Is Marvel Humor Child Friendly? (Dark Humor And Kids)


Parents know Marvel movies have kid appeal. Just look at all the little Marvel characters trick-or-treating each Halloween. However, just because kid Marvel costumes fill the stores every October doesn’t mean it’s appropriate. Are Marvel movies, particularly with their bent towards dark humor, kid friendly?

Marvel humor in their movies appeals to kids, but parents should be aware that much of it is not child-friendly. Most of them rely on dark humor. According to Forbes, Marvel is a multi-billion dollar industry, yet much of that is from advertising targeting kids about movies better left to adults.

As a mom with teen and adult children, I have seen just about all Marvel movies over the years despite the lack of personal interest in the common plot. Theaters are almost always packed with families (not surprising considering the Forbes list, right?). The problem is that most of those weren’t appropriate for many younger age groups in attendance.

Are Marvel Movies For Kids?

Movies like Howard the Duck are unquestioningly kid-centered, but the overuse of violence and dark humor in Marvel’s Iron Man and Avengers are not. So what should parents know about Marvel movies, and their use of particular ‘adult’ humor, when it comes to their kids?

The short answer is that some Marvel movies are for kids, but not all. Beyond that, it’s recommended that parents diligently investigate the messages and approaches from Marvel films before watching with their children or permitting children to watch them unsupervised.

When parents look with eyes wide open, issues of deceit, revenge, death (on a global scale), pride, narcissism, lust, and other adult issues are easily seen in the most recent Marvel films. It’s best for kids if parents address those 1:1, rather than Tony Stark (Iron Man) or Thor (Avengers) through supposed witty dialogue.

Kids shouldn’t be sheltered from these issues, but addressing them in their proper context is vital in order for children to grasp the significance, and truly learn something. Marvel, instead, provides over the top action in sync with a catchy soundtracks to address death, revenge, peril wrapped in humor…and that is certainly not optimal for children.

Marvel Studios has many anticipated movies ready to release, but are their messages and approach to humor appropriate for kids?

Dan S. Acuff, PhD and president of Youth Market System Consulting, authored What Kids Buy and Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids (2010). As a respected expert in kid-marketing, he has worked with a multitude of corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Nike, and Coca-Cola.

Acuff’s research has delineated marketing for kids into categories based on cognitive, emotional, and social needs of the varying age groups. Corporations use his findings to tailor marketing to kids specifically in order to successfully promote their products.

It doesn’t’ take a rocket scientist, or a ‘Dr. Acuff’, to recognize that Marvel is a powerhouse when it comes to marketing to kids.

Flashy, vibrant scenes; almost constant CGI action; and back and forth clever banter among the plethora of cool characters played by equally cool actors make it easy for kids to watch, even when plots (themes) go over their head. Slap stick humor and action keep them enthralled.

It should come as no surprise that this potential for huge product sales is enough to entice major corporations to target kids regardless of the movie. With each new Marvel film comes a slew of action figures, kids clothing, and spin-off cartoons to keep big business marketing movies like Black Panther and Loki to children, even if the themes and plot aren’t appropriate.

When Should I Introduce Marvel Humor And Movies To My Kids?

From the high volume of superhero toys and the very idea of superheroes, most parents would assume Marvel movies are for kids. However, parents shouldn’t be fooled. It’s important to think deliberately about what age to introduce Marvel movies to kids.

Nearly all Marvel superhero films are rated PG-13. Under the teen years, most of the content will be inappropriate. Much lobbying also goes into keeping movies from R ratings. Marvel super-hero films are no exception. Common Sense Media suggests younger children stick to animated Marvel TV series.

Some Marvel movies are appropriate for children and others are not, so it’s recommended that parents consider how a film aligns with a child’s age and emotional readiness before introducing Marvel movies, or any superhero film, to kids.

Exceptions to the PG-13 rule for Marvel super-hero movies:

  • Fantastic Four series of films – PG rating
  • Punisher series of films – R rating
  • Dead Pool series of films – R rating

The adult style humor is only part of the issue. There is also the problem of excessive screen time.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) has conducted many studies on children and effects of screen time, especially as devices expanded from radio and television to including today’s tablets, smart phones, laptops and computers. One 2010 study said most children exceed recommended screen times from infancy.

