Generational Theory, As Exemplified by The Avengers (MCU)

This was originally a Twitter thread, posted on 22 APR 02019.

Changes from the Twitter version: Lightly edited or re-expanded from the original text, linked to sources, and notes.

Addendum, October 2022, after the release of Black Widow filled in significant aspects about Natasha, and Falcon and the Winter Soldier filled in some details about Sam and Bucky. I have also updated links that experienced bit rot to their instance.

To an extent, Generational Theory is bullshit. There are no dividing lines between people born in, say, 1944 versus 1946.

Their experiences, if they are of the same race, nationality, gender, class, and socioeconomic status, are likely to be far more similar than different.

But that similarity is primarily the effect of all of the other axes, not their temporal location.

Growing up in abject rural poverty versus extremely affluent, urban Old Money Knickerbocker society is a bigger divide, even if both people were born on the exact same day.

Generational Theory exists primarily as a marketing tool, and as media frame, because it’s easier to market goods & services to generally similar groups of people.

Generational Theory is also the result of the homogeneity in media markets that evolved in the mid 20th century.

BUT… a guy from Pittsburgh and a guy from Detroit, born on the same day as, say, Billy Joel, all born into suburban families in newly built subdivisions? All three had remarkably similar experiences for three children separated by 500 miles. They consumed similar media, had similar educational and social experiences.

Manufacturing, infrastructural, financial, educational, media & social frameworks were built to create similar economic supports, educational programs and opportunities. This happens when you’re born into a world that had experienced 3 decimations in 30 years: World War I, influenza, World War II.

  • I note that World War I and influenza were sequential for Europe and North America, but much of the global South and East Asia didn’t have either the trench warfare meat grinder of the European fronts, or a meat grinder like the Pacific theater in World War II. (It’s not that they didn’t have battles; they did.) By the time influenza became epidemics in Europe and North America, World War I was winding down. And influenza killed a much wider swath of the population. Influenza wasn’t just a sequelae or footnote to World War I; it was a global disaster of its own.

The first time this kind of wide-spread social homogeneity was even possible was in the 1920s, after mass publishing, syndicated radio and a film industry were developed enough to be attainable by the majority of the population.

But the 50s are when it went wide-scale.

Those three boys’ sisters did not experience exactly what their brothers experienced. If they were white, those boys grew up on the easy setting. Their white sisters had a harder time. Their black and brown peers, regardless of gender, even if their parents made the same salary, had a harder time yet.

Generational theory comes with much unpacking left to be done. It focuses way too much on the white, male, cis, hetero, middle income, upper-working-class to lower-upper-class experience.

But given that every extant power structure catered to that population, it’s not surprising.

In a tautology worthy of Fight Club, Generational Theory exists because people believe Generational Theory exists. That makes it somewhat useful as a frame for discussing large population trends, and for groups of people trying to understand elders, bosses, emeriti.

If only because shared historical context does make a difference in how a group experiences the world.

For example: most Boomers born between 1944-1950 have visceral memories of polio, because the outbreaks in 1950-1955 got progressively worse.

Mass vaccination, starting in 1955, changed everything, and later Boomers didn’t have the same existential dread of polio. We can see an experience curve of sorts: as people were born into a world with fewer epidemics thanks to vaccines and fast public health responses, it becomes easier for more people to deny the efficacy and utility of vaccination, because they have less direct and secondhand experience of the horrors of epidemics and pandemics.

Wealth and access to healthcare, at least in developed economies, also insulates here: there’s a fairly strong correlation between private access structures (schools, country clubs, gated communities) and the prevalence of antivax. It’s more likely to show up in populations where one income can support the family, including an adult caregiver, because that family doesn’t think about sick time the same way that a two income family does.

Now, the MCU and its parent company, Marvel Comics, span the large scale experience of all currently living generations. Marvel, as Timely Comics, launched in 1939, and their primary first market were people born 1918 to 1930, ages 9 to 21.

Welcome, Steve Rogers, the premature anti-fascist, likely Red Diaper baby, born in Brooklyn to poor Irish immigrants. His father didn’t survive World War I; his mother was (either) a garment worker in the age of both the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and textile COPD/Byssinosis, then sometimes called white lung, or mistaken for tuberculosis or asthma. (Neither of which had effective treatments then.)

