Modern Nostalgia

The Powerpuff Girls, Stranger Things, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Turtles, Toonami, Power Rangers and Hey Arnold are all back for the modern age, and shows like BoJack Horseman comment on the 20- and 30-something’s longing for the past.

We’re in 2018, but if I didn’t know any better, I’d think we were in 1993.

At the time, I was five years old and my life revolved around cartoons and Disney movies. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Aladdin, and The Lion King were in heavy rotation. These are only a small smattering of shows and films that shaped my childhood and formed my identity. Whether it was through teaching the power of teamwork, the hard facts of life, or even just by expounding on the awesomeness of New York and pizza, the programming of my childhood made me feel safe and cocooned from the pressures of growing up. Regardless of whatever was going on in my life, these characters were there to guide me through it. The same can be said for when I watched the Genie become a protective uncle figure for Aladdin, or when Mufasa taught Simba about the importance of his ancestors. These characters were there to help.

What I didn’t expect was that these same properties would still be here. But instead of influencing or helping me as an adult, they’re being used to cynically placate me and others in my age group — Millennials — about fears of our future. We keep getting new iterations of TMNT cartoons with a new one on the horizon. Power Rangers became a 2017 sleeper hit, making a mark with old and new fans alike. Despite it being made for younger audiences, the cultural cache of Alvin and the Chipmunks still speaks to a certain part of us who grew up with the (more realized and more likable) versions of the characters. Even Aladdin and The Lion King are getting big budget live-action and CG reboots. Sitcoms like Full House, Roseanne, and Martin are either already back or on the way. We don’t need a time machine anymore. Apparently, we’ve figured out how to make time go in a 30-year-loop.

These aren’t the only properties making a comeback. Today, media is inundated with everything ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, appealing to anxious Gen Xers and Millennials alike. Starsky and Hutch is set for a television reboot via James Gunn, Sony Pictures, and Amazon. The Greatest American Hero will be updated with a woman lead for ABC. Mark Wahlberg is set to star in The Six Billion Dollar Man, a film remake of the popular TV show The Six Million Dollar Man. Nickelodeon has brought back their ‘90s programming for a Millennial audience and even gave us the long-awaited but largely uneventful Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie just to appease us. Cartoon Network brought back Toonami, its block of anime and action cartoon programming that became a breakout hit in the mid-’90s. We even got a brand new season of Samurai Jack out of the deal. The network’s newer shows, like Clarence, Regular Show, OK K.O! Let’s Be Heroes!, The Amazing World of Gumball, and Adventure Time, appeal to an older market thanks to their distinct late-‘80s-early to mid-‘90s sensibilities and references. In fact, many of the creators and staff working on these shows are Millennials and Gen-Xers themselves. Combine the popularity of these cartoons with a revamped Powerpuff Girls, and you have a winning recipe for an audience eager to relive their youth.

These shows do a lot to keep us young people from jumping off the proverbial ledge. But one thing they don’t do anymore is help us constructively deal with our problems as new adults. My angst is the same as that of many other 20- and 30-somethings; it’s both painful and misunderstood by many in the older generation. On one hand, we’ve been told we can be anything all our lives. But once we get to that point where can actually do something, we’re faced with limitations beyond our imaginings. Were we not prepared enough for life’s hardships, or did external factors prohibit our growth into a happy adulthood? From where I’m sitting, it might be a mixture of both.

Image by Monique Jones

Stranger Things and It reference everything from The Goonies, E.T., Steven Spielberg, popular ’80s films like Batman, and popular ’80s food like Eggos and Reese’s Pieces.

Childhood escapism, modernized

We Millennials face a unique type of angst, one that has pulled us in two directions simultaneously. On one hand, we yearn for a time of prosperity. We have been promised the same boons our Baby Boomer parents and grandparents received upon entering adulthood, but we have yet to experience it, either due to economic woes, societal pressures, or the Baby Boomers themselves. With more of us living with their parents and a job market that seems ill-suited to our specific requirements (freedom of choice and thought as opposed to living by the company line, an acknowledgement of individualism contrasted to the corporate world’s adherence to conformity), Millennial dreams, such as home ownership and a glitzy job, have been deferred. Depression is definitely a hallmark of the Millennial generation, myself included.

While much of the media’s focus has been on Millennial depression and angst, many of the same issues affect Gen Xers as well; like Millennials, Gen Xers, who also came of age during a time of recession, are similarly labeled as “cynical and apathetic,” along with being less trusting of the country’s political process and dissatisfied with their work lives. They are also facing a unique existential moment in their lives — the midlife crisis. While that alone will spur people to wish for a younger time in their lives, their crises are also exacerbated by money issues. Reportedly, Gen X carries more debt than Baby Boomers and Millennials because of a rise in costs and stagnant salary growth. They too wish for a time without worry, especially financial worry.

