Every movie these days feels like a trip back to my 1980s childhood. Air took me back to my Chicago Bulls fandom and the Jordan sneakers that defined my boyhood. The Super Mario Bros. Movie had me smiling with glee because it triggered memories of Nintendo worlds I explored 30-some-odd years ago. And even though Tetris is less about the Soviet game and more about the fascinating Cold War history behind its origin, it had me itching to return to those childhood hours of Game Boy play on road trips.
These are far from the only films leveraging nostalgia to entice audiences. In the genre of “’80s toys turned movies” alone, 2023 has also seen a Dungeons & Dragons film and will still see the release of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts on June 9, Barbie on July 21, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem on August 4. There are also movies inspired by Hot Wheels and Play-Doh (yes, Play-Doh) in the works.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of blockbusters are reboots, sequels, or franchise films that mine popular intellectual properties for new profits. All of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of 2022 were sequels or reboots. Most analysts expect the 2023 box office will be similarly dominated by superhero sequels or reboots (Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Flash); aging action movie franchise sequels (80-year-old Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones 5, 60-year-old Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 7, 68-year-old Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3); Disney reboots (The Little Mermaid) and rides-turned-movies (Haunted Mansion), and the 10th (10th!) installment in the Fast & Furious franchise.
Hollywood is a business that responds to markets, and the market has made clear its desire: the old and familiar, not the new and unknown.
It’s become expected, at this point, for critics to say something like “Hollywood is out of new ideas” or “Originality is dead.” But I don’t think that’s the case. It’s not that creativity is suffering among artists in Hollywood; plenty of highly original stories are being told, in daring and exciting ways. It’s just that Hollywood is a business that responds to markets, and the market has made clear its desire: the old and familiar, not the new and unknown.
Rather than blame audiences for this inclination toward the known and disinclination toward original stories, we should seek to understand why this is the case.
For Overstimulated Souls, Old Narratives Are Easier
Why are appetites for “new” culture waning, while hunger for nostalgia and franchise familiarity is surging? Perhaps it’s because our brains are so overstimulated, so overtaxed in the digital age’s information glut, that we struggle to have the capacity or energy to process anything novel.
Instead of wrapping our minds around a totally new narrative world, with its own “rules” and characters and unknown textures, it’s easier to encounter a new entry in an old story; we have existing categories we can file that into, frames of reference that more easily make sense of what we’re seeing. Given that mental energy and available units of attention are increasingly scarce resources (and cognitive overload is a common struggle), it’s no surprise the majority of moviegoers opt for stories that fall lighter on their brains.
I suspect this is also related to trends of polarization in our culture, in which people cope with the mental exhaustion of the information glut by gravitating toward tribes (and especially tribal leaders) who do the thinking and interpretation for them. I wrote about this a few years ago:
When a relentless barrage of information hits our brains, it’s easier to file things away in tidy narrative boxes (“This is proof of that”) than to lay them out on a table and see what reality emerges from the evidence. Quickly plugging data into established narratives is a coping mechanism in a world of information overload.
Consider the way people have shifted toward preferring “narratives” over “news.” In one of the most prescient works of media analysis in recent years (“How Stewart Made Tucker”), Jon Askonas argues that audiences want “narrative development” from their news media more than objective reporting:
In the digital age, you really don’t need anyone to read the news to you. What you need is to understand how you should feel about it and what story it tells. For most readers, including many in journalism, the details will simply make no difference in their day-to-day lives. Presented with a massive overload of isolated facts, they will simply want to make sense of them. Helping them do that is the most valuable, and most revenue-generating, function of journalism today.
We prefer narrative development over hard news for the same reason we prefer sequels and franchises over original stories. Life in the maelstrom of digital buzz is too overwhelming, and our brains are too stressed, to bother with the expense of energy required to make sense of a complex news headline or a complex new movie narrative.
DIY Identity Exhaustion
Another explanation for the growing hunger for nostalgic, familiar pop culture surely has to do with the dizzying, destabilizing effects of the digital age on our identity. A few generations ago, the frames of reference for how we understood ourselves were more limited. Our identities largely depended on the unchosen physical and proximate webs we entered at birth: family, place, local culture, religious tradition.
