• “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” (CS Lewis)

    Children’s stories, young-adult novels, horror films, myths, dramas all have this in common: they all tell the story, lay bare the essential conflicts and we remember them and we repeat them. That’s why they last. Maybe we learn more, maybe we find more sophisticated ways to talk about them, and that’s good; but these essential and true things do not go away.

    When I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I was well and truly blown away, because JK Rowling landed on an essential, eternal truth: no matter how much they love me (and they do), the day will come when my parents will not be here to protect me and I will have to live in a world without them. There’s nothing I or anyone else can learn that will change that, and that’s why the stories will last. (It’s not an accident that Half-Blood Prince shares a moment with James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand, because Rowling and Ellroy are both writers of myths, of the things that endure.)

    Great stuff as ever.

    • Thank you kindly!

    • Rucker and Cohlchez vs. Evil 🌹

      “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

      This resonates with me a lot because I am, as I cited somewhere else to describe my Rick and Morty fandom, very pro-nonsense. So when I think of putting away childish things, to me the most childish value is denial. Being an adult isn’t about being grim or serious or humorless; it’s about accepting the world as it is and dealing with it as it is.

      • THIS. Also, Rick is childish in ways that make him a terrible person, whereas Morty is just inexperienced at life in general. The contrast between the two is what, IMO, makes the show great. That, and the writers aren’t afraid to make it clear that you do not want to be Rick, whereas Scott McFarlane didn’t do a good job of making you NOT want to be Peter or Quagmire.

    • Miller

      A complement to this — every story is someone’s first time with that story, and first times are more likely with stuff that is geared toward people who haven’t seen much. You can’t deny the frisson of a first time, but the veneration of it — which is not going on in this piece — is something I’m wary of. It’s like getting on your hands and knees just to have the same perspective as you did when you were small, you can still honor that view while looking clearly from where you are now.

      That said, it’s unclear to me whether the juvenile problem of slathering bad crap on a prime nugget of story (Hasbro presents: The Transformers in Gift Of The Magi!) is worse than the adult problem of sophistication and skill in the service of a snooze of a story.

      • Dead Jerk Jerk Dead

        Replying as a second upvote, but also to ask where Disney falls on your two issues: using sophistication and skill to slather bad crap on a prime nugget of a story?

    • Dead Jerk Jerk Dead

      I have a complicated reaction to this article, and your post touches on it. Lewis had wonderful things to say about outgrowing the impulse to outgrow childishness, and I absolutely agree with him and you on the point. At the same time, there’s a way to approach this material immaturely that I think even Lewis, Rowling, etc would all agree needs to be set aside: masturbatory power fantasies, objectifying the idealized human form (typically female, for some reason or another), relationships-as-trophies (not just romantic, but them too) and a morality that only matters insofar as it gets the protagonists what they want. These are all also “childish” things, in the sense that children innately grasp of how to be treacherous, violent tyrants with no compulsion to show empathy of any kind unless it suits them.

      I love my kids very much! Why do you ask?

      Anyway, the superhero genre is a fascinating case study to watch develop, on the point, because it’s founded, lock-stock-and-barrel, on masturbatory power fantasies, objectifying the idealized human form, relationships-as-trophies and a highly subjective and flexible morality. Of course, comics have grown far beyond those roots; I’d argue that the place they hold in our society overlaps some with the role the gods played in Ancient Athens. (Sparta, not so much.) But – I say this as a fan – you still don’t have to watch superhero movies overlong to see power fantasies, idealized human bodies, etc. etc. etc. They’re baked right into the mold, and despite “how far comics have come,” they’re still a sine qua non for a “comic book movie”. (I haven’t seen Logan yet, but it sounds like an extreme outlier on the point.)

      It’s something that I feel ticklishly aware of when I hear arguments made on either side of the point, because A) of course movies like Winter Soldier aren’t made for kids, regardless of how well-made (or not) they are, but still, B) nevertheless, I do find them childish at some level. They still have that fundamental impulse to pander to baser parts of my brain (that I quite like having pandered; I’m a video game player, after all) that, say, Coen brothers’ movies don’t pander to. I enjoy them – and I don’t apologize for enjoying them as much as this comment might make it sound like – but I still do slightly categorize them as “childish” to some degree.

