Editorial: Should Nerd Culture Continue?

Nerd culture seems to be deteriorating. There are chinks in Iron Man’s armor. The horse, some have said, is injured. We are holding a gun. It is time, dear friends, to make a vital decision that may have to end with a bullet.

Here is a timeline of events, to set the scene:

As far back as December of 2010, reigning comedian Patton Oswalt declared in an interview with Wired Magazine that nerd culture had reached a distressingly bloated critical mass, and that the notion of nerd-as-outsider was most certainly moribund. He felt that the current culture of would-be nerds – the ones that worship comic book movies, Star Wars, and D&D – were now the majority voice, and no longer had any of their esoteric cred. Nerds no longer had to express their oddball passions against a shared crucible of being bullied by the mainstream. Now they were the mainstream. Oswalt pointed out that it was high time that nerd culture should be allowed to collapse entirely under its own weight. All old references are to go out the window, and new ones must – for the health of everyone – be replaced by something original.

2011 saw a lot of online articles that seemed to validate Oswalt’s opinion. In March, The Mary Sue, a website devoted to the women who consume geek culture, published a reaction article that pointed out some of the darker (and anti-feminist) aspects of nerd culture. July saw an article on Nerve.com publish a list of five reasons nerd culture should go away. In September of 2011, a humble young critic writing for a website called Geekscape, declared something very similar, stating that geek was dead. He compared the commercial co-opting of nerd culture to the mainstreaming of punk rock. They both once gained their strength from being an alternative. Something underground. Now that it’s above ground, it’s merely the dominant paradigm waiting to be subverted. That humble critic was none other than yours truly.

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2012 saw the release of Joss Whedon’s Marvel’s The Avengers, a film that not only made a mountain of money at the box office, but still seems to linger in the mass consciousness as one of the finest examples of superhero storytelling ever committed to any medium. For that year, nerd culture was granted a reprieve. But the chinks began to appear again.

In May of 2014, Edgar Wright, one of nerd culture’s most recently canonized saints, left production of Ant-Man, a superhero film that was being made under the aegis of the ultra-powerful and ultra-popular Disney/Marvel brand. He left because of creative differences. This simple separation was read by many as an act of frustrated defiance against a studio that was driving nerd culture, while simultaneously bloating it beyond recognition. This culture no longer has room for the strong creative vision of iconoclastic directors – even from the directors it helped to build and nurture.

Then, just a month ago, Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron was released in theaters. And while the film had already made more money than the entire GNP of sub-Saharan Africa, the critical response has been mixed at best, sour at worst, but largely indifferent. The film is a big mess of not-very-good drama stirred into a series of far-too-long set pieces.

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Then there was the curious backlash against the flick. Fans and critics alike cited that the treatment of the character of The Black Widow was strangely anti-feminist, and that – in a frustratingly vague scene – it sounded like she referred to herself as a “monster” because she was barren. Whedon’s legion of fans turned on him, calling him insensitive (despite his reputation for being a feminist writer). Joss Whedon ended up leaving Twitter in a huff. To many, this looked like the geek deity had essentially taken his ball and gone home. He also began giving interviews about how this Marvel machine is degrading and difficult, and that this ultra-commercial, studio-driven franchise has become impossible, even for nerd culture’s central figurehead.

Articles began appearing heavily criticizing the Marvel machine, including a rather good piece for Movie Mezzanine by critic James Rocchi, who began to eloquently declare that adults were now desensitized to being treated like children. I encourage you to read Rocchi’s essay. It’s rather insightful.

Earlier this month, actor Simon Pegg, another well-respected figure in the nerd community, gave an interview with the Radio Times announcing that nerd culture has come to replace actual culture, and that our obsession with fantasy and sci-fi is infantilizing us and making us dumber. He was very clear about his views, and, like Patton Oswalt five years earlier, started openly declaring that nerd culture needs to come to an end. He longs for – as do many, many critics and fans – more film and television that is complex and adult. He compared America movies of the early 1970s to the movies that immediately followed Star Wars. The former were hard-hitting, artistic dramas that were interested in telling new tales and striking new emotions using the medium in new creative ways. The latter were about childish thrills.

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Oh yes. As a footnote to all this, a few days ago, monster designer and genre cinema legend Rick Baker announced that he was retiring from movies because his kind of work has been swallowed by a miasma of mainstream ultra-expensive CGI creations. Movie nerds of a previous generation can feel the melancholy in his lamentable retraction from the biz.

