As Avengers: Infinity War approaches, like many Marvel fans, I’m looking back at the movies that led up to it. While going through the Marvel movies released last year, I noticed that they all contained storylines that involve bad father-figures. In fact, I expanded my scope to the last ten feature films that Disney had a hand in, and all of them involved dad-related plot-lines, even Cars 3! It would seem Disney loves to use these kinds of relationships to engage an audience and make it big at the box office. Let’s take a closer look with this lens at the most recent Disney films, including Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars, and discover why this trope is so prevalent and even more odd similarities between films in this slate.
A Wrinkle in Time – Disney’s newest film relies heavily on dad-centric themes. Early on, Chris Pine’s character, Mr. Murry, disappears, leaving his daughter, Meg Murry, and his adopted son, Charles Wallace, to believe he is dead. Meg has some abandonment issues from this including doubting her self-worth with the underlying thought being: “If he loved me so much, why did he leave. There must be something wrong with me.” Even after finding out her father was kidnapped, Meg still looks-down at herself, but with the help of three strong female mentors learns she is brilliant and rescues her father. All of this is great character building and drama.
The part that gets kind of messy is while Meg is rescuing her Mr. Murry; Charles Wallace has been taken over by darkness. Since those who are not possessed have a chance to escape, Mr. Murry decides to abandon his adopted son. That’s just not right. Even with the rationalization that Mr. Murry will come back for Charles Wallace, he knows how terrible and hard it is to escape the realm of darkness. So Meg’s fears that Mr. Murry is cool with abandoning his children were verified. To be sure, Meg’s reaction to stay and fight for her brother is powerful, but Mr. Murry is still a terrible father. It could be why the darkness was able to hold him for so long, because he is a bad person.
Black Panther – Here’s a phrase that aptly sums up the daddy-issues of the movie: “The Sins of the Father.” In Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther/T’Challa is blinded by rage because his father was murdered (a running theme for that film). In Black Panther, we learn that when T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, was King of Wakanda and the Black Panther, he killed his brother, N’Jobu, and swept it under the rug. T’Chaka also knew that N’Jobu had a son, Erik Killmonger, but decided to leave him without a family in America. “Your dad killed my dad” is a great dynamic to introduce between a hero and villain. Both Black Panther and Killmonger feel justified in their opposition of the other because of their father’s actions. Both also get opportunities to talk with their dead fathers (much like Lion King). T’Challa eventually decides that his father’s actions were wrong and changes both his and Wakanda’s world outlook.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – There are so many terrible father-figures in this it’s hard to know where to start. In the previous Star Wars episode, The Force Awakens, it seemed that even though Rey was still waiting for her biological parents to return, she was warming up to the idea that Han Solo could fill that role. Then Kylo Ren kills Han Solo, his own father, leaving himself torn in half and Rey searching for a new father-figure. Rey, and a good deal of fans, thought that Luke Skywalker could be her father. You can see it in Daisy Ridley’s acting that Rey desperately wants Luke to fill that role. Since Luke rejects her, Rey explores the dark-side to try and find out who her real parents are, only to come to the conclusion that they were nobody, which hurts her more. To top it all off, Rey learns that Luke tried to kill Kylo Ren, which means Luke is the worst mentor/father-figure whether he is trying or not.
Coco – The title of this film refers to Miguel’s, great-grand mother. Coco’s father abandon’s his family to pursue music. This causes Coco’s mother to ban music from the family. Though Miguel’s own father also forbids him to play music, his really daddy-issues come from his great-great-grandfather. Miguel believes that his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, was Coco’s father and risks his life to meet him to get his blessing. Miguel meets Héctor who becomes his bad, male-mentor, and turns out to be his great-great-grandfather all along. The song “Remember Me” was written by Coco’s father to remind her of him and it is so touching that it went on to win Best Song at the Academy Awards (though I think The Greatest Showman had several superior songs.)
