The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 282012

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.”

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  • JPT

    I think it’s a little more complicated than what you’ve said. The big superhero comics were largely produced by GIs (like Stan Lee, 1922), and were a product of WWII and the following “High”. They were popular among Xers (although the people who go to comic book sci/fi conventions are considered nerds, it was a pretty big Xer phenomenon). I think they’re being made now because Xers now have some say in Hollywood, and this is the stuff they liked in childhood. So the fact that they’re popular may be partly attributable to Millenials, but they’re being made because Xers had an affinity for this particular GI art form.

    • When something goes seismic in the pop culture, I always assume it has to be demand
      driven.  True, the supply has to be there, and you’re right this supply
      can be explained generationally–in this case, by all the Xer writers,
      producers, directors, actors who have taken a special interest in this genre.
       But I assume there are always lots of creatives working on lots of old
      genres, very few of which ever rise to popular resonance.  There are
      Silent directors still working on artsy Kubrick-style cinema; there are Boomer
      composers still working on ELP-style rock operas; there are Xer bands still
      working on Live-style grunge.  But why do superhero movies take off?  And why
      now?  I might also ask: Why this *type* of superhero movie–purged of most
      (though not all) of all the anti-hero thematics that most Xers would probably
      prefer to leave in?

      • JPT

        I think the desire for all-ages entertainment that you’ve mentioned is the big demand factor in this case. A lot of Xers who had troubled childhoods retreated into fantasy as a coping mechanism. Whether it was superhero comics, movies like Star Wars, music or video games. Now that they’re older, I think they’ve found a way to make films of those stories, while also producing something their kids can watch. So I guess you could say it’s Xer nostalgia for GI sensibilities, and a desire to produce safe entertainment for their kids, with the potential side effect of indoctrinating Millenials into “Civic” thinking?

        Still, the biggest hits have been Spider-Man and Chris Nolan’s Batman, both of whom are “outsider” characters. Superman and Captain America are still a harder sell by themselves, I think.

        • JPT: You’re beginning to persuade me of the strong Xer tie-in on the audience side.  You’re certainly right that a lot of the superheroes today played by Xers are indeed portrayed as having difficult childhoods with distant parents, starting with Batman and Iron Man.  Don’t forget all the storyline evidence in The Avengers that Loki had been a less-than-favored child, capped by the memorable line delivered by Thor (“He was adopted”), which apparently sent many indigant viewers to the exits.  I find it interesting that Wal-Mart has an in-store smart-phone tie-in (it has to do with acquiring Avenger “powers”) that it is using to target young Xer parents as well as Millennial teens and tweens.

          • JPT

            Thanks again for replying. Some of us have spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing your ideas, so it’s great to be able to discuss them with you. 

            I think the comic book movies are kind of tough to pin down thematically because they usually draw their stories directly from decades worth of stories created by a mix of GIs, Silents, Boomers and Xers. But I can definitely verify that the big blockbusters of recent years have been franchises that hold a special nostalgia for Xers. 

            Transformers and GI Joe were Xer toys that have been made into movies. I saw Tron: Legacy recently, which is a sequel to a movie from Xer childhood, where the main character is an Xer whose Boomer father disappeared in 1986 chasing after a “grand vision” for the future. It immediately made me think of your  work.

            The fact that all of these are tailor made for big special effects blockbusters doesn’t hurt, either. Hollywood hasn’t come up with a lot of new ideas that have sold, and they’re currently mining Xer youth obsessions for material. The boom in animated movies for kids is also thanks to Xer parents, I think.

            A lot of the later Millenials have early Xer parents as well, and I think we’re seeing the synergy of all those factors, where the Millenials with Boomer parents are mostly in their 20s, and the entertainment industry is changing over from being run by Boomers to being run by Xers.

          • JPT

            Just to clarify: since the oldest Xers were 30 in 1991, most of the Millenials born in the 90s have Xer parents, and they’re the target audience for these movies.

          • If the target age for these movies is (as the production houses say) 15-to-25, then the median target viewer is age 20 and right now the parents of this cohort (born 1991) is about one-half late-wave Boomer and one-half first-wave Xers.  I am assuming a median age of 29 for moms at birth and 31 for dads at birth.   Underlying data all from NCHS (CDC).

