Many preschoolers can probably identify the 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 movies, which have dominated the pop-culture landscape since “Iron Man” debuted in 2008, and Disney+ series, like “WandaVision” and “Loki,” have never been for the under-5 set. They are too plot-heavy. Too scary. Too violent. Too loud.
“I’ve made a lot of content for Marvel over the years and most of it I cannot show to my children until they’re almost 28,” Dan Buckley, president of Marvel Entertainment, said with a laugh during a recent video call with The Times.
Now, though, Buckley has a series he can show his 4-year-old and “know he’s not going to run out of the room screaming.” “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 the preschool demographic. Each of the 25 animated episodes in Season 1 will feature two 11-minute stories.
“We are going back to where Spider-Man as a comic started,” said executive producer Harrison Wilcox. “We are telling stories that are very reminiscent of those early stories. It was a lot of fun to bring back the lighthearted 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. “All of them have strengths, respect each other’s strengths and recognize, ‘You need to take the lead here. You’re the one who will do this the best.’ And all of that seems like great lessons for being a good person while also being aspirational in that magical way of, ‘I can save the day.’”
Spider-Man was the natural choice for the first superhero to swing his way 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.”
“That’s an underlining facet of the character. That’s who he is: Do your best. Be the best person you can be,” Buckley said. “You don’t feel like you are being preached to. 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.”
Often, the trio will be joined by other well-known Marvel superheroes, including Black Panther (Tru Valentino), Ms. 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) pop up to cause all sorts of trouble. “We have Doc Ock, who wants to rule. We have Goblin, who wants to ruin. And we have Rhino, who likes to take things that don’t belong to him,” Wilcox said. “We thought those could all be relatable to preschoolers.”
Disney Junior has an educational resource group that not only stays on top of the latest thinking about preschool learning and core curricula, but also makes sure the stories will resonate with the age group. “They look at every script, every story idea,” Mozilo said. “We go into schools, go to parents and kids and sit down and read to them so we get real-time feedback on comprehension and the sort of sweet spot for the amount of stakes to not-scary ratio.”
Being part of these focus groups proved invaluable to Marvel. “To get our writers and creative crew to go to these sessions was really special,” Wilcox said. “It is really helpful to hear firsthand from kids what was working and wasn’t working. I’m always surprised. I’m 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.”
While Spidey’s problems are age appropriate — one storyline finds Peter trying to locate his missing backpack — the life lessons are timeless. In one episode, Peter has to 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 shape what the future can be by helping create a world that kids learn how to behave in,” Mozilo said.
“Spidey” also contributes to the trend of broadening how gender norms are portrayed on TV for this age group. “It’s leadership in a soft power way, where it’s not just forcing or being kind of strongmen, for lack of a better word,” Mozilo said. “Disney Junior is very, very rigorous. We keep up on all of the research. I’ll read [a script] and be like, ‘Everything Gwen says can’t be a question. Everyone else has statements, she can’t just ask questions.’ Or, ‘Why does he always tell her it’s a great idea when she has it? Of course it’s a great idea.’”
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 with the show’s villains as well. “We wanted to make sure to have an inviting and very diverse cast,” Buckley said. “Obviously, we want to make it as welcoming to all walks of life as possible so a lot of people feel represented on the screen while they’re watching.”
When he joined Marvel in 1991, Buckley said the company was “a pop culture shop that very much skewed male … around 2010, we started realizing that all kids grew up with superheroes just being part of their mass market mind-set. Everyone is involved now because they grew up with it. It reaches into all age groups and all demographics.”
Any good preschool show needs a good theme song, and for that “Marvel’s Spidey and His Amazing Friends” looked to Patrick Stump, the lead singer of Fall Out Boy. After receiving a brief description of the series, Stump, who has loved Marvel since he got his first Wolverine comic book as a kid, wrote the catchy tune in 10 minutes. “What Patrick was able to do was deliver something that feels like rock ’n’ roll but was totally available to preschoolers,” Buckley said.
Stump also scores the series, giving music to the exciting action sequences. “There really is a Marvel sound, and I wanted to make sure that came through,” Stump said. “That big, heroic feel and that big drama of it. The stakes aren’t quite as big — it’s not Thanos ending civilization. But there is an episode where we lose track of a cat. How do you have that Marvel heroism but also smaller? We are all part of telling this story for people who this is their first experience of Marvel.”
Of course, consumerism, for better or worse, is built into the “mass market mind-set”: The earlier children are introduced to Marvel’s superheroes, the more likely they are to be lifelong consumers. “It gives us a greater opportunity for affinity and affection at an earlier age for a broader set of characters,” Buckley said. “It gives us a better chance to have more lifetime fans, which is important is this competitive media ecosystem that we live in today.”
To wit, the launch of the show will be accompanied by a new line of books and a new set of Hasbro toys, many of which will be released just in time for the holiday season.
Will there be future Marvel preschool shows? “Yes, but I can’t talk about that,” Buckley said. “We have things in mind. We are very focused on getting this off the ground really well.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.