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Superheroes should maintain their super values

Heath Ledger starred as The Joker in "The Dark Knight." There was no attempt to explain or justify The Joker in the film.
Heath Ledger starred as The Joker in "The Dark Knight." There was no attempt to explain or justify The Joker in the film.
Associated Press

The latest Batman movie is raising a bunch of questions.

For instance, should "The Dark Knight Rises" be held responsible for the senseless murders in Colorado? (The answer: no.)

Is the villain Bane an attempt by the producers to smear Mitt Romney and his tenure at Bain Capital? (The answer: no.)

The only question that matters is this: What's the deal with all these superhero movies?

Our cineplexes have long been teeming with guys in tights. Last summer, Captain America made a big splash while Green Lantern belly-flopped. This year, we've got Batman rising, Spider-Man being amazing, and six Avengers scarfing down shawarma. Umpteen more superflicks are in the works, including an Ant-Man movie, which just goes to show that these studios are so desperate for costumed crimefighter material that they're willing to scrape the bottom of the superbarrel.

But who can blame them? These pictures make scads of money and generate endless sequels, which means they'll keep popping up like weeds for years to come.

So is there something to the whole superhero motif, or are these movies just so much cinematic crabgrass?

I'm probably the wrong guy to ask. I had a paper route as a kid, and I blew all of my hard-earned money on comic books. The truth is that I still have a few hundred of them in boxes up in the attic. They're all dog-eared and mangled from having been read and reread so many times. These weren't collector's items to me; they were stories I loved. They were stories that mattered.

Hollywood seems to believe that the only stories that matter are the ones where the heroes aren't really that heroic and the villains are just misunderstood. In all of the "important" movies and TV shows, "complexity" is the order of the day. Right and wrong are buried in endless nuances and shades of grey.

Comic books, by contrast, offer clarity in bold colors. The hero is the good guy and is clearly labeled as such, while the villain is pure evil and dresses like a penguin. The stakes are high; the battle lines are drawn, and the right side always wins. That may be a na?e way to view the world, but there's something reassuring about it, too. It doesn't surprise me that young boys looking to understand the world are drawn to tales of a fantasy world that makes more moral sense than the real one does.

Those fantasy worlds are changing, however — and not always for the better.

Take Superman. When the Man of Steel got the big screen treatment in 1978, Christopher Reeve announced unabashedly that he stood for "truth, justice and the American way." By 2006, when "Superman Returns" hit theaters, that was changed to "truth, justice, (and) all that stuff." Last year, in Action Comics #900, Superman actually renounced his American citizenship. (I'm not sure how a Kryptonian gets a green card, much less citizenship, but apparently nobody asked him for his birth certificate.) Nuance has crept into Superman's fictional world, and I'm not convinced that's a good thing.

What gives me hope is that the cinematic versions of these characters still retain the clarity that made them popular in the first place, despite the best efforts of "complex" producers to muddy the waters. I'm convinced that one of the reasons Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker was so unsettling in "The Dark Knight" was that there was no attempt to explain or justify him.

"Some men just want to see the world burn," Alfred the butler tells Bruce Wayne.

That's true. And some of us just want to watch heroes do everything in their power to stop them.

There's still tremendous value in that idea, and if the studios want to keep selling tickets to superhero movies, they'd do well to remember that.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog,