Many preschoolers can probably identify Avengers before they know how to write their own names.
Superheroes are woven into their world through books and birthday parties, Halloween costumes and Lego sets. But Marvel’s lucrative films that have dominated the pop culture landscape since “Iron Man” debuted in 2008, and Disney + series such as “WandaVision” and “Loki” has never been to under 5 sets. They’re too plot-heavy. Too scary. Too violent. Too loud.
“I’ve been making a lot of content for Marvel over the years, and most of the time I can’t show my kids until they’re almost 28,” said Dan Buckley, president of Marvel Entertainment, with a laugh during a recent video call with The Times.
But now Buckley has a series he can show his 4-year-old and “knows he’s not going to run screaming out of space.” “Marvel’s Spidey and His Amazing Friends,” which premieres Friday on Disney Junior and Disney Channel, is Marvel’s first full-length series aimed at preschool demographics. Each of the 25 animated episodes in season 1 features two 11-minute stories.
“We go back to where Spider-Man started as a cartoon,” said executive producer Harrison Wilcox. “We tell stories that are very reminiscent of the early stories. It was a lot of fun to bring back the hilarious joy and wonder of early Marvel comics. ”
In the bright and colorful series, Peter Parker / Spidey (voiced by Benjamin Valic) is joined by his amazing friends Miles Morales / Spin (Jakari Fraser) and Gwen Stacy / Ghost-Spider (Lily Sanfelippo). Together, this diverse trio makes up “Team Spidey.”
“We have three characters who are very, very different, but also take leadership roles,” said Lori Mozilo, vice president of original programming at Disney Junior. “Everyone has strengths, respects each other’s strengths and recognizes: ‘You have to take the lead here. It is you who will do the best. ‘And all that seems like good lessons for being a good person and at the same time being ambitious in the magical way:’ I can save the day ‘. ”
Spider-Man was the natural choice for the first superhero to swing into Disney Junior. He was in high school when he got his powers, and his mission statement has always been “with great power comes great responsibility.”
“It’s an emphasis on character. That’s who he is: Do your best. Be the best person you can be, ”Buckley said. “You do not feel that you are being preached. It’s part of the characters and how they play with each other and how they interact with each other. Would it be as easy to do that with Wolverine? Probably not.”
The trio is often joined by other well-known Marvel superheroes, including Black Panther (Tru Valentino), Marvel (Sandra Saad) and Hulk (Armen Taylor). And of course, the heroes need villains. Green Goblin (JP Karliak), Doc Ock (Kelly Ohanian) and Rhino (Justin Shenkarow) show up to cause all sorts of problems. “We have Doc Ock who wants to govern. We have Goblin who will destroy. And we have Rhino who likes to take things that do not belong to him, ”Wilcox said. “We thought they could all be related to preschoolers.”
Disney Junior has an educational resource group that not only keeps an eye on the latest thinking about preschool learning and core curricula, but also makes sure that the stories will resonate with the age group. “They look at every script, every story idea,” Mozilo said. “We go to schools, go to parents and kids and sit down and read to them, so we get real-time feedback on understanding and that kind of sweet spot for the amount of effort into non-scary relationships.”
Being part of these focus groups proved invaluable to Marvel. “Getting our writers and creative crews to go to these sessions was really special,” Wilcox said. “It’s really helpful to hear first-hand from kids what worked and didn’t work. I’m always surprised. I am constantly learning things from the education group. It’s always fun to see which kids in the group are clearly Marvel fans. Sometimes I feel like they know more about the characters than I do. ”
Although Spidey’s problems are age-appropriate – one story finds Peter trying to find his missing backpack – his lifespan is timeless. In one episode, Peter must learn to be patient. In another, Hulk learns to have self-control. And the trio always learn that things go better when they work together. “We are really helping to shape what the future may be by helping create a world that children learn to behave in,” Mozilo said.
“Spidey” also contributes to the trend of expanding the way gender norms are portrayed on television for this age group. “It’s leadership in a soft power way, where it’s not just about forcing or being some kind of strong men, for lack of a better word,” Mozilo said. “Disney Junior is very, very strict. We follow all the research. I am reading [a script] and be like: ‘Everything Gwen says can not be a question. Everyone else has statements, she can not just ask questions. ‘Or:’ Why does he always tell her it’s a good idea when she has it? That’s a good idea, of course. ‘”
Traditionally, Doc Ock is a male villain. But Buckley said they made a conscious choice to have gender representation not only with the heroes but also with the show’s villains. “We wanted to make sure we had a welcoming and very diverse cast,” Buckley said. “Obviously, we want to make it as inviting to all walks of life as possible, so many people feel represented on screen while watching.”
When he joined Marvel in 1991, Buckley said the company was “a pop culture store that was a very crooked man … around 2010, we began to realize that all kids grew up with superheroes who were just part of their mindset. “Everyone is involved now because they grew up with it. It reaches all age groups and all demographic information.”
Every good preschool show needs a good theme song, and for that saw “Marvel’s Spidey and His Amazing Friends” by Patrick Stump, lead singer of Fall Out Boy. After receiving a brief description of the series, Stump, who has loved Marvel since getting his first Wolverine cartoon as a child, wrote the catchy 10-minute tune. “What Patrick was able to do was deliver something that feels like rock ‘n’ roll, but which was completely accessible to preschoolers,” Buckley said.
Stump also scores the series and provides music for the exciting action sequences. “There really is a Marvel sound, and I wanted to make sure it got through,” Stump said. “The great, heroic feeling and the great drama of it. The effort is not quite so great – it is not Thanos who ends civilization. But there is an episode where we lose track of a cat. How do you have that Marvel heroism but also less? We are all a part of telling this story to people as it is their first experience of Marvel. ”
Consumerism, for better or worse, is, of course, embedded in the “mass market mindset”: the earlier children are introduced to Marvel’s superheroes, the more likely they are to be consumers for life. “It gives us a greater opportunity for affinity and love at an earlier age for a broader set of characters,” Buckley said. “It gives us a better chance of having more lifetime fans, which is important is this competitive media ecosystem that we live in today.”
The launch of the show will, for example, be accompanied by a new series of books and a new set of Hasbro toys, many of which will be released just in time for the holidays.
Will there be future Marvel preschool shows? “Yeah, but I can’t talk about that,” Buckley said. “We have things in mind. We are very focused on getting it really good off the ground. ”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.