Generation X men
Shortly after advance tickets went on sale for the new Star Wars film, entertainment industry bible Variety ran with one of the more amusing headlines: “ ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Tickets Mostly Bought By Older Men.”
In this context, “older men” – who comprised 70 per cent of the Force Awakens ticket buyers – constituted an average age of 34. The data, tabulated by Movio, found that this demographic typically attended the cinema at least once a month, in groups, and were usually drawn to “tentpoles”: the big summer, Thanksgiving and Christmas blockbusters. They engage in cinemagoing, in other words, like the roaming packs of teenagers you might see at your local megaplex of a weekend, clutching head-sized promotional buckets of popcorn and fizzy drinks.
And it was teenagers who had also sprung to mind, a month earlier, when the “Force Friday” release of The Force Awakens merchandise – children’s toys, for the most part, not “adult collectables” – had left many older Star Wars fans disappointed. In a doleful screed for pop culture site iO9, Germain Lussier complained that his local Toys “R” Us store had sold out of themed Lego and Funko Pops items shortly after the midnight release. It was difficult not to hear the voice of a petulant child in the essay, giving added piquancy to Star Wars creator George Lucas’s 1999 comments that “the movies are for children, but [the adult fans] don’t want to admit that”.
Is Star Wars’s overwhelming return to the general consciousness, along with the relentless roster of superhero movies and young adult franchises that also dominate the cultural conversation, contributing to a rise of eternal adolescence?
In his essay “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture”, the New York Times film critic A. O. Scott reflected on pop culture’s “erosion of traditional adulthood”, and remarked that Hollywood’s embracing of comic book and YA franchise pictures “advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world”. “Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial centre of 21st-century Hollywood,” Scott wrote. “They are its artistic heart.”
And while “essentially juvenile” films have existed since Hollywood’s inception, it has only been in the past decade or so that such films are expressly marketed to adults as well as children or families. The “adult collector” market is now as big a cash cow as the kid-focused merchandising divisions that sell Avengers-branded party hats.
The children who experienced the birth of modern blockbuster marketing in the 1977 lead-up to Star Wars are now the adult men and women lining up to buy Lego playsets celebrating the film series’ seventh instalment. As otherwise gainfully employed adults turn their basements into replicas of the Death Star or Starship Enterprise, it is difficult not to feel that we are hurtling, somehow, towards a cultural crisis in which grown-ups will become adult babies. There are echoes of this, at perhaps a different end of the spectrum, in the debate about content advisories and trigger warnings.
Are we losing the ability to engage with the world on a meaningful, adult level? Has critical thinking been usurped by a gee-whiz generation that thinks, as the Oscar-nominated The Lego Movie theme song put it, “Everything is awesome”? You might find answers at the annual San Diego Comic-Con International, where about 200,000 people gather inside the cavernous Convention Centre halls and the issue of whether or not fans deem certain films’ “sizzle reels” to be awesome can make or break a summer blockbuster.
Star Wars’s marketing operates at a similar volume to the campaigns waged by superhero film production house Marvel Studios, whose announced output, combined with that of Fox, Sony and Warner Bros, will extend to at least five further superhero movies released each year until 2020. The overwhelming presence of such franchise movie-making – and its perceived hand in drowning out the possibility of films that don’t involve existing intellectual property – prompted Alan Moore, author of highly regarded graphic novels and comics such as Watchmen, to remark last year that superhero movies constitute a cultural catastrophe.
“This embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence,” he told culture blog Slovobooks. “It is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”
Not only does this cultural ephemera overwhelm the collective consciousness, it is telling the same simple story over and over, and we don’t seem to mind. Almost every blockbuster film unfolds in the same fashion: modern Hollywood screenwriting draws its “story beats” from screenwriter Blake Snyder’s story structure bible, Save the Cat! The book took mythologist Joseph Campbell’s classical monomyth or “Hero’s Journey”, and expanded it into a story-by-numbers guide that has been widely embraced by studio filmmaking.
In 1977, the same year that Hero’s Journey example par excellence Star Wars was released, academics Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence proposed the American monomyth, a variation on its classical predecessor: “A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.”
Watch any number of modern blockbusters and you will notice a pattern of events that proceed, like clockwork, in the aforementioned order. This may lead to a withering sense of deja vu in some viewers, but it is this very predictability that seems to attract the modern “kidult” en masse.
The people born around the time of the original Star Wars release have grown to inherit an adult world in which the “having it all” embarrassment of riches they were groomed to dream of is itself a fantasy – instead they navigate crippling student debt, lack of job security, a crisis in housing affordability and an increasingly deranged political climate. All this is framed in a globalised economy that makes those in charge seem more distant, unknowable and powerful, and exhibits a house-of-cards fragility where misjudgements made on the other side of the world deliver economic shockwaves beneath their feet. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that so many of today’s adults seem keen to hang on to the optimism of adolescence – not to mention its action figures – delivered in simple narratives in which heroes triumph against readily identifiable enemies and everything turns out fine.
While we might be better served, spiritually and existentially, by watching a film that encourages deeper thinking about the human condition than what Captain America and his cohorts can provide, escapism in its purest, dumbest form reigns supreme. As Hugh Jackman’s opening song and dance routine at the mid-GFC Academy Awards put it, “I know I need to see The Reader/ I even went down to the theatre but there was a line/ of all the people watching Iron Man a second time.”
I’m certainly not immune to the seductive powers of modern blockbuster mythmaking, or marketing. I was midway through investigating a pair of “screen accurate” boots for a Force Awakens costume, to be worn to the midnight premiere, when a friend sent me an email. The attachment was the Force Awakens poster accompanied by a newly inserted title, “CONSUME THE MERCHANDISE” and tagline, “BUY THE TOYS, BUY THE CLOTHES, BUY THE FOOD” repeated, ad nauseam. The cast’s faces had been Photoshopped to resemble the alien creatures from They Live.
That 1988 film, John Carpenter’s searing anti-capitalist satire of modern mass media, revealed, by way of people putting on magic sunglasses, the ruling classes as revolting aliens who subliminally whip the masses into a frenzy of consumption. Discussing They Live in his documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, cultural critic Slavoj Žižek zeroes in on the dark centre of Carpenter’s film: “We are addressed by social authority not as subjects who should do their duty – sacrifice themselves – but as subjects of pleasures: realise your true potentials, be yourself, lead a satisfying life.”
That may be the key to the ever-greater appeal to adults of the simple Hero’s Journey storyline. The original Star Wars’s narrative arc captivated audiences specifically because of those notions of self-empowerment – watch Luke Skywalker realise his true potential – just as its new sequel will in 2015. The new female hero, Rey, played by hitherto unknown Daisy Ridley, will play into the post-Lean In era of liberal feminism. Break the intergalactic glass ceiling and buy the T-shirt.
But if kidults are pining for some sort of golden adolescence, seeking to perpetuate it through devotion to formulaic hero stories, they may face a rude awakening. We can watch people in a galaxy far, far away realise their true potential – or in Gotham City, or Panem – but in reality few of us will ever enjoy such pleasures. Especially if our lives are spent in darkened rooms watching X-Men or lamenting the unavailability of promotional toys.
We might be tempted to lament the fact future cultural critics may think the 21st century was all about the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars reboots – a sort of prescient Mrs Waldo from Under Milk Wood wailing, “Oh, what’ll the neighbours say, what’ll the neighbours...” But the true cultural catastrophe could be that the ideology of eternal adolescence and its hero myths set us in pursuit of a lie.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2015 as "Generation X men". Subscribe here.