'The Dark Knight Rises' Politics: Is Christopher Nolan's Batman Series Liberal or Conservative?

Just a summer superhero flick? In an election year, both left and right are making claims and accusations about the ideological messages sent in the trilogy.

When Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday accused The Dark Knight Rises of taking a subconscious shot at Mitt Romney, with its villain Bane a homophone for the GOP presidential candidate's long-time venture capital firm Bain, it created quite the stir -- and received more than a few mocking laughs. But while his accusations were more than a stretch -- Bane was created in 1993, and selected as the villain long before Romney was the obvious GOP candidate -- Limbaugh did touch on what is becoming a more serious debate: what are the political messages in Christopher Nolan's Batman films?

There has always been a fundamental tension with the character specifically, and superheroes more generally. Bruce Wayne is a billionaire scion, who lives in a giant mansion on the outskirts of town, making him a full fledged member of the one percent. But he gives much of his money to charity, and his entire being to fighting crime -- often taking on wealthy and selfish mob bosses, or madmen looking to enrich themselves. That makes him a sort of Benevolent Dictator, without the legal authority -- which is part of the broad superhero contradiction: they protect the law, breaking many of them to do so.

Many conservatives praised 2008's The Dark Knight, which, under the guise of a crazy man in clown makeup, dealt with terrorism and how we respond to attacks on our cities. The Joker brings havoc upon Gotham, shaking its institutions and taking down its government and police force, and ultimately corrupting its knight in shining armor, Harvey Dent.

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In comes Batman, who acts as a one-man army, brutalizing Joker in a questioning cell while looking for information, one of many rules he breaks. We root for him because we can know he is, without fail, the good guy, and the threats against the city are clear. The world isn't so black and white, of course, which makes it hard to apply Batman principles to true warfare and anti-terrorism fighting.

The Dark Knight Rises is a murkier story. Even from teasers for the film, the clash between the classes was made clear; Anne Hathaway, as Selina Kyle, whispers into Bruce Wayne's ear, "When it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." That's clearly populist talk, and her character is a thief, stealing from the rich. But she's also, according to Hathaway, a villain.

Then comes Bane. In the comics, he grew up in a prison, and at one point emptied the cells of Arkham Asylum, letting out the criminals with whom he identifies. Much of the film allegedly focuses on his desire to bring destruction to the flourishing Gotham, which was given hope when Dent died and was labeled a martyr in the 2008 film. It's been noted that Nolan supposedly filmed near Occupy Wall Street in New York last fall, and there is a down-with-the-system undercurrent to the film, or at least its marketing. Does that make Bane a populist, or merely an anarchist? Is fighting for the people always a sign that one is for the left? Remember, the Tea Party also claims to be against the so-called "elites."

Nolan has said that his film is above partisanship, though he largely plays coy about its politics. Can a rich hero quell a "man of the people," and still have it satisfy progressives with its message? Is any story about an absolute, iron-fisted ruler automatically a cautionary tale about fascism? It's hard to say, but one thing is for sure: like with the rest of the news cycle, how people will read into it will depend on their politics.

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin