My Son's New Role Models Are 'The Avengers'. This Is Not Good
A week ago, my son was into whales. He could identify six or even species of whale by nothing but silhouette alone. He knew where they lived, what they ate, how comparatively big they all were. He knew what a bowhead whale was. He taught me what a bowhead whale was. He’s four. I’m going to be 39 this year. It was all deeply impressive, and only very slightly Bran Stark-ish.
But then on Saturday everything changed. “Captain America has a shield”, he told me from the back seat of the car on the way to the supermarket. At this point I was unaware that he even knew who Captain America was, let alone how he chose to accessorise. So I asked him for more details. “Iron Man is a flying robot, Thor has a hammer and Hulk is the biggest superhero”, he said, in exactly the same cadence as if he was reeling off more of his whale facts.
What’s bizarre about this is that we’ve deliberately minimised his exposure to superheroes. And that’s much harder than it sounds. To be a parent in 2019 is to go miles out of your way to avoid superheroes. All the toys are superheroes. All the Halloween costumes are superheroes. Visiting H&M on any given day now essentially involves playing a convoluted game of Where’s Wally to find the one tucked-away four-year-old’s garment that isn’t riddled silly with pictures of The Avengers. We’ve had to admit defeat a couple of times—once we needed some pyjamas in an emergency, and the only ones we could find had the Batman insignia all over them—but by and large we’ve partitioned off the very notion of superheroes and sealed it away from him.
God knows how, but that’s all over now. “HULK SMASH!” he yells over and over again at 6am, punching the floor with his fist. “I AM THE BIGGEST SUPERHERO! I AM MEAN TO THIEVES AND BANDITS!”. He’s assigned us all superhero aliases – he is Hulk, his little brother is Superman, I am Iron Man and his mother, even though we’ve both gone to great lengths to tell him about all the wonderful female characters of the respective Marvel and DC universes, is She Thor—and that’s just how things are now. And I’m not sure if I know how I feel about it yet.
Because, look—I like superheroes as much as the next man. I’m skiving off work in a couple of days to watch Avengers: Endgame (and also paying a babysitter £40 for the luxury. Thanks Marvel’s inability to edit!) and my head is constantly calculating an up-to-date top-five ranking of MCU movies. But I’m an adult. I have the lived experience to understand that Marvel films are all just Silly Man Dress-Up; they’re Nestle Gold Blend adverts for people with obliterated attention spans. They’re a ton of fun, but nothing really more than that.
But my son is four. When something piques his interest, he burrows deep inside it. He inhabits it totally, and it becomes his entire life; the same way that Coca-Cola yo-yos did when I was his age. Up until now, all his interests have been nature-related; whales, elephants, dinosaurs. But now he’s into the idea of justice being doled out by brightly coloured totems of hyper-masculinity. He’ll probably be fine, but it’s a hell of a leap; like watching a wildlife documentary where David Attenborough suddenly wades into the sea and clotheslines a killer whale.
My main point of concern is how sinister the marketing operation is. Late last year, Marvel started a YouTube channel specifically for preschoolers. The characters are all squatter and cuter than usual, and the worst villain they have to face is the concept of selfishness, but it’s hard not to see the channel as a cynical gateway drug to get them to the good stuff. It feels like when the old-timey cigarette industry would hand out free samples to children to increase brand loyalty. There’s a whiff of nefariousness to Big Comicbook’s desperation to court children, like they want to get their oars into them as early as possible, and it sticks in my craw a little.
On the other hand I worry that, in this atomized age of online non-linear narrowcasting, children have it harder than us. They can consume whatever entertainment they want, which means there isn’t a monoculture for them to coalesce around. As uneasy as it makes me, superheroes are the dominant cultural fixture of the age. If knowing that Thor has a hammer helps my son to make friends, who am I to stop him?
So for now, cautiously, I’m going with it. The best case scenario is that we’ll go and watch superhero films together a few years from now. The worst case is that he’ll put a pair of pants on his head and become a vigilante crimefighter. But the most likely case is that he’ll get bored and move on to something else in a fortnight. He is only four, after all.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.