      • This deserves a longer response, but for now: @gillianren:disqus’s argument seems to be against dismissing things solely because they’re for children. That still leaves a lot of room for good and bad; maybe the question becomes, what makes a work for children good, and what makes it bad?

        Just speculatin’ on a hypothesis here, but try this: the works you describe are meant to keep people (typically boys, for some reason or other) in the state of childhood. It’s not just that they’re for children, it’s that they can’t be for adults. They depend on a lack of responsibility that’s specific to childhood, particularly to American boyhood, and they encourage people to stay in that boyhood–the term “bro” almost exactly defines someone who’s never stopped being a boy. The great children’s works aren’t like that–they’re about universal things that we first encounter as children.

        Going back to my article on JJ Abrams (hey look, there’s a link right above the comments!), I said that what made him good and different from Snyder et al. was that although JJ’s view was very much that of pre-adolescence, he understood that you grow out of it. He got that it was a transitional stage, and his best films are about leaving that stage and moving on, with Rey as the best example of someone doing that, and Kylo Ren as an equally good example of a moody Snyderbro who got stuck.

        • Dead Jerk Jerk Dead

          Can you so cleanly distinguish between the “good” and “bad” works in this case, though? Obviously there’s tons of material out there that just isn’t concerned with helping the viewer navigate successfully through life; the internet is chock-full of the stuff. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Taking superhero movies specifically as a point of comparison, I experience them as aspiring to the “good” you described, but still more aligned with the “bad” than anyone seems to want to admit. I mentioned Winter Soldier up there; I get why people dislike it, but I loved it. But still, “masturbatory power fantasies, objectifying the idealized human form, relationships-as-trophies and a highly subjective and flexible morality” are both subjects that it addresses and certainly implicit parts of its appeal.

          I’m droning on after the party has ended; my apologies. But I’m still not convinced that the criticism of childishness is without merit in some of the works mentioned here. I suspect I’m less inclined towards trusting Abrams’ maturity on the point, too–although the Muppets are a national treasure.

          • I would never deny the presence “masturbatory power fantasies, etc.” in superhero movies any more than the presence of imperialism in Westerns or authoritarianism in cop dramas. In the best works of these genres, like say Watchmen (comic, obvs), Once Upon a Time in the West, To Live and Die in L. A., The Shield, the authors don’t deny what’s bad, they meet it head on and often make it the subject of their work, so they function both as criticism and glorification. Ripping off Nietzsche’s line, they need what’s worst in them for what’s best in them–art doesn’t “cleanly distinguish” well.

            Watchmen, in particular, took on both the power fantasy (what happens to these heroes when they can’t be powerful any more?) and relationships-as-trophies (largely through Laurie) aspects of comics and did it well. The film really highlights how complex a tone Moore and Gibbons created, because Snyder didn’t get any of it right–this is a superhero story where the first thing we see–the death of the Comedian–is a superhero just giving up and letting someone kill him. Moore/Gibbons don’t deny the heroic coolness here, but they also recognize the damage it causes, and how little it can actually do.

            That’s one of the best works, though. The lesser works often wind up feeling like two things, sloppily joined together, usually (in superhero movies) around the time the third act starts and any criticism disappears into Victory Achieved Through the Power of Punching (Especially CGI Punching). That’s what kept me from liking The Winter Soldier–it started off by suggesting this was a world where Cap’s heroics didn’t work, and that’s all he knew, and then by the end he’s back to being all-ass-kicking protagonist, for Friendship! and America!

      • Cennywise The Ploughn

        FWIW, I recently watched Logan and would say it’s an outlier in many ways, but not in its aging, ticking heart. I enjoyed the way it handled its characters and built sympathy for them and found it a great experience watching it, but it’s still an exercise in solving problems by punching (and decapitating, ’cause this is for grown-ups) the correct people. If we really want a superhero movie that does away with the power fantasies, where’s the one about the heroic diplomatic effort that saves the day without needing to Hulk out?

