DUFF ON DIGITAL: When cartoons are not for kids

DUFF ON DIGITAL: When cartoons are not for kids

(KCBD) - The world of cartoons has come a long way since I was a kid.

It's hard to remember now, after a dozen blockbuster superhero movies and two successful Lord of the Rings franchises, but there was a time when being into nerd stuff was embarrassing and shameful.

Star Wars brought science fiction into the mainstream when I was very young, but growing up in the '80s, there were still certain lines you didn't cross when the cool kids were around, certain things that were clearly "just for kids."

But now we're in the 21st century, and nerds have inherited the Earth.

Grown men working for elite magazines can hold forth on Marvel continuity and the philosophy of Star Wars without missing a beat.

Active military personnel overseas get care packages full of Dungeons and Dragons books, and increasingly, the cartoons based on our childhood comic books are explicitly not for kids.

This is particularly true in the DC Universe, where a recent series of feature-length cartoons has been targeted at adults.

I first noticed it in Superman vs. The Elite - a story explicitly comparing Superman with a group of heroes who go too far punishing criminals and blur the lines between good guys and bad. That one was PG-13. A bit of a risk, but a lot of kids could handle it.

Then they gave us a two-part treatment of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, loosely based on the Frank Miller classic that inspired a generation of young fans and elevated comic books to the level of art in the '80s.

They even pulled off dark storylines with fun, lighthearted characters like the Flash. The Flashpoint Paradox has Barry Allen creating a dystopia by going back in time to save his mother.

In this universe, Bruce Wayne died, Thomas Wayne lived and Bruce's own mother became a kind of Joker.

This is solid adult storytelling wrapped in a cartoon candy shell. A bit intense, but still suitable for teens, like most of the films in this PG-13 run.

The dark, twisty nature of these cartoons didn't really bother me until Justice League: War - a clumsy, stupid remake of the Justice League origin story, set in a world where every beloved hero you grew up with has turned into a selfish, stupid jerk.

The first scene that stands out involves Wonder Woman (who openly hates and belittles men) threatening a vendor at sword point to get some ice cream.

It's not a major plot point, but it really bothered me. Heroes acting like petty thugs? Wonder Woman was created to fight people like this.

Then we get Son of Batman, with a brand new Robin, reimagined as a stone-cold killer trained by the League of Assassins. There's some good stuff here with Batman learning to be a father, dealing with a difficult child, but it still feels like a betrayal of the core concept.

I really enjoyed Justice League: Gods and Monsters, because it is quite clearly an alternate universe, not messing with the classic heroes, but creating entirely new ones with the same names.

This gave them a lot more creative license to get dark without actually corrupting the heroes we grew up with. It turns out to be a story about three friends who take an experiment too far, and a villain who loses his sense of right and wrong.

We're still in PG-13 land here, suitable for a lot of modern teens, but obviously still targeted at adults.

Then they did something I did not believe was possible - they made an animated version of The Killing Joke, the epic Batman story where the Joker tries to drive Jim Gordon insane.

This one got an R rating, and it's the first one that really crossed a line with me. The Joker does not actually abuse Barbara Gordon, but he sets up photographs to make her father think he did.

In the comics, the Joker shoots Barbara, paralyzing her and inspiring her to come back as a different kind of hero, but in this cartoon, Jim Gordon is meant to think he did something well outside the realm of acceptable comic book violence.

It felt gratuitous and unnecessary to me, darkness for the sake of darkness, not in the service of good storytelling, even if it was explicitly for an adult audience.

This year, we got another R-rated comic story, Justice League: Dark, written about the magical heroes in the DC Universe.

I liked this one a lot. I felt like this story justified the "cartoons for grownups" thing they were going for, without crossing the line into brutality or needless vulgarity.

Parts of it are shocking, and there are some adult themes in it, but the story earned it. We finally get a decent on-screen treatment of John Constantine, after a string of terrible movie and TV appearances.

Parents have to walk a fine line these days, and cartoons like this are not helping. Too many parents are going to assume studios are still playing by the old rules, and that any DC cartoon must be about the old Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman they grew up with.

These parents are in for a big shock. Hopefully they were at least smart enough to watch these features with their kids. Bad news for the parents who bought them sight unseen for junior's iPad.

We're living through a comic book renaissance, great stuff for adult fans who grew up with old-school DC and Marvel, looking for a universe to grow up with them, but scary territory for parents who don't want their kids to grow up too soon.

This is a warning for parents that you can't blindly trust the old brands anymore. Pay close attention to those ratings on the box, and when a comic book movie comes with an R rating, believe it.

DC and Marvel have a range of great animated features available on iTunes and Amazon, but watch those previews carefully and learn how to set parental controls on any device you give to your kids.

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