So nerd culture, one might glean from this timeline, is either coming to an end, or is, at the very least, experiencing a crisis. After 15 full years of big-budget mainstream superhero movies, the ever-expanding dominance of video games, the piles upon piles of remakes and sequels to well-known nostalgia-based properties, we have finally reached a point where even the most casual of observer seems to be overfed. To paraphrase Primus, people are sucking information through the holes in their skulls, and while their bellies are always empty, their mouths are always full. We’ve been eating nothing but junk food for a decade and a half, and we’re starting to feel a little sick.

So I put the question to you: Should nerd culture continue? Or should it, as Pegg and Oswalt have suggested, collapse to the ground?

Let me answer by saying that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the movies or media listed above. A nice, big, exciting, not-very-deep, multibillion-dollar action spectacular can be a wonderful experience, and I have most certainly dug on several of such films very hard. Way back in the early 1990s, I watched James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day four times in theaters. For a brief moment, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Its throne was supplanted only by Star Trek: Generations a few years later. Yes, my fandom of Star Trek blinded me to most of that film’s faults.

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And I would most certainly never deprive kids or teenagers of their pop obsessions. I have an 11-year-old nephew whose favorite movie of all time (as of last interview) was Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m not about to sit him down and tell him that he needs to give up all comic-book-based movies and start consuming more mature content. He is 11. He’s following his heart. He is allowed to, and should be allowed to.

So there is always room – and should always be room – for movies that feature a good Hulk punch-up. Sci-fi/fantasy action spectaculars are all well and good in their place, and filmmakers should always be allowed to make them. What’s more, fans should always be allowed to pursue them. Fan obsession is one of the protohuman ancestors to cinephilia, an ethos that – this critic feels – should ping every human’s radar.

But here’s why nerd culture should perhaps be dismantled, or at least stripped and reduced: The sheer lack of variety. When major movie studios begin killing off mid-budget films for grown-ups in deference to a few enormous tentpole releases, we suddenly have a youth-oriented marketplace that offers nothing but slick, childish escapism. And because so few investors are willing to take risks on indie products, we are suddenly faced with a pop cultural landscape that seems to offer nothing but nerd culture outlets. Some of us crave alternatives, and we’re finding that we seem to have nowhere to look. We have to look deeper and deeper for true originality.

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Also, after 15 years of being coddled and catered to, nerds have – and this is an unpleasant truth we all must face, nerd or no – become complacent and arrogant. This constant bloating of nerd culture has made for a breed of online personality that eschews subversion. Any sort of defiance of the current pop ethos is seen by nerd culture as churlish and dumb. There was a time (perhaps in the 1990s) when the defiance of mainstream pop nonsense was seen as punk rock and cool. Now the opposite is true. The only way to be cool is to feed into the mainstream nerd stuff. And if an opinion on The Avengers should differ from the general consensus, the critic is censured and ostracized. This is something I experienced several times, usually when I reviewed superhero flicks like Man of Steel or Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Even after having the world all to themselves, nerd culture still seems to operate from a stance of complete and total defensiveness. Again: Nerd objects are fine. But having too many of them has bred this rather distressing mode of behavior from young people (and even some older people), who are quick to jump to the defensive even when they’re not being attacked. It’s a difficult thing to refer to in specifics, because it is a general impression rather than a citable incident, but I see nerds rallying angrily behind certain nerd arguments as if an amorphous (and perhaps imagined) mainstream authority is still trying to take something away from them.

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Some people have written extensive essays about how video games are the new dominant art. They defend video games as being a new and complex way to tell stories, and perhaps have more emotional potential than any previous medium. They declare that video games should be taken seriously. But video games already garner millions upon millions of players, and they make more money than the music industry. Video games represent the largest chunk of lucre in the media-saturated market. Exactly why do they need defense? They don’t, of course. But because of a bizarre paranoia that still lingers in the Mother Brain that is nerd culture, there is still an impulse to defend the popular, and slam detractors.

So I ask again: Should nerd culture continue? I would argue that it should, but in an altered form. It should be allowed to share the dominant paradigm with others. It needs to lose weight. And nerds need to relax and enjoy what they have, rather than let it come to take over their lives.

Nerd culture is, after all, a bridge, not a destination. Obsessions with genre movies and video games are not ends unto themselves. It can lead to a greater curiosity, a greater interest, and, in the best of cases, can introduce young people to even higher arts. If someone starts with Batman, but ends up reading Melville, Dante, or Dostoyevsky, then they have evolved. You can still read Batman, but be careful to grow.

Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in the same place as nerd culture. Stagnating.

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.