Our parenting guide takes on superheroes

Our parenting guide takes on superheroes

Graphic by Nick Wanserski
Graphic by Nick Wanserski

Our A.V. Club Field Guide To Parenting is designed to guide you toward the best kids’ books, shows, movies, and music, just like we do with The A.V. Club for adults. Every month or so, we will feature a new subject with a few essential pop-culture takes parents should know, saving you from the mountains of kids’ dreck out there.

S is for Superhero

As you might have heard a few thousand times, Batman V Superman opens this week, bringing a long-awaited showdown and a long-ignored superheroine to the big screen. We thought this would be a good opportunity to ask our stable of A.V. Club parents about their various efforts to introduce their own kids to the superhero world (from a cinematic viewpoint: The Avengers: good; The Dark Knight: bad). Even if your kids aren’t PG-13-ready yet, they’ll likely still enjoy youth-friendly efforts like The Powerpuff Girls, Teen Titans Go!, and Captain Underpants. But one of our dads opines that, like the rest of us, kids will be unable to escape the superhero juggernaut.

Baby’s First Batman

My sons are into superheroes, but not in the dangerously obsessive way of their father. And until recently, they had very little exposure to Batman aside from Legos. This was a parenting oversight that needed rectifying, stat. Without Batman, how would they know how to behave if I was ever murdered?

The question of who should be their first cinematic Caped Crusader plagued me. Michael Keaton? Too Mr. Mom. Val Kilmer? Too bloated. George Clooney? Too nippley. Christian Bale? What, do you want them to have nightmares?

I opted for the campy, hammy Adam West of the 1966 Batman movie. West may be derided by fans who want their Batman brooding and covered in synthetic muscles, but he’ll always be my dark knight. His ethics are clear and his Batmobile is the coolest. Besides, he’s responsible for one of the greatest Simpsons moments ever.

Batman was produced following the first season of the popular television series. It was written and directed in bright, cartoon style by two of the series regulars, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Leslie H. Martinson, who seemed intent on taking nothing seriously for its entire running time, which I loved. My sons were another story. At first glance at the Blu-ray box, they declared it too old-fashioned and refused to sit for the screening. But after a quick negotiation involving unlimited root beer, we were underway.

Following opening title cards soberly honoring both law enforcement and strangeness, my sons sat stone-faced as The Joker (Cesar Romero), Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) bickered and cackled their way through lunatic plots to kill Batman and Robin (Burt Ward) and hold the United Nations-esque Security Council hostage.

They frowned at classic gags like Batman’s hyper-convenient shark repellant, the impossible dehydrator gadget that turned people to colorful dust, and my personal favorite: Batman attempting to throw of an oversized Looney Tunes-style bomb over a dock, only to be impeded by nuns, baby ducks, and a marching band (“Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb”). My boys openly disapproved of Lee Meriwether and Burgess Meredith smoking and covered their eyes during the 1960s’-style sexuality (Bruce Wayne really wanted to screw Catwoman). They were particularly disturbed by Robin’s nude tights.

At one point I stopped the movie and said, “Guys. You do know this is supposed to be funny, right?” Out of pity for their old man, they laughed unconvincingly at the Riddler’s nonsensical riddles and the Cold War references throughout the rest of the film. I caught the same “Let’s just get through this, shall we?” look on Cesar Romero’s face when he had to deliver a particularly cringe-worthy line.

My sons ended the night play fighting each other in front of the TV, using the “Pow” and “Thwack” moves from the movie’s climax. I felt this was a major victory, but my younger son clarified, “Dad. I’m being Lego Batman. Not the one from your movie.” [Rick Hamann]

Captain Underpants should be your kid’s first graphic novel

My kids have a basic awareness of your A-list superheroes—Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, the Hulk—but the only superhero who takes up significant real estate in their hearts (and our bookshelves) is Captain Underpants. Dav Pilkey’s series of 14 graphic novels has managed a trick more devious than anything the Riddler could devise—using poop and fart jokes to instill a love of reading (and illustration). The series stars two fourth-graders who hypnotize their principal into thinking he’s a superhero (who eventually gets real superpowers), then try and keep him out of trouble as he battles implausible supervillains like Professor Poopypants and the Wicked Wedgie Woman. While the stories are simple enough for a second-grader to follow along with, Pilkey sneaks in a lot of ambitious story structure, using flashbacks, running storylines, and a time-travel storyline whose logic actually holds up through one convoluted turn after another. [Mike Vago]