But in the digital age, the tools for identity construction are limitless, unbound by the givenness of unchosen factors that previously defined us (e.g., our biological sex). “Who I am” is now as fluid and malleable a question as I want it to be, subject to the whirling array of arguments, influencers, pseudo-events, and microcommunities that come across my feed from any number of multiverses.
In the digital age, the tools for identity construction are limitless, unbound by the givenness of unchosen factors that previously defined us.
As appealing as this freewheeling identity construction might seem, in practice it’s a source of great emotional stress, spiritual angst, and existential anxiety. To cope with the heavy burden of a “you do you” world—and the loneliness that results from valuing untethered autonomy over relationships of inconvenient accountability—we crave nostalgia. It reminds us of a time when identity was simpler.
In a recent newsletter, Chris Martin shared a Marshall McLuhan quote from a 1977 television interview that speaks to this dynamic: “One of the big marks of the loss of identity is nostalgia. And so revivals in every phase of life today—revivals of clothing, of dances, of music, of shows, of everything—we live by the revival. It tells us who we are, or were.”
Martin goes on to ponder whether “the light speed with which we consume content and information today has, in a sense, left us longing for the simplicity of the past. When we knew who we were.”
He’s right that we long for the “simplicity” of the past in a digital world that presents us with horrors, contradictions, fake news, and inflammatory narratives of every sort on a constant feed. But the identity-longing we feel—of which nostalgia is a sort of “signal of transcendence,” to quote Os Guinness’s fantastic new book—also has a lot to do with longing for the sort of community of shared culture we once had.
Longing for Community
Part of why we hunger for the latest Disney princess reboot, the latest Marvel or DC entry, or further movies about the treasured toys of our childhoods is that they invite us into existing traditions and established communities, in ways that make us feel less lonely. They invite us into conversations where there’s already a shared vocabulary and ongoing interpretive tradition.
I have a buddy who grew up, like I did, in the pop culture of the ’80s and ’90s. He and I have a lot of overlap in our movie tastes. Yet we rarely talk about the latest new indie movie I’ve seen or the buzzworthy Netflix series he recently watched. When we talk pop culture, it’s because we’re lamenting how bad the latest Jurassic Park movie was compared to the majestic 1993 original (which we saw when we were 10-year-old boys). We assess the latest entries in the Star Wars universe or ponder what’s next for Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson. In other words, we connect on shared history and shared pop culture language.
Our hunger for familiar franchises and nostalgic sequels has a lot to do with our longing for a community in which we can better understand our world and ourselves.
This is a big purpose culture serves: community and connection. And in a world of increasingly solitary media consumption, our hunger for familiar franchises and nostalgic sequels has a lot to do with our longing for a community in which we can better understand our world and ourselves.
In the end, constructing bespoke identities around hyperspecific personal tastes and eclectic curation of pop culture is lonely and unsatisfying. We long for culture that connects rather than isolates. And right now, the culture that does this most readily is heavy on nostalgia and familiar franchises.
Takeaway for the Church
While the critic in me wants to lament the situation I’ve described above—in which original storytelling is disincentivized by the market’s hunger for franchise familiarity—the church leader in me finds reason to hope.
Why? Because what we’re seeing in pop culture is a longing for established narrative worlds and existing communities of interpretation, because the digital world is too overwhelming to navigate alone or from scratch. This sounds like a need the church was designed to fill.
Is there any established narrative world and shared discursive vocabulary more ubiquitous than the biblical narrative and Christian interpretive tradition? Are there any cultural liturgies of fandom or consumerism more satisfying or shaping than the communities of worship that gather to praise the living God and unpack his living Word? In a rootless world of self-made identity, the church offers a constant invitation for nomad-consumers to find their place in a stable, welcoming, committed community with a shared narrative that has proven compelling and transformative for billions across the world for 2,000 years.
Right now, the lonely and rootless sojourners of a post-Christian digital world are flocking en masse, as if on pilgrimage, to the sacred spaces of nostalgia and the comfort food of pop culture “universes.” The church shouldn’t see itself as an “alternative” to Mario or Barbie movies in satisfying these longings, as if a Sunday worship service is on par with a Nintendo product or Mattel toy. But we can recognize that when these pop culture nostalgia trips fail to address the longings of this lonely, meaning-hungry generation, the church will still be there—doors open wide, ready to point people to the Savior more real than any superhero and a narrative more true and powerful than any mere entertainment.