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Opinion: The Liberal Lessons of the Summer Superheroes

Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - 03:19 PM

Americans always turn to heroes in the summer, as we escape the hot days into cold movie theaters where larger than life protagonists give us a few hours of thrilling adventures and moral clarity. In an election year, we probably crave these heroes more than ever: men and women who don't need to raise money, run negative ads or compromise core beliefs.

So it's no surprise that Avengers and Spiderman have been two of the season's blockbusters so far, as we anticipate this weekend's release of The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. In the real world, challenges from climate change to the Middle East are complicated and progress is slow. Yet these comic book characters solve their worlds' problems in a few hours relying on their principles, fortitude, brains, charm and a dose of brute force.

However, let's not miss the opportunity to pull some positive political messages from these summer cinema sensations. Conservatives and liberals would love to wrangle over whose side different superheroes would take (would Superman be a law-and-order right-winger or does his drive for social justice put him with the progressives?), and I'd welcome that debate. But short of signing these characters up for political party membership, we can still find a few choice liberal lessons in this season's big screen successes.

First of all, what would happen if Dick Cheney's military contractor buddies put social profit ahead of financial profit and decided to use their powers to put themselves out of business? They'd be Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, the role reprised by Robert Downey Jr. in the Avengers. Stark doesn't stop living the playboy life and he sure enjoys being a member of the 1 percent - but he uses his wealth to upend the industry that made him a mega-millionaire. He'd probably even join a group like Patriotic Millionaires.

Furthermore, between Stark, Dr. Bruce Banner (the Hulk) and Thor's romantic interest Jane Foster (who skipped this film), the science-minded firepower among this super-team would never deny climate change. If Banner were faced with science-denying arguments, he'd probably have only one reply: "Hulk, smash."

Over in Spiderman, you have a vigilante who doesn't use a gun and would probably take exception to the "Stand your ground" and "Concealed Carry" laws promoted by ALEC, the NRA and other conservative groups. After all, if groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns were more successful, maybe Uncle Ben -- played by liberal lion Martin Sheen -- would still be alive.

Peter Parker exists in a world where corporate power and greed lead to abuse and disaster even though Norman Osborne, the ultra-rich villain of last decade's franchise, exists only around the edges of this film. Good guys are hard-working Joes and Janes, including the unionized crane operators who save the day when Spidey's powers can only take him so far. Forget "union thugs," those guys were union heroes.

What will we get out of the Dark Knight? The trailers have suggested that this Batman exists in an Occupy-oriented world, where the clash between the 1 percent and the 99 percent consumes Gotham (Batman shot scenes in New York during the height of the Occupy Wall Street encampment). While Bruce Wayne is unquestionably a one percenter, his alter ego may have more in common with those outside the halls of power. Aside from the coincidence of a villain named Bane (this one destroys cities, not companies), we'll have to wait until this weekend to see if the Dark Knight fits the bill as a modern day Robin Hood (and whether he'd support a Robin Hood Tax).

The heroes we cheer for push back against bullies, help out the everyman, use force only to pursue peace and aren't bought and sold by Super PACs or corporate bosses (the characters, that is; their brands are a different story). No wonder liberals love them. And if conservatives want to try to claim them back, I'm willing to have the argument. After all, the greatest hero of them all might have grown up in Smallville, Kansas, but arrived as an illegal alien with no papers or proof of citizenship. But I don't think we'll be deporting Clark Kent anytime soon.

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