In the climactic scene of “Captain America: Civil War”, Iron Man learns the horrible truth behind his parents’ death. Alliances are shattered, emotions overflow and the main characters conduct one of the best fight scenes in recent Marvel movies.
As a fan of comic book movies, I found this scene gripping and exciting. But as a parent, I ask this: can we cool it with superhero parents dying all the time? Just for, I don’t know, a minute?
If your Netflix account hasn’t navigated away from the Kids page in a while, you may have forgotten that a striking number of comic book, fantasy, and adventure movies feature characters who’ve lost one or both parents in notable ways. On the superhero side, you’ll find Batman, Robin, Superman, Spiderman, Daredevil, the Green Hornet, Iron Man, and many more I’m sure I’ve forgotten.
Looking to the Star Wars universe, every other person seems to be missing a parent, most recently Jyn Erso in “Rogue One” and Finn in “The Force Awakens”.
Throw in James Bond and Harry Potter for good measure, and you basically can’t throw a shoe at Comic Con and not hit someone dressed like an orphan. It’s staggering.
In general, I really enjoy reading comics and watching movies in my kid-free moments. I understand that the loss of a parent is an effective storytelling device to create a sense of purpose in a character, and the urgency of that loss can motivate them to search out truth or push themselves beyond their limits. It provides a rational justification for why they may do strange things, like put on a mask and punch people at night.
But now that I wear my dad hat, it’s also very terrible to be reminded of the possibility of orphaning your child. It’s awful to think that you may not be there to help your child grow up and miss the important moments of their life. Plus, you’re dead. Being alive is pretty great, and you probably want to ride this life thing out for as long as you can.
Not being around for my son is something I don’t like to dwell on, and yet here are Mr. Marvel and Ms. DC driving the idea home repeatedly. It’s like loving to read the newspaper and having a crippling fear of sharks, and every time you flip to the sports section, a Great White jumps out and takes a nip at your arm.
Now, I understand that many of these stories come from comic book origins created many years ago. But when it comes to the most recent movies, orphaning often remains a central component of the film. The biggest reveal of “Civil War” was ALL ABOUT Iron Man losing his parents.
Peter Quill from “Guardians of the Galaxy” leaves Earth because his mother passes away. Not long ago, I innocently turned the channel to find myself plunging straight into the scene where little Peter runs out of his dying mother’s hospital room. Wham! with the emotional stomach punch. You can’t escape it.
When I saw that, I thought – nope. Nope, nope, nope. A galaxy of nopes! Grab your television off the wall! Throw it into your garage! Burn down your garage and prepare an alibi in which you explain to your wife that your neighborhood has been ransacked by a ragtag group of carport arsonists! Enough with the abandoned children already!
Just once, I want to watch a fantasy hero origin story that follows these beats:
Child grows up in a stable, supportive home.
Child learns morality, the importance of justice and Brazilian jujitsu from a network of parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, and coaches (after all, it takes a village).
Child grows up to fight crime and things go great, given the strong foundation he/she has been given via his/her upbringing.
Justice reigns. Parades are held. Everything is swell.
So maybe this sounds like a terrible movie. Like someone made Daniel Tiger into an action hero.
If we can’t make a movie where there’s no stunning, tragic loss in the hero’s childhood, let’s meet in the middle. I request that the makers of these films insert a warning before these scenes. Tell us to switch over to something, head to the restroom, or look at our phones just before the pint-sized hero-in-training witnesses the death of a parent.
They could even do a side-by-side screen thing and show a puppy playing with a beach ball until it’s all over. That’s not too much to ask. Until then, I’ll keep ostriching into the couch and riding out those moments until we’re back to the world-saving and Kung Fu fighting.
Very thankfully, my son is not yet into comics. He prefers Mickey Mouse and Thomas the Tank Engine, neither of whom have dark, gritty, emotionally loaded histories.
But I’m dreading this conversation one day:
“Dad, how do I become Batman?”
“Well, son, you have to want to fight crime and believe in justice. You have to work really hard in school to make the gadgets that Batman uses, and you have to exercise and eat your vegetables so you’re big and strong.”
“Sounds good, Dad. Anything else?”
“I really didn’t want to mention this, but yes, there’s one more thing. Unfortunately, your mother and I have to be gunned down in the street to give you the proper motivation to take on the life of a masked vigilante.”
“Oh no! That seems terrible and unnecessary. Why does that need to happen? Can’t I just want to fight crime?”
“Not if you want to be Batman, kiddo.”
Maybe my son will want to grow up to be a Minion or something instead. I have no idea if those little yellow things have parents.