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I can trace my love of sci-fi, fantasy, and superheroes back to a the formative movies and shows I watched as a kid. Willow. Legend. The Hobbit (animated version, obviously). Back to the Future. Ghostbusters. The Abyss. The Princess Bride. Star Wars. The Last Unicorn. Superman and Superman II. Batman: The Animated Series. X-Men: The Animated Series. The list goes on and on.
So when my husband and I had kids, it wasn’t even a question in our minds that we wanted to introduce them to all — or at least many — of the same things we loved as children. When our daughters were little, around 6 and 4, we began doing a weekly family movie night, where we’d get pizza and snuggle on the couch with a movie we could all enjoy. Sometimes these picks were modern (such as the latest animated features from Pixar and Disney, or when they got older, the most recent Marvel movies, etc.), but more often than not, they were releases from before they were born that we thought they’d enjoy: Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, E.T. And what followed was exactly what we’d hoped would happen: they fell in love.
As they got older, we broadened the spectrum of what they could watch, always taking into account their personal tastes and preferences. Ratings weren’t as big a factor for us as content, especially since a lot of what skated by under a PG rating in the ’80s would be pushing the limits of PG-13 today. Our youngest loves fantasy battles, so Willow was no problem, but she gets nightmares from creepy imagery, so Legend was off the table. Our oldest has no problem with suspense and monstrous creatures, so Jurassic Park went over great, but got completely wigged out by the hostage situation in Iron Man 3 and had to turn it off.
For the most part, this plan has worked exactly as we intended. Our daughters developed a fondness for fantasy and action and superheroes, they now understand many of our (admittedly dated) geeky pop culture references, they get a huge kick out of dressing up in coordinated family costumes for Halloween, and they get just as excited as we do when one of our favorite childhood franchises churns out another spinoff, sequel, or reboot (perhaps even more excited, since they don’t yet suffer from sequel fatigue).
But there were a few unforeseen side effects, too. I still vividly remember my oldest daughter crying on our stairs in first grade because she was having trouble making friends because none of the kids at school knew what Star Wars was (this is obviously no longer a problem today, but it has spawned other issues, which I will get into further down). Clearly, this was not what we had intended; we simply wanted to introduce our kids to all the fun things that we loved at their ages. But at an age when kids were starting to band together over shared popular interests — Pokémon, sports, Minecraft — my kids were learning that the things they loved were completely foreign to most of their peers.
It was a complicated problem that, in some ways, we’re still navigating. Both of my kids have broadened their social circles and found at least one or two other kids who like the same things they do. Their interests have branched out beyond what we’ve shown them at home, into things like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, which more of their peers are aware of. It’s also helped that superheroes and Star Wars have had a recent resurgence, so they’re back in mainstream pop culture. But it’s still not uncommon that one of my kids will reference The Princess Bride or Labyrinth or Lord of the Rings and receive nothing but blank stares from the kids on the playground.
And then there’s this new wave of geek culture, targeted precisely at my demographic — the adults who grew up watching the family-friendly genre films of the ’80s and ’90s and are hungry for more. But increasingly, the issue with this has been that my kids are experiencing those films as kids now, and want to watch the new versions right when they come out — but the new versions aren’t always meant for them.
It’s been an interesting and occasionally difficult path to travel. My kids love X-Men: The Animated Series, but have only seen the first two X-Men movies because the First Class soft reboots have all been a little too intense for them (and The Last Stand is a travesty of which we do not speak). Recently, my 10-year-old saw the trailer for Logan playing in front of Doctor Strange and got excited because she loves Wolverine, but I had to tell her that she wouldn’t be able to watch it for at least another several years. She felt a little betrayed, and honestly — despite the fact that I am super excited to see Logan myself — I didn’t blame her.
They haven’t been introduced to Batman: The Animated Series yet (we need to finish X-Men: TAS first), which turned out to be a good thing when Batman v. Superman decided to go full grimdark. And that’s to say nothing of The Killing Joke. Marvel has fared better, and my kids have seen and loved most of the MCU movies to date (with the above exception of Iron Man 3), but even with Marvel, the movies are starting to drift from one end of the PG-13 spectrum to the other. The kids wound up loving Captain America: Civil War, but the early reviews made me wary enough of the tone that I saw it by myself first in order to prep them (and even now when they rewatch it at home, there’s a good amount of eye-covering).
However, our biggest fandom disappointment hit this weekend with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As with 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, our whole family has been watching trailers for months and we were all super excited. We bought our tickets for opening weekend the day they went on sale, and both kids have been re-watching the trailer and eagerly dissecting it with each other as they anxiously awaited the day they could see it.
