OK, by now nearly all of you have seen Marvel’s The Avengers, the megahit movie that has already broken a whole slew of box office records. Any thoughts?
People have been asking me if there’s any connection between this movie’s popularity and the Millennial Generation’s “hero” archetype. My answer: Of course there is. The connection is overwhelming. This is now the sixth installment of the Marvel line (along with Thor, Incredible Hulk, Captain America, etc.), which have been appearing alongside so many other superhero movies of recent vintage–Spiderman, Batman, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings have all become practically their own franchises–that I think it’s fair to say that over this last decade we have been living through a “golden age” of cinematic hero infatuation. With the movies’ target audience around 15 to 25, it’s also fair to say that Millennial viewers have been at the epicenter of this fascination. Go back to the previous decade, the 1990s, and you’ll notice something else: That was the “golden age” of Disney cartoons, which typically targeted heroic, carefully plotted, good-versus-evil adventure stories to 5- to 15-year-olds. (For those of you unfamiliar with my method, I call this “following the generational diagonal”: Going simultaneously back in time and down the age ladder to track the same cohorts.)
By pointing out that Millennials have been uniquely targeted by these heroic genres, I don’t mean to imply that other generations don’t watch and enjoy them. Of course they do. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Boomer parent who didn’t love Lion King, or an Xer parent who didn’t love Monsters, Inc. But that’s how golden ages in the pop culture work: The genre is so enjoyable, and the social moment is so right, that people of all ages want to join in.
Which brings me to another observation. Although The Avengers targets Millennial viewers, it is not really about Millennials–or about any other single generation. It is rather a movie about all generations, all of America, as we move into a Fourth Turning. In a Third Turning, society is riven with divisions, people are distrustful, everyone is arguing and protecting their own interests. An enemy (like Loki) hardly needs to conquer such a society—he can often just goad it into devouring itself. Only when teamwork and civic trust is reborn in the dire heat of a Fourth Turning can a society again become capable of saving itself. In that moment, the self becomes fused to the community and everybody becomes a hero. This is the basic plotline of The Avengers. It also a good shorthand description of the choices facing America today.
And if the movie is mainly about any one generation, that would be Generation X—because, in fact, the biggest challenge these survivalist and free-agent superheroes face is their own egos. Speaking most eloquently for all Gen-Xers is Tony Stark (wonderfully played as ever by Robert Downey, Jr.)—who boasts about never following leaders, breaking all the rules, taking nothing very seriously, and always evading sacrifice. And playing the foil for all these rogues is Captain America, clearly no Xer, who represents the untainted “hero archetype” transplanted either forward or backward through time. Captain America is plain spoken, does his duty, keeps his mind on the task at hand, and craves cooperation. The best exchanges are between Captain and Stark. “Is everything a joke to you?” Captain asks him at one point. Or when Captain says, “We have orders, we should follow them,” Stark answers, “Following’s not really my style.” Or, after Stark brags about being a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” Captain says tersely, “I know guys with none of that worth ten of you.” Pow! Zap!
The storyline surrounding Captain America sounds almost like it was written with turnings explicitly in mind. Captain America, of course, has been asleep in the ice “for seventy years” since his heroism in World War II, the last 4T. And now he’s reawakened for the new 4T. Everything he takes for granted about how people will have to sacrifice for each other—while sounding odd to the “Xers” around him—is all vindicated by the end of the movie, as though he had the prescience to know what the times would require. In one fascinating exchange, Captain asks Agent Coulson (who, unlike the others, idolizes Captain) about his own uniform: “The uniform? Aren’t the stars and stripes a little… old fashioned?” And Coulson answers: “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”
You may think I’m a bit far-fetched in suggesting that the personality clash between Stark and Captain is a clash between Xers and G.I.s, and therefore by extension, between Xers and Millennials. Maybe. I wish we could do a survey. Stark is not an unattractive character. No one in the movie has more wit and swag and flair. But I asked my own informal circle of Millennial males which character they thought their generation identifies with more. Without hesitation, they all said Captain America—almost as though there would be something vaguely indecent about casting their lot for the “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”