Movies based on some of the most popular comic book heroes are not for kids…a fact which should be of concern to parents.
Kids love superheroes.
Indeed, for the first quarter-century of their existence, superhero comics (and their attendant movie serials and radio programs) were aimed exclusively at children. With the rise of Marvel Comics in the early 1960s, comics attracted a slightly older audience; but it took until the 1970s for older teens and college students to embrace superheroes in a major way. And its only been since about the year 2000 that comic-book superheroes have become truly dominant in the film and pop-culture worlds at large, rather than a niche interest for comics fans.
But even amid the current vogue for superhero movies attractive to adults, kids still love supheroes. They are bright and colorful, they can do amazing things, and they go on lots of exciting adventures. Kids are naturally going to be attracted to them.
But increasingly, the companies that produce and profit off of these characters are pitching their products to a more adult audience, and including darker themes with more violence and explicit language.
This is not all bad. Certainly, superheroes are versatile and lend themselves to many kinds of stories; and if companies wish to produce material using them which is aimed at an adult audience, they can do so. The problem arises when such material is aimed ONLY at adult audiences.
Quick primer: in the comics world, the superhero field has long been dominated by two companies, DC and Marvel. Marvel is home to such heroes as Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, and the Avengers (Captain America, Thor, Iron Man,and Ant-Man, among others). DC is the bailiwick of arguably even more iconic characters: Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and – most iconic of all today – Batman. DC and its characters have long been owned by the Time Warner business empire, while Marvel was famously bought by Disney several years ago. Thus, both sets of characters now are used as engines to drive, not comic books and movies merely, but entire franchises involving television programs, cartoons, and a plethora of merchandising, from toys and coloring books to t-shirts and many other items.
All of these characters have a deep appeal, both to children and to adults…but unfortunately, only one of these two companies is reacting to its huge child audience responsibly.
In general, Marvel has done an excellent job in assuring that its most famous characters are both accessible to and acceptable for a young audience. Marvel has a range of direct-to-video animation, availble on DVD, which are acceptable fare for children. Similarly, its big-budget movies – while perhaps possessing action and language a bit too intense for very young children – are largely acceptable for the entire family, and are invariably rated PG-13 or even PG. (The sole exception to this rule was the recent Deadpool; but that movie was clearly rated R, and even its trailers warned viewers about its adult material.)
This does not mean that Marvel ignores its adult audience. Recently, several extremely graphic and adult Marvel series debuted on Netflix, among them Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Further adult-themed Marvel programs are in the works, including Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders. Yet even here, the company’s actions are responsible. To access these products, one must first possess an internet connection, then purchase a Netflix subscription, then specifically request these programs. This means that those adults who wish to view Marvel’s adult-themed material may do so, but children are largely unable to access it. Marvel also shows its respect for children (and for clearer thematic storytelling) by using lesser-known characters which are more suited to mature material in its adult-targeted products, while reserving its most popular and iconic characters for more family-friendly ones.
By contrast, DC has adopted the opposite approach, devoting itself almost exclusively to adult-themed content. With the sole exception of the television program Supergirl (which the PTC lauded for its girl- and kid-friendly approach), nearly every project undertaken today under the DC aegis is dark, humorless, grim, and uniformly cast in shades of black or darkest grey.
This trend began with Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, andThe Dark Knight Rises. While a “dark” and “edgy” interpretation fits the Batman character well enough, movies like Superman Returns andMan of Steel (which refused to even call the lead character “Superman”) insist on using the same “grim ‘n gritty” portrayal for one of the most positive, optimistic, and upbeat characters ever to delight and inspire children. The recent Batman vs. Superman carried this same ethic over to DC’s other top characters: Wonder Woman, once the epitome of a strong yet compassionate woman, for whom battle was always a last resort, was reduced to a savage, sword-wielding Xena rip-off, while Aquaman was recast as a bearded, tattooed thug straight out of Sons of Anarchy.
Despite possessing 80 years worth of familiarity and audience goodwill, and the most iconic superheroes in existence, DC seems utterly disinterested in producing a film appropriate for a family audience. True, the Dark Knight trilogy was critically lauded; but everyone knows that not every story has to take the same tone. It’s as if Baskin-Robbins said, “Chocolate ice cream is one of our best sellers…so from now on, we’ll sell NOTHING BUT chocolate!”
DC’s movies features explicit violence which is entirely different in tone from that found in Marvel’s movies. To take just one example: both the most recent superhero franchise movies, Batman vs. Superman and Captain America: Civil War depict a titanic battle between superheroes on opposite sides of an issue; but the tone of the battles is entirely different.
