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Disney Plus Will Soon Feature Marvel Series With Explicit Content. Parents Beware

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Disney has announced that six Marvel TV series including “Daredevil” and “The Defenders” — all rated TV-MA for extreme violence and explicit content — will land on streaming service Disney Plus on March 16. Many fans are excited by the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is uniting on one platform, while some leading family entertainment advocates question the move.

Years before Disney’s own streaming plans took shape, in 2015 their Marvel division partnered with Netflix to take a group of lesser-known, street-level heroes (“the Defenders”) from past comics and produce shows for adult viewers that push the boundaries of superhero TV. 

Their first entry, “Daredevil,” about a lawyer-turned-vigilante whose Catholic faith motivates his quest for justice, in particular gained a loyal following over three seasons. 

“It’s smart, sophisticated, and delivers big-screen action on a small screen,” said Christian Toto, founder of the entertainment website Hollywood in Toto and author of “Virtue Bombs: How Hollywood Got Woke and Lost Its Soul.” “‘Daredevil’ is one of the MCU’s more complex heroes, and that makes for compelling content. Seeing these shows shift to Disney Plus is a marketing coup.”

Yet Melissa Henson, program director at the Parents Television and Media Council (PTC) based in Hollywood, called it “off-brand” for these edgy series to make the leap from Netflix to Disney Plus.

“It’s certainly counter to how most parents perceive Disney Plus,” she said in an interview. “Out of the gate, Disney Plus branded itself as: ‘Everything on here, you can be comfortable sitting down and watching these shows and films with your kids.’” 

Signaling their change in brand identity, Disney’s press release about “The Defenders” notes subscribers will have to opt in to these new titles. Still, for families with young kids at home, the move presents new challenges to navigate. 

Hyper-Violent Shows Clash with Family-Marketed Platform 

Michael Foust, an entertainment writer for Crosswalk, has sampled all the top streaming services and become an expert on the best options for families. Raising four kids in rural Illinois, he and his wife seek to guard their kids from explicit content as they enjoy a weekly family movie night.

No streaming service should be used as a babysitter, he and parents’ advocates are quick to note. But with a trusted family brand like Disney, parents “don’t constantly worry about kids stumbling upon something that conflicts with your values,” Foust said in an interview. 

That changed for him recently, after his nine-year-old watched a promoted show without a parent’s permission. “We actually deleted Disney Plus off of our Roku (TV device) for several weeks,” he said, preferring not to disclose the specific adult animation title. “We have Disney Plus back now, but with parental controls on. I think that’s a lesson for every parent.” 

These conflicts arise from confusion about genres, he says. “The problem is kids automatically believe animated shows and superhero films are kid-friendly. Companies like McDonald’s are partly to blame for that. One of my boys, four years old at the time, got a Happy Meal and started playing with toys promoting ‘Avengers: Endgame.’ We wouldn’t let him see that.”

Marvel has become a cornerstone of Disney’s streaming strategy, which is why in late 2018 Netflix’s “Daredevil” and companion series were abruptly canceled as Disney began a process of pulling Marvel content from other platforms. Last year, Disney Plus premiered five original Marvel series. All were rated either TV-PG or TV-14, usually featuring bloodless battles rather than the brutal decapitations and grisly violence seen on Marvel Netflix shows. 

Rolling out this slate of TV-MA series signals a sea-change, bringing Disney Plus closer to Netflix. “These shows really increase the violence, along with adding innuendo and sexual content,” says Henson. “This is a dramatic departure. It’s puzzling why these edgy shows aren’t heading to Hulu instead, which is known for adult-targeted content.” 

For some observers, it’s a welcome shift. From R-rated “Joker” to Prime Video’s “The Boys,” a years-long trend of hyper-violent comic adaptations has rejected formulaic storytelling. 

Toto praises “Daredevil” as “a gritty show for grown-ups, no doubt.” He adds: “It also has a real-world feel that some MCU shows lack. Like the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, you can imagine Daredevil existing in our current times.”

Disney Plus: Ally Or Antagonist to Parents?

Considering Disney Plus has lagged behind streaming competitors in building up its library, the sudden influx of series makes sense. Families seeking a show within existing Marvel rating boundaries — some coarse language and non-gory violence in TV-14 territory at worst — should note they’re also adding ABC drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” on March 16. 

Although known as critics, Parents Television and Media Council has often praised Disney Plus as “mostly family-friendly,” according to Henson. “They’ve created a lot of original shows in the Star Wars franchise, from ‘The Mandalorian’ to animated titles, that are really on-brand. I think it would be a mistake for them to depart from what has drawn many people to their streamer.”

For others, it was a foregone conclusion that Disney Plus would eventually be home to all Marvel titles. Despite the explicit nature of “The Defenders” shows, Toto says, “It adds gravitas to what Disney is trying to build with their platform.”  

Justifying explicit content in superhero stories, Toto points to “X-Men” spin-off “Logan,” with its themes of pain and redemption. “It proved an R-rating wasn’t just about more blood being spilled but mature themes that aren’t always suitable for young minds,” he said. “The comic book world is vast and layered, leaving room for many different, and valuable, interpretations.” 

To redraw content boundaries on a platform trusted in households with young kids, Foust says it gives parents an assignment. We have a couple of weeks to learn and then use parental controls, which he and Henson say are fairly adequate on Disney Plus.

“This move creates a dilemma of having to more closely monitor Disney Plus,” he said. “Similar to Netflix, Disney is becoming more of an antagonist than an ally. Maybe they always were.”