Where's the Rose-Tinted Nostalgia for the 90s in Film?

By Tom Beasley on at

If you've consumed any amount of popular culture over the last few years, you're probably exhausted by the sheer quantity of warm nostalgia for the 1980s on show. From the Netflix behemoth Stranger Things to big screen outings like the new adaptation of Stephen King's It, Ready Player One and Bumblebee, as well as upcoming sequel Wonder Woman 1984, it seems as though a whole generation of filmmakers are in love with the 80s. That's not a coincidence, given the age of the people behind those projects. They're almost all children of that decade, growing up on a diet of Amblin movies and A-ha.

With the release of Captain Marvel, though, there's a different sort of nostalgia on the horizon. From the moment that Brie Larson's titular Kree warrior crash lands her spaceship through the roof of a Blockbuster Video, the latest MCU mega-blockbuster is an homage to the 1990s. But crucially, it's not a homage seen through the rose-tinted hue of childhood warmth. It's a look back at a decade that, with the best will in the world, was a bit naff. The pipeline of warm love for the 1980s seems to be permanently turned on, but the tank is already running on empty when it comes to the subsequent decade.

The 1995 of Captain Marvel is a place that is used as a stark contrast with the technologically advanced and connected world in which much of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes place. This is a world of slow-loading computer discs, pagers and the clunky interface of the mostly forgotten AltaVista search engine. This isn't an ode to joyful childhood memories – it's a tongue in cheek look back at a decade in which technology was, at best, a little annoying and at worst an utter nightmare. The only thing missing is the iconic audio barrage that once greeted anyone trying to connect to the internet via the medium of a dial-up modem. One expects any machine that gave Carol Danvers that level of aggro would be subject to a swift and decisive photon blast.

It's clear that Captain Marvel has no interest in donning rose-tinted spectacles for its look back at 1990s music, either. While viewers who grew up in the era will get a kick out of hearing the sounds of Nirvana and TLC on the soundtrack, it hits hard when Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury declares that the titular hero looks “like someone's disaffected niece” in her Nine Inch Nails tee and button-up flannel shirt combo. Grunge music and its associated fashion may have been cool once, but Marvel's latest superhero outing is keen to make it clear that, in hindsight, it all feels a little lame.

Twisted evocation of 1990s grunge is something we've seen before on the big screen, with last year's Venom. Ruben Fleischer's critically reviled superhero adventure was set in the present day rather than the 90s, but the character is intrinsically rooted in that decade. The film is loosely inspired by the 1993 'Lethal Protector' storyline, which saw Eddie Brock and the symbiote sharing his body become an antihero in their own right, rather than a villainous foil for Spider-Man.

Fans of that incarnation of the character may have been somewhat disappointed by the movie, which ultimately lacked the R-rated edge they were hoping for. In its place was a more overtly comedic take on Venom, which skewered the idea of the character as a serious vigilante. This was a film in which a head-scoffing space parasite with a foul mouth admitted that “on my planet, I'm kind of a loser like you”. He was not exactly the grungy alien badass that a certain section of the fan base wanted to see. Instead, the character seemed to be openly critical of anyone who had the temerity to watch the film with a straight face.

That, ultimately, is what these examples of 1990s reminiscence are about. They're reflective exercises, used to recognise that the culture of the time probably took itself a little too seriously. Spelling everything with an 'X' at the beginning and wearing spray paint designs is not a substitute for an actual expression of counter-culture. The 90s generation can be embodied as a gang of rebels with nothing to rebel against. The Cold War ended at the beginning of the decade and it wasn't until the fallout of 9/11 that the 'War on Terror' would give politically passionate youngsters something new to speak out against. They were angry, but they didn't really have anything tangible to target that anger towards.

These films are also a reflection of differing feelings towards the past. Children of the 1980s look back at their youth with a sort of rose-tinted glow, as they are perhaps the last generation to have benefited from the afterglow of the 1960s and its loosening of the social reins. Those who grew up during the 1990s, however, are more cynical and nihilistic about the world. It's the difference between the earliest Generation X kids and the later ones, or those who were scared of Kurt Cobain and those who saw him as an untouchable deity.

The opposite side of the movies' take on the last decade of the 20th century comes from Mid90s. Based in the unique subculture of the Los Angeles skateboarding scene, the film is the directorial debut of Jonah Hill – veteran of a million Judd Apatow comedies from the noughties in which he made a lot of jokes about penises and marijuana. His film follows Sunny Suljic as the 13-year-old newbie in a group of sweary, disaffected youngsters who spend their days trying to perfect skateboard tricks while getting high and giving each other abusive nicknames.

At times, it's an elegantly crafted love letter to Hill's own childhood, but it occasionally feels like a slightly-too-warm portrayal of a time that's worthy of criticism from our modern moral high horse. Characters in the movie toss around homophobic and ableist slurs as if they're nothing and, although it's definitely an authentic portrait of the time period, it sits a little awkwardly with the cosy, nostalgic perspective taken up by the filmmaker. A little bit of introspection would have been very welcome. In the same way that anyone watching 90s classic 10 Things I Hate About You for the first time today is likely to bristle with discomfort when Larisa Oleynik's character casually wishes her sister could find a “blind, deaf retard” to take her to the movies, there's something uncomfortable in Mid90s when the same sort of language is thrown around.

In general, there's a weirdness to the film's portrayal of its time period, which seems to suggest it was an era of glorious rebellion against the amorphous idea of 'the man'. Indeed, Hill's view of the 90s is very similar to the image of the 1980s that has proved so popular in recent years – one of consistent goodwill and warmth. While everyone else is pointing out that the youngsters of the world were a little bit too serious and sure of itself at that time, Hill is suggesting that this was a glorious period of youth in revolt, before pesky smartphones arrived and ruined everything.

It's difficult to know whether the current self-referential phase of 1990s nostalgia will usurp the run of 80s-obsessed culture any time soon. At 35 years old, Hill is a young filmmaker and it won't be until his contemporaries wrest control of the cinematic agenda away from their elders that viewers get a real impression of what Hollywood's definitive idea of the 1990s will be. It's telling that Greta Gerwig, who was born in the same year as Hill, skipped the 90s entirely for her movie Lady Bird and chose to set it amidst the flip phones and Justin Timberlake dance moves of 2002. If other filmmakers are to take Gerwig's lead, then the concept of cinematic 1990s nostalgia might begin and end with Jonah Hill's attempt to transplant the naturalistic youth malaise of 1980s Britain from This Is England into an American setting a decade later.

The 1990s and its popular culture have been memorialised in BuzzFeed lists and Facebook quizzes about discontinued chocolate bars for years already, so there's little ground for cinema to cover in terms of straightforward nostalgia. With that in mind, it makes sense that the movies are taking a very different approach to the decade and that is, quite simply, to admit it was all a bit rubbish actually.

Certainly, no one in 2019 can look cool in a band tee and some flannel. Not even Brie Larson.