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AMBIVALENT HEROES The Avengers preaches unity, but it also harbors paranoia about the powers-that-be.

IMPERFECT UNION

Eight decades later in movie time, and nine months in real life, and Captain America is back, taken out of cold storage to serve his country again. In The Avengers he joins a team of superheroes to battle another would-be world conqueror, but now his patriotism seems quaint and corny. Moreover, his fellow Avengers are squabbling prima donnas. There's Tony Stark/Iron Man, a billionaire, genius, playboy, and narcissist; Thor, a snippy Norse god; Hulk, a giant Gumby of free-floating rage. On the lumpenprole side are Black Widow and Hawkeye, a pair of lethally skilled secret agents with shady pasts. A motley assortment of the divine, the demented, and the out-of-date, of the enlightened one percent and the erratic hoi polloi.

Will they band together against god-gone-bad Loki's evil elitism? Are they mere puppets manipulated by the ominous government agency, S.H.I.E.L.D.? The Avengers preaches unity, but it also harbors paranoia about the powers-that-be. And these days, who doesn't? Drawing on the mood of ambivalence, plus a rabid fanboy base, The Avengers took in $600 million.

At the same time, the alternate universe of Campaign 2012 highlighted a growing divide. President Obama showed signs of a comeback, with his approval rating at 47 percent, the highest since the death of bin Laden. To consolidate his base he endorsed gay marriage. The Republicans also tightened ranks. Newt Gingrich withdrew from the race and threw his support to Romney. The contest was focusing on two brands of patriotism — or more accurately, two visions of the economy.

CLASS IS IN SESSION

In the end, it's always the economy, stupid. Even in the escapist world of blockbuster movies.

As in The Hunger Games, released March 23. In the future dystopia, the US has been reduced to feudal districts in thrall to the Capitol, a decadent empire run by rich creeps with bad haircuts. Every year the districts must pay tribute by sending youth to fight to the death in the title contests. But maybe this time the people will revolt!

If they do, however, are they embodying the cause of the Occupy movement against economic injustice, or of the Tea Party against big government interference? Maybe both groups saw themselves reflected in the movie, which made $400 million. At the same time, two of the branches of the federal government demonstrated similar ambivalence: Congress remained deadlocked on passing a budget, and the Supreme Court began its hearings on the constitutionality of Obamacare.

The Dark Knight Rises, released July 20, only added to the murkiness. Filmed in New York at the height of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations the previous September, it also explores class conflict. Here Bruce Wayne is a billionaire in his day job, but he moonlights as Batman, protecting the people of Gotham City from evil. But that evil is bankrolled by rich people like himself. Further complicating matters, the bad guy Bane pretends to be a revolutionary fighting for the common people.

The left and right have different takes on the movie. Is it, as some have argued, an embodiment of the beliefs of conservative icon Edmund Burke? Or as others contend, is it an attack on the one percent — after all, isn't the villain's name, "Bane," a homophone for Romney's investment company?

As the film piled up the grosses ($300 million to date), the issues it raised were not any more resolved in the non-comic- book universe. On the one hand, on June 5 voters in Wisconsin backed union-busting Tea Party favorite Governor Scott Walker in a recall election. On the other hand, on June 28, the Supreme Court surprised everyone by upholding Obamacare.

The country seemed torn between the powers of private enterprise and the cause of social welfare. The Dark Knight could be seen as a scenario resolving these extremes and potentially ending conflict. Which makes the massacre committed by a crazy person at the film's premiere in Aurora, Colorado, all the more tragic and grotesque.

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