A Parent's Guide to The Marvel Cinematic Universe
You’re a parent in 2019. Avengers: Infinity War keeps popping up every time you fire up Netflix, everyone’s talking about the new Captain Marvel trailer, and now your kids are asking about these things. The problem is you have absolutely zero clue about the Marvel movies because you’ve lived a rich, full life that doesn’t involve obsessively posing collectible figurines, as a random example about no one in particular.
Anyway, I’m here to help. And before you think, “Wait a minute, didn’t this guy used to write jokes about Kim Kardashian’s butt?” I’m also a parent! I have a son, 12, and a daughter, 7, so one of my kids practically grew up alongside the Marvel movies (and loved every single one of them) while the other is slowly entering the mix. So despite my risqué writing career, I’m actually the most boring dad in America. I’m talking I check Common Sense Media reviews before I let my spawn watch anything, my hobbies include wearing a cardigan, and later today, I’ll get way too excited about a leftover Hickory Farms sausage in the fridge.
But on a serious note, I respect that you’re here. A lot of us grew up with that sort of ’80s-style detached parenting, and just like whatever the hell we’re doing now, it has its pluses and minuses. But at the end of the day, there’s a genuine feeling in the air that we’re all trying to be more involved in our kids’ lives. Maybe that’s “helicopter parenting,” or maybe some of us felt way too alone growing up and don’t want our children to have that same feeling of isolation. I honestly don’t know, and I’m probably getting way too deep for a rundown about Marvel movies.
So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to briefly tackle the questionable content of each of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, so parents can get a feel for them. For the uninitiated, that’s the extremely popular, juggernaut blockbuster movies that Disney is putting out. They do not include Deadpool or Venom, which are separate franchises and absolutely not for kids. The X-Men movies won’t come into play either because those are, again, a separate franchise and a convoluted mess that it’s best if everyone starts forgetting about.
Let’s do this.
Welcome to the first batch of Marvel movies a.k.a. Phase One. Considering they started all the way back in 2008, you’ll probably notice that they are exceedingly male-centric (and white) because the conventional wisdom at the time is that girls don’t buy action figures. Yup. So there’s that information to contend with, and personally, from this group I’ve only put on The Avengers for my daughter, which she enjoyed solely because of Black Widow. If she shows interest in the others, I’d definitely let her watch them, but I’m not about to force her to sit through 10 hours of male-heavy cinema. That said, the Phase One films are the tamest of the bunch and each one is a good time.
There’s only one red flag about Iron Man, which revived Robert Downey Jr.’s career and for a long while made him the absolute center of these things: Tony Stark is a ladies man. This characterization tracks with the comics and is thankfully abandoned in later films. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are scenes where our hero rolls around in bed with a reporter and basically has stripper flight attendants. Outside of that, it’s a middle-of-the-road superhero movie full of cartoon action. Namely a guy in a robot suit blowing things up with his rocket hands before fighting a guy in an even bigger robot suit.
The Incredible Hulk
A lot of people forget that there’s a solo Hulk movie in the MCU, but it’s actually a decent watch even if Edward Norton is later replaced by Mark Ruffalo. If your kids won’t get freaked out by dudes turning into scary-ish monster dudes and smashing the crap out of everything around them, they’ll love it. There’s is one questionable scene where it’s heavily implied that if Bruce Banner gets a boner he’ll turn into the Hulk, which is easily my favorite piece of Marvel movie trivia. But it will sail right over your kids’ heads, so don’t worry.
Iron Man 2
Here’s where the seed for The Avengers really starts getting planted, or more accurately, shoehorned in at the expense of the plot. Questionable moments include Tony Stark’s chest battery thing very visibly killing him through most of the movie, which results in him getting hammered at a party, and Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow being introduced with all kinds of innuendo. Otherwise, robot dude blows up more stuff, but this time with a robot buddy. Whee!
Beefcake dude swings a hammer in Shakespearean space-viking drama. Questionable moments include plots of murder, female characters pining over shirtless, beefcake dude’s insane abs, and a brief moment where you think the beefcake is dead, which little kids might not understand because they don’t know that Chris Hemsworth signed a six-picture contract.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Essentially, the first Captain America is a World War II movie, albeit a highly sanitized one. So there’s still lots of wartime action and the grim reality of soldiers in combat, but it’s not like your kids are watching Saving Private Ryan. The filmmakers are absolutely shooting for a Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe. But unlike prior Marvel movies to this point, this one involves the onscreen death of a supporting character, which leads Captain America to learn that his super-strength prevents him from getting drunk. So expect a few somber moments.
Oh, also, I’m pretty sure they show how the Red Skull gets made, and I want to say you briefly see his face melt off. Again, Lost Ark vibe, so just a heads up there.
