Since three of the top ten films so far this year (in terms of box office) are superhero movies and Guardians of the Galaxy is almost upon us I feel compelled to provide a guide for parents on what constitutes a good and/or appropriate superhero movie for your kids. Why some succeed as entertainment for the youngsters and others fail miserably.
As a comic book geek from way back I think it’s interesting to address the recent relative success of films produced by the two major comic book publishers, Marvel and DC. If you’re not familiar with the characters that make up the respective universes, Marvel has Spider-Man, Iron Man, The X-Men (and associated characters, i.e. Wolverine), The Fantastic Four, Thor, Captain America, and last but – financially speaking – far from least, The Avengers.
DC has Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and, um…well, as far as movies go, they have Batman. You would think that having several of the most iconic superheroes ever DC would have a distinct advantage over Marvel. Add to that the fact that DC is part of the Time Warner empire, which comes with a movie studio built right in, and you might assume that they would have won the movie race a long time ago.
But you would be wrong.
Despite the relatively early success of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies of the late 70s and early 80s and the Batman movies of the late 80s and 90s DC hasn’t really been able to get much traction from their marquee heroes. I won’t bother to go back to the actual early success of Superman on radio, cartoons, and the 1950s television show The Adventures of Superman or the totally awesome Batman TV show in the 60s. Any of that material, especially Batman, is cheesy and harmless good fun and certainly worth looking up if you like your entertainment with an early 20th century sensibility. However, Superman and Batman are not the only characters DC has. Wonder Woman is long overdue for a movie of her own since she was brought to life back in the 70s by the foxy Linda Carter. But even if DC was able to get it together to actually make a movie not featuring Batman or rebooting Superman (again) there’s no guarantee they could produce anything worth watching. I was always fond of Green Lantern and yet I wouldn’t touch the recent movie with a 10-foot pole.
Since 2000 Marvel (along with Sony and Fox) have produced five Spider-Man movies, seven X-Men, three Iron Man, two Hulk, two Fantastic Four, two Thor, two Captain America, and The Avengers with no sign of slowing down. Captain America and The Avengers have new movies in the works along with Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Dr. Strange. Not all of these films have been top notch but they are successful and entertaining enough that they keep the gravy train rolling.
Beyond Marvel’s success at producing superhero fare there’s another aspect of these movies I would like to address, particularly for parents interested in exposing their kids to the superhero genre – the accessibility for younger viewers.
Christopher Nolan’s three recent Batman movies (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises) have a legion of fanboys who will go to their gore-filled graves swearing that these films, particularly The Dark Knight, are the best superhero movies ever, bar none, and before you decide to argue – shut up!
They’re certainly compelling but they are also aggressively dark and disturbing. I heard one reviewer comment that they were filled with anxiety throughout the entire screening of The Dark Knight Rises.
Great – except suspense and excitement are one thing – a pervading sense of anxiety another. Watching the previous installment, The Dark Knight, was a punishing and all-around unpleasant theater-going experience for me. And the same can be said of the Nolan-produced Superman film by Zack Snyder Man of Steel. There’s every reason to think that the upcoming Batman v Superman will be more of the same. These are joyless movies that are not intended for kids.
The Avengers and many of the other Marvel movies on the other hand are a lot of fun. There is certainly plenty of carnage and a dash of pathos but they also embrace the fun. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the source materials here are comic books. Yes, it’s possible to tell a comic book story that’s loaded with significance or carries a deep and important message but you also have a bunch of people with super powers running around in tights. That automatically means you shouldn’t be taking yourself too seriously.
I would recommend good superhero movies from those I’ve mentioned here but most all of them are rated PG-13. This means lots of cartoonish violence, which frankly, is not suitable for every kid. I know mine don’t respond well to too much violence, no matter how unrealistic. Although if he doesn’t freak out too much at the suspense I think my son at least would enjoy The Avengers – particularly a couple of notable scenes with the Hulk – those of you who have seen it know what I’m talking about. The only other major superhero movie I can safely recommend for younger audiences is the Christopher Reeve classic Superman: The Movie. It’s worth it for Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. Hilarious.