In Civil War, while some property is destroyed, the major battle takes place in an evacuated airport, where no innocents will be endangered; and the focus is on the brightly-clad heroes’ amazing abilities as they battle one another. Even while fighting, the heroes banter and exchange quips, in a manner reminiscent of traditional children’s comics; and when one of the heroes is actually injured in the battle, those on both sides are remorseful. Most of all, there is an actual moral dilemma at stake in the heroes’ battle, one which they discuss extensively before they come to blows: should the heroes be free to battle evil without restraint as they see fit, or should they be supervised – or controlled – by a governmental bureaucracy?
By contrast, in Batman vs. Superman, the focus is not on heroism, characterization, or moral conflict. Rather, it is on the mass devastation caused by what are essentially two super-powered terrorists battling one another, endangering countless innocents and destroying a city in the process. This is a far darker, more cynical reading of the traditional superhero, one in which the vigilante Batman feels compelled to attack Superman simply because he might someday pose a threat to Earth.
While both movies are rated PG-13, there is little in the tone or content of Civil War which would be of concern even for young children. The same is clearly not true of Batman vs. Superman. Indeed, the latter film was originally intended to carry an R rating; but Warners, cognizant of their profit motive, removed about half an hour of footage to obtain a PG-13. (In addition to Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman director Zack Snyder previously helmed the R-rated 300 and Watchmen.)
But their movies are just the tip of the iceberg. DC also has a direct-to-video animation arm; but unlike Marvel’s, DC’s DVD output is also filled with graphic violence and other content inappropriate for children. For example, their Wonder Woman DVD is filled, not only with explicit bloodshed and violence (including human sacrifice); it also features a bounty of sexualized dialogue, such as sidekick Steve Trevor commenting lasciviously on Wonder Woman’s “nice rack.” It is sad to see a character who, for generations, has served as a symbol of female empowerment reduced to the target of a slavering male’s sexist sneers.
Nor is this the worst. DC recently announced its upcoming project: the first R-rated superhero cartoon. After playing for one night in theaters, Batman: The Killing Joke is due for release on DVD in August of this year…and DC couldn’t be prouder. In a recent interview on CNBC, President of Warner Brothers Animation Sam Register boasted, “We didn’t go for rated-R, but we knew that would be a possibility. So we decided to embrace it.”
Register seems to embody DC’s new ethos of neglecting kid-friendly stories in favor of mature-themed, adult-targeted material. “The publishing has gotten older and comics have aged with the audience…Filmed entertainment is catching up with the comics. And that’s a good thing,” Register said. Movies and even DC-based video games are now dark and grim, “because the audience is expecting that.”
But not all of the audience. As noted above, children are still attracted to iconic characters like Superman and Wonder Woman; but when asked what DC is producing that is appropriate for its vast audience of children, Register can only name ancillary products like “an online platform that features female heroes.”
Oh, and toys. LOTS of toys.
Indeed, any walk through a Target or Wal-Mart will reveal “action figures” based on the movie Batman vs. Superman – even though the movie itself is horifically inappropriate for kids. Yet there they sit: the sepia-toned Superman, the armor-clad Batman, and the thuggish Aquaman…right next to the Barbies and Beanie Babies.
In brief: Marvel carefully caters to each market niche (children, family and general audiences, and fans of adult material) with clearly distinct and different characters, in movies and videos appropriate to each. By contrast, DC enlists its most popular, globally-recognized characters exclusively in stories and videos featuring explicit violence and mature content. But they’ll be happy to exploit the same top icons to get your kids to buy toys.
When asked about this obvious disconnect, DC’s head of animation dismissively shrugs, “Kids have a lot of stuff they can do other than reading comics. There are ratings on this stuff.” When pressed, he reacts with apparent befuddlement at the thought that a child might want to see a happy, positive Superman cartoon: “If there’s an audience we should be reaching that likes [children's] content, then we should be talking to them too.”
IF? Where ISN’T there a child who wishes he was Superman? What kid DOESN’T want to be fighting costumed crooks alongside Batman? And – especially in this era of empowerment for girls – why WON’T DC make a family-friendly version of Wonder Woman aimed at kids and little girls?
Perhaps the finest summation of this trend came from Jamal Igle, formerly an artist on DC’s Supergirl comic. Reacting to Batman vs. Superman, Igle said: “My most prominent memory as a five year-old is my grandfather taking me to see Christopher Reeve in Superman. The fact that I can’t take my eight year-old to a Superman movie disappoints me on a level I have trouble reconciling.”
Superheroes are Big Business in today’s media marketplace. And there is always a market for movies that families can watch together. One can only wonder: why won’t DC make superhero movies that are safe for kids?