There are over 75 million young adults who fit into the 1982 to 2004 era that encompasses America’s millennial generation. While we only make up 25 percent of the population, we collectively consume more digital media than every other modern generation combined — over 15.5 hours per day on average, to be exact.
As a highly liberal generation, we statistically marry later, save less and demand answers to science and religion’s biggest questions with more urgency than ever before, as though we preemptively sense that those answers will become critical in the foreseeable future. But all generalizations aside, with every photo filter and hashtag we millennials use to categorize ourselves for the rest of the populace to like, label, and swipe right (left?), there is an underlying desire for our “me” generation to make its mark on the world in some way; to be singular in history, even if only through having the most YouTube views on the internet.
A TBR 2015 Millennial Essay Contest winner
Unfortunately, alongside this show of vanity across the web, the Internet also forces our generation to be bombarded by an unforgiving media: news of incurable diseases and threats of terrorism accost the average 20-something from every angle, while our personal space, our American soil, is being encroached upon by the undeniable growth of landfills and waste disposal sites. With the added disappearance of resources and wildlife, pollution of our air and water and demineralization of our precious topsoil, millennials are entering adulthood amidst a bleak looking future: our environmental and economic stability is as tumultuous as our concept of safety. As a coping mechanism, our generation seeks stability — financial and emotional — and independence. We seek to make a name for ourselves by any antics necessary as we increasingly blur into a humbling melting pot of ethnic diversity. The stereotypical damsel in distress, we wait all too lavishly, albeit surprisingly optimistically, for someone able to rescue us from our plight.
“GENIUS, PLAYBOY, BILLIONAIRE, PHILANTHROPIST”
If the 2008 presidential elections demonstrated one thing, it was that the American people desperately needed a hero who could radically redirect the USS America away from the Middle East iceberg that many felt the Bush era had carelessly lead us toward. The victory of Barack Obama and his “change” campaign was a beacon of hope for the American people; could this “Man of Tomorrow” save us in time from our looming destruction? So far the answer has been a resounding no, if Obama’s 38 percent “Strongly Disapprove” rating is any indication.
Fortunately, with each new year comes a similar change in media marketing strategy, driven by societal concerns like government dissatisfaction and aimed at America’s consumer majority. In the past decade, this has become particularly apparent in Hollywood, where blockbuster theater releases create visible cinematic patterns that mirror the collective American mindset, in particular, the millennial generation that has shaped it.
In the early 2000s, this thematic trend in cinema was the apocalyptic/disaster film. Movies such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004), The Core (2003) and 2012 (2009) each capitalized on a common national fear about the destabilization of our global environment following the ozone scare. Then came the zombie film trend, featuring I Am Legend (2007), Zombieland (2009) and World War Z (2013), each released in the anxiety-ridden wake of H1N1, numerous oil spills and Chinese pollution concerns, and all serving as a metaphor for an overarching pandemic threat to global stability. The newest trend in cinema, however, is quite clearly the comic franchise obsession that continues to swarm theaters with big budget reboots of classic Marvel and DC characters. Beginning with X-Men and progressing to the latest Avengers series, there is no doubt that America has entered a hero phase just when we need one most, and when our current hope has failed us.
Certainly, millennial moviegoers aren’t the only contributors to America’s recent hero fascination, but as a culture on the brink of war from every angle, the hero film allows the millennial generation the opportunity to safely indulge in our common desire to take justice into our own hands, and in some small way, steal power from “the man,” or from our flawed leaders. But the bad guys and villains who abound in the DC-Marvel universe also represent a common, and perhaps more relevant, national threat: terrorism. From international terrorism, to cyber-terrorism, to eco-terrorism, to the recent self-labeling of Banksy’s work as “art terrorism,” there is a paranoia in the millennial culture that expresses a very real danger to our sense of security, which is diluted and replayed in a far less threatening way via film. We gravitate to these fictional heroes because we have nowhere else to turn, and because they represent our deepest fears in the most apt ways possible.
