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The Golden Age of Geekdom
I’ve always been a geek. And what’s more, I’m old enough to remember when it wasn’t cool to be one.
When I was in school, back in the 1980s and ’90s, I spent each week looking forward to Friday night—not because I had dates or plans to meet up with my friends, but because that was when my local PBS station aired three episodes of Star Trek commercial-free: two episodes of The Original Series, plus one of The Next Generation. I tuned in religiously, regardless of whether or not I’d already seen them, taking notes on the plots and the names of the writers and directors. This was before the World Wide Web, before I even had a computer. If that wasn’t nerdy enough, I savored the fact that, due to the lack of commercials, I was seeing each episode of The Original Series as it had originally aired, without any of its scenes missing. (The shows got trimmed down in syndication, to allow for extra advertising.)
The rest of the time I spent reading. I was especially fond of comic books like The Uncanny X-Men, a tale of misunderstood mutant outcasts. I took them with me wherever I went, concealing them from the other kids, afraid my hobby would lead to teasing and bullying—although I really don’t know why I bothered, since I was teased and bullied anyway. I redrew my favorite panels, and spent what money I had on back issues, all the while wondering whether puberty might reveal me to be a mutant. I routinely longed for the X-Men’s leader, Professor X, to come rolling up in his wheelchair and whisk me away to his boarding school, a private institute “for gifted children” where the freaks and the outcasts ruled.
In some ways, that fantasy came true—it was just a little bit behind schedule. When I turned seventeen, I headed to college, where I finally met other people like me. At Penn State, I moved into the honors dorm, Atherton Hall, where, despite my social awkwardness, I quickly made friends with dozens of other students who couldn’t care less about football or the Greek system. Instead, they spent their free time obsessing over The Princess Bride, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. That was 1994, and Atherton Hall was “the Geek Dorm.”
The next four years passed blissfully. I was living in a fantasy world, my mutant paradise, where the coolest kids were the ones who sewed their own Star Trek uniforms, and could recite huge swaths of Star Wars from memory. We commandeered the big-screen TV lounge to watch the Evil Dead trilogy, camped out in the lobby to conduct Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, and whiled away weekends playing the then-new fantasy-trading-card game Magic: The Gathering, all while debating the finer points of The Lord of the Rings.
I also started using the Internet, and sending and receiving e-mails, including lengthy chain letters analyzing unintended sexual innuendo in Star Wars, as well as lists of every episode of Star Trek. Those, plus the burgeoning Internet Movie Database, rapidly rendered my old Trek notebooks obsolete. I stumbled into chat rooms where people were arguing endlessly about science fiction, fantasy, and superhero comics, and having tremendously long conversations dissecting things like last week’s episodes of Babylon 5 and The X-Files. I realized with no small amount of surprise that, as obsessed as I was, others were yet more obsessed.
That realization made me back away from geek life. I was less nerdy than my youth had led me to believe. I had other interests: creative writing, punk rock, experimental films. And I was increasingly aware of the fact that, outside the Geek Dorm’s ivied walls, the rest of the world was patiently waiting. So it was that, at the end of my senior year, I convinced myself I needed to grow up. I sold my comics and my Magic cards, bought a car, got a job, and prepared to enter adulthood.
I needn’t have bothered. It was 1998, and geeks were about to inherit the earth.
* * *
HAD I BEEN paying closer attention while in college, I might have noticed that the real world was quietly changing. In early 1997, George Lucas rereleased the original Star Wars trilogy to theaters, in the form of the Special Editions. I was of course tremendously excited, and went to see the films with my friends, but failed to observe how the movies played with others. As far as I knew, we nerds were the only ones buying tickets—but if so, then how did the theaters sell out? Unbeknownst to me, geek was going mainstream.
Two years later is arguably when geek “broke.” On March 31, 1999, Americans woke up to find The Matrix playing at their local multiplexes. The film proved a smash hit, the must-see movie of the summer, and deeply influential for years to come. Other geek milestones followed in rapid succession. Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace was released to tremendous fanfare on May 19, and while reactions were conflicted (to say the least), it still wound up becoming the highest-grossing movie of the year. The Iron Giant arrived in theaters on August 6, and while it didn’t fare well commercially, it heralded a new, adult-oriented approach to animation, and enabled its director, Brad Bird, to later make the better-known Pixar hit The Incredibles. Finally, the Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest came out on Christmas Day, doing surprisingly well by appealing to general viewers as well as Trekkers.
