Before they were The Avengers
, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America were the stars of their own individual movies -- all part of a grandiose plan to eventually unite Earth’s Mightiest Heroes on screen in a massive, multi-hero adventure.
That plan comes to fruition on May 4, when an under-the-radar movie titled The Avengers consumes multiplexes far and wide as the summer movie season kicks off. I’ve already received a number of e-mails from loyal readers asking if Joss Whedon’s blockbuster is appropriate for their hero-happy kids. And I absolutely plan to write in-depth about Marvel Studio’s ensemble adventure … which we’ll publish the week the movie opens.
Prior to that, I thought it would be a good idea to run through the five “prequel” films (if you want to think of them that way), because there’s a chance you might want to use them as a way of introducing your kids to the superheroes in the Avengers before taking them to the actual movie, itself.
So, let’s inject our blood with Super Soldier Serum, absorb some Gamma Rays, build a suit of armor, pull Mjolnir from the mud and figure out when you can watch the Marvel origin stories with your kids.
Red Flags: “Stop. Please. Me... angry... very bad.”
Looking back on it, I’m amazed Marvel pulled it off. An unprecedented effort to thread one storyline through five individual movies, each one introducing new comic book characters that eventually would form one massive team of heroes.
Some might argue that such important elements as plot and character development were sacrificed to complete the overall mission (and they’ll use Iron Man 2 as their scapegoat in that discussion), but in general, Marvel did a marvelous job laying the groundwork through Iron Man, its sequel, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger to get us to this point.
Revisiting the individual movies, I’m reminded how dense the various mythologies are, and how condensed they had to become to fit into the allotted time frame. Often we’re talking about histories that were spread out over hundreds of individual comic books, crammed into 60 minutes of a two-hour movie. As a result, the lengthy verbal setups in between the various action set pieces in the Marvel movies might go over your youngest child’s head and challenge their patience. (Yes, Thor, I’m looking at you.)
Of the five, Captain America did the best job of summarizing Steve Rogers’ rise to power during World War II, while Thor’s mystical back story was short-changed a bit by Kenneth Branagh’s effort. Few kids will care about Tony Stark’s weapons testing in Iron Man, and the Hulk spends too much time in Brazil before returning home (and ratcheting up the action).
I’ll always argue that these origin stories are better told in the individual comics, and these films always should be looked at as a gateway to the Marvel books that inspired them. After you’ve watched these movies, if your kids are interested, take them to the nearest comic book store and unleash their inner geek. There are infinite stories waiting for them out there, and now’s the time to start exploring.
Back to the films, though. Let’s touch on the levels of violence found in each one. Remember Spider-Man’s final fight with the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s first movie? It’s hard to forget. Raimi went for a realistic brutality, making teenaged Peter Parker scream out in pain as the Goblin pummeled him within an inch of his life. That scene, alone, has kept me from sharing the movie with my kids … and I’m a Spider-Man junkie.
The Marvel movies don’t have that violent streak … well, most of them don’t. One of them does. Right from the opening credits, when Dr. Bruce Banner (Ed Norton) inadvertently harms his girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk is appropriately hostile. It has to be. The tone of Leterrier’s Hulk matches the classic character’s volatile mood. But Hulk – with its amped-up military presence and vicious creature battles – is the one feature of the five that raises the most Red Flags for younger audiences. I’m anxious to see how Whedon uses Hulk in Avengers, because he has been one angry dude to date.
Here’s another thing I noticed: Save for Thor, the Marvel origin movies retain a deep connection to the military, and sample in the violence that comes with that. Hulk takes down well-armed military platoons. Tony Stark designs weaponry for the military, then combats the spread of his technology. And Cap’s a war hero. If gunplay bothers you, the Marvel movies might be an issue.
Aside from that, all five movies have suggestive language sprinkled throughout, and Robert Downey Jr.’s Stark, as inspired by the comics, is a womanizer with a drinking problem. Be prepared to answer questions about the character of these men and women when they are out of costume, because the Marvel stories don’t make clear-cut distinctions between good and evil. That’s what makes them so engaging.
Green Lights: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor!”
There’s a reason these heroes and their stories have been around for decades. They are teeming with the righest, most thought provoking and emotionally rewarding narratives modern history has to offer … and when it comes to Thor, that classic literature has to offer.
You’ll want to pay closest attention to Branagh’s treatment of the Asgard warrior, as it introduces Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the chief antagonist in Whedon’s Avengers. But the Shakespearean themes of familial betrayal and royal honor might not connect with your kids, who’ll mostly be jazzed then the egotistical Thor tosses his mighty hammer Mjolnir through the latest unstoppable enemy.
You know what else your kids will check out on – especially if they are boys? The requisite romantic subplots inserted into each Marvel origin story. The formula dictates it, but my boys could care less about Betty Ross, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) or Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). These ladies were obstacles standing in the way of the next great action scene. They’ll feel differently when they are teenagers, for sure.
If violence and comic carnage are Red Lights of the Marvel films, then viable life lessons weaved into the fabric of these origins remains the brightest Green Lights. The directors hired by Marvel hit on the classic lessons we’ve always pulled from the comics, about finding the courage to do the right thing, even when it looks like the cards are stacked against you. Whether it’s Bruce Banner willingly turning into the Hulk so he can stop the Abomination or Tony Stark pushing his Iron Man suit past energy capacity so he can save Pepper from Obadiah Stane’s War Monger (Jeff Bridges), these heroes always rise to the challenge, overcome impossible odds, and inspire us to lead better lives.
Perhaps because it’s top of mind, lessons about bullying stood out in the origin stories. Pint-sized Steve Rogers and the non-Hulk Bruce Banner both are abused by their peers. Your kids might ask, so be prepared to open up about these situations.
Carve out the most time to talk to your kids after Thor, the most accessible of the five films because it’s the closest to fantasy that Marvel has to offer. But within the framework of this banished god’s story, Branagh and his team explore age-old topics of loyalty, honor, trust between a father and son, and rising to meet one’s destiny. Even if your kids absorb half of the messages laced throughout Thor, they’ll be better people as a result.
In a nutshell, here’s what you need to know about each of the Marvel movies:
The Incredible Hulk is the violent one, as angry and volatile as its angry, green protagonist.
Thor is the most accessible, relying on classic fantasy tropes to tell a fantasy story with a comically arrogant lead.
Iron Man is cheeky fun, but Tony Stark’s cavalier attitude and the strong military presence in both films might be too aggressive for young kids.
And Captain America is the best role model – all patriotism and honest bravado – but again, the war scenes are accurately rough and the Red Skull is a creepy villain.
I’m anxious to see how these characters blend in The Avengers, and we’ll write in detail about that film next. But in the meantime, I’d estimate that Thor works for kids who are 8 and up, Captain America and Iron Man are better for those 10 and up, while The Incredible Hulk lives up to its PG-13 rating.
Parents, of course, are trusted to make their best judgment based on their own children, and if your kids are rabid comic readers, then they’ll likely be able to tackle all of these (except Hulk, which pulls no punches). If you share these movies with your kids, I’d love to know how it goes, so please come back and share.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.