Our yearning for a time free of worry plays right into Hollywood’s current longing for the past. The desire for the past is so deep, marketers are actually utilizing the characters from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as an entryway into understanding their Millennial and Gen X base. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that one of 2017’s biggest films, Thor: Ragnarok, had overt ‘70s and ‘80s themes that appealed to both Millennials and Gen Xers alike, from Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) Duran Duran Rio shirt, the ELO-styled spaceship the Valkyrie (Tessa Thomspon) takes down, to the entire Jack Kirby-inspired psychedelic aesthetic that colored the entire film.

Indeed, many recent films are just an elaborate recreation of nights filled with ‘70s and ‘80s era Pizza Hut boxes and Blockbuster videos. The needs of the Gen Xer and Millennial collide in Stranger Things, which takes viewers back to the Steven Spielberg-dominated late ‘70s and ‘80s, combining the strange, otherworldly, and oddly familial aspects of some of his best sci-fi/fantasy films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Spielberg-produced films like Poltergeist and The Goonies. The Netflix show is one in a series of recent projects that look back to Spielberg for influence; J.J. Abrams’ 2011 Spielberg copy Super 8, as well as the more recent Jurassic World films by Colin Trevorrow and J. A. Bayona, directly draw from Spielberg’s sensibilities. The 2017 It reboot also draws from the past, cycling through the motif of kids saving the day à la Stand By Me and the aforementioned Goonies and referencing movie milestones of the 1980s like Batman. Even a film like Rampage, starring Dwayne Johnson and based on a 1980s video game, carries with it an even deeper level of ‘80s nostalgia because without Spielberg’s Jaws, both the video game and film versions of Rampage might not exist.

Old-school anime fans aren’t left out of the nostalgia craze; the continuation of the Pacific Rim franchise, Pacific Rim: Uprising, carries with it an intense knowledge of classic mecha [armored robot] anime. Fans of anime from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s including Mobile Suit Gundam franchise, Armored Trooper Votoms, Martian Successor Nadesico, Space Runaway Ideon, Brave Raideen, and many others can see the influences of their favorite shows in Pacific Rim, from the types of mechs used, to character archetypes, and even to the designs of the underwater alien creatures, who feel like they could fit in seamlessly in the world of Godzilla. Even Godzilla — properly called Gojira — himself made an appearance during this Millennial-dominated film cycle. The 2014 remake is set to launch its own universe of rebooted monsters in 2019, the date for the second Godzilla film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Horror films, one of the defining hallmarks of ‘70s and ‘80s nostalgia, are making a big return in 2018 with The Predator, Halloween, and Hellraiser: Judgement, Day of the Dead: Bloodline. But do we really need another chapter in the Halloween saga? Will a return to the world of the Predator spark a meaningful re-examination of the franchise’s original sci-fi commentary on the effects of the Vietnam War? The answer to both of those questions will probably be “no.”

But protection, in fact, might be the biggest theme nostalgic horror films bring. When we watched these now-classic characters as kids, we were the ones protected. We felt like the horrors of life — personified by these cartoonish villains — would be things others might feel, but not us. We were special. We were going to be the ones to change the world so other generations wouldn’t have to feel horror at all. The world was in our hands. But the horror we saw through rose-tinted glasses as kids has now become our reality. The Millennial’s personal horror is realizing that their parents and grandparents, the people they idolized growing up, are just hapless adults like us. They, like us, make mistakes, can be selfish, and still want to dream, even if those dreams might not ever come true. They are human. What’s an easy way to grapple with that kind of existential letdown? To revert back to the mindset of a child that longs for protection. It’s not the healthiest way to deal with growing up, but thankfully for movie studios, it’s highly lucrative.

Image by Monique Jones

Films like A Wrinkle in Time, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Ready Player One showcase the anxiety and heartbreak that come with growing up and taking on the challenges of adult life.

Fighting the urge to run from our fears (and losing)