The documented excessive use of screen time for children is alarming in view of the potentially detrimental effects on a child’s cognitive, physical, and emotional development that comes with any screen time.

Another study, this one as recent as 2019, found “moderately strong evidence between screen time and greater obesity/adiposity and higher depressive symptoms” and “moderate evidence for an association between screen time and higher energy intake, less healthy diet quality and poorer quality of life.”

Again, this is unnerving, especially when you consider that this isn’t taking into account the type of messages from screen time, only the consequences of using devices regardless of the message.

Thus, here we have established that both the content and the screen time should rule out these types of movies for many children.

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Marvel for Toddlers and Preschoolers

So even though Marvel obviously markets to children, does that mean parents should listen? Are Marvel movies meant for toddlers and preschoolers?

Experts say toddlers and preschoolers should have restricted screen time, thus Marvel movies and their adult humor are not recommended. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children under 18 months have no screen time, while toddlers have up to one hour daily, supervised.

Children of this age, below four years old, learn by exploration. Sights, sounds, touch and taste, toddlers and preschoolers, and those below, learn from using their senses. Including any cues from electronics, most commonly television and film, should be used sparingly, if at all.

But not all screen time is created equal.

Kids Health

So if experts make some screen time permissible, does that give an opening for Marvel? On the contrary.

What is meant is that if parents are able to interact with their kids while using screens, then that’s different from sitting toddlers down in front of cartoons (or the Avengers) for entertainment/babysitting while parents do something else.

Then there is the extreme violence of sometimes whole cities being destroyed, and people being pushed out of airlocks and laughter is directed at them as they freeze to death (vividly displayed on-screen in Guardians of The Galaxy 2.)

Tips for Screen Time for Kids (non Marvel, at this age)

  • Keep it under one hour max, daily, and none at all for under 18-month-olds.
  • Screen time should not only be supervised, but kept interactive.
  • Play simple, age-appropriate, educational games using kid apps.
  • If watching kid-friendly animation, talk about what’s happening throughout.
  • Make sure your child is kept actively learning, not passively attuned.
  • Shows and apps that incorporate movement or songs are good to start with.

Marvel Screen Time for Elementary Ages

Now that we know of the recommendation (or lack thereof) regarding screen time for younger children and what that means for Marvel movies, what is the expectation, then, for our older kids such as elementary, school-age children? Is Marvel for older, elementary-aged children?

Experts conflict when it comes to screen time for elementary-aged children 6-10 years old. Marvel movies are debatable at this age where screen time is concerned. Though the AAP sets no specific time limit on screens for this age, the MPAA states that the content and humor are inappropriate.

This means, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, that children can have screen time as long as they are able to maintain healthy eating, playing, and sleeping habits. Thus, it is really more parent guided as for the time-limits.

Following the AAP, some 6 year olds might have 4 hours of screen time while another 6 year old might just watch 30 minutes daily. It truly depends on what works for each individual child, but it does leave more room for error.

The American Heart Association, on the other hand, takes a more stringent approach for all children, teens included.

The AHA says no matter what children under 18 years old should have no more than 2 hours daily of screen time. To be honest, this is almost absurd, in my opinion. So much of our daily life includes screens, making it near impossible to meet this limit, and again, not all screen time is equal.

If this is about video or computer games involving almost no problem solving and program watching like sitcoms or cartoons, then sure.

Perhaps two hours is a good limitation to make, in the general sense. But when factoring in phone calls, research, homework, using internet for informational purposes, skills-based games, and such, two hours is probably unrealistic, especially for older teens.

But why does the AHA differ so drastically from the AAP?

Well, the AHA has conducted its own studies in which they linked screen usage with a propensity for sedentary behavior and likewise, obesity.

The American Heart Association has provided their recommendations for children’s screen time, though they admit research showing long-term risks are lacking.

But let’s consider Marvel movies. How does this inform parents about whether or not Marvel movies are for their 8-year-old?

Now that we know there is some discrepancy regarding elementary-aged kids watching television (or other screen usage), it can reasonably be said that Marvel could be acceptable. This is the precise situation where parental guidance is suggested.

