When Carol Danvers hurtles from space to planet C-53—Earth as you’d know it—she crashes smack dab through the roof of a Blockbuster Video in Los Angeles circa 1995.
The landing hurts on two levels. You, the audience watching Captain Marvel in the year 2019, wince for the pain of impact, of course, but that second pain you’re experiencing is nostalgia for the retail relic of the ’90s. At its height in 2004, Blockbuster was the undisputed leader in providing movie and game rentals to the nation. Today, it’s a dinosaur with just one storefront left in Bend, Oregon.
Unless you wanted to make a case for Captain Marvel as a parable for third-wave feminism—and you could make a compelling one—the temporal setting functions mostly as a set piece for the superhero movie. A fun one at that, but a set piece all the same. We get to see Brie Larson, who plays Captain Marvel, rock a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and embrace the Grunge aesthetic. A young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) uses a pager. No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” plays, gloriously, over the movie’s best fight scene. We even get to experience the quaint pain of waiting for a file to upload onto a computer.
The nostalgia seeping through the pores of the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe offering piggybacks on the broader cultural trend of a sped-up regurgitation cycle that filters and repackages the past.
The phenomenon is nothing new. Nearly four centuries ago, in 1688, Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer first fused the Greek words nostros or “return home” and andalgia or “longing” together to describe the feeling as ailment inflicting fellow countryman living abroad who longed for home. From its framing as a wasting disease for a geographic location, it’s since come to mean an emotional ache for the past.
Nostalgia has been pervasive ever since. “Remember when nostalgia used to be great?” the joke goes. But in recent years, it does feel like we’ve turned up the volume on it. It’s not just more nostalgia we’re being fed, either; thanks in part, to a cottage industry invested in repackaging the past online, onscreen and across social media in #TBT posts, we’re even nostalgic for a time that’s barely passed.
“Conventional wisdom was that it took four decades to recycle cultural movements… But the cycle has sped up, and now the younger end of the nostalgia generation is already pining for the aughts,” observed Variety in 2015 in the face of an onslaught of upcoming remakes and reboots from the ’80s and ’90s ranging from “Full House” to “The X-Files.”
Why are we wading through so much nostalgia these days? Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman had one answer to the question in his 2017 book Retrotopia. Five centuries after Thomas More promised “Utopia,” Bauman argued that we’ve become increasingly disillusioned that we’ll ever reach More’s better tomorrow. Instead, we’re investing our hopes not in the future, but in the myth of a simpler past. The divisive politics of then-candidate Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan ignored the fact that at no point in American history was the country great for everyone. Movies like this year’s Best Picture winner, Green Book, come under fire for offering a tidier version of history; while Green Book was marketed as a feel-good story of racial healing, critics and the family of Don Shirley, the musician at the center of the film, have said it dangerously trivializes the racism of the time.
But nostalgia doesn’t have to rewrite history. Theorist Svetlana Boym remains the authority on the subject. Her experience as a Jewish émigré from the Soviet Union who lived long enough to watch the promise of the Soviet empire as a child give way to the fall of the Berlin Wall informed her elemental 2001 work, The Future of Nostalgia. In it, she put forward two versions of nostalgia: restorative and reflective. The former is the kind that fuels Bauman’s retrotopia, filling in gaps of memory with glossed-over remembrances of the way things once were. She later described restorative nostalgia “not about memory and history but about heritage and tradition.” An invented tradition at that, “a dogmatic, stable myth that gives you a coherent version of the past," she said in an interview with Harvard magazine, where she taught.
But the kind that Boym reckoned with herself when thinking about her past was “reflective nostalgia,” which dwells on “the imperfect process of remembrance.” It considers the past for how it was.
Captain Marvel doesn’t mine ’90s culture deep enough to fit neatly into either category. On one end of the spectrum, the movie—Marvel’s first solo female superhero movie, which is no small thing—leans into how Danvers struggled to create a space for herself in a world where men write the rules. On the other, Captain Marvel offers a tidy understanding of girl power, with a one-size-fits-all message that doesn’t consider how as a white woman Danvers’ experience would have differed from her friend Monica Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), who is African-American.
Among the recent wave of ’90s-steeped culture, Hulu’s recent hit show “PEN15” offers a better example of reflective nostalgia. In it, comedians Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, both 31, play the seventh-grade versions of themselves as middle-schoolers. Set in the year 2000, the show joyfully plumbs its setting to unearth a time capsule of gel pens, Spice Girls dance moves and America Online chatrooms. But it doesn’t brush over the trauma of the middle-school experience, either, like in one episode where Maya, whose mother is Japanese and father is European, is made to play the one servant character in a class project.
Erskine and Konkle have said the idea for “PEN15” is to make you feel like you are being dropped in a memory, but one that doesn’t luxuriate in a comfortable retread. “The more we could lean away from a shiny feeling, and everything being a little TV or a little perfect,” Konkle reflected in an interview, “that was always the goal.”
There’s no hard evidence proving that nostalgia is more pervasive now than it has been before. Bettina Zengel of the University of Southampton, who works with personal memories, spoke with Rewire last year about the difficulties of quantifying it. She explained, however, how personal and societal anxieties naturally summon nostalgia. “Nostalgia is a resource that people can use to cope with life’s challenges,” Zengel said. “So, if we live in times that are more challenging, then we would expect for people to resort to nostalgia more often.”
Reflective nostalgia, as Boym saw it, is a way to look back that offers healing. "You don't deny your longing, but you reflect on it somehow," Boym explained to Harvard magazine. "It's a positive force that helps us explore our experience, and can offer an alternative to an uncritical acceptance of the present."