  • Steve’s mother, Sarah, if she was in the US by 1909, would likely have experienced the first ILGWU uprising and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. She would have rioted (and good for her). If not, both were part of the recent history of her working life. Irish girls did not marry young in this era.
  • In the MCU version of Steve’s backstory, his mother was a nurse who got TB at work. Given that she was a widow, who gave birth to her son after her husband shipped out (May 1918, for the 107th, Steve was born on the 4th of July that year) and whose husband never came back at all (the 107th was at Ypres for the final meat grinder in September of 1918, which is when it was most likely that his father would have been gassed)? There was a lot of prejudice in hospitals towards nurses with children in the 1920s. Nurses were not allowed to be married and work in most places until the late 1940s. To keep her job, she almost would have had to volunteer for the worst, riskiest duties, which were infectious disease wards. We don’t know how long she’s been dead, but TB then meant separation from family and long stays at sanitariums. Steve would not have been allowed to go with her. (For a contemporary account, see Dashiell Hammett’s letters to his soon to be wife, Josephine Dolan, from 1921. For details on nursing’s educational requirements in the first three decades of the 20th century, please see this University of California publication.)
  • There’s a brief view of all of Steve’s ailments at the beginning of The First Avenger, and with modern knowledge, it’s clear what happened and why he’s sickly — he had scarlet fever (strep) that became rheumatic fever before antibiotics existed. Untreated or poorly treated strep causes damage to the heart valves, which will cause high blood pressure, palpitations, fatigue and a feeling of panic, as well as a weakened immune system. Strep is highly contagious, and children with scarlet fever were placed in infectious disease wards to limit the spread. It’s possible Sarah brought strep home to young Steve, or he picked it up at school.
  • Also, one of Steve’s parents had diabetes, almost certainly Sarah. If it had been his father, the diabetes would have killed his father, because insulin for public use isn’t until 1924 (discovered in 1921, it took about 3 years to get testing, manufacturing and distribution set up). The types of diabetes were not differentiated until 1936, but we do know that TB and Type II are viciously symbiotic — having type II makes one more susceptible to TB, having TB makes one more likely to develop type II.

And Steve is a premature anti-fascist: Joe Simon started writing him in 1940, specifically as a counter to Hitler. Joe’s partnership with Jack Kirby – a commercial artist, like Steve, also from the Lower East Side, also a fairly frail & small man – ran through the war.

Both of Steve’s artists knew the world of immigrant labor, of interwar socialism, and poverty ameliorated by work and the Progressive Era’s safety nets. They both lived through the Depression, as young men starting their careers. They saw breadlines, and homeless encampments in the city parks.

They were also both Jewish, and while neither experienced pogrom directly, they knew antisemitism intimately.

They saw, before many others in the United States, how horrifying the Nazis were.

And they created a character out of their own experiences to defeat Hitler.

Steve Rogers is what Generational Theory calls Greatest Generation, the population who ended the Depression, defeated the Nazis, rebuilt the manufacturing capacity of the planet after destroying most of it. Born 1918, Steve came of age in the early days of World War II.

Steve and Sarah Rogers would have lived, after his father’s death, on a World War I era survivors’ pension of $35 per month (about $500 in 2019 dollars) until his 18th birthday in 1936, and on Sarah’s earnings as a textile worker/nurse. Sarah likely earned at least $12.50 a week, perhaps as much as $25 a week, if she could work full time. Hospital nurses in New York in 1926 earned between $1200 and 1400 a year, which is $20-27 a week. Full time for a nurse, however, was a 48 hour week, and they weren’t allowed part time work in the hospital.

Their rent, for Lower East Side or Brooklyn, probably ran $20-50/month. If Sarah had to reduce her hours due to tuberculosis or other respiratory illness when Steve was a child, they would have had a very slender living. They were financially precarious, even when she was earning her maximum.

  • Also, there’s a good chance Steve spoke at least some Yiddish or Italian. The Irish only enclaves were the 19th century, not the 20th. By the time Steve was born, Brooklyn was becoming cosmopolitan; a textile worker would have Jewish coworkers and somebody babysat baby Steve. (Nursing is more complex, because oh, boy, did nursing go ga-ga for eugenics and white supremacy, and it did not improve medicine or patient care or working conditions for nurses, it just made everything worse through to today, but with a dose of self-righteous sadism.)

Generationally, Steve does represent the tropes of his coming of age: idealistic, resolutely fair, determined, accustomed to difficult circumstances but convinced that hard work and the social safety net can provide for everyone.

Steve’s political awareness comes of age with Franklin Roosevelt. Steve would have visceral memories of the breadlines and mass unemployment of 1929-1931.

He would have seen, and experienced, devastating poverty, and seen the free market not just stumble, but fall apart.

Now, Steve went into the ice in his prime, in 1945, when (MCU) he was 27 years old. He was, for the first time in his life, financially stable, physically healthy, and had a plan for post-war security.

As an officer, he would have been required to write a will, but…

By 1945, Steve’s family was Bucky & Bucky’s family.

If Steve left his assets to Bucky, and Bucky was assumed to have predeceased Steve, and since Steve couldn’t be ascertained to be dead… The OSS/ the Army/ SHIELD may have kept all of his assets (mostly bank account) in trust for an MIA.

