I remember walking out of Patton (1970) with a hippie friend who loved it. He claimed that it showed how vicious the military was, by portraying a hero as an egotistical nutcase. That wasn’t the reading offered by a veteran I once talked to, who considered the film a tribute to a great warrior. —David Bordwell, from an August 16 Web site posting

So here we are in the middle of a war about movie superheroes (see comments threads here and here). The word itself begs for judicious scare quotes—why “super”? why “heroic”?—but what predictably gets the blood boiling, at least among the die-hard fans, is anyone calling these wayward exotics “childish.” How can you write off a whole genre, the argument goes, when it’s never a one-dimensional, monolithic thing?

And basically I agree. “Childish” is largely irrelevant, an easy, moralizing put-down where something less analytically loaded—that doesn’t skew the semantics from the get-go—gets you to a more interesting place. (Interesting too that “childlike” skews in the opposite direction—depends on what brand of kid you are, I guess: innocuous before impish, etc.) Which doesn’t mean the land of the overmuscled and preternaturally endowed is a place you’d necessarily want to visit, only that it’s a little more complicated—and worrisome—than supercilious dismissals ever let on.

In the post quoted above, David Bordwell gets into the industry dynamics of the superhero genre, but not so much the social assumptions that make that genre go. Which, considering the BANG! POW! megadoses we’ve been getting the last couple of years, seem positively toxic. What’s arguably OK within “reasonable” limits, even homeopathic in a more benign state, as an expression of the creative urge, the infinite variety of thinking and feeling that’s always searching for an outlet, seems lately to have run off the rails. But what are we tuning in on really? Is it “imagination unleashed,” exploring creative options that a dull, dreary realism can’t handle (since if, e.g., Frozen River‘s the responsible “adult” alternative to the knockabout energies of the Hellboys, The Rocketeer, Mulcahy’s The Shadow, and other supposedly “infantile” delights—not to mention anything with Super Milla in it: go Resident Evil, go!—then somebody please save us from this castor-oil curse)? Or is it national paranoia, an unwillingness to negotiate, the sense of imperial privilege our abundant supply of supers always seems to share. Just plop for the unilateralist solution, where you can force an outcome and not have to worry about diplomacy and all that other whimpering, whining shit. Or maybe it’s more exotic: What do superheroes and World Wrestling Entertainment smackdowns have in common? Why aren’t faeries with magic wands (note effete spelling) as popular as Batman? Are superheroes responsible for the war in Iraq? Are they more responsible for keeping us there? And isn’t it ironic that the “world’s most powerful military machine” comes from an emotionally frazzled country where disempowerment fantasies regularly take hold? The teeming minions in The Dark Knight seem all too typical: faceless, almost sheeplike, stampeding in whatever direction their panicky impulses drive them. Day/night, good/evil, hyperthyroidism/helplessness, a world of Manichaean extremity with nothing in between, that only projected megalomania can ever set right. What’s “childish” about any of this? Looks more like terminal pathology to me.

Do movie audiences in, e.g., Portugal or Switzerland or Luxembourg need the same macho reassurances our own fragile psyches seem to? And if not why do we? Or maybe it’s just one thing feeding off another, hyperthyroidism to helplessness and back again, like partners locked in an escalating dance, one of Gregory Bateson‘s notorious schismogenetic tangos. Talk about peaceful coexistence—except in the long run there’s nothing peaceful about it.