Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is roaring into theaters on November 11, 2022. For kids and families who loved Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, this will be a bittersweet moment, a moment of excitement, and catharsis. We don’t yet know how it will address the death of both the actor and the character, but when it comes to the existing Marvel movies, we have a pretty good sense of how kid-friendly each movie is.
Though Marvel movies are, at their core, superhero fare targeted at family audiences, a perceptible shift has taken place as the MCU Industrial Complex has grown into a global enterprise: The movies have become more complex and harder to follow for young kids. Murder, betrayal, slavery, and malignant artificial intelligence have all shown up in Marvel films. While even the darkest of the dark can still be appropriate for children of the right age, there’s a clear spectrum forming, ranging from “might confuse or frighten your child” to “Ant-Man’s finale takes place in a toddler’s playset.”
Here’s a ranking of the first 18 Marvel movies, based on kid-friendiless alone.
18. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
While Cap’s second outing eschews the romance plot from the first, it ratchets up on the violence and complex themes to a degree rarely found in Marvel movies. The paranoic plot of the movie runs parallel to the real world scandal of the NSA’s PRISM program, a fact that will be lost on smaller children. What won’t be lost is Cap’s fundamental distrust of institutions. That’s a tough theme for kids. Additionally, some of the combat scenes are among the most brutal in the MCU, including the final fight scene that pits Falcon and Steve Rogers against the Winter Soldier.
17. The Incredible Hulk
Did you remember that Edward Norton had a stand-alone Hulk movie back in 2008? Probably. Did you remember that is the most bloody and intense movie in the MCU? Maybe not. Hulk is always the most violent Avenger and his solo movie did not disappoint in that regard. There’s a lot of blood and bludgeoning involved, and it’s not redeemed with humor. The final showdown, with Tim Roth’s monstrous villain, is terrifying even for adults.
16. Iron Man 2
Aside from not being very good (it’s the black sheep of the Iron Man franchise), Iron Man 2 delves into Tony Stark’s alcoholism and depression, as well as Mickey Rourke’s Russian hacker nemesis (this was oddly prescient for a movie that came out in 2010). Keeping in line with the tone set by its main character, the second Iron Man’s violence is also on the darker side; more bombs and shootouts, and even a hanging.
15. Thor: The Dark World
Another of the lower-tier Marvel movies in terms of quality, the second Thor movie also falters on the kid-friendliness aspect. Of all the MCU movies, this has likely the most upsetting fight scenes. Given Thor’s historical era counterpoint (medieval), there’s stabbing. So much stabbing. Admittedly, there’s not much blood, but it’s made up for in blades and hammers. The plot also treads on dark ground, with not a lot of redemption; Christopher Eccleston’s dark elf Malekith is fueled entirely by revenge and domination, so there’s not much to relate or teach from his story arc.
14. Captain America: Civil War
When the entire conflict of the movie is based around Tony Stark’s parents dying in a highly intimate, highly sadistic manner, you know you’re not in for a kiddie ride. While the famous airport scene is mostly good fun that’s kid-friendly (it’d be hard to believe that they’d kill a main character in the middle of the movie), the climactic three-way battle between the Winter Soldier, Captain America, and Iron Man is both intense and violent. Stark taking a shield to the chest is an image that might stick in your child’s mind, and not for good reasons.
13. Avengers: Age of Ultron
A whole entire city gets demolished by killer robots at the end of Age of Ultron, so yeah, maybe not the best for younger kids. There is also one big character death that’s played for maximum sadness and impact. That being said, it’s still an Avengers movie, and those have so far filtered the extreme level of violence with equal levels of jokes and humor. When you gather the star power of the main four heroes (and all their supporting cast members) in one movie, it will generally be fun, but this one loses out on some point by how wanton the destruction is in the final act. Ultron’s soft, creepy voice and general lack of empathy might also disturb younger kids, although the effect seems stronger for adults who understand the risks of artificial intelligence.
12. Iron Man 3
The final piece of the Iron Man trilogy has a real identity crisis; half a clever investigation of Tony Stark, The Man and half a Marvel movie with all the destruction that comes with it, Iron Man 3 succeeds mostly because it gives audiences a more personal look at its main character. However, that also has its downsides: the violence here is a lot more visceral, as it is people that are the targets, rather than robots. The death of Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen is particularly shocking, even if she was just introduced in this movie. That being said, the finale is a lot of fun, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s rousing flip of the “damsel in distress” narrative gives kids an unexpected hero to cheer for.
11. Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange is an outlier in the MCU, in that it focus on “actual” magic, rather than super-powers. As such, it’s more focused on mysticism and fantastical enemies, rather than the technology of Iron Man or the patriotism of Captain America. Mads Mikkelsen’s villain is on the scarier side, as his world-ending hunger is compounded by the creepy thing that happens with his eyes whenever he’s particularly evil. The scene where Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange drives off a cliff (don’t phone and drive!) is also jarring for its very real-world violence. Aside from that, the colorful ending and great cast do the heavy lifting to put Doctor Strange somewhere in the middle of this list. Additionally, Cumberbatch does a great job of selling the power of the humility his character gains throughout the movie.