Why The Powerpuff Girls whoop ass

When creator Craig McCracken created his first animated short of the superpowered triplets that would become the Powerpuff Girls, they had the more forceful sobriquet of the Whoopass Girls. Originally, it was an open can of whoopass that accidentally fell into the mixture Professor Utonium was brewing in hopes of creating the perfect little girls. That name didn’t survive the cartoon’s transition to series, but fortunately, the spirit of McCracken’s original demo did. It’s a show about three little superheroes who seriously whoop ass.

Which is, in part, what makes The Powerpuff Girls the perfect experience for introducing your kids to superheroes. It’s upbeat and kinetic; the kind of show that you could first discover in your 20s and retroactively create a life-long relationship with, which makes it ideal to watch alongside your own little science experiments. Watching the three little girls, Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles, beat the tar/stuffing/feathers out of building-sized monsters is sufficiently awesome, but the show doesn’t neglect the fact the girls are also kindergarteners. They worry about making friends and don’t want to get ready for bed or take baths. This gentle realism, not too heavy or overwrought, provides a bit of sweetness to the bombast.

Visually, the show is timeless. The series premiered alongside a wave of cartoons featuring a blocky, flattened look for the characters. Choosing a more abstracted aesthetic was a way to reduce the cost of animation while maintaining a distinct style. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, such a decision is going to require confident art direction to prevent looking lifeless. Powerpuff Girls succeeds by making a knowledgeable callback to mid-century graphic design, with flattened shapes and offset color decorated with loose, sketchy patterning. It’s more Rocky and Bullwinkle or Terrytoons than flash animation. A final light coating of candy-colored anime gloss allows the show to surpass its influences to create something altogether new.

The Powerpuff Girls’ enemies list are an eclectic collection of references as well. Aside from the scaly, one-eyed Kaiju that endlessly plague the city of Townville, there’s the Ed Roth-inspired Gangreen Gang; Him, a strange devil figure seemingly direct from The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine; and the girls’ arch-nemesis, Mojo Jojo, a culmination of pop culture’s vast love of monkeys, mad scientists, and crazy schemes involving robots.

As the superhero increasingly skews to an older audience, accruing ennui like barnacles as it drifts along, The Powerpuff Girls remains gleeful and wildly enthusiastic. Your kids will become Batman soon enough, brooding alone in the basement. Watch Powerpuff Girls with them now, and keep it handy for when adolescence is over and they’re ready to feel happy again. [Nick Wanserski]

The awesome power of Action Movie Kid

We all like to think we’re cool parents, but we pale next to Daniel Hashimoto, dad of Action Movie Kid. This special-effects engineer (who has worked on movies like Kung Fu Panda 2) has created a series of YouTube videos starring his son James, where the stuff of children’s imagination takes a turn for the real. What if the floor really was lava; what if the lightsabers at Target were Jedi-worthy? The rocket that Action Hero Kid climbs into at the McDonalds’s PlayPlace actually takes off, and he doesn’t need even need the backyard garden hose to be hooked up to squirt out water. Of course, like all kids, Action Hero Kid soon decides to take his powers to the superhero level, casually tossing off Iron Man pulses and using a Batman-style grappling hook, which gets him tangled up in the family’s ceiling fan. Half the fun is seeing how the dad pulled this off: Guessing that garden hose just got removed in the editing room, but how did he get the kid down from the fan (or up there in the first place)? Action Hero Kid deservedly has millions of online viewers, which should soon include your own family: Finally, a YouTube superhero we can all get behind. [Gwen Ihnat]

Teen Titans Go! offers a fun, irreverant take on superheroes

Because I grew up collecting the classic Marv Wolfman/George Pérez New Teen Titans comics of the 1980s, I’m in one of the biggest target audiences for Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans Go!. For nearly three years now, co-creators Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic have been working with most of Wolfman and Pérez’s core team—Robin, Raven, Cyborg, Starfire, and Beast Boy—and spoofing a lot of their original storylines and villains. In other words: This is a show made by geeks, for geeks. Some of the jokes wouldn’t make any sense to anyone who didn’t already know these superheroes well, either from the comics or via the earlier animated Titans series back from the mid-2000s.

