The Cinematic Universe of Adolescent Imagination

Franchises have moved beyond being a string of sequels. The term “cinematic universe” has recently come into popular usage to describe a series of films and other media that are set within a singular universe. In this universe the events in one film are related to, have an impact on, or are influenced by, events in other films.

Some have argued that all Pixar films take place within a single universe.  There's also the Tarantino UniverseThe most popular of these cinematic universes is the Marvel universe. What began with an Iron Man film expanded to include Captain America and Thor. The success of The Avengers proved that Marvel had a successful plan for bringing many of its comic book characters to film. In addition to other films, Marvel branched out into network television with Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. While the series did include the character of Agent Coulson, a familiar face from the Marvel films, it wasn’t until Thor: The Dark World was released that viewers realized that the events that occurred within a film would have consequences for the television series.

With the inclusion of Marvel One Shots, short films included in the BluRay and digital releases of the feature films, and original programming being developed in partnership with Netflix,  Marvel has created the most expansive of the cinematic universes.

A Universe of Pure Imagination

But there's another "cinematic universe" that hasn't been visited in decades: the cinematic universe of adolescent imagination. This is the universe where your dad might bring home a Mogwai, you and your friends band together in a squad to fight off the monsters that are in your neighborhood, an old treasure map is hidden in your attic, your favorite video game turns out to be a training program for an intergalactic fleet, an alien hides in the storage shed in your backyard, or a quirky neighborhood inventor invents a time machine.

In the 1980’s there was a sudden explosion of movies about tweens for tweens before we had the word "tween." In many of these stories the parents are absent, or busy. I’m looking at you baby boomers. While you were so busy trying to manage your life your kids were off having adventures.

I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?
— The Writer, Stand By Me

Some of these films attempted to teach us important life lessons, while others were like a close friend telling us that no matter how bad things seemed to get, that there was always something better waiting for us if we could just persevere. Gremlins sought to teach us the importance of responsibility and following rules, The Last Starfighter showed us that all those hours spent playing video games could pay off, and Back to the Future assured us that our parents were once kids just like us.

The most memorable of these, such as The Goonies, Gremilns, E.T., and Back to the Future, were delivered to us courtesy of Amblin Entertainment. This was an eraa when Steven Spielberg had a golden touch and was overseeing an impressive amount of quality entertainment for kids. The enduring impact of these films is proven by the recent announcement of a sequel to The Goonies, and a remake of  Gremlins.

But what happened to the universe that Amblin built? Why has the world of imaginative possibilities been replaced by dystopian futures?

The Rise of YA literature, or How Harry Potter Changed the Game

In the 1980’s as tweens were filling theaters, book publishers were beginning to see the rise of a new type of literature between children’s books and novels written for adults. This new genre, young adult literature, came into its own in the 90’s and has been shaping teen culture since.

J.K. Rowling is responsible for more tweens picking up a book and reading than any other author of the 20th and 21st century. Her Harry Potter saga started off just like those stories of imaginative wonder we recall with great fondness from the 1980’s. From the moment Harry receives his invitation to Hogwarts we know that we are in familiar territory - the story of a boy that discovers the path to a exciting world of adventure lies just outside his front door. But somewhere along the way Harry’s adventures in the wizarding world became something else. Harry found himself in the middle of a civil war that could destroy his world. By the time readers were delving into the first chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, they found themselves in a wizarding dystopia where Death Eaters had taken control and Harry’s only mentor was gone. The world of wonder had turned into a dark, sinister world, where our hero must work in secret to undermine and destroy the corrupt and sinister forces that have taken control. From here it’s not too far of a leap for reading to step into Katniss Everdeen’s shoes in The Hunger Games. We’ve gone from asking the question of “What if?” to asking “How can this problem be solved?”

Are kids growing up too fast these days? Are they being denied a childhood? I don’t have the answers to these questions. What I do know is that there are fewer movies and books out there for my kids that show them examples of kids being kids, having fun as a group, going on fantastic adventures while learning a lesson on the way. As a result, I'm digging into the archives for some great family movies that are guaranteed to spark their imaginations.