10. Captain America: The First Avenger
As, by far, the most kid-friendly of the Captain America trilogy, The First Avenger’s most risque moments are unfortunately due to real-world events that have occurred since the movie was released. The rise of the alt-right and white nationalists in America over the last year or so definitely paints the movie’s Nazis in a more contemporary light, so that’s something to watch out for in slightly older kids who might be aware of current events. Other than that, it’s a very black-and-white war movie; Cap’s journey from scrawny to buff is visually incredible, and, aside from a couple of main supporting characters dying, the action is mostly 1940s war-themed, which is easier on the eyes than some other hyper-violent Marvel films.
9. Thor: Ragnarok
The funniest Thor movie (by far), Ragnarok is a colorful wild ride, widely credited to first-time Marvel director Taika Waititi, who injects the dullest Avenger with a pastel dose of excitement. While there is violence to rival any other MCU movie, it’s not particularly gory. The scariest part of the entire movie is Cate Blanchett’s Hela, who is ruthless as the Goddess of Death. However, despite Thor losing an eye and an explosive finale, the film is assured in its mission to be, simply, a hell of a good time. Bonus points for Chris Hemsworth finally having his breakout performance in Marvel movies, mirroring his hilarious turns elsewhere (such as in the latest Ghostbusters).
8. Black Panther
The most recent Marvel movie is also one of the most kid-friendly, although maybe not for the reasons that parents might expect. While it actually is less-inclined towards violence than other movies (in fact, the usage of violence is one of the central themes of the movie), it does feature rather mature themes and historical references, not least among them a look at the impact of the slave trade and the oppression of black people around the world. What makes that into a great movie for kids is the fact that you can use the movie to start conversations about identity, ancestry, misogyny, and isolationism with your children. Finally, as the first mostly-black superhero movie in the Marvel canon, Black Panther will show children of all races a diverse new viewpoint not present elsewhere in the MCU. Not only will they likely enjoy the on-screen action, but, more than any movie on this list, they could also leave the theater with a handful of new lessons learned.
7. Iron Man
The one that started it all. 2008 was a simpler time for Marvel, when every movie didn’t need to tie into 10 other installments. Despite starting with a war-related explosion and capture, Iron Man is actually on the lighter side of the spectrum; perhaps because it’s the only Marvel movie where Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is still lovable, but even the most violent scenes are worked through his charisma to feel more action-oriented than gory. Even though Iron Man is also considered a playboy, the sexual undertones of the movie are mostly kept to asides. Of the three Iron Man movies, this feels like the one that Marvel got right for all ages.
6. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Both Guardians of the Galaxy movies are similarly friendly for younger audiences, and for similar reasons: teamwork, humor, and Groot. The Guardians overcome their differences in the first installment to save the world, similarly to The Avengers, but with more pizzazz. Vin Diesel’s turn as Groot is likely the most fan-pleasing character in the MCU, and a license to print money for Marvel. The second movie loses some points on this list because of its darker themes of abusive parenting (shout out to Kurt Russell), but both films land in the upper echelon for younger audiences. A bonus for parents comes in the form of the soundtrack, which is both PG enough to blast in the car and good enough to want to do just that.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
Despite generally being considered one of the weaker installments of the MCU, Thor is a fun ride for kids who don’t think too much about the nonsensical plot. It’s basically Lord of the Rings but with superheroes, which works better than you might expect. Chris Hemsworth is charming in the lead role, and while there are some intense fight scenes throughout, the main brunt of the story is the “fish out of water” plot with Thor acclimating to his lack of powers. It’s fantastical, beautifully-shot, and generally a fun ride that might land better with children than adults, who might tire of its lack of stakes or sense.
3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Of the main Marvel heroes, Spider-Man has always been the most kid-friendly of the bunch. Partly because Peter Parker is a high school student in most renditions, and partly because of the curious and accidental nature of his powers. Homecoming follows suit, putting newcomer Tom Holland into the Spidey suit and letting him do his thing. While there’s the typical violence, none of it feels too scary; younger kids might get stressed at the boat-splitting-in-half scene. Also, as a bonus point, Peter’s school feels realistically diverse; casting Zendaya as Mary Jane was an inspired touch.
2. The Avengers
More than any other Marvel movie, Avengers is what can be described as a comic book movie. Everything that happens is filtered through the lens of Marvel’s house style, so it’s all very funny and very colorful. While death does occur, it’s to characters who die offscreen for the most part; one particular death is gruesome but dealt with properly. The final fight scene is so epic and grand that the ground level stakes (a lot of people probably die when buildings get destroyed) are happening away from the camera’s eye. The sense of wonder that comes from seeing all of these famous superheroes teaming up for the very first time is hard to undersell; some of the best, and most kid-friendly, scenes in the movie are just the four core Avengers bantering with each other.
Finally, here’s Paul Rudd. Ant-Man is a low-stakes, high-fun romp through one of Marvel’s most fun superpowers. While there’s barely enough MCU implications in this, it also just enjoys itself more than most movies in the universe. Rudd is clearly having a great time here, and his co-stars are up to the task of setting him up for all-ages jokes. While his character does have a dark past in prison, it’s mostly brushed over in favor of his redemption story, and it’s one that’s universally understandable: he just wants to see his daughter again. Add in the miniature shenanigans and the fantastic finale, which takes place in a toddler’s playset, and you’ve got the most kid-friendly Marvel movie, by far. The good news? This summer’s Ant-Man and the Wasp looks to be more of the same, which means parents will have yet another Rudd-led option for their children.
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