I don’t know if you’ve heard about this underground trend, but apparently, movies about superheroes from the Marvel universe have become very popular. So many of these features have been released that parents with jobs/lives often can’t keep the 18 movies (as I write) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe* straight.
If your kid starts to get into these flicks, it can be a bewildering experience. “What the hell is an ‘Ultron’ and when was his age?” you may be asking yourself, or, “Would Muhammad Ali, in his prime, beat Superman in a boxing match?”**
I’m here to help guide you and your children through these troubled waters with a look at which MCU movies are appropriate for what age groups. Like all age guides, this comes with the usual caveat that it’s entirely subjective and really depends on how much your kid can handle.
Marvel Cinematic Universe Formula: Violence, Not Sex
If you’re looking for a crystal clean, totally wholesome, nonviolent film for your delicate little flower child, stick to Pixar. The big-time Hollywood studios who make Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have hit on a formula to print money in America and reliably sell features in overseas markets, and that formula isn’t as gentle as Up.
MCU movies always include violence. Violence and superheroes have been inextricably linked since the early days, because no kid wants to watch The Hulk talk through his problems. So expect a lot of guys getting beat up.
But, like the comics, the violence is usually cartoonish, generally without gore. There is little frank sexual content (beyond Chris Hemsworth’s biceps) in MCU movies either, but there are some double-entendres and cursing kept to PG-13 levels: You might hear a few “shits!” but you won’t hear any “fucks!”
Within that loose framework, there’s room for a lot of difference in tone, theme, quality and intensity, from the more innocent Ant-Man to more broody, adult (kind of) fare such as Iron Man 2.
Ages 7 to 10
Ant-Man: This lighthearted, funny flick is perfect for younger kids. Its more “mature” ideas and themes will sail over their heads, while Ant-Man’s attempts to conquer a world that’s way too big for him will be infinitely relatable to kids.
Guardians of the Galaxy 1 and 2: These two movies may be a little “hipper” than the majority of Marvel movies, but they’re still perfect for kids. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and they move like lightning. Kids love Groot, and parents will love the amazing classic rock soundtrack.
Thor: Ragnarok: This uneven movie sometimes strikes an almost self-parody tone, but kids aren’t likely to recognise the irony. Instead, they’ll see a collection of bigger-than-huge good guys fighting fearsome enemies, absent of much of the brooding and soul-searching some superhero flicks fall prey to.
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Spider-Man: Homecoming: This 57th cinematic retelling of Spidey’s origin story is perfect for kids. The coming-of-age theme is timeless, even if it involves fighting arms dealers while wearing a Spandex suit.
Iron Man: This is the blockbuster that started it all. Tony Stark is a rich guy hedonist, so there are some light double-entendre style jokes about his womanising, but overall, it’s mainly a family-friendly movie and Robert Downey Jr is terrific.
Thor: A huge story of gods on earth, Thor is a personal favourite, and it’s also OK for kids. Thor features huge battles, suspense, a fascinating bad guy, and an uplifting message. What more do you want?
Doctor Strange: While the good doctor’s mystical, psychedelic journey after a debilitating car accident might be a little heavy for children, once it gets to the “then he got magical powers!” part, they’ll be fascinated.
Ages 10 to 13
The Avengers: Intense and action-packed, The Avengers isn’t exactly inappropriate for kids under 10, but it might get a little dicey depending on Junior’s sensitivity, plus there are a lot of heroes to keep track of.
Captain America: The First Avenger: Although teachers will appreciate this movie’s historically accurate account of the important work done by America’s genetically enhanced super-soldiers during WWII, Nazis are a pretty disturbing enemy for littler kids. Keep it for their older brothers and sisters.
Black Panther: This is the best overall MCU movie, but its themes of black identity and the meaning and uses of violence might go over the heads of everyone but adults. It’s still an excellent, timely movie, and even if they miss all the deeper meaning, it works perfectly as a blockbuster action-fest.
Avengers: Age of Ultron: The message of teamwork triumphing over all else resonates through this Marvel movie, but the large-scale violence and fast-pace might be a little overwhelming for the littlest kids.
Iron Man 2: I know you have to deepen the focus of any movie series with the second instalment, so it makes sense that this flick dwells on Tony Stark’s alcoholism and personal failings, but will kids like it? Maybe if they’re a bit older.
Iron Man 3: Ditto part three. The violence is a little more personal in this entry in the series, so younger kids might be distressed. Plus, watching Tony Stark navigate a middle-age identity crisis probably isn’t high up on many kids’ must-watch lists.
Ages 13 and up
The Incredible Hulk: Kids love The Hulk for the same reason he makes parents uncomfortable. The big green dude solves every problem by bashing it apart. Hulk, by his nature, is very violent, and a high-tech suit, a magical shield or a god’s hammer does not abstract the violence. It’s just a big green guy smashing faces apart.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier: I realise the pure-hearted superheroes of the old comic books don’t play in our current, fallen world, but having Captain America not trust the US government is a little complex for little guys who just want a hero.
Captain America: Civil War: Superheroes fighting other superheroes is also a little complex for many kids, and there are some personal and distressing deaths in this one.
Thor: The Dark World: The battles in this one are enormous and overwhelming: Catnip to older kids, but the little ones might be, well, overwhelmed, especially when coupled with the fact that this just isn’t that good of movie.
*By focusing only on MCU movies, I realise I’m ignoring over other 100 Marvel features. I’m assuming your kid doesn’t want to see Howard The Duck and I’m advising against taking him/her to see Deadpool.
**Yes. If the match was held on a world with an orange sun (see 1978 Superman special issue “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali”). Also: I know Superman and Muhammad Ali aren’t Marvel characters.
***There are more mature Marvel superhero flicks of course, such as Deadpool or Logan, but they aren’t considered part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though they are Marvel-made superhero movies, and Deadpool exists as a character in other MCU movies. It’s complicated and you shouldn’t even know about it.