'Dark Knight,' 'The Incredibles' face partisan scrutiny

(Editor‘s note: This column went to print before the tragic shootings on Friday at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”)

Sometimes a movie is just a movie — except when it’s a blockbuster in an election year.

This past week saw Rush Limbaugh declare Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight Rises,” the latest and most anticipated sequel in the Batman franchise, as being anti-Mitt Romney, his sole evidence seeming to be that the villain in the pic is named Bane.

Get it? Bane = Bain, as in Bain Capital, the company that Romney led for so many years, which has become a source of so many attacks from President Obama’s reelection team.

“The movie has been in the works for a long time, the release dates been known, summer 2012 for a long time,” Limbaugh said on his show. “Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious, fire-breathing, four-eyed, whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bane?”

Other than being “silly” — which is what Chuck Dixon, a self-described “lifelong” conservative who co-created the Bane character in 1993, told Comicbook.com — Limbaugh’s rant also speaks to what happens in a time of hyper-partisanship. Entertainment doesn’t just get digested as entertainment, but is parsed for alternative meanings and ulterior motives, even if it sometimes defies common sense.

One day after the 2004 presidential election, I went to a screening of “The Incredibles” at the ArcLight in Hollywood. Given the locale, it’s safe to say the crowd was predominantly anti-George W. Bush, and therefore dejected by his narrow reelection victory. When Brad Bird, the movie’s director, took the stage for a Q&A afterward, he had to defend the movie as just a movie and not, as some in the audience saw it, veiled support for the administration, its anti-terrorism policies or even the war in Iraq. The film was conceived, he noted, even before Bush took office.

With more than a few studies concluding that political affinities of consumers help define what they watch, it stands to reason that figures in the media would be on high alert when a genuine pop culture event like the latest movie in the Batman franchise takes over the headlines.

Limbaugh and other conservatives don’t need to look far for reasons to be suspicious. Hollywood certainly leans left. The chairman of Warner Bros. Entertainment, Barry Meyer, was recently at an Obama fundraiser. One of the Senate’s top Democrats, Patrick Leahy, once again has a cameo in the latest Batman film. Morgan Freeman, who again appears in the Christopher Nolan batpic, last month gave $1 million to a pro-Obama SuperPAC.

Add it all up and what do you have? Well, maybe a pro-Bush franchise. At least that is what some conservatives saw in the last edition of the Batman films, which was released at the height of the presidential campaign in 2008.

“There seems to me no question that the Batman film ‘The Dark Knight,’ currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war,” wrote Andrew Klavan in the Wall Street Journal that year. “Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.”

In fact, where Limbaugh saw left-wing shenanigans at work in the making of “Dark Knight Rises,” others saw right-ward scorn. David Sirota, whose book “Back to Our Future” lays out a compelling argument that 1980s pop culture actually influenced an era of anti-populism, pointed to “The Dark Night Rises” and the latest “Call of Duty” game as continuing that tradition, casting the Occupy movement as somehow villainous. “Just as so many 1980s pop-culture products reflected the spirit of the Reagan Revolution’s conservative backlash, we are now seeing two blockbuster, genre-shaping products not-so-subtly reflect the Tea Party’s rhetorical backlash to the powerful Occupy Wall Street zeitgeist,” he wrote at Salon. Dixon, for one, seemed to confirm that by telling the Comicbook.com blog that Bane is “far more akin to an Occupy Wall Street type if you’re looking to cast him politically.”

So if the latest Batman films present contradictory evidence of partisan messaging at the multiplex, maybe it is time to parse past summer hits for retroactive political intent. This past week, ABC News did a story on the political affinities of Mark Hamill, James Earl Jones, George Lucas and others involved in the biggest summer blockbuster of them all, “Star Wars.” It can’t be much of a surprise that in a movie in which those fighting for the Empire were the bad guys, they’re not rushing to support Romney.

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