          • Nathan

            I’m an Xer. I teach my music appreciation courses by acknowledging both the new and nostalgic simultaneously. Understanding that the entertainment industry, like any other industry, exists to make money on ticket sales, their appeal has to be multigenerational. I spent a large amount of time reading comic books in my youth, X-Men being my favorite. So the nostalgic impulse makes dropping $15 on these films a thoughtless activity. There is no doubt in my mind that Xer film makers want to draw from their formative experiences and put these stories of mutant, ostracized beings on the screen to also introduce to their millennial children what they were passionate about as children. But of course, the films utilize all of the technology that appeal to the Millenials.

            Additionally, the 20-year rule a

          • I’m an Xer.  I teach a music appreciation course with a strong emphasis on the nostalgic impulse in new products.  I firmly believe in the 20-year rule, where old material is revisited in an updated fashion for younger audiences, thus creating a product which is thoroughly multi-generational.

            I spent much time in my formative years (b. 1970) reading comic books.  I especially was attracted to X-Men.  I strongly identified with the mutant idea:  ostracized individuals whose talents manifest themselves in puberty, but are nonetheless considered threats to the world.

            As a musician, (inspired by Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss) I am researching the generational component that specifically has influenced music styles throughout history.  I love this.  I enjoy exposing for example, the doo-wopp revival in the early-mid 80’s (right at the time of the 3rd turning) done by groups like Huey Lewis & the News, musicals like Little Shop of Horrors (with an extreme dystopic feel), and Billy Joel’s music at the time.  

            It is obvious to me that Xer film-makers like Bryan Singer are going to draw upon material in their formative years and representing them for their Millennial children, but with CGI effects and the like to satisfy their aesthetic.  As an Xer, there is no hesitation that I will drop $15 to see these images on the big screen played out in a way which we could only imagine as youths.  The industry knows this.  I believe very much in the 20-year rule, but also in these generational cycles.  

            I love this blog!  Thanks, Mr. Howe!!!!

  • Mttdrn83

    I guess I’m in the minority among my peers, but to me Iron Man is the way cooler character (the fact that he’s played by as cool an actor as Downey, Jr, sure helps).  But the character I most identified with was the Hulk (played brilliantly in my opinion by Mark Ruffalo).  I think it’s the fact that he is a mellow, yet clearly tormented individual who does his own thing and whom you don’t want to make angry that I find appealing.

  • DRJ

    I was thinking of your “Fourth Turning” theories when I saw the “Captain America” movie. I compared it with the “Wolverene” origin film. Basically two characters created by a governmennt program. But in the space of a few years, the attitude towards this changed dramatically.
    Wolverene seems to be the ultimate Xer hero. He’s the completely self sufficient survivor. If he’s on the team, he doesn’t expect to have to follow the rules. He’s constantly tortured about his past, yet it’s his past that gives him his unique power. He’s cynical and doesn’t believe in any cause except himself and maybe some people he likes. 
    Captain America is almost the complete opposite of this. He believes in the team and is a natural leader. Even when he’s a weakling, he believes in the greater good and stands up for it. For me as an Xer, Captain America is hard to accept. He comes off as a big boyscout. But I’m happy he’s appeared. Seems like we need a true blue hero like that.

  • Crabclaw24

    what about those who behaved immorally during the Unraveling? will they also get to become “their own hero”?

  • All of your comments have been great.  Reading through them reinforces my conviction that superhero comic books and movies, like most other pop-culture categories with real staying power, should be understood not as the simple projection of a single generational archetype but rather as a genre whose shifting attitudes and thematics reflects the generational shifts of its readership over time.

    In the “golden age of comic books” (1930s and ’40s), the “hero archetype” ruled in an era when comic books sold very well to young G.I.s.  That much we know.  Subsequent “ages” (silver, bronze)  were defined by subsequent generations of youth readers (Silent, Boom) in decades of declining overall popularity.

