I have two sons, 9 and 6 years old. The 9 year old has some anxiety issues; going to the movies is hard for him, and even watching movies at home proves challenging. He has a tough time with people in distress and with bad guys getting away with doing bad things. But my 6 year old is made of Teflon...dark, dark Teflon. Not only do most things not bother him, he kind of enjoys the myriad ways bad guys come up with to try and defeat the heroes. The worse the baddie, the more despicable their actions, the more satisfying the hero's win.
So I thought, my friend is right. This is a magical time to be a kid who is into superheroes.
THE SEEMINGLY ENDLESS BUFFET OF CHOICES
Back in my day, superhero choices were strictly limited. I remember watching reruns of the old Superman TV show from the 1950s and eventually the Christopher Reeve movies; Lynda Carter was Wonder Woman; Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno were the Hulk; and I had The Amazing Spider-Man and His Friends cartoon. That was pretty much it. Because I never got into comic books, I never got exposed to anyone else. In 1988 I saw Michael Keaton's first outing as Batman, but I was more impressed with Prince's soundtrack than with the movie itself.
|Hulton Archive/Getty Images|
These days we are spoiled for choice in the superhero world. And while I'll always remain faithful to my goddess Wonder Woman, it's the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that has paved the way for those heroes who have never been household names outside of hardcore comic fandom. Before the movie, I had never even heard of Black Panther; if a good friend of mine hadn't already been a massive Black Panther comic book fan, I might not have seen the movie in theaters with her. But she is, and I did. I came home so excited about the movie that my 6YO insisted on seeing it himself.
Thanks to the MCU and the modern golden age of superheroes, my 6YO has had the freedom to choose Black Panther as his favorite superhero. Let that sink in: a 6 year old Jewish/Hispanic kid from a WASPy suburb has chosen the king of a fictional African nation as his personal idol. He has the Black Panther costume. The t-shirt. The book. The mask. The costume with another mask. The action figure (to protect him in bed at night). The plastic cup for his milk in the morning. In just one movie, the MCU managed to turn my kid from someone who had zero opinions on superheroes, to hardcore Team Black Panther.
|My son's Black Panther action figure, apparently |
planking on our kitchen table. #WakandaForever
THE GOOD GUYS ARE THE RIGHT KINDS OF ROLE MODELS
And here I'm speaking exclusively about the heroes of the MCU, including the X-Men. The latest incarnations of Batman and Superman keep mistaking moodiness for complexity, unpolished for gritty, mean for dark. I don't need brooding heroes for my kids. They're boys: I expect they have enough brooding awaiting them in their teen years.
The MCU is much lighter, and at first I kind of saw that as a flaw. Was everything a joke to these guys? How is that setting a good example if they are all so cavalier about saving the world?
But then I sat down and really watched many of the MCU movies: all the Captain Americas, all the Thors, all the Avengers, all the Iron Mans, both Guardians of the Galaxys, Doctor Strange, and, of course, Black Panther. And what I saw was not irony or snark, or rather, not just those things.
The MCU provides flawed heroes who make tough choices but ultimately wind up doing what's best. Which isn't to say they do what's right; Captain America's choices in "Civil War" proved as much. In fact, I think that "Civil War" might be one of the best superhero movies ever made for that very reason. When the chance to sign the accords comes into play, I would have guessed that smartass Tony Stark/Iron Man would have been the one to balk and walk away, while goody-two-shoes Steve Rogers/Captain America would be only too happy to give himself more rules. But the movie twisted my expectations: Tony Stark declares that he's already been part of a world in which power is allowed to run unchecked and he won't do that again; Steve Rogers has already seen what happens when governments try to keep a tight reign on their muscle. Each side has some excellent points and that's why it's such a good movie. Although I ultimately went with Team Cap, I couldn't fully disagree with Stark; more accurately, I couldn't fully disagree with Black Widow, who was Team Stark in "Civil War," when she said that with the accords at least they still got to keep one hand on the wheel. Stark wanted to do what was right in order to keep the Avengers together; Cap wanted to do what was best by going rouge instead of asking permission to save the world.
|I can pinpoint the exact moment I went all-in Team Cap...|
In watching "Civil War" my kids got to see something so rare in popular culture: good guys vs good guys with no real wrong side. What happens when you disagree with your best friends on something so fundamental? In a world where it seems like every choice is the lesser of two evils, here are two sets of good guys making excellent points. Spoilers for Black Panther right here, highlight to see: Hell, even T'Challa, is able to reconsider his decisions for Wakanda at the end of the movie, providing a great example of how even the greatest of heroes and leaders can learn and grow and change their minds.
As I said above, The Avengers aren't the only flawed good guys who present tough moral choices for my kids to grow up thinking about. My older son has, as I said, some serious anxiety issues. He has mood disorders that require special doctors and a therapeutic school. I recently showed him the first "X-Men" movie because I thought it would hit home for him. I wanted the X-Men to show my child that being different doesn't have to mean being an outcast; that what others consider your weakness can be your greatest strength; that finding others like yourself can be a form of protection in a world that demands we all conform. And then, too, by watching the movie he was faced with a moral choice: Charles Xavier thinks that Mutants and humanity can live in peace, whereas Magneto comes from a place where being different meant certain death and he will not allow that to happen again. As my son moves through the world with his special needs he, too, will have to decide over and over again how to handle others' reactions to his invisible disabilities, or whether he wants to handle them at all.
THE MCU IS STILL DISNEY
I've heard some parents complain about the lack of consequences of violence in the new superhero movies, and it's true that the MCU is comparatively bloodless for a series of films that depict violence on such a massive and truly creative scale. But to me, that's fine. Kids like superheroes. Kids want to see superhero movies. I don't want to have to vet every movie that comes out just to make sure it isn't too gruesome for my kids. Call me lazy, but my life just doesn't lend itself to that kind of a time and money commitment. When I took my 6YO to see "Infinity War," I already knew it was going to be dark and upsetting, so we took some of his favorite stuffed animals and we went in with the understanding that if he wanted to leave we'd do so, immediately and with no questions asked. But he was fine.
|As a Jewish mom, I can think of worse role|
models than the dude who punched Hitler
I do not think that watching movies as violent as the MCU films is bad for my kids. They enjoy the highly impossible and wholly unrealistic nature of the cartoonish action scenes. They're not watching these movies to see the bad guys go through a realistic legal process for their crimes, they're watching for cool, otherwordly swords and guns and explosions and spaceships and creatures. They're watching to see the creative and awesome ways the good guys utilize their strengths and teamwork to defeat their foes. They want Thor's mighty hammer and Cap's incredible shield and Black Panther's mind-bending suit and Black Widow's expert ass-kicking. They're kids. They play and go to school and run and climb and fall and bump, and they get plenty of bruises and cuts and scrapes in real life; they already know about blood and boo-boos. I volunteer with Syrian refugees and my kids know their kids, have heard their stories, have listened to their history. My older one especially feels the pain and suffering of the world, has first-hand experience with how sometimes good guys are punished because the Powers That Be are fickle and unjust. What my kids want in their entertainment is escape, stuff to make the impossible seem real. These movies give kids a safe, fun place to live out their wildest childhood fantasies.
The movies are magic.
|My kids -- most kids -- want spectacle, not reminders of |
how painful life can be
So, as I said, as of "Winter Soldier," I am solidly Team Cap. How about you? Do you have a favorite superhero, and why? Leave a comment and let's discuss!