Marvel’s The Avengers
Welcome to the big one. The silver tuna, Marv. If The Avengers didn’t make a metric butt-ton at the box office, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. But it did, so here’s what you need to know before plunking your kids in front of it. The main bad guy is Loki, who obviously survived the end of Thor, and he’s way more villainous this time around. He very clearly rips a dude’s eyeball out, torments Black Widow about her murderous days as a KGB assassin, and graphically stabs a kind, beloved character to death. Also, there is a moment of genuine terror when Black Widow is trapped with Bruce Banner as he transforms into the Hulk.
Other than that, there’s one weed joke, Nick Fury says “stupid-ass,” and the rest is more cartoon violence, but on a massive, city-wide scale as each hero gets to shine while teaming up against a generic alien invasion.
After the success of The Avengers, it became obvious real quick that Disney could print money with these puppies, but there was some hesitancy to color outside of “The Marvel Formula” even as the movies took on a slightly darker tone. This resulted in a smattering of sequels with varying degrees of quality in Phase Two. However, Guardians of the Galaxy proved you can get weird AF with these things, and the MCU began setting up the pieces for its ultimate confrontation in Phase Three.
Iron Man 3
Following the events of The Avengers, Iron Man is freaked the hell out that aliens are real and capable of invading Earth at any moment, which understandably does things to a guy’s head. This results in a Lethal Weapon-esque romp as Tony struggles to deal with PTSD while fighting spontaneously combusting villains. Questionable moments include a terrorist attack that injures a friendly character, fiery villains whose skin gets so hot they explode, more terrorism, a female character is shot in cold blood, and a jarring death that is ultimately reversed. It is definitely a more violent turn for the Iron Man movies, so proceed with caution. (Also, why do I keep picturing a giant stuffed bunny with boobs? Was that a thing?)
Thor: The Dark World
Unlike the first Thor movie, this one is an obligatory, jumbled mess of evil space-elves and Natalie Portman getting infected with an Infinity Stone. (What’s an Infinity Stone? Magic space rocks that power a magic space glove. We’ll leave it at that.) Like Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World ups the violence specifically with the shocking death of a character that left my daughter in tears. There’s also a scene where Thor loses an arm and another key character gets stabbed to death. Granted, both are reversed, but your kids won’t know that as it’s happening.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
While The Winter Soldier is often revered as one of, if not the best Marvel movie of all time, it should definitely give parents pause. On the one hand, at its core, it is literally a movie about the enduring power of friendship. On the other, it is wickedly brutal. I’m talking Jason Bourne-style fight choreography with a healthy amount of gunfights. Bodies get dropped in this thing. (At this point, I should also note that a woman is shot dead in cold blood, which is now the second time I just wrote that, Marvel.) However, the violence ups the dramatic stakes of the title villain, who is seemingly a ruthless killing machine that tests Captain America to his physical and emotional limits. The movie also makes excellent use of Black Widow who is an equal to Cap in almost every way, and my daughter recently begged me to watch it after seeing her on the cover, which is how all of the violence is fresh in my mind. You tend to notice these things when you’re sitting next to a first-grader and realizing you’re the moron who hit “Play.”
That said, she loved it and was fully invested in the fate of the characters. Which speaks to the narrative strength of the film as well as the fact that the Winter Soldier is the best thing to come out of the MCU. Fight me.
Guardians of the Galaxy
And now the real moral dilemma. Guardians of the Galaxy is chock full of colorful characters that are almost impossible for kids not to love, which is why it absolutely destroyed at the box office. A walking, talking tree and a raccoon with a machine gun? C’mon. However, GOTG has a noticeably raunchier tone than the other Marvel movies, and the lead character is a womanizing space rogue who beds alien chicks then forgets they’re in his spaceship. Cool guy, right? Toss in a team that consists of hard-drinking, foul-mouthed space criminals, and things get even dicier. There’s also the issue of the film’s opening scene, which involves Chris Pratt’s character as a small boy who — wait for it — literally watches his mom die of cancer. It is an emotional gut punch on par with the beginning of Up, which makes it so odd that the rest of the movie is Star Wars with dick jokes. Bottom line: You might want to watch this one first then make the call.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Keeping in tone with Phase Two, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a slightly darker adventure for The Avengers, and there’s still an ongoing debate on whether it’s better or worse than its predecessor. But while it’s certainly messier, thanks to franchise-building tangents, for the most part, it has the same amount of parental landmines as the first. There’s an awkward subplot involving Black Widow trying to hook up with Bruce Banner and revealing she can’t have kids, Thor sees creepy visions of his people’s apocalypse, Ultron straight up rips a dude’s arm off, and a hero is killed in action, but a minor one, so the emotional mileage may vary.
Absolutely friggin’ delightful. If you’ve been watching these things in order — and God help you if you have — you will practically weep at how light and fun Ant-Man is. Seriously, if you’ve been on the fence about these movies and want to toss your kids a bone, you cannot go wrong with Ant-Man. Pop it in. Go read a book and/or hear yourself think for two hours. You’re welcome.
