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The Slow Burn of the Kid-Friendly Superhero Stoner Movie

Call it the Lord-Miller Effect: a new batch of blockbusters that appeal simultaneously to children and blazed adults

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the beyond-trippy animated Spider-Man movie co-written and -produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, was just nominated for an Academy Award for best animated film, capping off a streak of ecstatic, near-universal acclaim. It has a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, an A+ Cinemascore from audiences (that means they like you — they really, really like you!), deafening online buzz and hundreds of millions in box-office revenue.

I predict it’ll be a good year for Lord-Miller. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, which the duo also wrote and produced, lurks tantalizingly around the corner. If history is any indication, it’ll be another smash for a team that specializes in shepherding projects that sound uniquely unpromising on paper (that late-in-the-game 21 Jump Street adaptation, that first high-concept animated movie based on a children’s building toy, and even its Batman-themed sequel) to massive critical and commercial success.

But Lord-Miller also specializes in another decidedly 21st-century phenomenon: the kid-friendly superhero stoner movie.

The current superhero boom has produced such a glut of comic book–inspired films that studios are willing to take big chances and let gleeful anarchists like Lord-Miller reinvent well-worn characters like Batman and Spider-Man in their own irreverent, anarchic, stoner-friendly image.

Reduced to their plots, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Lego Movie sure sound like they were conceived between bong hits at a dorm in one of our nation’s finer institutions of higher learning. Spider-Verse is a mind-melting, kaleidoscopic, free-associative ramble through the Spider multiverse where Spider-Man is, refreshingly, a black Hispanic teenager named Miles Morales but also a depressed slacker in sweatpants, a black-and-white noir-style hardboiled figure voiced by Nicolas Cage, a Looney Tunes–style wacky cartoon pig voiced by John Mulaney, and of course, a Japanese-American teenage girl who co-pilots a mech suit called SP//dr with a radioactive spider.

The Lego Movie, meanwhile, takes place in a Lego universe that’s an elaborate, large-scale mash-up of Batman and Superman and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and everything else shiny and familiar and awesome that caught Lord-Miller’s fancy. These movies traffic in pleasingly disorienting excess. They intentionally overwhelm audiences with sensation and spectacle and stimuli and jokes and ideas and familiar characters in wonderfully unfamiliar new contexts.

In the process, they appeal simultaneously to kids and stoned adults.

The same is true of Marvel’s recent cosmic wave, which explores the heady intersection between inner space and outer space, between the crazy, mind-melting visions engendered by psychedelics and mood-alterers and the spectacle of far-off galaxies overflowing with unseen wonders.

When the public transformed Guardians of the Galaxy — a Marvel adaptation based on a semi-obscure squad of B-listers that includes a talking tree and a wisecracking space raccoon in people clothes — into a goddamn pop-culture phenomenon, it highlighted the unlikely commercial potential of Marvel’s spaciest, druggiest properties, the ones most rooted in Marvel’s 1960s and 1970s turn toward trendy and trippy psychedelia and cultural commentary that acknowledged huge cultural waves like the Black Power movement.

The aptly named Doctor Strange finally received a vehicle all his own. Black Panther wowed audiences with a fantastical world they’d never seen before, full of eye candy at once organic and Afrocentric yet shiny and futuristic.

It doesn’t seem coincidental that the superhero stoner movie has flourished in the age of marijuana legalization. You don’t need to smoke a little Wakanda Forever to enjoy Best Picture nominee Black Panther, but it sure doesn’t hurt. And cult filmmaker Taika Waititi elevated the wonderfully overachieving Thor: Ragnorak, the second sequel in the Thor franchise, into high pop art by fully embracing its stoner elements, creating a wonderfully retro, thinking man’s Flash Gordon in the process.

Meanwhile, Judd Apatow slacker heartthrob Paul Rudd got to play cult weirdo Ant-Man in a pair of goofy cult action-comedy vehicles with jokes about Morrissey and John Green and sequences set in the Quantum Realm, a comic book conceit I’m nowhere near high enough to be able to describe lucidly.

On the not-so-kid-friendly side, Hollywood has turned the heroes of burnouts and stoners past, Deadpool and Venom, into smart-ass billion-dollar franchises that easily captured the mainstream, transforming yesterday’s cult icons into today’s lucrative, ubiquitous A-listers. Not to mention, Aquaman is far more successful at giving stoned audiences freaky, glowing, shiny shit to look at (for what I can assure you are not the tightest 143 minutes) than it is on a narrative level. Yet that didn’t keep this silly, soggy spectacle, which takes its cues from Thor: Ragnorak to the extent that my colleague Clint Worthington dubbed it Wet Thor, from grossing over a billion dollars at the box office early in its run.

Taking things full circle, Aquaman star Jason Momoa also lends his voice to Aquaman in The Lego Movie Part 2, just as Justice League costar Gal Gadot reprises her turn as Wonder Woman for the blockbuster sequel. They’re joined, of course, by the great Will Arnett, who created an animated stoner icon for our times with depressed alpha male BoJack Horseman and another animated stoner icon for our times with depressed alpha male Lego Batman.

The prolific Arnett, in turn, produced and provided the voice of bad guy Deadshot for 2018’s Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, which took Cartoon Network’s delightfully irreverent, Adult Swim–style satirical deconstruction of the teen superhero genre to the big screen with its warped wit and kiddie/stoner vibe intact.

Even Scooby Doo and Shaggy, everyone’s favorite munchies-addled combo of a talking cartoon dog and his blazed buddy, got in on the superhero stoner wave with 2018’s Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which brought the Mystery Gang and Batman back together for a surprisingly clever, faithful movie featuring cameos from obscure cult figures like Question (best known as the inspiration for Watchmen’s Rorschach) and Professor Chimp.

On a more ambitious note, Selma director Ava DuVernay is about to make a New Gods movie set in Jack Kirby’s legendary Fourth World universe. It’s an enormously ambitious undertaking that will take the superhero movie deeper into inner and outer space than ever before. But DuVernay can take comfort in knowing that audiences have never been more primed to embrace hyper-stylized comic book adaptations that are also, not so secretly, stoner movies that the whole family can enjoy.

With a little herbal and/or chemical enhancement when age-appropriate.