Movie Superheroes, Part I: Targeting Tots

Because I have a six year-old who is into superheroes, I have to think a lot about superheroes. (Well, ok, I was thinking some about them anyway, including scholarly book chapters on Xena and Buffy and Tank Girl (oh my), not to mention work on Star Trek back in the '90s. But I got tired of doing work on superheroes and -heroines, only to find that my kid loves nothing more. We watch Teen Titans together on Cartoon Network, not to mention Static Shock, Kids Next Door, and just about anything else that shows someone with atonishing abilities doing something entirely beyond the scope of what any human being can do. I've come up with a theory about this that is not particularly profound. A la Lacan's mirror stage, children like to watch characters doing things that help them to imagine they are not the awkward, knee-bashing, head-bonking creatures they are. Never mind that we lose our bravery as we grow up, most of us taking fewer risks because we hope to avoid broken bones and those wicked bruises that seem to cover half of my child's body at any given time. We all like to see someone defying the laws of physics; like Bonnie and Clyde, we rejoice at the way they flout the rules and flaunt their abilities and obvious pleasure in doing so. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, of course, superheroes are generally "good guys (and gals)," so there's even more flaunting and less risky flouting. That they're also heavily individualistic and shore up capitalist/imperialist excess (separating the "good" corporate CEOs from the "bad" without ever questioning corporatism itself, for example) means they often emerge as totally Republican. Sometimes the red-white-and-bluishness of them is positively blinding. And then there's the violence inherent in the right-wing way we do the genre. No Gandhi-like solutions, superheroes bash their way to r/Rightness!

And that gets me back to my six year-old. There's only so much violence I'm going to let the little monkey watch. It's occasionally about nightmares (Doc Oc ripping people apart in an operating room in Spiderman II springs instantly to mind as something I did not let him see and wish I hadn't seen myself; Bruce Wayne's parents being shot at close range in Batman Begins would be another). More often, though, it's just the general punching, kicking, shooting, stabbing, crashing, and bashing that fills all these flicks, from Burton's 1989 Batman to Nolan's 2005 Batman Begins, and everything in between. Spiderman, Catwoman, Hulk, X-Men, Fantastic Four... The parade seems endless, and most of it, let's face it, is crap. Unoriginal, uninspiring, full of more special effects than plot or character or decent acting or creativity. Like our children, we like the films as fodder for self-delusion, escape into a world where we (via the superhero) more power and control than is at all possible and where problems can be solved by eliminating one "villain" rather than any social change, where we can watch someone deal with personal anguish (Batman) or social oppression (X-Men) yet emerge triumphant, time after time after predictable time.

Yet it's not our delusions as viewers I want to center my bile at right now. At the moment, what is really pissing me off is how these films are targeted at kids too young to see them. PG-13 means there's going to be some foul language (no biggie), some sexual situations (no complaint here), and some serious violence. We are currently a culture that loves violence so much we don't even seem to notice it as such. All you need to do is consider the recent insanity over the sex scene in Grand Theft Auto to see how totally and utterly fucked up we are. Sure, rob and cheat and kill people indiscriminately, but heaven forbid you should screw!

But fine. Hollywood has decided we want an endless string of mediocre superhero movies filled with CGI and violence. Whatever. And we're bored enough to fill the theaters. Sad, but I'll deal with it. Can we please, though, stop advertising them to kids who are too young to see them?! Every time another superhero film comes out, rated PG13, they start flooding all the fast food joints with toys and the department stores with lunchboxes and backpacks and more toys--all featuring the superhero of the hour. Hell, in 2004, they had Halloween costumes for toddlers to make them look like Halle Berry in Catwoman--more ridiculous than worthy of scorn, to be sure. But these toddler girls knew they wanted that costume when there's no way they saw the film! Or did they?

I know some parents are taking their little ones to see these films. The kids are begging to go, having seen a billion ads and a billion Happy Meal prizes and endless toys at the mall all covered with the superhero du jour. We're all exhausted from chasing and cleaning up after our little monsters, and a movie is often a great way to get them to just sit for a little while. So we're tempted, and I understand why we often give in. In a horrific twist of irony--or just a frustrating, guilt-inducing admission that some things the Right comes up with can be useful for the Left--my husband found a website that identifies, scene by scene, every bit of sex, nudity, swearing, and violence in every Hollywood film that comes out. It's called Kids-in-Mind, and I confess I use it to help me decide what is enough and what is too much when it comes to violence. (I ignore it on sex and often disagree with how it uses its dot ratings; I just read through its descriptions of every violent scene I'm going to encounter. It does act as a spoiler, but it is quite nicely detailed in letting me know if and when someone is going to get a head blown off or get hit by a beam that fries them alive.

I hate to sound like a party pooper or, worse yet, a cartoon Christian mom, but dammit, why do they include enough violence to make it inappropriate for my son to see the film, then advertise it to him endlessly? It's not like I don't fight the media for his little brain on a daily basis anyhow. This just adds one more level of annoyance to my day. "No, sweetie, we can't see that movie. Yes, I know he's on all those commercials and in your Burger King veggie burger Kid's Meal. It's because people get burned alive in the film, honey. Well, I don't know if they die, but they do fall out of a building as they burn, so probably yes, baby." Fortunately, after that description, he doesn't usually want to see it anyway.


alena said...

Hey, I have enjoyed...your blog is informative - even entertaining.

I have a halloween sites. They pretty much covers costumes and masks related stuff.

Thanks again and I'll be sure to bookmark you.

Connor Wilson said...

Every year my son Dylan and I have been building our Halloween animatronic display. This year we added 12 new figures and my wife had been making the clothes etc. but then I clued in that Halloween Costumes were the ideal solution - ya, ok I'm slow but...This year is really cool because we've done an HP Lovecraft display that I'm sure he'd appreciate but I'm not so sure he'd approve of this - The Necronomicon - Is it just me or is that just plain goofy ? Anyway, everybody is doing their own Haunted House thing now but hey - it's fun and if you've got kids I really suggest you try it yourself if you haven't already. It's a nice change from the usual Christmas Lights routine and a lot of scaaarrry fun. Happy Halloween everybody.

Anonymous said...

RE: keeping your kid from seeing violent movies:

You're doing the right thing.