Steve, as a Captain, was making $200 a month during his service. Meals, housing & transport were provided. Steve is portrayed as thrifty, reticent, and not much of a drinker, but also unaccustomed to having money, so generous. Let’s assume he saved $100 per month from 1942-1945.

  • Given war rationing and the Depression, the idea of a consumer driven culture wasn’t really how people approached money yet. Access to credit, even for simple mortgages, was still in the early stages. It was not uncommon for New York City housing to require a year of rent, in advance, and for leases to run from May 1 to May 1. The past is a different country. Saving was essential, and only saving half of his salary would actually be frivolous for the poor kid Steve was, but when poor children grow up and do get money, feeling rich can be overwhelming. See the link above about rent in NYC.

We can assume that Steve went into the ice with at least $4000 in savings. Probably mostly in war bonds, which matured in 10 years with a 2.9% return. A $25 bond sold for $18.75 in 1941, could be redeemed in 1951 for $25, so by the end of 1955, Steve has about $5500, a good down payment on a reasonable house. Brownstones were then running around $25,000 for a large one.

BUT!! Since Steve was Missing In Action, not Killed In Action, he kept getting paid. In 1946, with 4 years of service, he made $210/month, with no expenses. The Army would not have issued a check, but they had to keep his pay on the books, and he earned interest on it.

  • This has been the procedure for prisoners of war and those missing in action who do not have direct dependents Reddit thread

By 1955 when all of his bonds reached maturity, Steve had been earning between $2500 and $3100 a year for a decade. In 1955, he should have ~$20K (including bonds). Compound interest starts mounting up. At passbook rates, which were often 4-5% in mid-century.

Which means, when Steve came out of the ice, 55 years later, he should have 55 years of untouched, accumulated salary, plus around $100-150K from his savings. Even if the army never promoted him (and they should have), and he just earned a captain’s salary until he maxed out his years at grade.

This means Steve is like his age peers, the other Greatest Generation, in that he has the financial security of a long life with high returns for saving money.

Unlike us, where our interest rates (1% APR, national average, April, 2019) are well below the inflation rate, (averaging 2% per year) which means our money loses value in a basic savings account. (Addendum in 2022: even with 8-9% inflation, savings interest rates are still 0.01% at Chase, Wells & BoA, up to 2% for a few of the internet banks, assuming a high balance.)

Steve could afford 21st century Brooklyn. (Maybe barely, but that’s Brooklyn’s fault.) But Steve being thrifty and a child of the Depression? Steve would not consider Brooklyn worth what it wants of him.

BUT… Steve also comes out of the ice as a 27 year old. In 2012. Steve’s also an emotional Millennial, with similar experience of economic collapse (Depression versus the 2001-2002 & 2008 recessions) & attack (Pearl Harbor vs 9/11) and disaster (Dust Bowl, 1926 Miami Hurricane vs Katrina). It’s why he gets along with Natasha.

The other Greatest Generation members of the MCU are Howard Stark, Jarvis, Peggy Carter, Bucky Barnes, and the Howling Commandos. They have variations, depending on where they were born, and their family’s relative affluence. Peggy would have lived through years of war tension before she even met Steve, and the continuing rationing in Britain (until 1953) would be a big incentive to stay in the United States with early SHIELD.

But their generational patterns are there, and they primarily track to their specific conditions.

The next generation, per Generational Theory, are the Silent Generation: the ones born in 1926-1944(ish). They were too young to go to World War II, but they experienced it as children. They also experienced economic privation, in the Depression & war rationing.

AND… just as they were becoming adults, in the late 40s & 50s, they were often squeezed out of jobs, promotions, education, housing & opportunity by the returned Greatest Gen GIs, who had a lot of pent up savings from the lean war years, and needed to make up time.

Just like in reality, the Silent Generation got squeezed out and mostly overlooked in the MCU. Thaddeus Ross (Winter Soldier) and Hank Pym and Bill Foster and Obediah Stane and Senator Stern are all probably Silent, rather than Baby Boomers.

  • I note that HYDRA seemed to get their hooks deeply into Silent. Which also makes sense. HYDRA went underground after WWII, and started re-emerging in the late 50s, when the Silents are establishing their careers. HYDRA in the John Birch Society is a perfect fit. Hydra in the HUAC is also a perfect fit.

Silents were out of step with, and overshadowed by, the dominant culture. They were always too young, or too late.

To switch ‘verses for a moment? Back to the Future‘s Marty McFly’s parents are Silents. So is Peggy Sue, of Peggy Sue Got Married. Mad Men’s Peggy Olson & Pete Campbell are Silents. 1950s teen culture was Silent, not Baby Boomer.

But the Boomers were on the way, in reality and the MCU.

Nick Fury is the major MCU Baby Boomer.

