The decade beginning this millennium will be known as The Era of the Nerd. No really, this is exactly how historians will label it. Oh, what, you’ve got a better idea? You think there’s something more significant to describe the zeitgeist of these post-Y2K years where nerds at last emerged from their outcast state to bask in the fame and acceptance they longed for?
You’re not alone. In fact, I’m beginning to think this whole “Nerd Power” movement is a sham, or at least very, very exaggerated. What the hell even defines a nerd or geek these days, anyhow? Everyone and their teenaged cheerleader cousin has their nose buried in cutting edge electronics. Your mom has a Facebook page. G4’s programming is stuffed with technocentric, fringe appeal shows like “COPS”, and their hosts continue to get ever slimmer and prettier to look at. I won’t go so far as to say that being ugly is required prerequisite for being truly geek, but some of these folks honestly seem like little more than jumped-up booth babes whose interest in the subculture only extends as far as it can make them money and make them famous.
This isn’t a rant about that, though, (cue Dante) so much as my uneasy feeling that beyond all the hype, beyond all the Maxim covers and other mainstream coverage, there’s a fragile Geek Bubble waiting to burst.
I don’t have a lot of evidence for this. By and large, big budget Superhero movies still seem to be doing well over a decade after the first X-Men film showed an idea starved Hollywood that there were a lot of long-existing IP’s out there waiting to be plundered. They’ve even been successful in promoting heroes no one ever heard of, like Iron Man. Yeah, you heard me, Iron Man. Be honest, if you brought up Iron Man at a non-geek gathering prior to Paramount’s PR machine getting rolling for the 2008 movie, no one would have known who the fuck you were talking about. Or if someone did, then you knew who you could go off into the corner with for an intense discussion of who would win between Green Arrow or Hawkeye.
And that’s just it… how many of these tickets being sold for big flashy Superhero action movies are translating into new comics fans? I’m sure there’s a percentage, but I’m equally sure it’s fairly small. People are by and large going to these movies because they’re Action Movies, not Superhero Movies. If you get too weird on them… dare I say, too geeky… they stay away.
Am I wrong? Look at Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World from this last year. They weren’t bad movies, in fact earning high marks even from mainstream critics, and they had great word of mouth and recognition amongst geek culture. If San Diego Comic-Con operated as a true microcosm of the world at large, Scott Pilgrim should have outgrossed Titanic. Instead, both Kick-Ass and SP floundered and flopped once they went into wide release.
I can speak of my own bizarre experience with Scott Pilgrim: having missed out on the free screenings at Comic-Con, but being excited to see it, I convinced the wife to break our “no opening nights” rule and brave the local AMC and the assured queue from hell in order to scratch that itch. We bought tickets online and showed up 90 minutes early just to make sure we could get decent seats.
We couldn’t find the line. Then found out there wasn’t one. Finally the staff directed us to a small set of stanchions where we could queue up, probably so we stopped bothering them. People wandering by wanted to know if it was the line for The Expendables (also opening that day), and when we told them it was for Scott Pilgrim, they looked completely blank. By the 10th time that happened, I started telling people we were in line for the theatrical re-release of Avatar, because hey, at least they’d heard of Avatar. Speaking of which, Avatar had horrible buzz coming off of Comic-Con, and look what happened there…
When they let us go to the theater, a half hour before show time, maybe a dozen other people had arrived. Then we were led past several screens of The Expendables, into the very farthest back corner where a single screen in one of the smaller rooms had been dedicated to Scott Pilgrim. Remember, this was opening night. Scott Pilgrim was already relegated to the spot where the three week old second stringers go to die, like the studio had just given up on it already.
I don’t remember my experience with Kick-Ass being such a blatant harbinger of doom, but it met the same dismal fate in the box office numbers. I can’t brush it off like I do Catwoman and just say that it failed because it sucked, but they sure failed to connect somehow. Scott Pilgrim actually came up recently in a conversation with my Aunt and Uncle, and though they’ve started coming to San Diego Comic-Con as of last year and enjoying it, they admitted not liking the movie. They really weren’t sure what to make of it, and that viewpoint, it seems, was shared by most of America… those who’d even heard of it in the first place, despite all the advertising.
Have we been fed such a diet of “Geeks Rule!” in the past several years that we’ve begun to believe in our hype, that we believe that whatever we cherish will succeed? There’s no question that whatever pop culture geeks love, they dedicate themselves to, but Firefly burned up in its first orbit because it just couldn’t attract the necessary broader audience, then when Serenity was greenlit based on all those fanatical Browncoats writing letters, it didn’t even come close to making back its production costs.
It’s easy to get an inflated sense of importance these days with how much effort and money Hollywood pours into San Diego, and how much the Internet caters to our specific prejudices and interests (though to be fair, the Internet lets pretty much any fringe element feel widespread and influential). Even Hollywood itself seems drunk on the Comic-Con connection, placing this massive importance on getting a good buzz going for their flicks there. But Scott Pilgrim might very well represent an uneasy reminder that true geeks–wait, didn’t I say at the beginning that term is suspect?–um, true pop culture enthusiasts aren’t a guarantee of mainstream success. Why would they be? Aren’t we still the antithesis of “mainstream”, no matter how many cool dudes and gals call themselves geeks because they happen to own an Xbox? It’s probably not too far-fetched to say that movies succeed in spite of us, not because of us, and we’re just helplessly along for the ride. That in the end, no one really gave a fuck if we liked or didn’t like organic web shooters for Spider-Man, so long as the movie made money. I don’t believe geeks alone can kill a big movie with bad buzz any more than they can make one a success with good buzz, but at least for now the Conventional Wisdom still seems to be that we need to be appeased, with only a few renegades like Michael Bay shamelessly crotch-thrusting wads of cash over our cries of outrage (and even he recently apologized for Transformers 2).
Well, here’s to the Geek Bubble. I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last, but then again, only the pretenders are gonna stop when it bursts. I’ll still be quoting lines from Ghostbusters, playing Dungeons & Dragons, and for that matter writing blog posts about obscure twenty year old computer games. I just sure will miss the open bar parties at Comic-Con.