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The sad, lonely secret behind America's never-ending wave of Marvel movies and Disney reboots

Walt Hickey   

The sad, lonely secret behind America's never-ending wave of Marvel movies and Disney reboots

In 2010, the Walt Disney Company remade "Alice in Wonderland," kicking off a run of 14 live-action remakes of their animated classics that would gross the company $3.2 billion at the domestic box office over the following decade. That same year, eyeing the coming conclusion of their "Harry Potter" film franchise, Warner Bros. struck a deal to have an entire section of Universal's Orlando resort built out into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, beginning a brisk, decade-long trade of selling millennials plastic wands and color-coded apparel and homewares. One year later, Sony would reboot the "Spider-Man" franchise, Fox would reboot the "X-Men" franchise, and two years after that DC would reboot the "Superman" franchise.

This wave of reboots and revivals was not a coincidence.

The major, connecting way that these financial entities are able to capitalize on our emotions — be it through movie remakes or toys or a Tasmanian Devil ashtray — is by appealing to nostalgia. It's a complex emotion, but attempts to harness (or exploit) nostalgia are one of the key drivers behind the vast business juggernaut that is the pop culture industry.

The precise "why" of nostalgia is murky. But we know that, time and again, nostalgia drives people to spend unfathomable amounts of money on things they liked as a kid. What's the thinking behind spending thousands of dollars on a single animation cell from a show you liked when you were young? Why did an entire generation plow the affluence they came into in the '90s into household goods and apparel derived from shows they watched while munching cereal on Saturday mornings? Why, despite a college degree, despite a revulsion for nearly everything the former richest woman in England believes about gender, despite a good life and career and general satisfaction, why on earth does a real part of me still yearn for a personalized letter inviting me to Hogwarts?

The answer of why nostalgia is able to get its hooks so deep into younger generations may come down to another emotion: loneliness. Around the same time as the emergence of reboots, studies found that young people were reporting levels of loneliness that had not been seen in decades. As we became more disconnected from the people around us, we sought out comfort in other ways. If the key driver of reboots is nostalgia — then the key driver of nostalgia is loneliness.

The lonely roots of nostalgia

A series of studies out of Southampton University published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2006 sought to understand nostalgia through a series of experiments. In one, drawing on a sample of 43 students, researchers tried to figure out if there was a link between loneliness and feelings of nostalgia. The subjects were asked to take a test to calculate their score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a quick assessment that asks people how often they feel disconnected from others, such as how often they feel alone, or starved for company, or find it difficult to make friends. Researchers then informed each participant of their score and whether it indicated things like a high or low degree of loneliness.

Next, participants took Batcho's Nostalgia Inventory, a psychological test developed by Krystine Batcho in 1995 to quantify how deeply people feel nostalgia at a given time. It's a questionnaire where respondents select a number between 1 and 9 (1 indicating "not at all," 9 meaning "very much") to describe how much they miss things from when they were younger. The topics are things like "family," "heroes or heroines," "things you did," "toys," "holidays," "the way society was," "your house," and "not knowing sad or evil things." Finally, the respondents were asked, as a means of confirmation, how lonely they felt on a scale of 1 to 5.

But here's the trick. That first questionnaire, the loneliness one, was faked. The researchers pulled questions from the UCLA test but rigged it by tweaking the questions. Then they didn't actually score it, but randomized whether they told the person they had a high degree of loneliness (in the 62nd percentile of loneliness) or a low degree of loneliness (in the 12th percentile of loneliness).

If the key driver of reboots is nostalgia — then the key driver of nostalgia is loneliness.

The goal wasn't actually to determine how lonely they were. It was to prime them, to make them think either that they were more lonely than the typical person or less lonely than average. It worked. That confirmation, asking them how lonely they felt. The group primed to feel less lonely — the people who were told they had low loneliness after the fake first test — reported an average loneliness of 1.3, whereas the group primed to believe they had high loneliness reported an average of 2.9 out of 5.

The results were consistent with a causal relationship between loneliness and nostalgia. They found that the group that was told they were lonelier scored higher on the nostalgia index (an average score of 3.01) than the group who believed they were less lonely (an average of 2.56).

The ratings of nostalgia for "my family," "the way people were," "having someone to depend on," and "not having to worry" were significantly higher statistically among those primed for loneliness compared with those who were not. It corroborated the idea that there's a fundamental link between feelings of being alone and the psychological emergence of nostalgia.