Welcome to Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here is where things really start to heat up as our heroes are broken apart, put back together, and then torn apart again as the MCU grows deeper and richer with each film. And if all of that gets to be too much, sweet, beautiful, family-friendly Ant-Man is back to lighten things up with a kickass new partner.
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: Civil War is a sticky wicket. Right off the bat, it contains hands-down one of the best action scenes out of every single one of these movies. It is a cinematic joy and delight that is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to watching a balls-out comic book battle come alive. (Yes, Infinity War is up there, but there’s just something special about that airport showdown.) However, the rest of Civil War is a thematically rich examination on the blowback of The Avengers’ actions. This movie goes places and grapples with some heavy shit including learning that one character did something particularly heinous to another character in the past. Granted, there’s an explanation for those actions, but this movie breaks The Avengers apart, and there are no easy answers on who is right.
That said, Black Panther and Spider-Man make their MCU debut, so this one puts you in a pickle, and I honestly don’t know what to tell you. But if you made the mistake of letting your kids watch Batman V Superman, then you’ll be totally safe letting them watch Civil War, which blows BvS away in every way possible. It’s not even a fair fight.
Did you let your kids watch the first Iron Man? Cool, this is literally the same exact plot but with magic instead of a robot suit and way less charisma. Personally, I was not a fan of watching an arrogant white, douchebag become “The One” like we’ve seen a hundred times before, but my son absolutely loved it and Doctor Strange is one of his top favorite characters. There are very few questionable moments except brief talk about two characters sleeping together, an almost comically jarring car crash at the beginning, and your boilerplate superhero violence. Sweet visuals though.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
True story, after watching Doctor Strange, I was 95% over these movies. I was tapped out, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 did not help. Not only does it up the raunchiness of the first movie considerably — I took my son to see it in the theaters and was seeing red halfway through. — but there’s just an unnecessary mean streak cutting through the whole movie. It took compelling characters and leaned way too hard on the asshole part of “lovable assholes.” On top of that, it has almost zero connection to the overall narrative leading into Infinity War, so the whole movie was gratuitous in every sense of the word. Just like the first GOTG, definitely screen this one before popping your kids in front of it. Do not be fooled by Baby Groot.
Outside of a throwaway porn joke and the unfortunate nickname “Penis Parker,” Spider-Man: Homecoming is on par with Ant-Man as an absolute friggin’ delight. It’s just a straight-up good time that both kids loved, and it’s easily one of the most family-friendly films of the bunch that in no way suffers for it. That’s not an easy tightrope to walk.
In a dramatically tonal shift, Thor: Ragnarok completely overhauls the Thor movies by turning them into a full-fledged ’80s action comedy. This thing absolutely owns. However, parents should know that it ups the profanity a notch, there are two adult jokes that will sail over little heads, the villain is particularly murderous, I believe a dude gets melted by Jeff Goldblum, and if your kids have any fond recollection of Thor’s companions from the first two movies, they will not like what happens to them. So maybe screen this one, but I say that with way less conviction than with Guardians of the Galaxy and its infuriating sequel.
While I have my gripes about the unfinished CGI in the final battle, as far it being an entertaining movie that the whole family can watch, Black Panther crushes. Granted, it’s yet another male-centered installment, the female supporting characters are so badass that they practically steal the whole movie. During the chase scene in Seoul, my daughter absolutely lost her mind when Okoye got on top of the car, and she started yelling, “Who are these people?!” (We were at home. Don’t worry.) It’s one of my top favorite movie-watching memories. As far as violence, Michael B. Jordan drops some bodies, but overall, it’s nothing outside the norm.
Avengers: Infinity War
And, finally, the moment all 85 of these movies have led to: Avengers: Infinity War. It’s the ten-year culmination of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it is a beast of a film. Unfortunately, it is not kid-friendly. From the jump, Thanos is slaughtering people left and right, including major characters, and the movie is a grim build-up to an even grimmer finale. There’s also a very compelling argument to be made that Infinity War unintentionally condones abuse. But the major elephant in the room is the ending, which is why I highly suggest screening the movie first then making a decision on how your kids will respond to it. I sat in a theater with small children who were absolutely bawling by the time the credits hit. The events that occur are extremely dramatic, and there’s one very emotional moment that even shook my son for a minute. What’s most frustrating is those events are almost certainly going to be reversed, but that doesn’t change the fact that your child just saw some shit. So, again, give this one a preview, and do not feel bad if you wait this one out. My daughter knows characters die in it, and she’s flat-out told us she doesn’t want to see it.
Ant-Man and The Wasp
Absolutely friggin’ delightful. If you’ve been watching these things in order — and God help you if you have — you will practically weep at how light and fun Ant-Man and The Wasp is. Seriously, if you’ve been on the fence about these movies and want to toss your kids a bone, you cannot go wrong with Ant-Man and The Wasp. Pop it in. Go read a book and/or hear yourself think for two hours. You’re welcome.
Header Image Source: Marvel
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