        (worst elevator pitch of all-time, I know)

        • Dead Jerk Jerk Dead

          Ironically, your post makes me think of Ang Lee’s half-in-half-out take on Hulk.

          • Cennywise The Ploughn

            I haven’t seen that one. Is it worth going back for? I know TD picked it for MOW way back when.

          • Dead Jerk Jerk Dead

            I liked it more than most, but the looks everyone gave me at the time suggest I’m in the minority there. I think it was TD who said it doesn’t have a fun bone in its body; whoever said it, it’s a fair point. It’s a pensive movie about heartbreak and uncontrollable rage, except, you know, it’s Hulk. Man of Steel reminded me of it quite a bit, with Superman not having any fun at all flying around in blue tights, just trying really hard all the time and with no easy choices with nice clean outcomes. (Except of course it’s Ang Lee not Zack Snyder, so the baseline maturity level is a good bit higher and there’s less head-slapping what-the-crappery.)

            If you see it I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

        • Unbreakable was probably the closest thing. The Big Fight Scene isn’t a fight at all, it’s just one guy holding on while nothing affects him, and the finish leaves the protagonist horrified, not at what he’s become but why. And that pisssssssssssed off a lot of people. (Of course, it looks like the upcoming Glass may well give us what that ending didn’t.)

          • Cennywise The Ploughn

            [Googles “Glass”]
            [filters out all references to Google Glass]
            Wait, is this also a sequel to Split?

          • Yes, and apparently Split is also a sequel to Unbreakable.

          • Cennywise The Ploughn

            I totally missed this.

          • I loved it, myself. That chilling voiceover at the end, “They called me Mr. Glass,” and you realize exactly what’s going on here.

  • Ironically, the image as the header is from a work that argues there is a time to put away childish things. Andy still loves Woody, but Woody is apparently a child’s toy. I know that the message is supposed to be “we should cherish our toys but also share them with our kids, or someone’s kids.” But a dear friend of mine came from the film thinking that the message was really “adults don’t play with toys.” Which is balderdash, of course. We just play with different toys. But there really is no reason that Andy can’t take Woody to college with him and maybe, says my friend, he really should have.

    Beyond all that, anyone who says that all those superhero films are a sign of arrested development hasn’t been reading comic books lately. Or maybe in the last 30 years. Superheroes might appeal to kids, but the most superhero stories – nearly all in official DC and Marvel continuity these days – are utterly unsuited to children. Though it might be fair to call a lot of them juvenile or even infantile in the worst sense of the word.

    • I took a bunch of my toys to college with me, and we’re not just talking the stuffed Miss Piggy my grandmother made for me. I let Simon play with my oldest teddy bear, because he’s pretty much indestructible, but there are some toys he just knows are mine and he can’t have them.

    • Yep! And of course, there are also “toys” that are in no way for children and go “buzz buzz.” But my sewing machine? I don’t need to make my own clothes, so that’s a toy. My Nintendo? Toy. My embroidery kit? Toy.

  • Miller

    “But there’s a lot of bad stuff out there for adults too, and we’re comfortable just calling it bad”

    I was trying to get into this above, but we as adults are comfortable labeling whatever we think is bad as bad because of experience and history that kids don’t have. And our experience and history is informed to some degree by the stuff we watched when we had no reference points. I’m not arguing for some easily quantifiable scale where the Oddessy is 1 and O Brother, Where Art Thou? is .5 and the Ducktales version of The Oddessy with that insane Siren tentacle monster is 0 on the Good Culture Spectrum, or that there’s a proper ratio applicable to everyone. But controlling for nostalgia seems to me like a useful part of looking at art, especially when, as you note, there is a fairly recent segregation of art for children — which to me means art that has a more potent nostalgic pull.

    Anywho, the title of this reminded me of a great James McMurtry song: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=jY5HFFH2Z50

  • OMG Sesame Street! As an adult, I can look back and characters like “Ronald Grump,” “Placido Flamingo,” and “Polly Darton” are such great pop-culture references.

    And frankly, if you don’t think the old Forgetful Cowboy sketches are funny, you have lost all sense of humor.