What We Learned about the Election in This Summer's Movies

From the multiplex to the stump: It's caped crusader versus community organizer, and the end is nigh

Anticipated by X-Men, surprise blockbuster of the 2000 campaign, and initiated two years later with Spider-Man, the big-screen comic book has been the characteristic Bush-era action genre. America auditioned a number of superheroes this summer and liked more than a few. (Four of 2008's top 10 grossers have been superhero films.) There was the rakish Iron Man, supposedly inspired by the young Howard Hughes, and his struggle against the Taliban. There were the reconfigured Hulk and a kinder, gentler Hellboy. There was Will Smith's pissed-off, dissolute Hancock (an original character!) and the kill-machine protagonist of Wanted. And then there was the creature John McCain identified as his favorite superhero: Batman. (Obama agreed, but qualified his enthusiasm by also mentioning Spider-Man, a character he might have well appreciated as a lonely eight-year-old. Batman, by contrast, is nearly as old as McCain.)

As its title suggests, The Dark Knight is less movie than worldview, a recognizable dystopia ruled by the threat of terror, in which the rich live in gated communities and the economy is controlled by the Chinese. Basically one hostage situation after another, the movie's lugubrious doomsday scenario opens with preparations for what might be a skyscraper attack and continues through two and a half hours of stylish nonstop brutality to end with a crescendo of moral confusion. The 9/11 references run rampant, but even more insistent is the meditation on civic responsibility, the nature of due process, the legitimacy of torture. The crusading D.A. recognizes Batman as our Caesar—and Batman recognizes no limits. High Noon has given way to darkest night. As the ads put it: "Welcome to a World Without Rules."

While reviewers could not help but detect a critique of the war on terror in The Dark Knight, right-wing pundits gratefully embraced the movie as a glorification of their fantasy. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Kavan praised The Dark Knight as "a paean of praise to [George Bush's] fortitude and moral courage." The movie justified a president "vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand." CNN commentator Glenn Beck waxed even more enthusiastically specific: "Batman goes into another country and with a C-130 snatches a guy out, and then throws him back here into Gotham. So there's rendition. . . . One of the ways they find the Joker is through eavesdropping. I mean, the parallels here of what's going on is to me stunning!" The American Spectator further personalized the allegory: Batman's capacity for action, his love of risk and maverick indifference to public opinion, were pure McCain.

A vulgar Marxist might note that as Batman is the alter-ego of the richest man in Gotham City, his "law" is the protection of capital. (Smeared lipstick notwithstanding, one of the scariest things about the Joker is that he has no respect for money.) In any case, the film's ongoing discussion as to whether Batman is the hero we deserve or the hero we need is trumped by the villain's funhouse-mirror dialectic. The Joker (secret star of the movie, played by an actor from beyond the grave) argues that, operating from somewhere outside of the law, Batman is the real agent of terror. He, on the other hand, embodies a particular logic: "I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are." Like bin Laden, the Joker has the power to drive Gotham City mad. This criminal is Al Qaeda squared, Katrina personified, the Wrath of God run amok. And so The Dark Night is illuminated by two choices: chaos or fascism.

Sarah Palin may get to make her Checkers speech, or, scheduled for early October, Oliver Stone's supposedly scabrous Bush parody W might constitute an intervention. But all things being equal, the choice is Wall-E versus The Dark Knight. The 2008 election will come down to absurd hope (a funny little dingbot can redeem this blighted planet) or the miserable fear of that damnable, fascinating, scary clown.

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