  • This analysis only applies to the MCU. The comics version of Nick has a long, epic history, and Nick Fury is eternal. He teethed on velociraptor bones, and he’ll observe the heat death of the universe.
  • This specific progression is why this article exists, because I was trying to reconcile Nick’s MCU history.

If SHIELD uses a similar career progression to FBI/CIA, MCU Nick had to join SHIELD before he turned 37, because the FBI requires retirement at age 57; they must have 20 years to receive a full pension. Nick also had to have a bachelor’s degree, and 2 years relevant career experience.

In Captain Marvel, Nick tells Vers/Carol that he joined the army out of high school and left a Colonel. That’s 22 years of service per current requirements. It might have been as little as 18 years during Vietnam, but not afterwards. That makes Nick Fury too old to join a CIA or SHIELD that plays by US civil service rules.

However, he could have retired as a lieutenant colonel, with 15 years of service, and just abbreviated his rank to a stranger that he’s challenging.

There’s still a problem though: straight out of high school means starting out enlisted, and then navigating the jump to officer, very well and quickly. It also means he did all of that in the late 70s & early 80s, during the post-Vietnam drawdown. Promotions got a lot more difficult between 1974 and 1984.

It works better if by joined Nick means he joined the National Guard or ROTC, and went to college first.

He also tells her he’s from Huntsville, Alabama, which means he graduated from a segregated high school.

  • Which does not mean inferior, just underfunded. Black teachers were equally well educated, if not better educated than their white peers. And it is the great lost opportunity of integration that we didn’t integrate those Black teachers either at the same time as we integrated the children, or before we integrated the children. Think of how much more smoothly integration might have gone if all children had teachers of color, starting in first grade, in the 1950s.

It was not uncommon for mid-century college-bound students to graduate at 17. Nick joins ROTC/National Guard, got his bachelor’s first, goes in as O2/ 1st Lieutenant, puts in 15, retires as a 36 year old Lt Colonel, goes to the CIA, then SHIELD, and is 5-7 years into his agency career when he meets Carol in 1995.

  • Nick could have been born as early as 1946 or as late as 1954, but the later his birth, the longer he had to serve to leave as a lieutenant colonel or colonel. If he was born in 1946, graduated high school in 1963, graduated college in 1967 with 4 years of guard service, he could join SHIELD in the early 1980s with 18 years of military service. But if he’s born in 1954, graduates in 1971, and is 36 in 1990, he was looking at 22+ years to hit lieutenant colonel. I personally would peg him as 1948 to 1950. But regardless of which year in this span, MCU Nick is 100% Boomer.

It also means Nick was determined enough to know he had to grind grades in 1963-1973 (college years) to keep his deferment, and had someone influential enough to get him into an ROTC/Guard unit at all. And yes, he still went to a segregated high school, no matter which year he was born. Desegregration didn’t happen until 1971 in Alabama.

Because if Nick didn’t grind? Nick would have been drafted and would not be Nick Fury of SHIELD in 1995 or 2008 or now. He was a Black man from Alabama in the 1960s. His exclusively white, racist hometown draft board did not care that he was incredibly clever and talented. They would prefer a clever, talented young Black man come back to his mother in a box, because a clever, talented young Black man threatened their power. They would have yanked his deferment simply because he was breathing their oxygen.

Also, I’d put money on Nick attending an HBCU, if he’s in college by 1965. And he’s been at least adjacent to civil rights work since he was… ooh, a wee sprat.

BUT he was also adjacent to Operation Paperclip, since he grew up in Huntsville. (The Nazi scientists)

Huntsville was a rocket and missile development arsenal, starting in 1948. There’s a good chance that Nick’s mom was a computer. Redstone/Huntsville developed the Project Oribiter & the PGM-Jupiter in the mid 50s. Explorer 1, the 1st US satellite, was Huntsville.

Thus: if Nick grew up in Huntsville, there were a lot of (somewhat) reformed Nazis in town (and also probably HYDRA). Anyone working on anything critical had some level of security clearance & didn’t talk about work. Math & science would have been in the air he breathed, and even his segregated high school would have had access to advanced mathematics teaching.

If Nick’s father was a World War II vet, the GI Bill was a … complicated issue for the Furies.

Black soldiers were 100% eligible for GI education benefits & VA housing loans, but because of institutional discrimination and because most of the state and private universities excluded Black men from admissions, all of the HBCUs were overwhelmed and underfunded in the immediate post-war era, and because of redlining and financial discrimination, getting a mortgage was difficult at the best of times, and impossible in most of the country. And yet, the GI Bill almost quadrupled college enrollment for black people by 1950, and continued to grow over the next two decades. By 1960, the black veterans of WWII had used their their access to and their struggle with the GI Bill to set up the precipitating events that enabled the Civil Rights movement.

