Baby boom cultural boom -- EW columnist Mark Harris on how Madonna and ''Iron Man'' are meeting his middle-aged needs

Baby boom cultural boom

Something strange is happening in pop culture right now. The world is suddenly pandering to me. And I love it!

It’s taken me by surprise because I’m fairly certain that people my age are supposed to be completely irrelevant. I realized this one night when, strictly for the purpose of important sociocultural research, I was Net surfing while watching Gossip Girl (OMFG! It’s…not that great!), and realized that I was a full six years older than actor Matthew Settle, the guy who plays the hot guy’s dad. (Let’s pause to express some sympathy for Matthew, who, at 38, not only has to work surrounded by success-intoxicated kids BlackBerrying their agents about movie offers but must then portray the father of a ”high school student” who looks about 25.) As someone old enough to be his older brother, I was getting a clear message from the entertainment-industrial complex: The clock was ticking. Soon, I would be asked politely to retreat to things like C-SPAN, Cold Case reruns, books about the greatest generation, and evening news broadcasts so packed with scary prescription-drug ads that one suspects their average viewer may not live long enough to find out who Charles Gibson’s ”Person of the Week” is.

But no. Suddenly my needs are being met, over and over. The year’s biggest movie so far, Iron Man, stars Robert Downey Jr., who, at 43, is…I believe the clinical term is ”middle-aged.” And who (he would probably be the first to admit) looks every hard-living year of it, notwithstanding the movie’s impressive strand-by-strand deletion of the gray hair that now speckles his head and goatee. (CGI or Just for Men? Only Paramount’s accountants know for sure.) One reason that Iron Man works so well is that the always wonderful Downey gets to play reasonably close to his age. Unlike many comic-book movies, this one isn’t about a young person coming into his powers and realizing he is destined for greatness; it’s about a rusted-out partyer who undergoes some very unusual heart surgery. I’ve never seen anything in a superhero movie quite like the expression on Downey’s face when he’s trying out the jet packs in his new boots and looking like he’s really hoping his new ability to fly won’t throw out his lower back when he lands.

And then came Madonna, whose Hard Candy hit No. 1 in its first week of release. What’s amazing about this isn’t that Madonna turns 50 this year; it’s that Hard Candy‘s way-retro, get-stupid dance music is so unmistakably a bone thrown to those of us who are old enough to have been her fans back when her eyebrows were still brown and her accent was still American, and she wouldn’t have been able to find Malawi unless it was a gay club in New York. ”Come on into my store, I got candy galore,” she sings in ”Candy Shop” (”candy,” these days, presumably being a euphemism for Boniva, Olay Regenerist, or Pilates-class gift certificates). Madonna may be hauling herself up onto car hoods with Justin Timberlake, but when I listen to a track like ”She’s Not Me” and hear the cop whistle from Donna Summer’s ”Bad Girls” and a nod to the chimes from Anita Ward’s 1979 disco hit ”Ring My Bell,” I know exactly who she’s talking to: people who first stepped onto a dance floor when there was a glitter ball twirling above it. ”Done it all before, it ain’t nothin’ new,” she incants on ”Give It 2 Me.” Translation: This is fun, but we can all read a calendar and add, so let’s not kid ourselves.

It doesn’t stop there. The soon-to-arrive Sex and the City stars Sarah Jessica Parker, who, like Downey, is 43, and her familiar cohorts, whose ages range from 42 (Cynthia Nixon) to fif-cough! (Kim Cattrall). Yes, they’ve had to suffer through some indignities, including the female-on-female criminal embarrassment of being called ”cougars,” whereas men in their 40s who are interested in sex are commonly referred to as ”men.” But still: They’re carrying a big movie, not playing the moms in a Miley Cyrus/Vanessa Hudgens comedy.

There’s a danger that some of this is just a symptom of late-baby-boomer attention hogging, what former EW writer Jeff Gordinier, in his book X Saves the World, shrewdly derides as ”50 is the new 30” syndrome, the start of ”another gluttonous…decade-long smorgasbord of self-importance” from a generation pathologically unready to cede the spotlight. But the boomer tendency to fetishize every bit of prefab junk we encountered as kids may finally have topped out: Note the colossal failure of Speed Racer, unsuccessfully foisted on audiences that were either too young to recall the ’60s cartoon or old enough to remember exactly how numbingly cruddy it actually was. The pop culture that’s clicking these days isn’t about living out a second childhood; it’s more like a second adulthood. When Downey pulls on his armor or SJP straps on her Manolos one more time, they know where they stand — and how much their knees hurt. Forty is the new forty. Welcome to my world. Here’s some ibuprofen.