There is a scene toward the beginning of The Tomorrow War that reveals the purpose of the film. It’s not the opening flash-forward, featuring Chris Pratt as Dan Forester falling from the sky in a hail of fire while clutching a gun as he time-travels three decades into the future to fight a horde of aliens that look like a freakish fusion of flying squirrel and albino dinosaur. It’s the scene immediately following that, which opens on a Christmas party at Forester’s home. Within the span of a few minutes, we learn that his father abandoned him as a kid, he was raised by his mom, and that Forester, a former Green Beret turned suburban high school teacher, was just turned down for a job, while being told that his substantial military background is useless in the civilian world.
He is a man adrift—without a father figure, stuck in a woman’s profession, with traditionally masculine bona fides that no longer serve a purpose.
This familiar crisis of masculinity necessitates the intervention of Hollywood’s most far-fetched tropes and CGI trickery to reach any kind of resolution. That dramatic existential mediation is no doubt a balm for a core segment of The Tomorrow War’s intended audience: men gripped by a degree of masculine insecurity that demands the deus ex machina of a future alien war. Critics have called the film a global warming metaphor, given a key plot point around melting glaciers, but it mostly strikes me as a testament to the lengths to which Hollywood will go in order to pander to the lowest common denominator of white, cis, heterosexual masculinity.
In The Tomorrow War—SPOILER ALERT—Americans from the future arrive in the present to ask for help fighting a losing war with aliens. In less than a year, all human beings will be “wiped from the face of the earth,” unless the people of the present help out. This requires getting beamed into the future using a poorly tested mode of time travel that, you know, occasionally malfunctions. Soon, a draft is created to enroll everyday Americans in this future war, and Forester is one of the unlucky ones. Here’s where the CGI shenanigans really begin. It’s only after we’ve seen Forester slay some aliens real good that we learn he is serving under his own grown-up daughter. He’s routinely given instructions from other young women of tomorrow. The “future is female”—or a “gynecocracy,” as certain corners of the internet would put it.
This fundamental premise could have been lifted straight from the manosphere, the loose collection of online communities united in feminist backlash, where a popular strain of thought holds that the Industrial Revolution pushed men out of the home, leaving boys to be raised under the influence of moms. Now, the manospherian argument often goes, feminism has fomented a feminized, misandrist era, where men’s traditional skills, industries, and behaviors are delegitimized. Men like Forester are put out to pasture, which is to say: placed in jobs traditionally reserved for women (like educating the next generation, blech). Stubbornly stuck in their entitlement, outrage, and outdated notions of masculinity, the only thing that can save such men is giving them a chance to save the world. Cue: the alien war.
This is what some scholars have called “apocalyptic manhood.” In a 2016 journal article, scholar Casey Ryan Kelly wrote of pop cultural representations that present “hegemonic masculinity” as “an antidote for a crumbling and emasculated society.” She argues that these “theatric performances of masculinity... cultivate anticipation of an apocalyptic event that promises a final resolution to white male alienation.” It isn’t just a future alien war that can offer this resolution, but also the tropes of our wildly popular era of blockbuster superhero films. As Nick Schager wrote in the Daily Beast, “most superhero fantasies are inherently conservative in nature, positing independent vigilantes as the surest way to peace, justice, and the American Way.”
Of course, those vigilantes are typically men. In Captain America: Civil War, the eponymous hero is driven by a conspiracy theory to push back against “imperious federal oversight,” as Schager put it. He believes “that he knows best and should be allowed to act accordingly in whatever international jurisdiction he sees fit.” The film, writes Schager, is a “celebration of lone-wolf heroes brazenly acting on their own (unassailable) whims, unfettered by pesky bureaucratic authority.” While Captain America historically may have had some progressive cred, his potent symbolism and these narrative developments are a gift to alienated white men: some insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol in January dressed as the superhero.