  • Personally, I always pegged Nick as coming from Los Angeles or Oakland (both of which integrated either before Brown, or immediately upon the order) in this same time frame. I saw him as a Panther and a 2nd Amendment activist as a young man, who decided to go military for the benefits, and is a literal Social Justice Warrior.

The other major Boomer in the Avengers cohort is Erik Selvig, and he’s probably a late boomer, on the cusp of Jones. Also, being Norwegian/Swedish, he would have grown up much closer to the shadow of the Nazis and World War II, and would have been up close for the early Cold War.

Erik would have seen many more defections and refugees, and should have been either a physics undergrad or in grad school for Chernobyl in 1986. The USSR didn’t want to admit the criticality, but were forced to when Sweden detected the radiation and went public. But ultimately, we just don’t have enough of Erik’s backstory to make good assumptions.

The Strauss-Howe definitions of Boomers starts at 1946 and ends in 1965, but that’s actually too long for a cohort, since the difference in modern culture between a nineteen year old and a toddler is pretty clear. There is a better dividing line for the next cohort in 1955-56, when the post-war recession hit the United States. For the first time, the post-war prosperity faltered.

That’s where the cohort called Generation Jones starts. They get the name from “keeping up with the Joneses”, and they’re often either the later children of the Greatest Gen and the younger siblings of Boomers, or they are the eldest children of Silent Generation.

They started out as tag-a-longs, always trying to play with the bigger kids. They ended up with a lot of hand-me-downs in material culture and in attitude, but also with the resentments of the Silent Generation because they were not the focus of their culture the way the Brand New Hope of the 1946-55 babies were. Jones’s stereotype is every little brother and sister in mid-century entertainment. They tend to be competitive, even cocky.

Carol Danvers and Maria Rambeau are probably younger than Nick and older than Phil Coulson by birth year, and would therefore be the sole representatives of Generation Jones. They were Captains in 1986, which meant about 5 years of service plus 4 years of college. They were 27 to 31 at the time of the crash, so could have been born as early as 1953, or as late as 1960. But Carol is out of time and has a poor memory of her life before, so she doesn’t fit well into Generational theory, and Maria’s limited time on screen doesn’t give us much of her context, which would be 100% different as a Black, single mother, Air Force Officer test pilot in the 1980s.

Jones ends in approximately November of 1963, because everything changed at the end of 1963. There had not been an assassination of a national leader in Western Europe or North America since 1914, which started World War I. The last prominent global leader to be assassinated was Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. (And as Caitlin Doughty says, if the Kennedy team had just allowed a funeral director to do the event planning, there probably wouldn’t have been nearly as many conspiracy theories.) While the Cuban Missile Crisis had been over for a year, tensions between NATO and the Iron Curtain were not at their best.

The Kennedy Assassination was, for most of the children born after 1946, a watershed moment, and it changed their perception of continuity and reality, but there is another reason, and it’s quieter, and far more revolutionary than one man getting shot.

Diaphragms became increasingly popular in the 1950s, but The Pill passed approval in 1960.

It took about three years for mass market penetration, (and a lot of activism, including a Supreme Court case and dropping the cost to about $5 a month ($25 in 2020 money)) but by the end of 1963, we start seeing the demographic shift. While there are more women of childbearing age in the US than ever before, they start demonstrably producing fewer children in 1963 and it never picks back up.

That’s The Pill. The Jones cohort ends, and Generation X begins with voluntary motherhood. This, alone, may be the most revolutionary event in all of human history. Never before had getting pregnant had even the potential to be a reliably intentional, affirmative act. And Generation X, because it is the first generation of voluntary motherhood, is a significantly smaller cohort than most, and was the first cohort to be smaller than the one that came before it. GenX is also the first generation whose parents were actively grappling with the idea that they didn’t have to be parents. It made for some deeply conflicted feelings.

The first MCU Xer, then, is Phil Coulson, canonically born on July 8, 1964, in Wisconsin, who would have graduated high school in 1982. (Phil’s canon is all MCU.)

He studied history, and appears to have been recruited into SHIELD as the equivalent of a CIA analyst: college graduate, probably a master’s, mostly wanted for his critical thinking skills to anticipate needs, rather than to enforce any national or international policies. Phil’s route differs from Nick’s FBI/CIA counter-intelligence and law enforcement route. Which fits: in 1995, Phil is about 4-7 years into his career; he is the junior partner in the Fury (7-10 years plus military service) & Coulson partnership.

  • And I still want a buddy cop series of the two of them. Set it in the late 1990s, the late 2020s, whenever.

