Move over Batman, Spider-Man, Thor and Wonder Woman—there’s a new breed of superheroes, designed just for kids, who are angling for a piece of children’s viewing time (and, of course, parents’ spending power at retail).
The comic-book-based heroes who dominate summer box-office revenues do indeed have their roots in kids’ publishing, but their screen spin-offs have generally skewed older. And given that superheroes never seem to go out of style, it’s no wonder that kids’ producers are keen to give young ones an alternative to the icons of the DC Comics and Marvel stables.
“At their core, superheroes are fantasies about being powerful enough to overcome extreme adversity,” says Bob Higgins, executive VP at FremantleMedia Kids & Family, which is home to the rebooted Danger Mouse. “Whether that is through the possession of superpowers or super gadgets, it’s in our nature to want to be able to endure and overcome.”
Olivier Dumont, the managing director of Entertainment One (eOne) Family, which is riding high on the success of PJ Masks, adds, “Kids, in particular, can feel pretty powerless. So characters who have strong abilities and powers are extremely empowering and appealing. They are über-aspirational—you want to be them or be like them.”
Pierre Sissmann, the chairman and CEO of Cyber Group Studios, insists that we are currently in a “golden age” of superhero animation, revealing that his studio has a number of projects in development that he is gearing up to introduce at this year’s MIPCOM.
So why are superheroes so hot right now? Eryk Casemiro, the chief creative officer at Zodiak Kids Studios, offers up this theory: “Historically, superheroes tend to have their biggest uptick in popularity in times of world strife. Batman, a comic character from the late 1930s, became hugely popular during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s.”
The 21st-century equivalent of the Cold War is the struggle against terrorism, Casemiro argues. “Superheroes are important to kids because they can see in their characters individuals fighting against big problems and looking forward fearlessly and with hope.”
At their most basic level, superheroes and their special powers act as a simple case of wish fulfillment. “Who wouldn’t want to be able to fly—no question, the best superhero power!” declares Terry Kalagian, the VP of creative for animation at Gaumont. “Who wouldn’t want to run fast? Who wouldn’t want to be able to fix something they messed up or save somebody in jeopardy?”
On a practical level, superpowers become the bases for kids’ play patterns as they socialize and work out their problems.
“For kids, fantasizing about having superpowers never feels stale,” notes Ken Faier, senior VP and executive producer at DHX Content. “But that doesn’t mean that superhero shows can’t be badly made, overproduced or end up with the wrong emotional core.”
For Tom van Waveren, the CEO and creative director at CAKE, producers making superhero shows for kids should take a page out of Hollywood’s book. “Twenty years ago, superhero movies were taking themselves very, very seriously,” van Waveren says. “Now, it’s tongue-in-cheek comedy, but there are real threats, real bad guys, and a world that needs to be saved. You see that translating back to TV. Superhero movies and series are having fun with the rules of the genre without undermining it.”
According to Cyber Group’s Sissmann, the secret is not to look at the subject as a monolithic genre full of familiar stereotypes, and to think outside the box. “Characters with superpowers—but not necessarily the superpowers you are used to seeing.”
One current trend is the creation of characters with different types of powers, says Sissmann. “In place of X-Men-style speed, strength and morphing, are other superpowers that haven’t been developed yet—psychic powers, for example.”
Zodiak Kids’ Casemiro notes, “We have to recognize as producers that we compete against Marvel and DC, which use up a lot of the oxygen in this space. It’s incumbent on us to find new ways into the superhero genre. Finding fresh ways to do superheroes gets harder.”
A few years ago, Dumont at eOne spotted potential for a new approach—a superhero show tailored to preschoolers. That hunch ultimately led to the creation of PJ Masks. The show from eOne and Frog Box is based on a series of books about three ordinary 6-year-olds who are imbued with superpowers at night. Production is underway on a second set of 52 episodes for 2018, with a third season in development.
“We know that preschoolers love superheroes in terms of the toys, but they found it difficult to engage with some superhero themes that were a bit too old for them,” says Dumont. “We tailored the themes, making them age-appropriate and relevant to what preschool kids would aspire to and go through in their own daily lives. Preschool treatments need to be more subtle than simply beating the bad guy. There’s a strong emphasis on positive values, such as teamwork, kindness and what it truly means to be a hero.”
PJ Masks’ characters go on adventures, defeat villains, solve mysteries and learn valuable lessons along the way.
“For TV we clearly bookend the show with the characters as normal kids who can transform to have superhero abilities,” Dumont adds. “That was important to help create the relatable qualities of PJ Masks.”
Relatability is critical for all age groups, adds Cyber Group’s Sissmann. “In the past, superheroes have been extraordinary people in ordinary situations, who have used their superpowers to solve problems. Now we are looking at it the other way around—with ordinary people in extraordinary situations who develop superpowers for one reason or another.”
JUST LIKE ME
CAKE’s van Waveren also stresses the importance of relatability. “For today’s audience, you need to develop superheroes who have many more layers to their personalities. They are more well-rounded as characters, or more flawed. That makes for more interesting storytelling. The challenge is they still need to be aspirational in the moments that they’re in their hero role—when they are saving the world. When they’re not, they need to have the vulnerability of a character that you would find in another kind of comedy or drama.”