These films slyly tap into the overlapping ideologies of online communities organized around (mostly white) masculinity: neoliberalism, conspiracy theories, nationalism, and white supremacy. In the manosphere, masculine disillusionment acts as a first stepping-stone toward extremism—a man might start out in a “seduction” community and end up in QAnon. In Hollywood, there are no stepping-stones; the entire spectrum of masculine disillusionment is collapsed into a narrative cloaked by defensible metaphor. An impending alien war can act as stand-in for any number of existential threats to white manhood, from feminism to critical race theory. Yes, action and superhero films are silly and over-the-top, but that is exactly what was said of the pickup artists of the 2000s. Fast-forward to the red pill, Elliot Rodger, the Trump presidency.
“Silly” and “over-the-top” sells movie tickets and sets streaming records. It popularizes and commercializes.
The Tomorrow War does seem to be self-conscious about its Reddit-ready dynamics, which is smart, given Pratt’s rumored republicanism, and that he attends the homophobic Hillsong Church. The film filters its fundamental premise through Hollywood’s obligatory idea of wokeness, which is to say: there are lots of women shooting guns, too! Not everyone is white! Forester even believes in science! He’s cool with serving under his daughter, too! She’s, like, really good at science and she’s... a girl! This is prime dad or “father of daughter” feminism, which sees a man use his best wishes for his own daughter as an argument for gender equality.
All of this supposed wokeness only magnifies the underlying masculine anxiety: Here we have a Good Man (i.e. he is not outwardly and aggressively racist or sexist) who is willing to adapt to a fast-changing world but is, in many ways, being left behind. Until, that is, people from the future show up to draft him into a war with aliens, for which he alone is uniquely suited.
Alongside his world-saving maneuvers, Forester resolves his own daddy issues. He reconnects with his father, a man who openly mistrusts the government and teases his son for being “metrosexual.” Forester’s daddy ultimately helps him save the day, after apologizing for his paternal failures while facing down an alien. Again, the absent father—and the broader specter of generations of men raised by the feminizing influence of women—is a key ideological facet of the manosphere. Paternal absence is also a signature of superhero films. As Ciara Wardlow writes, “Superhero movies are filled with dead parents,” often both mothers and fathers, but “the paternal side of the equation gets most of the attention.” The scholar Kara M. Kvaran notes in a paper on superheroes’ reliable daddy issues that “these films strengthen the patriarchal notion that masculinity is constructed and based on the opinions of other men, thereby making women irrelevant.”
As Forester reunites with his dad, he resolves his own issues as a dad: You see, his future grown-up daughter informs him that he went on to leave her and her mom, just like his own dad did to him. In other words, he learns that he, too, becomes an absent dad. It isn’t explained why, except that his daughter observes, “You never seemed happy with your life.” It’s safe to assume that it has something to do with his being relegated to life as a high school science teacher. Through kicking alien butt, shooting a bunch of guns, and helping his grown-up daughter formulate a toxin to kill the aliens, Forester discovers that what he was looking for was there all along. Having saved the world, he finds happiness in his domestic suburban life.
As with so many contemporary action and superhero films, The Tomorrow War maximizes its audience with a conservative storyline cloaked in superficial gestures toward wokeness. The emotional journey of such films is fundamentally one of an alienated white man finding belonging in a changed world. He gains purpose and identity not by abandoning outdated notions of masculinity, but through a fantastical contrivance that makes such traits relevant again. In the process, he is allowed certain expressions of evolved manhood that really only underscore his role as patriarch: he fully accepts his future daughter leader, who, it must be emphasized, needs his help.
This isn’t just evidence of Hollywood cravenly seeking the largest audience possible, although it is obviously that. It’s also a reflection of the current state of masculine self-help, which has moved beyond the traditional boundaries of the manosphere, while maintaining subtle ideological ties, whether in a celebrity’s shallow masculinity memoir that places men’s feelings over systemic critique, New Age “men’s work” where conspiracy theories thrive, or a wildly popular guide to discovering “archetypes of the mature masculine.” This particular realm is variously apolitical, dangerously conspiratorial, and romanticizing of pre-history, often while enacting superficial signals of progressiveness. The Tomorrow War is not only a canny audience grab, it’s also a devastatingly perfect encapsulation of masculinity today.