Like most early Xers, Phil can fanboy over tech like nobody’s business — remember, he’s only a couple years older than War Games’ David Lightman. He quite likely had a TRS80 or a TI94/A, because they weren’t expensive hardware; I would bet cash that he had an Atari. Phil watched the moon landing as a wee boy. Space was a thing humans did for all of his life; Phil was born into, and has always lived in the future.

Phil also grew up with the environmental movement. Love Canal‘s toxic waste was revealed and Three Mile Island went critical while he was in high school. Chernobyl happened just before he got his bachelor’s. Phil was 19 when Union Carbide killed 2500 people in Bhopal, India.

Better living through chemistry was aspirational for the Boomers, but for GenXers? It has always been sarcastic. Frequently, bitterly so.

Phil also would have come to political consciousness with Watergate. He was 10 when Nixon resigned, and the nightly news was a midwestern household ritual. He was 15 when the Iranian hostages were taken, 16 when Reagan was elected in a landslide. 22 and graduating with a bachelor’s when news of the Iran-Contra affair broke.

If you don’t think Phil Coulson has a deeply rooted distrust of the government that employs him, you haven’t been paying attention to him. Both he and Nick are The Deep State, and they know it: they will keep the machinery of government rolling because they know anarchy is worse. But they don’t have many illusions about the benevolence of elected officials. And they also know how easily both elected and technocratic government can be corrupted. Because they’ve both seen it all their lives, openly and covertly.

Phil – and Melinda May – are our middle class, early Gen Xers.

MCU Tony Stark is the dead center Xer. Born in 1970, born into the gigantic wealth that the post-war peace dividend produced. Hey, when the world destroys half of its industrial capacity, those given the contract to replace it do tend to get fabulously wealthy. Eisenhower called them the military-industrial complex but it was the result of rebuilding, too, and MIC includes textile manufacturing, steel forges, construction companies, and communications/media.

Tony was born into an advanced technology world: even when Howard was busy/distant (these are the same to a 5 year old) Tony had an affectionate mother and Jarvis and other people who encouraged and enabled him. His parents used their resources to encourage his cleverness and aptitudes.

Tony also comes to political awareness during the Reagan-Bush years, as the child of a defense contractor. Tony’s first experience of government was primarily as entities that spend money. He never had much of a reason to consider any government as anything but a demanding, often deadbeat customer, someone who would pay him eventually, not the other way around.

His wealth meant he never needed to care about getting a good interest rate on a student loan, nor needed food or heating aid, nor had to delay healthcare because of the cost. Tony can be kind, and generous, but his wealth always insulated him, and enabled him to be selfish. It was only when he, personally, was harmed by what his wealth did that he began to change… and his first and primary instinct? To use the material wealth around him to once again insulate and protect himself from harm. He literally built himself armor, and it wasn’t all iron. Tony, at the beginning of his story, is the embodiment of leopards eating faces.

In this, he’s really not different from a lot of middle to upper class white guys from Gen X. A lot of us don’t like to admit it, but Paul Ryan is a GenX douchebro. So is Bret Kavanaugh. So is Elon Musk.

The 70s and 80s were fertile soil for growing dickheads.

Why? Well, we know that wealth actually reduces compassion in measurable, consistent ways, and we know that power causes physical damage like a traumatic brain injury. And the 80s were the era of Greed Is Good and a massive transfer of power to corporations.

How Wealth Reduces Compassion – Scientific American

Power Causes Brain Damage – The Atlantic

Tony becomes a hero not *because* of his wealth, but in spite of it.

  • And do recall, he was originally written as a complete waste of space & hair. That he’s improved enough to become decent is pretty impressive. And is entirely due to Robert Downey Junior’s ability as an actor.

We can apply all of this, just at a slightly lower wealth rating, to Stephen Strange, who is Tony’s peer. Also, Danny “Cultural Appropriation” Fist, who is a very late Xer, or geriatric Millennial.

James Rhodes, Bruce Banner & Clint Barton are the not-rich GenX representatives. And hey, they don’t suck! It’s like being wealthy makes jerks!

  • I will say that being female seems to be protective, even with wealth. Hope (Pym) Van Dyne is not putting up with Scott’s shit, but he did commit crimes against her and her property, so that’s a healthy boundary, not privilege.

And then there are the Millennial characters, and that starts with Natasha Romanoff, born December 3, 1984 per Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

In the Soviet Union. In Stalingrad (now Volgograd.)

Which means: she was 5 years old when the Berlin Wall fell. (Addendum: this is also the same year Yelena was born.)

And 7 years old when the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Addendum, 2022: and the next year, 1992, she’s in Ohio, pretending to be part of a family that becomes a family over the next three years. She’s 11 at the beginning of Black Widow. And this means? She missed most of the downward spiral as the Soviet Union fell apart, but she got to experience all of the horror of the crash as the newborn/reborn Russian corpse began to rot. While she was in the midst of culture shock and the trauma of losing her family.

