HBO has been on a roll this [Northern Hemisphere] summer.

First, Love Crimes of Kabul provided a unique and eye-opening perspective on the rights of women in Afghanistan, specifically those who had transgressed against Islamic moral law and ended up in prison for having premarital sex or for running away from home to escape a beating for violating curfew or, in one extreme case, for murdering her husband for sexually abusing children in their village. The injustices of the Afghan institutions are obvious but the film also documents the damage done to the individual characters of those forced to live under hypocrisy and double standards.

I’ve already responded to There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane and, after a second viewing, still find it the most compelling mystery I’ve seen in awhile — not since Capturing the Friedmans, maybe — and one which observations have ramifications and relevance far outside of the specific news event it explores. It’s still a documentary but sometimes the only answer to a search for truth is: I don’t know. I can’t think of a fiction film that illustrates that more effectively and neither a recent documentary. (Documentarian Errol Morris could use some of director Liz Garbus‘s humility. Fat chance, that.)

At first, I thought Michael Barnett‘s Superheroes was a joke along the lines of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop. I found it hard to believe that there really were real-life superheroes who dressed up in crude, homemade costumes and set out into their neighborhoods to fight crime. With names like Black Monday Society, Xtreme Justice and Apocalypse Meow, who could blame me?

But the more I heard the various superheroes talk about their motivations and explanations of why they do what they do, the more sane they appeared, the more self-aware and the more I admired them. Far from using comics and the superhero archetype as a way to withdraw from the world, these folks have employed it to engage more seriously, not only with the world around them but also with their own inner demons and the scars left by personal histories.

For Lucio, becoming a superhero allows him to constructively channel his own guilt and shame at once being a criminal himself. For Zimmer, his not wearing a mask and being an openly gay superhero allows him to “live a bold and adventurous life” and demonstrate the power of leaving the closet. Master Legend took lessons from being bullied as a kid both by his peers and by his father and decided that God was telling him to “use his powers to do good things.” The animated comic panels scattered throughout the film work particularly well in illustrating this character’s biography.

Sure, it would be easy to laugh at some of their words and deeds — and the film provides a number of moments to do so, if without condescension and usually with affection — but it’s much harder to laugh when their crime-fighting also includes social activism. Because they’re out there patrolling the streets, these superhero groups end up interacting with the homeless, passing out “survival kits,” blankets and food or simply hanging out with the down ‘n’ outs and listening. (The heroes don’t have much sympathy for the drug dealers, however. I particularly enjoyed a satisfying confrontation in Washington Square Park between the handsome, leather-clad Dark Guardian and a drug dealer almost twice his size — the dealer, after several threats of violence, backed down and left.) The lesson of all that, of course, is that safety rises when citizens claim public space. One of the questions asked implicitly by the film is why don’t Americans claim their public spaces in the way that say, most Europeans and South Americans do. And doesn’t that have something to do with the acceptance of criminal activity?

Eventually, the filmmakers succumb to the heroes’ own idealism. I found the final minutes of the film to be less critical and objective than they could have been. Still, I’ll take the idealism of these self-made heroes over the cynicism represented in Banksy’s film. In Gift Shop, you’re either in on the gag and therefore encouraged to look down on everyone else, or you’re the patsy, and so the joke’s on you. It’s clever but it’s also elitist and it’s as far from the documentary tradition as I can imagine.

One of the things I look for these days in just about every cultural product is a lack of irony. You shouldn’t be surprised to learn how hard that is. One of the radical suggestions made by Superheroes and of the superheroes in the film is that the opposite of irony is not naivete.

It’s action. But you just might have to look silly taking it.

Superheroes plays through the end of August on HBO. Or, you can watch it here.