Thor Ragnarok – Much like Black Panther, this film follows the “sins of the father” trope. Thor starts the movie doing battle with the fire-elemental Surtur, who was supposed to have been vanquished by Thor’s father, Odin. Thor returns home to find his adopted-brother, Loki, has deposed their father. Loki and Thor find their missing dad, learn they have an older sister named Hela, and then Odin dies. Turns out, Odin and Hela spent most of their relationship conquering realms. When Odin decided to stop taking over the universe, Hela didn’t. Much like he did in the original Thor movie, Odin exiled Hela, but his death lets her return. Later, Thor and Loki discover that with their dad gone, they can put aside their sibling rivalry and work together. Odin’s spirit gives Thor some advice at a critical moment, much like Lion King, and he discovers the power within himself all along.
Spider-Man Homecoming – Though a joint venture with Sony, the Marvel/Disney fingerprints are all over this film. This latest version of Peter Parker has already lost both his parents and Uncle Ben. Peter desperately wants Tony Stark to be his father-figure: Peter mistaking a hug from him is super telling. Peter tries the entire movie to win Tony’s approval, but largely feels neglected. Later, Peter discovers that his high school crush’s dad is the bad guy, the Vulture. After Spider-Man jails the Vulture, he loses his high school crush because she is moving away. When Peter finally wins Tony Stark’s approval, he decides to hold off joining the Avengers. The movie suggests that Peter is making the mature decision, but one could read it as he doesn’t trust Tony who has been a distant jerk the whole film.
Cars 3 – This was the only Disney-related movie I skipped last year, but I’m glad I watched it for this article because not only does it have reluctant male-mentors, it has a lot of the same plot points as The Last Jedi. In this third installment, Lightning McQueen is feeling his age and still mourning the loss of his mentor, Doc Hudson. After getting beat by a younger racer, Lightning goes into seclusion, much like Luke Skywalker. Lightning decides to train at all of Doc Hudson’s old race tracks: “sacred ground”. Lightning takes along a young female car, Cruz Ramirez, who is supposed to motivate him, but he ends up training her. Cruz sees Lightning as a legend, much like Rey sees Luke. It’s only when Lightning steps aside that Cruz is able to win the day.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – The two new characters added to this film series come with their daddy-issues in hand. Henry Turner wants to break his father, Will Turner’s, curse. Carina Smyth was left at an orphanage with a diary, which was her father’s, and leads to the Trident of Poseidon. Carina learns that Captain Barbossa is her father, only to watch him sacrifice himself to save everyone. Henry is able to break his father’s curse and bring him home.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Oddly enough, this film shares many aspects with Coco as long as you drop great-great-grand from the front of father. Peter Quill learns his father is a big-deal, a planet in fact. We also see that Nova’s and Gamora’s rivalry stems from Thanos pitting themselves against each other. We are reminded of how much Nova and Gamora hate their adopted father. Peter learns that Yondu was his “daddy” all along, only to watch him sacrifice himself to save Starlord.
Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Belle’s father is in jeopardy the entire movie! Her father is imprisoned by the Beast, so Belle takes his place. Belle’s father then gets abandoned in the woods by Gaston. Belle’s father then gets imprisoned by the townsfolk to be shipped to the insane asylum, so Belle leaves to save him. Though it’s obvious filler, we do learn what happened to Belle’s mother, whereas the original didn’t even bother.
Final Thoughts – I would have wagered that there would be at least one recent Disney film that avoids using father-figures, but it seems ingrained in most story-telling. If one parent is going to be essential to the plot, it seems easier to put the father in peril and the mother already out of the picture. The last movie where the mother was prominent was Pixar’s Brave, and it wasn’t successful. If there is going to be an older mentor, it’s usually going to be male so that they can let him be grumpy and reluctant. One can argue that the witches in A Wrinkle in Time were mentors, but it still falls into the negative stereotype that actresses over a certain age have to play witches! Dr. Strange had made the main character’s mentor, The Ancient One, female, but that was still met with blow-back because the actress wasn’t Asian. I tried to think of another Disney example of a female mentor, and the most recent seems to be Pocahontas, even though that character is technically a tree! And this trend isn’t unique to Disney, all of Hollywood uses it. As long as big studios think that audiences are more accepting of poor father-figures, then they are going to keep using them.