    Then, in the late ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, the genre made a big popularity comeback among late-wave Boomers (Jonesers) and especially Xers. Only for them, the whole straight-arrow, one-for-all “super hero” had been largely replaced by the messed-up, angst-ridden, on-their-own, survival-obsessed “super anti-hero.”  Their life-stories began to attract descriptors like mutant, cast-away, alienated, ronin, forgotten, misplaced, misbegotten, etc.  From the late ’70s on, the term “anti-hero” began to pervade not just comic books, but YA
    fiction, sci fi, adventure movies, punk, rock, and (eventually) hip hop.  By the mid-’90s, the story lines (in my memory) became very generationally self-aware–with “Generation X” (a spin-off of the X-men) overlapping fortuitously with the title of Doug Coupland’s 1993 novel on Xers and a more obscure comic-book spinoff Gen13) having a title no doubt linked to the book “13th Gen” that Bill and I published in 1993.

    Still more recently, over the last fifteen years, Millennials have been taking over as the dominant generation of comic-book readers.  Once again, a new youth generation wants something new from this genre, something (I would argue) that leans away from the Xer anti-hero and back toward the G.I. regular hero.  Yet again, this fresh generational weather front is triggering new tensions.

    So here is my question, posed in my ignorance to those of you who know vastly more than I do about the history of comic-book heroes and their spin-offs.  Who has written the story of this genre from a generational perspective?  Has anyone done a good job?  I would love to know.  And if no one has, shouldn’t someone try?

    • Mttdrn83

      Even though I’m a Millennial, I still identify more with anti-heroes than the boy scouts.

    • Taramarie

       Well i dont know anything about comic book hero’s but as an early wave millennial ’84 i remember the first hero i saw was Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Made in 1990 when i was 5 years old. That was my first impression of a hero. He was an ideal i am sure the baby boomers influenced. I had heard about saving the planet from older folk from pollution and ignorence from school and now saw it in a cartoon. Barney the purple dinosaur also showed what Captain Planet showed. A diverse group all teaming together and pushing aside differences, looking for that commonality and doing good things togther. Our first hero was one that was good. Not anti hero. When i was a kid, those were characters i looked up to and inspired to be like them (silly as it seems now but i guess its left a lasting impression on me). The ideals of being a good team player, never leaving any one behind, helping people and cleaning up the planet; the very ideals the boomers have told us, i agree with. I just dont think they are very good of living up to them themselves. Like my very own mother smoking when i was 14 when she told me not to do it. Apparantly its ok for her because ‘shes an adult.’ She stopped after i flushed her cigerettes, locked her out the house and told her never to buy them again. I knew if its bad for me to smoke them it was bad for her. I would say the messages in the hero cartoons taught me to not only have ideals but act them out to, but perhaps that may be going too far. I honestly have no idea but the idea of having good morals and ideals yet not acting on them seems kinda silly to me. Actions after all speak louder than words!

  • Taramarie

    love the movie, my fav character was Captain America. Iron man is cool but i hate his negative uncooperative braggard attitude. Im guessing im just out of the target age group (age 27, ’84 baby) but still enjoyed it nonetheless. 🙂

  • muzse

    Im a Gen-X. Tony Stark is my pick. In the age of Boy Scouts, a voice similar to the Stark character helps put things in perspective and prevents the “do-gooders” from being taken for a ride by the corporate entities than run our economies.

  • TPaign

    If you liked the Avengers, and you are a Fourth Turning fan, then you’ll love the Kingdom Come comic book series. This was very heavy stuff when published in 1996, and it is unlikely to ever get movie treatment due to the biblical parallels and branding concerns. It’s well worth the read.

    From Wikipedia, “Kingdom Come is a four-issue comic book mini-series published in 1996 by DC Comics. It was written by Alex Ross and Mark Waid and painted in gouache by Ross, who also developed the concept from an original idea. Set some twenty years into the future of the then-current DC Universe, it deals with a growing conflict between “traditional” superheroes, such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League, and a growing population of largely amoral and dangerously irresponsible new vigilantes, in many cases the offspring of the traditional heroes. Between these two groups is Batman and his assembled team, who attempt to contain the escalating disaster, foil the machinations of Lex Luthor, and prevent a world-ending superhuman war.”

  • AnonMil

    Hi. For the record I am a Millenial, and I most associate with Tony Stark. I’ve always avoided team work and constantly try to chip away at any kind of consensus I encounter. And yes, I am egotistical and shamelessly self-promoting. I never really decided to act like an X’er, I just kind of developed that way, no idea why.