Was she in the Red Room as a second grader? I don’t know. (Addendum: yes, if we can trust Milena’s account of Nat’s mother, and the way Natasha was abducted in infancy. To be 6 years old after more than 3 years in Ohio, Yelena was apparently in the Red Room program by the time she was 2, to be assigned with Milena and Alexei.) Maybe, if the old KGB treated it like the Romanians treated their Olympic gymnastics program. But that assumes Gorbachev considered the training of future super-spies worth the USSR’s very limited resources

And a fraction of zero is still zero. The Soviet budget before, during and after the collapse was effectively zero. What we do know is that the Red Room wasn’t under the authority of, and she likely wasn’t being trained by, Vladimir Putin, who quit the KGB in 1991 to do St Petersburg politics. He incidentally figured out where all of the so-called shock therapy generated illicit money was going. And how to use it for personal benefit.

  • By the way: these last few links are a great primer for understanding just how Russia got this corrupt. The years of collapse were the origin of the modern #MoneyLaundry.
  • Also, the KGB ceased to exist in 1991; if Natasha was ever employed by a Russian secret spy agency, it was the FSB, and they are crucially different organizations.

Volgograd/Stalingrad may be important for Nat’s environment, because it’s a small city (only one million in population if we can believe Soviet or Russian numbers… which we shouldn’t; there was evidence from the 1950s onwards that they were inflating their population numbers).

Stalingrad was so horribly besieged that anyone old enough to be teaching likely had first degree contact with the battle. It is in the city’s skin and bones. BUT… the city is also far from Moscow.

In the old Soviet system, not attracting the boss’ notice was a survival skill. And Stalingrad, being down in southern Russia, cuddled up to Kazakhstan, got good at not attracting attention, and learned how to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

The only thing we really know about the Red Room from Nat’s memory (before Black Widow) is that it was based in pre-(1917) Revolutionary building. That’s realistically every large city in Russia. There’s no reason the Red Room needs to be in Moscow, or St Petersburg or Stalingrad. There are very good, counter-intelligence reasons to put it in a small, obscure city. It looks like a dance academy, and that’s a safe cover story.

We don’t even really know how the Red Room acquires its students; they might take them from their mothers, or they take orphans, or they make orphans. (Addendum: well, in Natasha’s case, we know she was abducted and her mother was killed. But Russia and the Soviet Union have been in a demographic hole for at least three generations now, with male life expectancy up to 25 years less than women, which has been creating a serious gender imbalance, so a lot of women don’t have their children’s fathers in their lives, and a lot of girls are raised by single mothers. Or surrendered by an overwhelmed single mother. In the USSR, a child in an orphanage should have been treated as well as a child in their parents’ care, but resources are tricky, and conditions got much, much worse under collapse.) Or it’s a big privilege and the girls get to go home for holidays. (Seriously, if an authority that a group of children trusts can make a secret fun and not shameful? The kids will keep it secret. Children enjoy knowing things adults don’t.)

But the problem is not location or how the Red Room operated, so much as the lack of time for Nat to have become a spy, and certainly not under the Soviet mantle.

We know where she is in 2005 — doing something that cannot be faked in a way that will pass a background check: runway modeling. There are dozens of cameras and hundreds of people watching a runway show, and each outfit is photographed multiple times, by widely separated and competitive agencies. Tony is a sloppy CEO, but Pepper isn’t a sloppy executive and as a defense contractor? Neither is Stark Industries’ internal security division. Natalie Rushman’s references were checked, thoroughly. It wouldn’t be that hard to have someone in the UC system and at Harvard to confirm degrees (or even confer the degrees), but that kind of fake only requires one person. The only way to fake a runway show is to walk the catwalk. Thus, by 2005, Natasha was working for Fury and Budapest must have already happened. (Addendum: Budapest had to happen in 2003 or 2004. She was no older than twenty.)

She was 21 in 2005, and well into building the Natalie Rushman deep cover that she will use on Tony in Iron Man in 2009. That cover was clearly built as Tony Stark’s Personal Catnip, but it’s a catnip that would also appeal to many wealthy white dudes. That’s part of the Widow skillset.

She says she had a skillset she was willing to use for whoever was willing to pay. That really does fit with someone raised during the 90s in the former USSR. Even someone as privileged as the valuable asset the Red Room produced probably didn’t get enough heat, or enough food, and copper thieves were stealing electrical lines all the time, so electricity and medicine were scarce.

Natasha doesn’t have much nationalist loyalty because she knows that states don’t endure. In a lot of ways, she and Steve share most of their ethical underpinnings: born into deeply unequal societies, working class, experiences of financial collapse and war.