To understand the change that was under way, it’s important to remember what else was popular at that time. Seinfeld had just gone off the air, ceding its kingdom to the likes of Frasier, Friends, E.R., and Sex and the City. The box office, meanwhile, was dominated by films like Saving Private Ryan, There’s Something About Mary, Rush Hour, and Patch Adams, none of which scream “geek.” Three other top films at the time—Armageddon, Deep Impact, and Godzilla—are nominally science fiction, but in reality they’re disaster films. Hollywood was still trying to make another Independence Day, which had lit up screens in 1996. In 1997, the king of the box office and the Academy Awards was Titanic, followed by The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Liar Liar, As Good as It Gets, and Good Will Hunting. With the exceptions of Men in Black and the Star Wars Special Editions, geeks were mostly underground, delighting in TV shows like Deep Space 9, Babylon 5, and Mystery Science Theater 3000, as well as movies like Star Trek: First Contact, The Fifth Element, and Starship Troopers.
After 1999, however, things really started to change. July 14, 2000, saw the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, the first blockbuster film starring Marvel characters, which would mark the beginning of a new wave of superhero movies. The following year, the two highest-grossing films were Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone—based of course on the first Harry Potter book, which had been published in 1997—and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Both not only proved to be crossover hits, but launched franchises that inspired dozens of imitators, promising plenty more fantasy to come. In 2002, the top four films were Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which became the first movie to earn $100 million in its opening weekend, then The Two Towers, Attack of the Clones, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The geek renaissance was under way.
For my own part, I initially kept my distance, distraught over how Hollywood was mishandling my beloved childhood heroes. The X-Men movie, for instance, disappointed me because of the liberties that Singer and company took with the material. Wolverine and his fellow mutants wore black leather outfits and knew wire-fu, just like in The Matrix. Looking back now, I can see that my fragile, newfound sense of adulthood required that I dismiss movies like X-Men and Spider-Man in favor of artworks that I considered more sophisticated: the foreign films of the French New Wave, the underground experimental cinema that I could find in New York City, and the independent films being released to art-house screens by companies like Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics. Secretly, though, I still saw all the superhero and science fiction films, even while I kept waiting for the geek fad to die out.
But a funny thing happened. The geek renaissance didn’t end. Flash-forward to 2010, when the box office top ten looked like this:
1. Toy Story 3
2. Alice in Wonderland
3. Iron Man 2
4. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
7. Despicable Me
8. Shrek Forever After
9. How to Train Your Dragon
Gone were the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, and There’s Something About Mary—war films, relationship dramas, and gross-out romantic comedies. All that remained was computer animation, fantasy, science fiction, and fairy tales. This reversal of fortune hasn’t been short-lived. Since 2010, Marvel’s ongoing superhero adventures, The Hunger Games series, Frozen, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have ranked among the highest-grossing movies of all time. The song remains the same as we continue down the list. Everywhere we find giant robots, witches and wizards, dystopian futures, superheroes, dragons, and talking apes. And while television took longer to catch up, the premieres of Battlestar Galactica and Lost in 2004 brought the geek renaissance into everyone’s living rooms. Since then, TV’s most popular programs have included The Big Bang Theory, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things.
Nor is there any sign that this phenomenon’s slowing down. The Marvel Cinematic Universe already consists of nineteen films, Iron Man through Avengers: Infinity War, with another half dozen announced, and who knows how many more in the works. In a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige claimed that Marvel is planning films through at least 2028. Meanwhile, DC Comics has been struggling to create its own superhero universe, centered on Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. At the same time, Fox has released ten X-Men movies, with another five in development. And all three companies have expanded to TV, via shows like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legion—and that’s just to mention the superheroes.