And since most all Marvel films, especially those in the last ten years, are rated PG-13 (or “Parents Strongly Cautioned, Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13.” Source: Michigan State University) parents are expected to use their best judgment.

This applies to violence, humor, and adult situations found in many Marvel movies.

Parents, remember, you are not alone. You can utilize sources for help, such as Common Sense Media .

Using their Marvel-by-age guide for help on recommendations of Marvel movies, you can find some suggestions that take into account age-appropriateness. For example, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is suggested for 8-9 year olds (and above) while Captain America: The First Avenger is suggested for kids 10 and up.

But even with expert guidance like above, it is still critical parents take into account their children’s cognitive and emotional levels, as well as their own family’s perspectives on violence and dark humor, as well as religious point of view, considering Marvel movies infuse many religious archetypes and casual references.

Tips for Screen Time for Elementary Kids

  • Keep it under two hours at first. Then add more time as you go, if desired.
  • Make screen time ‘family time’ by watching movies such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Captain America: The First Avenger together.
  • Watch movies beforehand or utilize resources such as Common Sense Media and IMDb’s Parents Guide to preview.
  • Talk about what’s happening throughout the movie. Don’t be afraid to push pause!
  • Make sure Marvel movies are treats (or screen time for film programming). Think about saving it for Friday night family movie time!

Marvel Screen Humor for Tweens and Teens

When it comes to Marvel movies for tweens and teens, recommendations from experts don’t change much from guidance for elementary-aged kids. Yet, there are some other considerations parents should think about, particularly for tweens and teens.

Experts conflict when it comes to screen time for tweens and teens as well, making Marvel movies debatable. The AAP sets no daily restrictions as long as there’s no interference with sleeping, eating, and physical activities, whereas the AHA suggests two hour limits on screen usage for tweens and teens.

However, other research regarding teen depression and suicide ideation should inform parents, too.

A 2018 study published in Clinical Psychological Science linked screen usage with teen depression as well as suicide ideation. Keep in mind, screen usage, especially in this demographic includes social media, not just video games and movies.

The high usage of screens in tweens and teens is also proportionate to lower in-person social interaction, sports involvement, regular exercise, homework completion, and attending religious services. It’s important to note that a decrease in these healthy behaviors is more directly likely to affect teen health and well-being, whereas screen usage is indirectly related.

However, to be fair, there is a recent study from 2019 that shows little to no links between screen usage (including social media) and teen well-being.

In other words, parents must do their due diligence when it comes to their tweens and teens and screen time.

Again, parents can utilize resources like Common Sense Media and IMBd Parents Guide for expert suggestions.

For instance, Common Sense Media recommends Marvel’s humor and action in movies like Thor and Iron Man for tweens and suggests Marvel’s adult humor and violence found in Deadpool and Jessica Jones wait until teens are 16 years old or older.

For us, though, we also take into account our religious viewpoint. This means our 17-year-olds aren’t watching Deadpool because its MPAA “R rating for strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity” are in severe conflict with our Catholic morals.

So when it comes to what Marvel movies your tween and teen watch, you’re the parent and ultimately, it’s up to you!

Tips for Screen Time for Tweens and Teens

  • As with elementary kids, start out slow. And monitor your tween/teen’s behavior based on how impactful screen usage is. Allow more time if healthy habits are maintained and pull back if you notice problems.
  • Make screen time ‘family time’ by watching movies such as Thor and Iron Man together.
  • When it comes to Marvel you’re unsure about, preview it first or seek out resources as mentioned above.
  • Talk about what’s happening throughout and after the movie. Discuss issues that might disturb you, especially dark humor and your concerns.
  • Make Marvel movies a treat. Think about saving it for the weekend so there’s time for everyone to watch together. Don’t forget the popcorn!

Dark Marvel Movie Humor- How This Is Not Appropriate

Now that we know recommendations for screen time in general, and how that relates to Marvel movies, what does that mean when considering actual Marvel messages, particularly when delivered via dark humor? Is Marvel’s dark humor age-appropriate for children?

Marvel’s use of dark humor is not appropriate for most tweens (and under) despite marketing and kid protests that may say otherwise. When it comes to older teens viewing Marvel movies, parents should address instances of dark humor directly to help teens keep it in proper perspective.