Their commitment is to the notion that humans deserve to survive, and to egalitarian ideals, not to the people or the specific structures. That’s fairly advanced social thinking, and it says that whatever the Red Room taught between 1991 and 2004, it wasn’t Soviet and it wasn’t Putin’s Russia.

And given that Natasha appears to have GTFO’d the Russian fail-state as soon as she could, that decision could have been influenced specifically by the rise of the oligarchs & the mafiya state. By the early 2000s, working for the Russian government meant being contract labor for mobsters.

Whatever else Nat is, she’s not a crook. She’s done things she is not proud of, but she got out as soon as she could.

  • Skipping the Whedon fail. I note here that he has a pattern of punishing women who dare to become pregnant in his vicinity. Note that Marti Noxon was pregnant in the latter seasons of BTVS and is the only person who didn’t cross over to Angel or Firefly after BTVS ended, and she did not work on Dollhouse. Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia was destroyed as a character and she was written off for becoming a 30 year old, planned parent. And same for ScarJo.
  • We also know that Nat’s conditioning was in two parts — early childhood and then adolescence, and that hers was strictly operant conditioning; but we also know that Yelena’s wasn’t just operant conditioning; Yelena’s brain was stirred. Natasha got lucky — re-inventing that program probably took longer because the Soviet Union fell and the oligarchs were stealing all the money than it would have a few years earlier.
  • Also, the Widow program was stupid, even for weird and stupid Soviet programs. Hey, let’s invest serious resources into these superspies and train them to be super warriors who depend on their endurance, their body’s healing capacity, and maintaining strength, then immediately render them susceptible to major bone loss and muscle mass loss, put major stress on their cardiovascular systems, ensure they’re going to risk dementia very young, and make them bad at the romance/seduction part of their jobs by putting them into extremely early menopause without the protection of ovaries producing estrogen. There are many ways to surgically render someone sterile and reduce/stop their periods (salpingectomy and endometrial ablation are the simplest) without causing menopause at 18. I blame this one on male writers being totally baffled and disgusted by women’s health, and all of them deserve to sit through a detailed reproductive health class for it.

Our other Millennial Avengers: Maria Hill, Pepper Potts, Scott Lang, Hope (Pym) Van Dyne, Sam Wilson, T’Challa, Okoye, (addendum: Yelena Belova)

The Wakandans are more or less exempt from this version of generational theory. They have a different social structure, different technological, mythological and social accesses, and different expectations.

Sam, however, is proof that the MCU is the wishiest of wish fulfillment: no job, no student loans, no mortgage keeping him from going on adventures with Steve & the gang.

  • Which is even more wishy wish fulfillment after seeing that he’s a shrimper’s kid.

(Sure, putting Steve in charge of the Avengers HQ ensures everyone gets a living wage — because he’s a Depression kid — but which congressional committee appropriated their funding? It’s not UN, cuz the UN ain’t got money. If it’s private funding, please let’s hope it’s SpaceX rather than Thiel’s libertarian iron fisted sea colony.) (Addendum: let’s hope it’s not SpaceX, either.)

Peter Parker, Shuri, and Wanda & Pietro are the post-millennials (Gen Z, or the Digital Natives.) They’re just hitting adulthood, they’ve lived almost all of their lives with massive access to technology, and under various war conditions. (Vision also belongs in this category.)

Wanda and Natasha should have significant affinity, and they do seem to understand each other, when they’re allowed to talk. (I blame their male directors, and the studio, for cramming in too much story.) They’re both immigrants who survived fallen governments. That matters far more than age.

Since all the young’uns are (were) dust in the wind, and they haven’t had a lot of screen time, and their cultural tropes are still being established… they’re harder to talk about. But I do note that online access enabled the Maximoffs, and gave Shuri & Peter a common language, despite being thousands of miles apart. Which will just continue.

I expect these frameworks to continue to influence these specific characters.

Tony and Steve don’t get along because their frames are entirely opposed: Tony came of age under Bush pere’s pursuit of a capital gains tax cut, while Steve was a teenager when the 90% tax on income above $1 million USD began.

They may never address money at all (it would be an irrelevant conversation) but it influences how they navigate their moral universes.

Steve and Tony are the extreme examples, yet…

They’re media fictions who neatly fit into a framework of Generational Theory, which is used to sell their story.

What came first? The egg, or the small, tasty dinosaur?

Generational Theory reflects the experiences of people in the frame, but both the media, and the theory itself, are created by the people in the frame.

  • Noting that Strauss-Howe really do love Baby Boomers. Both Generations and The Fourth Turning devote significantly more pages to the Boomers. I note they are Boomers. I also note they despise Generation X and don’t hide it.

Good literature addresses the moral arcs of the audiences, without slamming it too hard. To have broad appeal, a $250 million production must appeal to the largest market segments possible, and the production intentionally builds stories to resonate within those groups.

It works when it’s well done.

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