Embracing the Millennial Hero (In Film)
As a film nerd, I’m always interested in seeing how the film/television industry is changing and adapting. One change that happened recently is the rise of the Millennial Hero. In film and TV, the Millennial Hero is the new standard. For now, I’m going to focus on the Millennial Hero as it appears in film.
Before I go any further, I’ll explain what I’m talking about when I say “Millennial Hero.” They’re characters that embody the main characteristics of Millennials. Fundamentally, they are socially aware, selfish in a lot of ways, but not interested in traditional institutions and very put upon by those institutions. Also, they don’t have to be Millennials or just for Millennials, that’s just the best term I could find for them, and it fits.
The Millennial Hero is an evolution of the John McClanes of the 1980s and the Neos of the 1990s. Like them, Millennial Heroes are average people and reluctant heroes. Unlike them, Millennial Heroes aren’t superheroes who destroy cities to catch the bad guy, and they aren’t naturally exceptional. Think Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen; they are heroes that are fighting a system or a situation that existed long before they did. There are bad guys, yeah, but they’re products of the system. For Millennial Heroes, taking down those bad guys and saving the world are a means to an end. They’re just trying to get through the day… Harry just wants to finish school with his friends, stop being harassed by the upper class Slytherin clique, and move out of his family’s house. Katniss just wants to be able to eat, protect her sister, and quit having the government screw her life up. They’re relatable.
Obviously, entertainment will change with time because the audience for entertainment is changing. I understand that, but it’s worth pointing out that Harry Potter made a generation of kids excited to watch a kid go to school. People didn’t just watch Harry Potter’s journey for the magic because if they did The Chronicles of Narnia films would be much more popular. Chronicles of Narnia was also based on fantasy books for kids, starred around kids that were becoming of age, and it was released around the same time as the Harry Potter films. The difference is the Harry Potter series starred a Millennial Hero, a grade school kid who had to fight, learn, and struggle in a battle he didn’t ask for, which was based around racism. Wizard racism, but still racism. The Chronicles of Narnia, though based on source material, starred a bunch of kids who fell ass-backward into being royalty, and who were destined to lead and win.
My point here is that modern audiences aren’t as interested in pure escapism. For modern audiences, Millennials especially, want to buy tickets to root for someone; to embody them. As Claire Thompson points out, Millennials are stuck with a post-9/11, financially uncertain, and optimistic out of necessity. Like Millennials themselves, the Millennial Hero’s journey “isn’t a rebellion, it’s reality.” Beyond that, being a nerd is a badge of honor now. Overly patriotic and overly loud masculine heroism is outdated; Millennials seem to prefer thoughtful, quiet and quirky heroes who only go big when necessary.
Hollywood is picking up on this because they need to cash in on the Millennial audience. For proof, look at John Wick. The titular character is played by Keanu Reeves, a man in his fifties and he’s a trained hitman. He’s a far cry from the reluctant young adult that Harry or Katniss are, but by design he is closer to a Millennial Hero than he is to cowboy cop John McClane. Over the course of the film’s development, the character John Wick went from a man in his 70s to a younger man; from talkative to reserved, and from slightly real world to fully exaggerated. However, it was understandable. John Wick was an attempt to adapt a genre of action films and bring it to new audiences through an untraditional protagonist. Furthermore, in the film there is one guy is out to kill a lot of guys because they killed his puppy. With that setup, the character John Wick elevated its lead from an action hero in the same vein as John McClane to Millennial Hero.
According to the people behind John Wick, that single idea, a man avenging his dog, was difficult for most of the established directors in Hollywood. They thought the idea had to be bigger and more grand in order for it to work. However, the producers were adamant to not change the film’s idea, and eventually turned to outside talent and stuntmen to direct the film. Their reasoning? Audiences would relate to the story of a person just trying to live their life, but being unable to because of “a bunch of assholes.” The outcome was audiences did relate, enough to turn John Wick into a critically and financially successful franchise.
John Wick shows how the rise of the Millennial Hero is tied with outsider filmmakers, the writers, and directors that didn’t necessarily come up through the Hollywood studio system’s hierarchy. One of the main reasons Millennial Heroes are becoming common is, as I mentioned in another article, because the outsider is moving into Hollywood. The indie filmmaker is being called in to handle the big Hollywood stuff. There’s almost a desperation to go to relatively inexperienced or niche directors to helm big projects.
Take Colin Trevorrow. He went straight from indie darling with the micro-budget Sci-Fi romance, Safety Not Guaranteed, to directing and cowriting the blockbuster, Jurassic World; a film meant to launch a new trilogy for Universal’s Jurassic Park series. Similarly, Ryan Coogler had only been making films for four years, with his only feature being the acclaimed Fruitvale Station, before being entrusted with revitalizing the Rocky franchise with Creed, and to direct Marvel’s Black Panther film. None of this is an accident. Mid-level films, films with budgets around $15-60 million, aren’t as common as they used to be. Directors are going immediately from micro-budget indie films to blockbusters without being forced to learn how to make traditional studio films with traditional studio heroes. As a result, tradition is changing.
The current crop of indie filmmakers excels at producing films that focus more on character than they do spectacle. They’re skilled at using practical and limited CGI effects, and they’re more willing and able to tell stories of the disenfranchised. All of these trends are slipping into the mainstream because the mainstream is trying to woo the biggest audience.
I don’t think Millennial Heroes are a byproduct of the new talent in Hollywood; I think the opposite. The audiences have spoken with their wallets and with social media. The films that are important now are the ones that people can make memes about, the ones with leads they imagine they look like when they take selfies, the ones that remind them of their problems, and not the ones that are just an escape from those problems.
The thing is, the film industry is still lagging a bit when it comes to Millennial Heroes. The best place for Millennial Heroes right now is on TV. Check back for part 2 to read my thoughts on how we went from Don Draper to Joe MacMillan.