Given all of this, it’s unsurprising that being labeled a geek has shifted from a stigma to an outright badge of honor, so much so that in the mid-2000s, “geek chic” became a fashion trend, as celebrities like Justin Timberlake and David Beckham began sporting horn-rimmed glasses and suspenders. Since then, black-rim glasses have remained perennial favorites with fashionistas ranging from hipsters to tween girls. October 2015 saw Party City selling a Teen Girls Hello Kitty Nerd Accessory Kit, which included oversize glasses, an adjustable necktie, and “a geek chic standard pocket protector featuring Hello Kitty’s face.” The accompanying paragraph at the Party City website proclaimed: “Nerds have never been so adorable!” It’s also become acceptable, even cool, for adults to display their love of artworks previously fit only for kids and social outcasts. Alicia Keys won praise and admiration by singing a playfully soulful rendition of the Gummi Bears theme song during a 2012 appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and popular comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert revel in their extensive knowledge of Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings. Colbert even made a cameo appearance in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. In the year 2018, geek is not only mainstream, it’s entrenched, much more than a fad. Comic books, superhero movies, and complex fantasy TV series have become familiar, even beloved objects in the cultural landscape, no longer worthy only of derision. Incoming college freshmen have grown up watching Hugh Jackman play Wolverine, and the kids who read Harry Potter are starting to have kids of their own. Even older geeks like me, initially skeptical of geek culture going mainstream, have long since returned to the fantasy fold, making peace with the fact that X-Men is no longer a little-known comic but a blockbuster movie franchise. Like most people, I now find myself eagerly anticipating the latest superhero movies, and enjoying the fact that I can read graphic novels on the subway without attracting snickers or stares. Put another way: the geeks won.
* * *
OF COURSE, not everyone has been happy to see the geeks conquer the culture. Some have been doing their best to ignore geek art, which they find unserious and inartistic and wish would simply disappear, slinking back underground. Others are more alarmed by the boom in escapist fantasy, being convinced that the United States is amusing itself to death, its younger generations trapped as lifelong infants careening toward disaster.
Let’s start with the less hysterical reactions. While the movies and the TV shows and the comics that geeks like have been massively successful financially, they haven’t been as critically acclaimed. The Academy Awards are hardly a perfect yardstick, but look at how few Oscars have gone to the movies that geeks embrace. The nominations and major awards remain reserved for the same sort of films that have won them for decades: “prestige” pictures like Moonlight, Spotlight, Birdman, and 12 Years a Slave. Heath Ledger may have posthumously won an Oscar for his turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight, but the movie itself wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. That omission caused something of an uproar, and played a factor in the category’s expansion from five to upwards of ten films, but despite that change, geek movies haven’t been receiving the extra nominations. A campaign to get Deadpool nominated for Best Picture wound up mostly being a stunt, and movies like Captain America: Civil War and Iron Man 3 were put up only for technical awards. And the geekier movies that do get nominated, such as Her, Gravity, and The Martian, tend to downplay their science fiction and fantasy angles; indeed, Her and Gravity inspired debate as to whether they even are science fiction films. Meanwhile, animation is shunted off into its own category, creating the impression that films like Disney’s Frozen and Zootopia and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises aren’t fit to compete with live-action pictures.
The same holds true for artistic credibility. Steven Spielberg may have made his name and fortune directing Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, but he’s taken seriously as a filmmaker more for having made movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. His colleague George Lucas is routinely criticized for having let the evil empire of Star Wars consume him and all his filmmaking ambition. While making Return of the Jedi in the early 1980s, Lucas spoke openly about his desire to quit Star Wars in order to make experimental films, abstract “nonlinear” works that would lack both story and characters. Those avant-garde works never materialized, and in 1994 Lucas sat down to write the screenplay for The Phantom Menace. (And if you suggest that the Star Wars films are in any way experimental, you’ll meet with laughter and ridicule.) The only real exception is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which won multiple nominations and awards, including Best Picture and Best Director in 2003, for Return of the King.
Actors face a similar stigma. Andy Serkis has risen to fame thanks to his performance as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, as the chimpanzee Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes series, and as Supreme Leader Snoke in the new Star Wars films. But those performances have largely been overlooked by awards committees. And while actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and James Franco appear in superhero movies, they win their Oscars for films like (in Lawrence’s case) Silver Linings Playbook. The conventional wisdom here is that actors suffer through larger franchise films in order to gain the financial freedom and critical prestige needed to take roles in smaller independent productions. Jeremy Irons said as much when he accepted the part of Alfred in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—that he did so because “it’ll be a big movie, and do me no harm, and help me when I want to do smaller films, which are maybe more interesting for me.” And when renowned actors like Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan appear in flicks like X-Men, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings, they’re the ones bringing prestige to the picture, not the other way around.
