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What 'Dark Knight' says about us
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On the surface, it seems silly to devote a column to deconstructing a superhero movie, even a huge blockbuster like The Dark Knight Rises. What could be more frivolous, after all, than spending $10 to $20 bucks (popcorn and drink included) to see a summer flick?

Throughout our history, however, art has served as a reflection of the human condition. Archaeologists and historians look not only at the grand architecture of an age, but the designs on pottery, the images captured in paintings, the stories that were told. What director Christopher Nolan has said about us on film is no less valid that what Homer wrote 2,700 years ago.

The Dark Knight Rises is, perhaps, the most socially relevant of the trilogy. Batman Begins is, first and foremost, an origin story. Several bloggers and critics back in 2005 tagged it as more psychological than social, delving into Bruce Wayne’s search for a father figure and need for vengeful justice. In post-9/11 America, the use of Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow touched on fears.

But there’s a social element, too, depicting Gotham City as a decaying, rotten organism destroying its host citizens from within. The real villain in that movie: Ra’s al Ghul, bent on razing Gotham to the ground before corruption can deepen and spread rather than fight for a way to heal it.

The Dark Knight, co-starring the late Heath Ledger in his (posthumously) Oscar-winning performance as Joker, is a massively psychological story. Co-writer David S. Goyer was quoted back in 2009 (the movie was released the year before) as saying the movie’s primary theme is “escalation.” As pointed out by Roger Ebert in his review of the film, Joker forces everyone else in the film -- Bruce Wayne (Batman), Commissioner Jim Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent to make “impossible ethical choices.”

Socially, the theme’s a little murky. Goyer said Gotham was “weak” in this film in the wake of the events of the first movie. The Dark Knight came out before Barack Obama’s election as president, so the movie’s not a reflection of America’s politics. On the other hand, one mystery author, Andrew Klavan, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Batman in the second film was like President George W. Bush and the War on Terrorism. Others countered that analysis by saying the movie is really about fighting back against lawlessness.

Like I said, The Dark Knight wasn’t the most socially motivated of movies. Perhaps, as Benjamin Kerstein wrote in the Jewish magazine, Azure, The Dark Knight was a reflection of America’s division on Bush’s efforts.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt Nolan stepped up the both the psychological and sociological themes in The Dark Knight Rises, which -- I’m happy to let you know -- I watched right here in Camden.

Last week, I wrote about the whole Rush Limbaugh Bain/Bane fiasco. The irony here is that Limbaugh -- perhaps subconsciously because he hadn’t seen the movie yet -- touched on one of the movie’s main themes.

Some people, such as Limbaugh, make the movie out as reflecting a liberal agenda. Others have come to the exact opposition conclusion, that it is a reflection of America’s seemingly ever-deepening conservative agenda.

The biggest comparison to real life is the Occupy movement that hit America and the world last year -- most especially Occupy Wall Street. Without giving a ton of plot points away, there is a definitive, in-your-face Occupy feel to what the villains do in this film.

They have decided that they’ve had enough of Gotham’s elite squandering what they believe everyone should have. They hold mock trials (brilliantly presided over by ... ah, but that would be telling), throw the rich bums out on the street and “Occupy” their penthouses.

Nolan has rebuffed these comparisons but admitted to Rolling Stone magazine that “What we’re really trying to do is show the cracks in society.” And there you have it: acknowledgement that this is a social commentary film even if he denies exactly what that commentary is.

Nolan -- whether he meant to or not -- twists the Occupy movement on its head, making it out to be more about completely wrecking the social order rather than affecting social justice.

And what does that make Batman? Is he the protector of his own kind: rich and powerful? That’s what some critics would have you believe, but I don’t. Not when Nolan has so faithfully created a gritty version of the Batman that has always been -- a crime fighting detective focused on the hunt and, ultimately, avenging his parents’ deaths.

Watch carefully, and you’ll see a Batman more concerned with taking down bad guys than he is in protecting specific people. He already tried that in The Dark Knight, and (--spoiler alert--) lost his first real love and his best friend.

If anything, Wayne’s leadership as Batman causes others to “rise” to the occasion. For years, Wayne Enterprises and Batman helper Lucius Fox has kept Bruce’s toys at the ready; Gordon -- once he realizes an awful truth left over from the second film -- perseveres to preserve life; Anne Hathaway’s fantastic Selina (“Catwoman”) Kyle stops running from herself, leaving her own moral ambiguity behind; and, most of all, a cop named John Blake is inspired to protect his fellow officers and the children of Gotham.

The Dark Knight Rises’ real message: we are all capable of doing right -- we just need, sometimes, someone to show us the way.