Iron Man in particular encapsulates the millennial generation in a nutshell — or, within an iron suit, as it were. With no natural superpowers, abilities or alien birthrights, Stark represents the average Joe: a self-made superhero, albeit in a slightly flashy way. As a highly educated engineer with genius-level intelligence, Stark responds to crises and threats with technological superiority and flawless logic; in modern theater adaptations, he also fights tirelessly against modern warfare practices that remind us of our own international struggles against ISIS and outside terrorist groups. With every battle against evil, he makes a small, positive dent in the overwhelming chaos of the present, and as such, he encompasses everything that millennials strive to be and everything America hopes for. Interestingly, Tony Stark is also perhaps the first superhero in Marvel history to freely give up his personal identity, typically a superhero’s most sacred possession. This lack of secrecy on his end mirrors our own globally intertwined economy and the Internet that makes personal information an outdated concept.
THE HERO GENERATION
According to IndieWire, 23 new superhero and/or comic book based films are set to be produced by Hollywood within the next five years. With so many masked men on the big screen, it’s easy to overanalyze America’s infatuation with the genre revival. But stepping away from the undeniable, albeit ironic, thrill we get from watching buildings explode into flames, and aside from the additional star-power of seeing hypermasculinized musclemen play out our fantasies of physical prowess, the key to America’s fetishization of the superhero is rooted in our own modern psyche and shaped by our place in history as the next “great generation.”
If we are to believe what historical experts Neil Howe and William Strauss observe in their books Generations and The Fourth Turning, generational identities are highly cyclical. Patterned and surprisingly predictable, one can look back historically — from Greco-Roman dominance, to Western imperialism in the 1500s and modern events in Iraq — and find noticeable parallels in the interactions between events, policies and movement uprisings at nearly consistent intervals. Tracing these patterns, each new wave of American youth follows the progenitors they supersede in an observable continuum, progressing upon the mistakes and failures of their forefathers in the same way that centuries of lineages have done so before.
This means that while we as millennials would like to believe that we’re unique as a generation, in many ways we’re simply the inevitable product of an unspoken tradition that long predates the modern scholarship that analyzes it. However, we are also at a critical moment in history when, much like Odysseus at Troy, the fate of our nation rests on our shoulders, with each minor challenge we’ve faced up until now simply being a series of tests to prepare us for our final battle for historical immortality.
Howard and Strauss refer to each full cycle of these generational lifespans as a “saeculum,” a name derived from the Greek term for “a lifetime of lifetimes,” or “the ages of ages.” Used extensively throughout the book of Revelation, where the events of the Messiah’s return takes place in phases, each saeculum’s lifecycle is similarly divided into pivotal generational seasons that are heavily influenced by the events of the ones which precede it, and which directly align with the “turning” of every other generation’s own linear transitions. In short, generations are influenced by the turnings just as the turnings are driven by the generations — they are intertwined and interdependent on one another.
When a nation or culture reaches a common maturation point and begins to identify as a distinct entity, the four key generational archetypes (Artist, Prophet, Nomad, Hero) and their four turning periods (High, Awakening, Unraveling, Crisis) become visible and begin to play out in rapid, overlapping succession. As the turnings and generations interact and influence each other, these four phases ultimately drive political preferences, social and environmental consciousness, and even marital and economic stability, bringing about a patterned rise and fall of war and peace, destruction and rebuilding.
With the position of the millennial generation in political and environmental affairs, we as a whole are undoubtedly standing at the precipice of a devastating Hero-Crisis phase, poised to come to fruition as we near the end of our millennial saeculum. According to The Millennial Legacy, a prolific blog that aims to chronicle this Howard and Strauss-inspired turning:
During the Crisis, the Heroes have to literally live up to their name… If they play their role well, the Crisis will end well, and the transition into the next Turning will be relatively smooth. If they don’t… the Crisis will end, but it will either take the country down with it or it will leave the country and the people brutally wounded and eternally scarred.
We are the Fourth Turning, the Hero generation, and our role in modernity is pivotal to the outcome of current global events. But are millennials ready to live up to their destiny? Or will we fall victim to our hubris as so many others have before us?
In 2015, the millennial generation is seeking to become its own hero at a moment in history when a pessimistic present still has the potential to resolve into a brighter future. Through increased activism, environmental efforts and pushback against governmental control, we’re optimistically striving to improve the global landscape one “villain” at a time, without fear for our own individual identities, but rather for our collective one: that as Americans. So what better superhero to idolize than the self-made man in the iron suit to model a self-made America with an iron fist?
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.