To illustrate his point, van Waveren uses the upcoming Astroboy Reboot, from French studios Caribara Animation and Shibuya Productions, with CAKE handling distribution.
“We’re fleshing out his character and his world to make him more relatable, but still keeping him aspirational as well. We’re giving him a family and having him figure out not only what it is to be human, but how it is to have siblings and function within a family unit.”
FremantleMedia’s Higgins adds that another challenge in developing superhero properties is finding the appropriate threat level for a particular age group—an obstacle the company managed with Tree Fu Tom.
“For younger viewers, for instance, there is much more blurring of TV and reality—they don’t simply see it as storytelling,” explains Higgins. “As a result, stories have to be positioned more carefully; the question is, how do we create a threat that’s threatening enough to make it compelling without giving preschoolers the feeling that they are in jeopardy. It’s a balancing act.”
Higgins continues, “Older viewers are much more willing to accept life and death threats. For 10- to 12-year-olds, it’s much clearer that they are safe and simply along for the roller-coaster ride.”
One way the kids’ market has innovated is in broadening the boundaries of what constitutes a superhero.
For the purist, a superhero has to possess superpowers, but there have always been exceptions—such as Batman, who relied on a distinctive outfit and a lot of clever gadgets.
The central character in Zodiak Kids’ latest preschool superhero creation, Kody Kapow, is trained in martial arts by his grandfather and has superhero traits such as mindfulness, perseverance and patience—but no clear special powers.
Another important trend is the development of girl-power concepts following the success of Marathon Media’s Totally Spies, about the exploits of three Beverly Hills high school friends who lead double careers as super agents battling villains. More recently, there has been the success of Zagtoon and Method Animation’s Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir. The series underlines the potential of this subgenre, with eOne and Cyber Group now in development on their own superhero shows specifically targeting girls.
CAKE, meanwhile, arrives at MIPCOM with Mama K’s Super 4, which is being produced by Triggerfish Animation Studios in South Africa. “It’s about four African girls who live in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia,” van Waveren says. “Mama K used to be in the secret service of her country, but now that she’s retired she is battling her colleague, who used to be on the good side but has joined the dark side. These four girls are helping her. What we love about it, apart from the fact that it’s a girl-led show, is that the creator is herself Zambian. What we want to do is tell superhero stories with an African flavor and we will be using African writing talent on the show to accomplish that. Malenga Mulendema, the creator, pitched the show at Annecy. She said that when she was growing up, superhero cartoons were her favorite, but she felt she was not represented in them. Hardly any of the superheroes were girls. And absolutely nobody was black. She set out to create a show that she would have wanted to watch as a little girl.”
Toronto’s DHX Media has one of the strongest superhero portfolios in kids’ TV. It includes Max Steel, which DHX produces for Mattel, The League of Super Evil, Dr. Dimensionpants, and new projects Mega Man and Massive Monster Mayhem, a 20-part superhero game show for Nickelodeon in the U.S.
Massive Monster Mayhem is easily DHX’s biggest innovation in the superhero genre, with live-action gameplay and intergalactic challenges against gigantic monsters that earn prizes and save the world from destruction, explains Faier. “It’s a mash-up of genres and a unique way of having fun with the superhero idea,” he says.
Perhaps the most critical component of a successful superhero show for kids is comedy, argues Faier. “We have had a lot of fun with the genre in shows such as League of Super Evil, which is a comedy parody of the superhero genre aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds. When League of Super Evil really clicked for us was when we differentiated the main character Voltar from the really super-evil villains, which is the source of much of the comedy. Basically, Voltar is, in essence, a kid who wants to be acknowledged by real villains. This works because he’s subtly just like a kid trying to fit in at school and be accepted.”
Faier goes on to note that “the original superhero shows in the 1960s, which were developed by toy companies, were pretty straight, but treatments have to be a lot more sophisticated now. One thing’s for sure—shows which are too straight or too heavy on action and short on laughs don’t repeat as well as superhero shows with a sense of comedy or levity.”
Gaumont’s latest superhero project, The Star Shards Chronicles, certainly fits the sophisticated mold. Based on a famous, epic sci-fi trilogy by Neal Shusterman, Star Shards is “a bit different from your classic Marvel superhero concept,” says Gaumont’s Kalagian. The story starts with a series of regular kids with extreme versions of common teenage problems such as acne, obesity and raging hormones.
“It’s kind of X-Men-ish in that each of the kids is experiencing the kinds of situations all kids can identify with—feeling left out or rejected or not knowing what’s happening to them or their own bodies. The story’s strength is that it taps into common issues felt widely by kids,” says Kalagian. “What unites them is that they were all conceived at the same instant that a star exploded light-years away, giving them extraordinary powers such as healing or clarifying someone’s mind—much more subtle superpowers than those we traditionally recognize.”
The challenge will be to empathetically characterize the novel’s six main characters for an animated kids’ TV format. Kalagian is clear about what her creative team needs to do to turn the epic into a success. “What all successful TV does is act as both a mirror and a window. We want to see ourselves in stories and not be confronted with a world that is so foreign that people say, ‘I don’t get this,’ which is always a risk in the superhero genre. But what superheroes are really good at is offering kids a window into another world where we wish we could be, or we wish we could have those people as friends. There’s some comfort in thinking that there would be somebody in a different world who could look out for and take care of us.”
Pictured: CAKE’s Astroboy Reboot.