Wanting to understand a confusing world is one of the core themes that runs through most, if not all, of the Millennial-tinged media produced right now. Fans initially thought CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery was going to be a cozy romp through the universe. But what fans weren’t expecting was a new way to make sense of the scary political and social changes happening in America, all under the guise of a Klingon war fueled by xenophobia, nativism, and fear.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi also gave fans longing for nostalgia a kick in the pants. The film spread the much-needed message that nothing can stay the same, no matter how comforting or familiar it is. Luke Skywalker, the avatar for many fans of the old-school Star Wars films, was routinely challenged by the new, whether that came in the form of his powerful nephew Ben (aka Kylo Ren) or his equally as powerful new student Rey. In fact, Luke ran from the bold and thoroughly modern era, seeking refuge on an island surrounded by old Jedi texts and fish-alien nuns, a milkable sea creature, and tons of cute and cuddly porgs. Sub out the nuns for mother figures, the texts for comic books and movies, the sea creature for a stocked fridge, and porgs for stuffed animals and action figures, and you have a stereotype of a comic book nerd Millennial, stuck in their room in the corner of their parents’ house, refusing to venture into the scary adult world for fear of what lies beyond their door. While it is a mean assertion, the truth remains that as a generation, we are caught between the time of gentle, rose-tinted childhood and the time of harsh adulthood. It’s not surprising then, when put in this context, that Yoda, Luke’s father figure, has to come down from on high to smite the Sacred Jedi Texts with fire, just to get Luke to move on.

While not a reboot of any kind, Netflix’s BoJack Horseman still has something to say to us who don’t know what’s coming next in their lives. BoJack was once the star of a popular ‘90s show and has since become a has-been in current-day Hollywood, because of this, BoJack faces bouts of angst and anxiety, unsure of how to make it in a town which promised him the world but quickly failed to deliver the goods as times changed, leaving him bitter and confused about his place in society. Ironically, this can be analogous to the emotional angina of many of us, who feel like their lives might have been set up with false promises of financial and emotional security. The economy plus the residue of the Great Recession has hindered a lot of our dreams. Also, Baby Boomers are keeping their jobs longer, making Millennials worry they’re being forced out of the job market in favor of workers at retirement age. BoJack continuously flails around, trying to find meaning in his life, which was once filled with opportunity. While we continue to make our own opportunities, we still worry that we are flailing throughout life, too.

Even potentially lighter fare, like A Wrinkle in Time and Ready Player One, speak to both happy childhood memories of reading fanciful books and playing tons of video games without a care in the world, as well as the responsibilities that rain down on us the older we get. Technically, A Wrinkle in Time is a fantasy story, but viewed through a Millennial lens, it’s a story of a girl who must rescue her father. How many of us are now in that position of taking care of our parents or understanding that our parents can lack just as much guidance as we do? How many of us feel like we must now don a parental role for our own parents? Realizing that adulthood puts you on the same level as your parents — and in some cases, above your parents — can be a heartbreaking thing to learn.

Incredibly, out of all of the fantastical films and shows dominating the market, Ready Player One, directed by none other than retro king Spielberg, is probably the most realistic of all the Millennial-themed films this year. Its plot involves a boy with limited prospects who lives in a near-apocalyptic future. To ease his malaise, he whiles away his time in a virtual reality filled with ‘80s and ‘90s characters and finds a purpose for existence among the trappings of the past. If that doesn’t sum up our collective misanthropic desire to throw everything away and simply immerse ourselves into a protective and familiar cocoon, then I don’t know what does. Films such as Ready Player One undoubtedly speak to our fervent wish for a time machine back to a simpler past, when our dreams not only felt achievable, but also were actively encouraged by adults who protected us and had a duty to help our dreams become reality.

Image by Monique Jones

Star Trek: Discovery, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, A Wrinkle in Time and the Pacific Rim and Star Wars franchises have updated for the more diverse, modern age.

Bravely embracing the future

If there can be an optimistic view to take from all of this, it’s that change is coming, whether we young people like it or not. We can’t while away our time in a reality of our own making, just like how we can’t seclude ourselves on an island filled with the things we love and hold dear. Eventually, there will be a Yoda in our lives who will remove us from our world of nostalgia. But, Yoda’s message is one we should take comfort in: to become our fully realized selves, we can’t make a routine of falling back on what’s comfortable. The future is what we make it, and while we can’t relive our pasts, we can allow it to influence us to create a better version of the future we’re heading towards.

In some ways, the new reboots are already doing this. The new cartoon show Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will finally portray April O’Neil, a character whose black racial identity has been in debate for decades, as a black girl. Star Wars and Star Trek are both advancing their diversity counts by adding more women (specifically women of color) and more men of color to their ranks, and in the case of Star Trek, adding prominent gay characters. The Pacific Rim series has been led by two black actors, Idris Elba and now John Boyega, and Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi. A Wrinkle in Time is a full-scale inclusive affair, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine playing the mother and father of Storm Reid’s Meg Murry, who gains otherworldly assistance from Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kailing and Oprah Winfrey as the three supernatural beings who help Meg on her journey.

But despite modernizations of classic properties, our hand-wringing over adulthood and our attempts to recreate childhood must end. Since childhood, we have been tasked with being the generation to advance society into its next phase. The ball is in our court to do that, even with all of the challenges we face. But we can’t change the future by looking backwards. Progress can only be made by looking ahead.

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