Skip Dine Young Ph.D.

Movies and the Mind

Are 'Deadpool' & 'Daredevil' Dangers to Kids?

Mixed messages in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Posted Apr 27, 2016

Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

For the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Marvel Studios played strictly within PG-13 parameters:

  • --Violence was plentiful, but gore was limited.
  • --Aggression was justified within a conventional moral framework. When characters stepped out of this framework, they were either open to condemnation (e.g., the villains) or at least thoughtful questioning (e.g., Does Iron Man’s sporadic use of extreme power promote a more generally peaceful world?).
  • --Swear words were used to express humor or strong emotion, but outright vulgarity was not included.

--Physically attractive characters were foregrounded and sexual tension was toyed with, but nothing explicit was ever shown.

Things have changed recently in the MCU. In 2015, the television series Daredevil appeared on Netflix (and the second season was released in 2016). It featured frequent fight sequences with bloody, bone-crunching violence and explicit dialogue that earned it a TV-MA rating. Netflix followed up with Jessica Jones and added brief but graphic scenes of sexuality. Then in 2016, Deadpool hit the theaters. It too featured graphic violence (including torture played for laughs and sadism from both the villains and the “hero”) as well as a non-stop display of raunchy language and sexual acting out.

I have some serious concerns about Marvel’s decision to include these films and TV shows in the MCU. Before I expand upon that statement however, I’d like to clarify a couple of things I am definitely not saying.

First, I am not saying that there is no place in the world for adult oriented superhero stories. There are good things about each of these shows/films. Deadpool’s (Ryan Reynolds) foul-mouthed but quick-witted insults and self-deprecation are refreshing (although I still haven’t learned to enjoy the tongue-in-cheek display of torture). Daredevil creates a dark, brooding atmosphere that is compelling and reflective. I particularly enjoyed Jessica Jones depiction of the internal conflicts of both the title character (Krysten Ritter) and the intriguing villain, Kilgrave (David Tenant).

Second, I am not arguing that the show’s producers intentionally mislead parents into exposing their children to inappropriate content. Daredevil and Jessica Jones both come with prominent TV-MA warnings. Virtually all of the publicity leading up to the release of Deadpool emphasized how it was not your typical superhero movie and that it was meant to push boundaries. Any parents unknowingly exposing their children to this stuff didn’t do their homework.

I stand by my claim however that Marvel did not make the most responsible choice in bringing this adult content into the MCU. It puts demands on both parents and children that are almost impossible to resolve.

The psychological key to the narrative power of the MCU is that everything is inter-connected. Numerous characters, multiple show titles, varied media, and extensive merchandizing have all been integrated into a massive totality. There is great pleasure in immersing oneself in the breadth and depth of this world. Once someone is aware of the “universe” concept, it is almost impossible to treat individual elements as discrete. Figuring out how it all fits together is part of what we like about it. Kids seem particularly fascinated by this phenomenon. If you have ever heard two-middle schoolers use multiple sources to argue about out whether Spider-Man or Captain American is stronger, you know what I am talking about.

Yet there is something misguided about Marvel has done: 1) create a mega-story meant for kids; 2) let kids know that there are new elements of that story available through relentless advertising; and then, 3) claim, “You can’t watch that one.”

It’s a tease, and all the potential outcomes are problematic:

1) Parents will give in to their children’s demands, against their best interests, or;

2) Kids will seek out the taboo on their own. This is easy to do in the internet age, further undermining parental authority, or;

3) Parents will stick to their principles and somehow maintain control over their kid’s pop culture exposure, yet those kids will undoubtedly feel “gypped” and confused (“Why is Captain America okay, but not Daredevil?”).

Marvel is trying to have it both ways, but it all adds up to another variation of the confusing mixed message (“Cherish childhood” vs. “Grow up as fast as you can”) that is one of the great challenges of our age.