Dark humor: also known as ‘black humor’ is humor “marked by the use of usually morbid, ironic, grotesquely comic episodes”

Merriam-Webster

Marvel’s movies often rely on comedy during dire straits, or essentially ‘when the world is about to end’. Instead of providing an appropriate sense of response to the seriousness of the issue, Marvel’s characters instead make jokes, poke fun at each other, or conduct some sort of slapstick.

In The Avengers, Loki has killed many in order to subjugate Earth, but then Hulk tosses him around and cracks a joke in response. Cue: Audience laughter. In this comedic approach serious issues are funny.

Now, I understand the plot is typically over the top and extreme in superhero films such as Marvel. After all, we’re usually dealing with a pantheon of gods, aliens, and super powers!

However, without any restrictions or limits on viewing these films, or addressing this out of context, kids are actually taught inappropriate and disordered methods to handling important issues. Depending on your child’s age, this can become critical.

Ruth Wisse, renowned scholar of Yiddish literature and Jewish history and culture, questions in her book, No Joke (available free with new Audible subscriptions), “when did Americans begin to deal with news by laughing at its absurdities and their own attempts to solve the problems of the world?”

Thus, parents need to be cautious with Marvel movies and address the embedded as well as overt dark humor. In fact, a lot of modern comedies use dark humor in their approach, so it’s wise to be aware of this as a whole, and prepare to talk about it with your over-tweens.

Is Marvel Violent?

Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings movie clip shows running over cars as humorous.

Many people might have to think twice when asked if Marvel movies are violent because we’re so conditioned to their levity and kid appeal. However, upon second take, most would agree Marvel movies contain an abundance of violence.

Marvel movies are indeed violent humor. Recent studies show superheroes are more violent than villains, with almost 23 acts of violence per hour compared to 17. Acts of violence mixed with comedy from both protagonists and antagonists include lethal weapons, torture, and murder.

A recent study by Penn State Medical School in conjunction with the AAP explains that almost all movies in the superhero genre are violent. Not only that, the superheroes are involved in the violence more often than villains (Source: NIH)!

And all of it is bookended with quips and ‘funny’ one liners… “We make a great team!” or “Puny god.”

Now this may be the movie creators way of showing the superhero in the most scenes or how character development occurs on screen (i.e. to show heroes as ‘tough’), but ultimately, it really just shows the so-called good guys causing more ruckus and damage than the bad guys. Is this superhero behavior? Surely, Cap would say otherwise!

Violence in Marvel Movies As Humor

Watching Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s ‘revenge death by arrow’ scene set to bouncy, upbeat music is quite disturbing in its lighthearted pairing of humor and overt violence.

In particular, Marvel likes to use humor to address violence or vice versa. That is, Marvel uses violence in supposedly funny ways. But is this truly funny and how should you handle this with your kids?

Marvel uses violence as a tool for humor. Yet, in the real world, violence is never funny. Children are taught that superheroes are good guys and worthy to emulate, so there is credible concern about the rising violence in Marvel movies, most often conducted by the protagonists.

With the tendency in many such movies to make the flaws in their super-heroes so demonstrative, it becomes hard to see the redemptive quality of any ‘saving’ they may do. When three buildings full of people are destroyed within seconds by the supposed hero, it makes you wonder who these writers are telling these stories.

Because of concern that children will be unduly influenced by the violence in Marvel, and other superhero movies, there are recommendations to counteract that. One is most applicable, easily doable, and has already been recommended here:

“Co-viewing these movies as a family can be an effective antidote to increased violence in superhero-based films,”

John N. Muller, MS

The Takeaway On Marvel Humor and Kids

So the next time a Marvel movie is released, or any superhero film, I urge you to think about it seriously before buying a ticket or paying to stream it for your child. Our kids are kids for only so long and our reach as their guide and teacher goes only so far…

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Jackie Booe

A mother to four kids, grandmother ("Oma") to a growing number, a retired teacher for over 18 years, and a wife to Mat since 1994, Jackie knows kids and laughter. She holds a license to teach in 3 states and is certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners, with practical experience at all levels. She holds three degrees in the field of education and has taught education courses online at the university level as an adjunct professor, too. She has mentored numerous education interns, hosted professional development for educators, and tutored, in addition to homeschooling her own children.

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