Americans love our heroes. But we are a little confused about what we should expect from them. We celebrate Michael Phelps's record-breaking achievements of human strength and endurance. And yet we wonder if he should use the platform to address China's broken record on human rights. Retired basketball superstar Charles Barkley once confessed in a commercial, "I am not a role model." Now, in the view of ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon, Barkley is the most beloved sports hero in America.

NBC hit comedy series The Office parodied America's hero confusion. A visiting diversity trainer uses the acronym H-E-R-O to promote honesty, empathy, respect, and open-mindedness. But office goof Dwight Schrute has his own definition of a hero. "A hero kills people, people that wish them harm," Dwight explains. "A hero is part human and part supernatural. A hero is born out of a childhood trauma, or out of a disaster that must be avenged." The trainer responds to Dwight that he is describing a superhero.

America's hero worship has propelled the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight, up the charts as the second-highest grossing movie of all time, behind only Titanic. Surely morbid curiosity about the late Heath Ledger's final, chilling performance has something to do with the film's success. But The Dark Knight is a rare summer hero movie that invites thoughtful engagement with its themes.

Spoiler alert: Read no further if you plan to see The Dark Knight and haven't yet.

The movie's title reinforces its thesis, spoken by two characters: "You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain." Gotham's three heroes fulfill the prophecy. Police commissioner Jim Gordon works outside the law in order to uphold it. He covertly supports Batman's ...

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