The loneliness epidemic

Although the rise of nostalgia in media is mostly anecdotal, there's repeated evidence that people — particularly younger people — are more lonely than before, and that things like social media can exacerbate those feelings of loneliness. American health insurer Cigna has conducted a large loneliness survey since 2018, with over ten thousand respondents in the sample annually. In 2020, 61% of those surveyed were lonely, up 7 percentage points since the survey was first conducted in 2018.

Time and again, polling illustrates that Americans of all ages are experiencing serious loneliness, which was exacerbated significantly by a pandemic. A September 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that 41% of respondents felt lonely in at least one or two of the past seven days. In some cases, the loneliness is extreme: A Pew Research survey from this summer found that 8% of Americans said they have no close friends. A Gallup survey from February 2023 asked if respondents experienced loneliness a lot of the day yesterday, and 17% said yes. That's down from the pandemic high of 25%, but still means that one in six people felt lonely yesterday.

While the expectation might be that elderly people are more likely to feel lonely, the opposite is true: It was people aged 18 to 29 with the highest percentages of loneliness, hitting 24% compared to just 13% among those 65 and up. It's young people — the primary demographic targeted for mainstream pop culture — who are feeling lonely.

Things have not always been this way. An analysis of 345 studies of loneliness published between 1976 and 2019 that covered 124,855 participants between the ages of 18 and 29 found that there was a steady increase in reported levels of loneliness over time through about 2012, at which point the increase leveled off and has held steady. This would appear to align with the mainstream introduction of smartphones, certainly, but it also aligns with another thing: the utter dominance of reboot and nostalgia-based entertainment.

Cash cows

Nostalgia-driven media has become a behemoth. The first legacy reboots — films that attempted to introduce new characters following in the footsteps of the main characters of films produced a generation ago — truly kicked off with "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" in 2008, followed by "TRON: Legacy" in 2010. The levee quickly broke, and by 2015, "Jurassic World," "Terminator Genisys," and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" were throwing gasoline on that fire. Since then, standalone films like "Independence Day," "Trainspotting," "Blade Runner," "The Incredibles," "The Shining," "Ghostbusters" and "Coming to America" have all seen a legacy sequel cash-in attempt.

And this business strategy works. The top movie this year is about a childhood toy, the top three movies of 2022 worldwide were "Top Gun," "Avatar," and "Jurassic Park" sequels. The top two video games of this year are the latest game from a 37-year-old "Legend of Zelda" franchise and "Hogwarts Legacy," an elaborate and immersive cash-in that allows players to finally get that letter inviting them to Hogwarts.

Much of the industry is out with the new, and in with the old. And it's happening everywhere. For years, book sales used to be evenly balanced between backlist (books released over a year ago) and frontlist (books released within the past year); in 2021, backlist was up to 68% of sales, meaning people were reading older books twice as often as they were buying new ones. People don't subscribe to streaming services to watch new originals — the top shows in the second quarter of this year were "SpongeBob," the CW's "The Flash," and "South Park," with older shows like "The Simpsons," "Game of Thrones," and "Breaking Bad" all remaining firmly in the top 20. Before they lost the rights, the five most popular shows on Netflix in 2018 were "The Office," "Friends," "Parks and Recreation," "Grey's Anatomy" and "New Girl." Those shows alone accounted for 17% of the time spent on Netflix.

It's even seen on the merchandise side. Take Funko, the bobblehead company, which owns a license to pretty much everything in pop culture. According to their most recent annual earnings, 64% of Funko sales are from "evergreen" properties, or movies and television that aren't new.

We know there is a compelling link between loneliness and nostalgia. We also know that nostalgia sells incredibly well, that people want the things that brought them comfort as kids when they feel alone. With few indications that the loneliness crisis will abate any time soon, it's unclear if there's any motivation to dial back the retreads: Indeed, reboots of "Percy Jackson and the Olympians," "TRON," "Ghostbusters," "Beetlejuice," "Gladiator," and even "The Passion of the Christ" are in the Hollywood pipeline. As long as there's demand, the studios are happy to supply it. And right now, consumers are demanding nostalgia comfort food.

Walt Hickey is deputy editor of data and analysis at Insider. He is also the author of You Are What You Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything.

Excerpted and adapted from "You Are What You Watch." (Workman) by Walt Hickey. Copyright © 2023. Data visuals copyright © by Heather Jones (art) and Walt Hickey (data).