Kid heroes step up to save the world in throwback 'It,' 'Stranger Things'

Brian Truitt

Way before the Avengers or Justice League took the big screen, it was the Goonies, the Monster Squad and other Reagan-era youngsters tasked with saving the day because, well, the grown-ups just couldn’t hack it.

Jaeden Lieberher (from left), Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor and Sophia Lillis play kids who have to deal with a demonic clown running around town in 'It.'

And in 2017 pop culture, we’re holding out for those kid heroes yet again.

The new big-screen edition of Stephen King’s It (in theaters Friday) and the Netflix binge favorite Stranger Things (Season 2 premieres Oct. 27) are '80s nostalgia trips shaped by young characters stepping up to take charge in a confusing and scary world.

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“It’s a big, interesting analogy with what’s going on today,” It director Andy Muschietti says. “We live in a culture of fear and most people submit to it. The hope is for the new generation. Those are the ones who can save us."

Will (Noah Schnapp, left), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are back together in 'Stranger Things' Season 2.

Adults in real life right now are "certainly disappointing," says Stranger Things executive producer Shawn Levy, pointing to the divisive political climate. The “code of loyalty and honor” among the children of a small Indiana town is “a huge part of our show and certainly some wish fulfillment in 2017.” 

The creators of these kid-centric adventures are re-living the heyday of Steven Spielberg's Amblin production company, and a time when rookie filmgoers begged their parents to see Flight of the Navigator and The Last Starfighter.

There were strong John Hughes vibes in the high-school setting of summer hit Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which 15-year-old Spidey (Tom Holland) battles through inexperience and takes on the villainous Vulture (Michael Keaton) when it becomes clear that Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) isn’t going to help.

And Spielberg himself is directing next year's Ready Player One (March 30), a futuristic tale about a teen (Tye Sheridan) who escapes from a dystopian existence to a virtual-reality plane filled with '80s throwbacks like Freddy Krueger and the Back to the Future DeLorean.

It and Stranger Things, though, are essentially period pieces deeply influenced by an era filled with scrappy underdogs. Whereas Elliott and Co. had to save E.T. from mean scientists while The Goonies tried to reach treasure before the Fratelli gang, the Stranger kids put aside Dungeons & Dragons games and homework to stop an otherworldly Demogorgon and rescue their friends. And the Losers’ Club of It goes toe to toe — or red nose, as it were — with the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), who has the town's adults under his spell. 

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In a sense, those stories spur on the next generation, conveying "that you can do something really great with your life and you can save the world,” says It actor Wyatt Oleff.

Adds co-star Jack Dylan Grazer: “It’s kind of empowering knowing that kids can do this the same or even better than adults can. In (It), only the kids can see what is really happening and they’re stopping it.”

Teenage Spidey (Tom Holland, right) has to deal with supervillains like Shocker (Logan Marshall-Green) run amok in 'Spider-Man: Homecoming.'

Pint-sized good guys are “relevant in any time, frankly,” says It producer Seth Grahame-Smith. “Kids feel as if there are just certain things they’re experiencing that parents don’t understand or can’t help them with.”

Moviegoers are intrigued by more than the creepy clown in the film, on track to earn $55 million in its opening weekend — which would set a September record. “The idea of a kid as a hero is really appealing to people" now just as it was back in the day with Stand By Me and Gremlins, says Scott Weinberg, film writer and co-host of the ‘80s All Over podcast.

“A generous or smart or successful kid is something we can all appreciate. When a kid sets up a lemonade stand in Philly to help people in Houston (after Hurricane Harvey), we applaud that because we like to see nobility and heroism in our children.”