I say some… but not all. My son was 11 and my daughter 8 when Teen Titans Go! debuted back in 2013, and neither of them had ever read a Titans comic or seen the previous show. (Well, actually that’s not entirely true. When my daughter was an infant, I’d watch Teen Titans while jiggling her back to sleep in the middle of the night.) But I’ve played plenty of episodes of the new series for them over the past few years, because the appeal of Teen Titans Go! isn’t limited to its characters. Each 10-minute episode is tailor-made for budding smart-alecks, with bits that make fun of heroes, action, cartoons, pop culture, and storytelling itself. My kids like the show because they’re never expected to take it seriously.

I have to admit, as a guy who loves superheroes, Teen Titans Go!’s irreverence took me aback at first. Then I remembered that most children see superhero parodies before they see real superheroes, thanks to the likes of Sesame Street’s Super Grover and SpongeBob’s Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. I was obsessed with the campy 1960s Batman series as a lad, and I still spent most of my allowance back then on Justice League comics. Mockery needn’t be sour.

Over 125 episodes of Teen Titans Go! have been made since 2013, and my kids have seen maybe a third of those. (I’ve seen way more.) Because of the show, they’re familiar with some of my all-time favorite comics characters. They know about Raven’s moodiness, and Starfire’s endearing naivety. And as I expected, the show’s playful tone hasn’t turned them against superheroes. My daughter, now 11, watches The Flash and Supergirl with my wife and me every week. Sure, she makes sarcastic remarks when those shows are at their corniest. But she’s also hooked on their stories, and on the very idea of flawed young folks in colorful costumes, fighting bravely for what they believe is right. If Teen Titans Go! and I have done our jobs well enough, some day decades from now she’ll be quietly humming the theme song to some superhero show to her own fussy babies. [Noel Murray]

The real supervillain: Super-marketing

Most kids nowadays are first exposed to superheroes through the dregs of merchandising: sticker books, marker sets, paper plates, plastic cups, napkins, gummy multivitamins, etc. There is nothing that can’t have an Avenger slapped on it. In the early part of childhood, superheroes are just another thing that is commonly printed on cheap stuff, and, unless you’re well-to-do, cheap stuff constitutes most of what you buy as a parent. So what does it mean that so much of childhood is branded? It’s a question parents end up considering in one form or another, because if it isn’t Marvel, it’s Mickey Mouse, Frozen, Cars—some other Disney property, in other words. (Garbage with DC characters on it is just a bit harder to come by.) My son, who is very small, has zero interest in superheroes, but he likes Iron Man stickers, because he believes Iron Man to be “a robot,” and has a Spider-Man hat, because he needed a hat once and it was the cheapest thing in the store. I tried to explain to him who Spider-Man was, but he insisted that he was “a red ghost,” and we agreed to disagree.

He also owns Lightning McQueen boots and all kinds of other things that in no way reflect his interests (mostly limited to trains, insects, and ponies) or the interests of his parents, but which were acquired out of convenience or given as gifts or purchased simply because they were red. Even if you go out of your way to dress your kids tastefully, childhoods are like race cars, covered in clashing logos. But superheroes are special. They molt as kids grow—into things they want as toys and characters they like in animated series, blockbuster movies, and, in the best-case scenario, comics. There is a point at which an obsession with cars or animals intersects with the real world. With superheroes, what you get are maturing levels of product. It’s a perfect business model: By the time kids are old enough to actually enjoy a superhero story, they already know its iconography from mass-produced throwaways.

Perhaps it makes you cynical. Superheroes—especially the ones currently in rotation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—are the subject du jour for today’s mass-produced crap, along with such generic staples as the racecar, the dinosaur, and the princess tiara. They are all but unavoidable. What makes this disquieting is the fact superheroes don’t signify childhood in the same way that, say, Donald Duck or Thomas The Tank Engine do. They are something grown-ups (myself included) like. So you can’t help but end up questioning yourself and your own interests—whether you’ve merely been buying the same thing that was bought for you, just in more sophisticated forms.[Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]