if Nick dipped them in blood for dramatic effect? He did it for the right reason. Which I guess means Whedon does too when he plays the 9/11 card at the end of the film. It’s okay to copy ground zero memorial footage as long as you show America coming together as a result.

Though it turns out disunity is important too. Fury isn’t just taking orders from upper ups. Some in-fighting is necessary. It’s evidence of our national health. In fact, it makes us stronger. So when the space portal opens and the legions of doom descend, we’ll be the best team possible. Not a government mandate, but a grass roots majority guided by its own (slightly manipulated) will.

Too much government is a will-devouring dictatorship, too little is nation-splintering anarchy, but The Avengers serves democracy just right. It’s the baby bear balance suitable for all political persuasions. It’s also a nifty way to earn $417 million in two weeks.

When the fight’s over, we splinter again, and that’s okay too. Because we’ve reminded ourselves and the universe that America is always secretly ready. Plus, now that we’ve proven we can pull together, we’ve earned the right to be free of government surveillance. Fury and Whedon turn off the cameras, and we all go home feeling good about being Americans. We can hardly wait for the next catastrophe to make us all feel even better.

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