(Note: This column contains references to the movie “The Dark Knight.” Although they’re not “spoilers,” considered yourself duly warned if you’re one of those people that doesn’t want to know anything about the movie before you see it. And given its box office numbers, if you haven’t seen it, you likely live in a community with no electricity.)

In recent years, the superhero movie genre has undergone a revival. Previously, movies featuring comic book heroes could be counted on for nothing more than some good action and bad tights. But that has all changed. Now the Hulk is a sensitive hero with father issues. Spiderman wrestles with the weight of his own conscience. Iron Man ends up accomplishing the formidable task of saving both the world and Robert Downey Jr.’s drug dealer from bankruptcy. Even a movie like “Unbreakable,” which doesn’t reveal itself as a superhero movie until late in the film, features superhuman characters with real world problems.

This weekend saw the release of the granddaddy of them all, “The Dark Knight.” The second Christian Bale Batman movie has been hailed in some circles as the greatest superhero movie ever made. And while it features people wearing clown makeup blowing stuff up,[i] there are actually some valuable real world lessons interwoven through the script.

There’s a danger in applying the lessons of movies where the main characters wear masks and capes to politics. (Although it’s well known that Russ Feingold occasionally wears a red codpiece on the Senate floor.) Until John McCain saves a busload of school kids from careening off a bridge with his teeth, there’s probably no real comparison. (The chances of this actually happening are really no greater than 10%.)

Yet in “The Dark Knight,” there’s a theme that seems to strike close to home in the 2008 presidential election. In the movie, the public becomes increasingly skeptical of Batman’s vigilante brand of law enforcement. Instead, they credit District Attorney Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhardt) with cleaning up much of Gotham’s crime. Although Batman clearly runs circles around the city’s law enforcement, he is content to accept the public’s scorn and pass the credit to Dent. At one point, Commissioner Gordon observes that “Batman is the hero Gotham deserves, not the one it needs.”

The dichotomy between what citizens “need” and what they “deserve” is essentially what voters are wrestling with in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. In the context of the movie, what voters “need” is a figurehead that makes them feel better about themselves – that the government has things under control. While Dent was a newcomer to the District Attorney’s office, he made citizens feel like he was one of them. And while his accomplishments were mainly devoid of content, he served as Gotham’s avatar for justice.

In this context, Barack Obama fits neatly into the category of the politician we “need.” We need to feel better about ourselves, regardless of those pesky “policies” and “details.” We need someone who represents Hope and Change, despite not having a single idea that hasn’t been culled from the Democratic blueprint. A vote for Obama washes away our guilt over race relations and helps us erase the hangover from an unpopular war. Obama is essentially a political paint-by-numbers book, where the lines are drawn, but we are free to fill in whatever colors make us feel better. (Adding to the comparison is Obama’s proclivity to flip-flop, leading one to believe he might be “two faced.”)

On the other hand, McCain represents the politician we “deserve.” The world is full of maniacal dictators intent on bringing down the United States, and they won’t be allayed by the U.S. sending them a “World’s Greatest Despot” coffee mug. We deserve someone willing to confront America’s international dangers as they are, not as how they are perceived at the NPR offices.

We “deserve” a politician who is willing to talk to us like grown-ups when it comes to earmark and entitlement reform. America is poised for an economic disaster when Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare bills come due for baby boomers. Yet no one is willing to do anything about it, as these entitlement programs constitute the third rail of American politics. Congressman Paul Ryan of Janesville is pushing his “roadmap” for reforming these programs, but there’s a better chance that Congress declares Prince’s “Batdance” as the national anthem than Ryan’s “roadmap to making granny cry” becoming law.

(Perhaps most importantly, McCain has been known to dress like a rodent and kick his political opponents in the head, which pretty much completes the parallel.)

In November, voters could very well choose the candidate they think they need, rather than the one they believe they deserve. But after our national collective group hug, the job of actually governing remains. By then, it may be too late to send out the Bat Signal.

-July 21, 2008