I got nervous. We’d purchased our tickets on the assumption that Rogue One would be similar in tone to The Force Awakens. Intense at times, sure, but still absolutely aimed at Star Wars fans both young and old. Even the pre-movie interviews with the director indicated that it would be fine for kids who are established fans of the franchise. But all the early reviews were in agreement that it was not.
I texted my husband that I wasn’t sure our 8-year-old would be able to handle it. This is, after all, the child who crawled onto my lap and hid her eyes during a particularly unnerving part of Moana a couple weeks ago, and who cried long and hard at Finding Dory because she worried that a fish might not find her parents. He suggested that I talk to a friend who is a movie critic and had caught an advance screening, which I did, only to confirm what I already suspected — this wasn’t going to be a movie she would enjoy.
We left the decision up to her. I presented her with what I’d gleaned from reviews and conversations, and let her know she could still see it if she wanted, but that she didn’t have to. And she opted out. Kids are pretty good at knowing what they can and can’t handle, and the thought of an intense, gritty, violent war movie was not appealing to her, even if it was Star Wars. (Don’t worry, she’s fine — she gets to see Santa Claus and then have a fun evening with her Granny while the rest of us go see it as planned. Meanwhile, my 10-year-old heard all my warnings about the movie and replied “AWESOME!” so I don’t expect her to have any problems.)
Let me be clear: I get the desire both from filmmakers and audiences to take a franchise that kids loved in the ’80s and target the new versions at those same people, who would be in their 30s and 40s today. I mean, I should get it, since I am exactly their target audience. And as a lifelong fan of Star Wars and X-Men and Batman and all the other properties that are experiencing new life today, I have been enjoying (most of) the reimaginings that Hollywood is giving us. I haven’t seen Rogue One yet, but we have our tickets for this afternoon, and I honestly woke up this morning giddy with anticipation.
But as a parent, I can’t help but be a little frustrated. It’s frustrating for the kids that the stories they love are being placed increasingly further out of their reach. That they’re growing up, but apparently not fast enough to keep up with their favorite characters. And it’s frustrating for parents that stories we were looking forward to enjoying as a family — as we had with previous installments — are actually not going to be suitable for all of us. I don’t mean “suitable for kids of all ages,” because that’s unrealistic, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to wish that series and franchises that have, in the past, been fine for elementary-aged kids, could continue, in their newest versions, to appeal to not just those kids — who are now older and more mature — but the kids who are in elementary school now and might be discovering that series for the first time. I know I’m not the only parent who was truly excited to introduce my kids to Star Wars, and is a little bummed that we’re not all going to be able to experience each of the new installments together.
I’m sure it’s a hard line to toe as a filmmaker, especially when there’s a loud contingent of adult fans continually clamoring for even more grit in their childhood genre nostalgia. And it’s not like the original, kid-friendly versions of these movies are going away. They’re still there to enjoy over and over again (case in point: after my daughter decided to sit Rogue One out, we watched A New Hope together as a family so that we could still have a fun Star Wars experience this week, and it was great). But that doesn’t make it any easier to disappoint my kids when they’ve been looking forward to the new version just as much as we have.
One of the hardest things about parenting is never knowing whether the well-intentioned decisions you’re making in the present will morph into the difficulties of the future. There was no way to know, when we sat down with our preschooler and kindergartner a few years ago to watch A New Hope, that one year later our oldest would be in tears because her friends didn’t get it, or that four years later, we’d be scrambling to find somewhere for our youngest to go when we found out the new Star Wars movie was going to be too scary for her to use the ticket we’d bought her.
Do I wish we’d done things differently? Not really. Even after the frustrations, the enjoyment our kids have gotten from these stories is far greater than the struggles they’ve caused. In hindsight, it was naive (as so many early parenting decisions are) to think that we could give our kids our childhoods without them ever clashing with the modern times they live in. Sometimes their friends won’t get it, and sometimes they’ll be shut out of experiencing something new, and that will suck. But the trade-off is that our kids are curious and inquisitive, that they are strongly empathetic to those who are different from them, that they are passionate about stories and comfortable with their own imaginations, and that we have no shortage of things to geek out about as a family. The road to fandom may not have been quite as smooth as we’d anticipated, but I think my kids would agree that it’s been worth the bumps.
Are you still on the fence about whether Rogue One will be okay for your child? Check back later this weekend for Lauren’s spoiler-free Parents Guide.