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Why Divergent, Hunger Games & Superhero Films Appeal to So Many

Shailene Woodley plays a teen in 'Divergent' who doesn't fit in anywhere in her dystopian society. Sound like anyone?

Shailene Woodley plays a teen in ‘Divergent’ who doesn’t fit in anywhere in her dystopian society. Sound like anyone?

“Divergent,” about a rebellious teen who fights the system in her dystopian world, cleaned up at the box office this weekend just like “The Hunger Games,” which explores similar themes about powerless multitudes rebelling against the all-powerful.

Both movies are so-so, but, frankly, almost any superhero movie these days is automatic box office bank.

That’s because the people who are going to see these movies, 25- to 34-year-olds, are part of the least powerful and most disenfranchised generation since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In fact, the era of superhero comics and movies arose out of the economic collapse and abject poverty of the Depression some 85 years ago. So it should come as no surprise that today’s superhero movies are charting the same economic bell curve.

Nearly half of the people without jobs are under 34, according to a report by Demos, a public policy organization that studies social trends. It reported its findings last year, but the same trends are evident today.

More people in that age group are still living with their parents and are likely to stay with them longer than any recent generation. Say what you will about ObamaCare, but it’s a godsend to these families.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a teen who is impoverished and manipulated by the system even to the point of death.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a teen who is impoverished and manipulated by the system even to the point of death.

Unemployment among 18 to 29-year-olds is even higher, with or without a college degree.

More than 40 percent of those who graduated college in the last two years don’t need a college degree for their work, according to another national survey. It found that 284,000 college graduates held minimum-wage jobs in 2012.

Before young-adult employment returns to levels pre-2008’s Great Recession, the economy will have to generate 4 million new jobs, according to Generation Opportunity, a nonpartisan youth advocacy group. Under current growth rates that could take years.

Another often overlooked, but significant, factor also is contributing to the trend–the Baby-Boom generation.

Those born between 1946 and 1964 are part of the wealthiest, best educated and healthiest generation in the nation’s history. And, they are living longer more active lives.

As a result, the generational transfer of wealth, that in times past helped younger people get a leg up in the world, is being stretched out or even exhausted before it can change hands.

Tony Stark is a self-made entrepreneur and genius inventor. But fat government defense contracts keep his company afloat.

Tony Stark is a self-made entrepreneur and genius inventor. But fat government defense contracts keep his company afloat.

While these economic trends have been pronounced for some time, the social impact of long-term unemployment on the young is just beginning to emerge, and it’s marked by growing defeatism and escapism.

Teen heroes like Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” and Beatrice “Tris” Prior in “Divergent” resonate so well because they are equally powerless. Yet, they rise up and find a way to beat the system.

Superheroes are equally popular because their power usually stems from non-traditional sources–mutations, radio-active spiders, other planets.

These powers are gifted by chance on people, like Peter Parker in “Spider-Man,” or Steve Rogers in “Captain America,” who are just as powerless as they are. In fact, most superheros are motivated by and early sense of powerlessness in their lives.

If superheroes aren’t getting their super gifts from non-traditional sources, then their powers are coming from, where else, the government. Talk about social welfare, Steve Rogers gets his super-strength from an experimental government program.

Batman is the only truly independent superhero. But where would he be without daddy's money?

Batman is the only truly independent superhero. But where would he be without daddy’s money?

Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow, is trained by the Russian KGB, the ultimate symbol of big government.

Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, may be an exception to the rule, but not totally. Sure, he’s a self-made man, an entrepreneur and a genius inventor. But his company, Stark Enterprises, lives off government defense contracts, i.e. corporate welfare.

Batman is the only truly independent superhero, who lives by his wits and keen inventions.

But Bruce Wayne is able to fall back on the largess of his father’s corporation. And, where would he be without the early exit of his parents and his huge inheritance?

Sadly, most twenty-somethings will never be bitten by a radio-active spider, and their inheritances will likely be exhausted by their parents, many of whom have also lost jobs in the Great Recession.

But one thing is certain, the kids will always have Katniss and Tris.


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