A similar anti-geek attitude persists among movie reviewers, where, if anything, the prejudices are even fiercer. Many mainstream critics apparently consider it their duty to warn viewers away from big-budget slop, shepherding them instead toward smaller, more independent fare. Par for the course is Drew Hunt’s Chicago Reader dismissal of Thor: The Dark World. He begins by describing it as “a bloated sequel to Kenneth Branagh’s half-assed Shakespearean space opera Thor” (which the same paper’s head critic, J. R. Jones, summed up as “eminently missable”), then criticizes the story for being “ridiculously complicated.” The plots of geek movies are commonly dismissed as nonexistent or too difficult to follow—and sometimes both at once. But they are never, like Goldilocks’s preferred bowl of porridge, just right. Fellow Chicago Reader critic Ben Sachs called The Avengers Marvel Studios’ “costliest special-effects demo to date.” Like Hunt, he found the plot impossible to follow, writing, “somewhere beneath the nonstop digital explosions”—the explosions aren’t even real, folks!—“lies a story about superheroes fighting an evil demigod from space.” Later on, he summarized the whole affair as “overlong, monotonous, violent, and simple-minded.” Just as we saw with the Academy Awards, these films may occasionally exhibit nifty technical advances, but they aren’t worth taking seriously as art.
This is the prestige attitude toward geek culture, rooted in a longstanding belief that works produced in the more commercial genres are neither sophisticated nor “literary.” Writing in The New Yorker, the critic Anthony Lane labels Iron Man 3 a “whiny and logorrheic mess,” and a juvenile entertainment at best. Referring to the film’s three main characters—Tony Stark, the Mandarin, and Aldrich Killian—Lane writes, “Take away the toys, in all three cases, and what are you left with? Boys.” The implication is clear: anyone who takes the film seriously is just a boy as well. Even a widely celebrated film like Gravity comes in for criticism because, as David Denby declares, it isn’t “a film of ideas, like Kubrick’s techno-mystic 2001.” Labeling it instead an adventure film, Denby compares it to a “fairground ride,” albeit a “wild” one, which is a roundabout way of saying that the movie’s a roller coaster. Throughout the critical press, there persists a snobbish sense that these movies are little more than visual excess. In 2010, once again in the pages of The New Yorker, Anthony Lane damned Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as being “no more than a skit … padded out with visual fluff,” while the core itself remained “hollow.” In his capsule review, Lane adds that despite the film’s “restless graphic wit,” its downside is “an emotional paucity, likely to leave an audience bewitched but unbothered.” And these are the more charitable responses to some of the better recent geek movies! In the meantime, just about anybody will tell you that the multiplexes are filled to the rafters with nothing but big dumb action blockbusters. As this familiar story goes, today’s cinemagoers exist in a fallen state, inundated by a constant stream of lowbrow generic crap: superhero adaptations, high fantasy, science fiction. Movies based on comic books and video games. Franchises, endless sequels, remakes, and reboots.
This story has been told many times, to the point where it’s now taken as the gospel truth. Even its villains have come to believe it. As George Lucas candidly put it, “Popcorn pictures have always ruled. Why do people go see these popcorn pictures when they’re not good? Why is the public so stupid? That’s not my fault.” More recently, Simon Pegg, long a patron saint of geekdom, surprised his fans during a Radio Times interview in which he called geek culture “childish,” a morass of unchallenging, infantilizing genre films that “[take] our focus away from real-world issues” (as opposed to “gritty, amoral art movies” like “The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection”). He’s not alone: many other self-professed fanboys are happy to parrot the argument that modern Hollywood has become creatively bankrupt, completely dominated by drivel. In 2009, the nerdy Milwaukee native Mike Stoklasa made a splash with his “Mr. Plinkett” reviews, in which he humorously critiqued later Star Trek movies and the Star Wars prequel trilogy from the perspective of an outrageously cranky old man. Stoklasa parlayed his newfound fame into creating a genuine Web film review series, Half in the Bag, where he and his cohost, Jay Bauman, routinely complain that they can no longer withstand the current onslaught of superhero movies and fantasy franchise sequels. But the duo protest too much, and their fans know that Mike and Jay will gladly keep the faith, watching and reviewing all the new geeky movies, which they obviously love.
