Friday, February 10, 2012

The Decade (More or Less) of the Geek

The Decade (More or Less) of the Geek
By R.J. Sullivan

I recall sitting in the theater with my comic book/sci-fi buddies in the month of May in the year 2000, waiting in anticipation to lay our collective eyes on the first X-MEN film. There was something in the air, a general sense that the success of this film could lead to "good things." Sure, Superman had scored big back in 1978, but movies of that scale were too expensive and too time consuming for viable franchises to grow from them. Not so with the X-MEN. Finally, the technology existed to launch a viable, good-looking superhero film at a middling budget.

We’ve come a long, long way since then! It’s amazing to me, to review back on how much that first X-men movie seemed to be the lit fuse that led to a"geek-slosion." Starting with the X-men, and rapidly after, geeks quickly saw much of their cult status underground "vocabulary" break through into the mainstream. Let's review.


He was Marvel Comics’ superstar superhero, known to millions of devoted comic book readers, but until 2001, previous media attempts to bring this comic book icon to the general public had been decidedly less than stellar. Sure, he had plenty of cartoons, including the truly horrible one with that stupid-catchy theme, a live action attempt in the 70s that defines "mediocre", and a few better animated attempts in the 90s. Although he seemed the natural answer to the success of Superman back in 1978, the truth is, although Spider-man is less powerful than Superman, it’s far easier to make you believe a man can fly than it is to make you believe he can shoot webs from his wrists and swing between buildings like an urban Tarzan.

Whatever you may think of the details (as a Spider-man purist I have MANY problems with the 2001 origin and Green Goblin story) the movie succeeded in finally bringing forward, front and center, the prime reason why geeks resonated with Spider-man all these years. The murder of his Uncle Ben, and the guilt that followed from that event, so important in shaping the man Parker becomes, was finally properly told. Before 2001, millions of people knew Spider-man on TV, but only geeks could recite “with great power comes great responsibility.” After 2001, that was no longer true.

Lord of the Rings

For decades, prior to 2001, hardcore Tolkien fans identified themselves at conventions with key phrases. “One ring to rule them.” “I wants it, me precious,” not to mention references to Frodo, Strider, Sam Gamgee, and Gandalf, the original blue-capped wizard. I still remember some time around 2002, walking through the halls of the corporate office where I worked at the time, and hearing these key phrases repeated from cubicle to cubicle. Mundanes name-dropping Gollum? Remember the day all the "trendy" people carrying around their three-in-one volumes of Lord of the Rings? How messed up was that?

Doctor Who

The term "reimagined" is overused these days, but all other transformations pale in comparison to Doctor Who's transformation from—let's be honest—a fairly dorky cult program to the coolest man in the room! Seriously, how did that happen? The 2000s marked the time when Doctor Who became cool, and that's a statement taken so much for granted these days that a lot of younger people won't even know what I'm talking about. Back in the 80s, Doctor Who was the geek show too geeky for most other geeks. With its given ultra-low budget and outrageous look, you had to meet it halfway and pay close attention to appreciate it (A talent I fear is becoming a lost art to the modern viewer) Here in Indiana, Trekkies mocked “Whoosiers” as a way to make themselves feel better. Until it broke into the mainstream, there was nothing about Doctor Who that indicated it had any chance of breaking into the mainstream.

Star Trek and Star Wars

While I was glad to see the mainstream love shown both franchises, I have little good to say about the actual films from both franchises since 1999. (Yes, I'm one of those people.)

Thor and Green Lantern and Captain America, oh, my!

It seems like for the past few years you can't have a summer movie season without a few new superhero movies sprinkled in. How ironic, that I now live in a world I'd hoped to see for decades, and yet as the quantity of super-films pile up around me, I grow numb to the repeated theme of one more common shlep getting hit with the super-origin and learning life's lessons while forced to save humanity, or whatever. Odd that I find myself wishing that the trend would reverse itself and create fewer of them.

It seems to me that with the "cranking out" mentality of Hollywood, the superhero genre has films on par with other genres: dramas, comedies, chick flicks, etc, and now fall into their buckets of the good, the "meh," and the bad. For every awesome Iron Man we also get the dreadful sequel. We've watched a franchise like the X-Men take a significant dip in quality, then come back up into the "okay" category over 5 films. For every Watchman and Dark Knight, we get a helping of The Spirit or Ghost Rider, and even "event" films like Green Lantern and Superman Returns and Spiderman 3 (HOW did those fail so spectacularly?) can fall short of expectations due to the demand to rush product out to the masses.

I'm hopeful the forthcoming Avengers film coming out this summer might mark the "cap" to Marvel's churning out of mid-level pictures in favor of fewer event films. (Though I hope DC gets their act together and puts out a decent Wonder Woman before this trend comes to a halt).

Or maybe I should stop complaining and ride this wave of nerd-dom; this time where the geeks have inherited the Earth and pulled the wool over the mundanes. Yeah, Fantasy Football players, I'm talking to you.

~RJ Sullivan

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