But many critics really do believe the anti-geek gospel, and that the rise of the geeks is rending the fabric of society itself. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, director of the Oscar-winning Birdman, called superhero movies “poison,” “cultural genocide,” “very right wing,” and a sign of stunted growth: “I think there’s nothing wrong with being fixated on superheroes when you are seven years old, but I think there’s a disease in not growing up.” Many agree. Since at least 2008, there’s been growing concern over the well-being of young people in their twenties and thirties, so-called millennials, who seem lost or broken in regard to previous generations. In particular, young men have come under attack in books like Gary Cross’s Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity, Kay S. Hymowitz’s Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, and Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and the Rise of Women. All of those authors find fault with guys like me—and there are a lot of guys like me—who despite having come of age around the turn of the millennium still haven’t bothered with “adulting,” being far too interested instead in “kiddy” things like X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Kay Hymowitz opens her book with a lament, “Where Have the Good Men Gone?,” in which she describes a postapocalyptic dating scene where unmarried young women wring their hands in despair over guys who would rather watch Star Wars than propose.
Gary Cross, a professor at my alma mater, Penn State, makes even more extreme versions of these arguments in his book, where he paints a picture of a culture well along the path to extinction. Ever since World War II, he writes, men have been under decreasing pressure to mature, which for Cross means giving up the fantastical, simplistic thrills of youth “for cultivated and complex pleasures.” This echoes Anthony Lane’s complaint about Scott Pilgrim: dazzling, but ultimately “hollow.” Cross believes that “the refusal of today’s young men to abandon their childhood toys marks a dramatic break from traditional means of maturation in personal culture and pleasure.” (Here I look up to fondly gaze at my NECA Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures, which I purchased in 2007 for fifty dollars.) Cross primarily singles out video games as the culprit, the reason why grown men today won’t quit playing with what Cross considers toys, but he also takes passing swipes at animation, fantasy movies, and roller coasters (so he presumably wouldn’t like Gravity). In Cross’s view, because these toys and pastimes are now being marketed to young adults, and not just preadolescents, boys are no longer abandoning childhood action fantasies the way they used to, and are thereby refusing “to enter a real world of male power and action.” This causes adult men to remain adrift in their love of youthful fantasies, spending their time and money on toys and games instead of forming “relationships with women and family.” Such men, hopelessly lonely and endlessly chasing nostalgic thrills, also lose touch with history, tradition, and the past, focused solely on the present. (My Turtle figures whisper to me, “Don’t worry. We still love you.”) In his book’s introduction, “Where Have All the Men Gone?,” Cross anticipates Kay Hymowitz’s complaint about the dating scene in more than just his title. He describes a contemptible modern figure, the “boy-man,” who would rather live at home and watch action movies than get a job or get hitched. By remaining unmarried into their late twenties (“twenty-seven on average”), these piteous creatures “have a long time to nurture the boy-man’s life and to develop habits of thought and practice that few ‘good women’ can break even when it becomes time to ‘settle down.’” Apparently if you can’t pry the Turtle figures out of a fella’s hands by the time he’s graduated college, he’s doomed to slobbish bachelorhood for life. In what I’m sure is yet another sign of my own hopeless immaturity, Cross’s diatribe makes me think of Bill Murray’s famous line in Ghostbusters: “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!”
But why, precisely, are geeky interests such as fantasy, cartoons, science fiction, and video games automatically considered juvenile, not to mention emotionally empty and puerile? What makes them bad, and appropriate only for children? Are superhero movies just dumb summer blockbusters and escapist entertainment? Can they ever be more than “special effects demos”? Can they be profound and moving films about serious issues, let alone serious art?
In the coming pages, I will address all of those questions and more, as well as defend the geeks from their detractors. The rise of geek culture hardly signals the end of serious art or Western culture. Nor is there necessarily anything wrong with twenty- and thirtysomethings, not to mention even older adults, who revel in fantasy fare. I will also argue that the widespread critical narrative that great U.S. cinema ended in the 1970s is nothing more than a myth. If anything, geek culture has preserved many of the artistic advances made in the 1970s, even if our current Golden Age of Geekdom now presents unique problems for art and the culture as a whole.
Obviously we have a great deal to discuss. But before we can tackle all of it, we need to first reexamine the film that brought geek culture into the mainstream and has been the obsession of geeks, even their religion, ever since. So let’s slip on our glasses and pocket protectors, and take a closer look at the movie that started it all: Star Wars.
Copyright © 2018 by A. D. Jameson