Existence is conflict.
In science, this is called survival of the fittest – and accepting it is supposed to be one of those innocence-shattering realizations that jolt you into maturity. But for whatever reason, the first time I recall being informed that I was, down to my very cells, at constant war with everything else for food, water, air, shelter, etc; my reaction was “well, yeah … what was I supposed to think was going on?”
Sure, you don’t have to let it turn you into a myopic sociopath (or an internet movie critic), and there can be allegiances as small as a relationship or as big as a civilization; but eventually we all live out our lives Versus The World. Existence is conflict.
Maybe it’s not the healthiest outlook, but it’s mine, and if nothing else I credit it with saving my behind a few times and helping me keep what I see as a realistic outlook on happiness: Namely, that it’s a fleeting thing, and that you must take joy, pleasure, etc. where you can when you can, because it’s probably coming at something else’s expense and thus won’t last.
For example: As a young kid one summer, I enjoyed playing on what had been a sandy vacant lot near my grandparents’ house. Well, that lot existed because someone was eventually going to build a house, and when they did my makeshift playground was gone. Too bad.
What does this have to do with anything?
Well, as I mentioned a few months ago, the first decade of the 21st Century has been a damn fine time to be a nerd at the movies. The rise of geek auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith in the late-90s kickstarted a mass-geeking of Hollywood that culminated in superheroes and hobbits displacing buddy cops and beefcakes as the keystones of the American Blockbuster. And it’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s made me happy. There was a moment, two years ago, where I could actually choose between going to see a really good movie about Batman, a really good movie about Iron Man or a really good movie about The Incredible Hulk. If Young Bob knew he had that future to look forward to …
Thing is, no matter how deep a niche geek culture cleaves into the landscape, I know it can’t stay that good for very long. Like that vacant lot, most of this is probably temporary – hell, some of it is an accident.
Case in point: Barring some catastrophe, two years from now I’m getting an Avengers movie – the capstone to an ambitious project by Marvel Studios to create a shared-universe film series. It’s something I’ve wanted to see as long as I’ve been a nerd – i.e. as long as I’ve been able to form conscious thought. But I’m not under any illusions that I’m getting this because the public suddenly shares my desire for a superhero team-up vehicle. No, I’m getting my Avengers movie largely because the public currently has a hearty appetite for Robert Downey Jr. trading witty banter with his co-stars while dressed like a robot. Soon enough, they won’t anymore – they’ll tire of it, or (more likely) the whole enterprise will get too “out there” for them to wrap their heads around, and there’ll be a backlash.
And it won’t be the only one.
The geek domination of the American popular culture has been gradual, but deliberate, and it’s surely reached a kind of peak in recent years: Our most influential captains of industry are Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Computer nerds. Our most influential non-elected political figure? Al Gore. Science nerd. Our TV news commentators? Keith Olbermann? Rachel Maddow? Even ultra-creepy Glenn Beck? Political/History nerds. President Obama? Compared to hard-livin’ frat guys like Clinton or Bush II, he’s probably as close to the nerd end of the human spectrum of any U.S. President ever. Our most important communications tool? Social media, courtesy Mark Zuckerberg. Nerd. Our most important venue for Hollywood to show its upcoming films? Comic-Con. When they announced the Academy Award nominations in 2008, it was a surprise when they didn’t nominate a movie about Batman.
And that’s just the broad stuff – especially in movies, Nerd culture has seeped into the details. Action films embraced the out there unreality of Hong Kong and Anime influences, and “Movies Only Geeks Care About” like Grindhouse actioners or Italian splatterfests have become go-to points of cinematic self-reference.
I like this world. I’m happy here. And so, I know it can’t last.
There’ve been cracks in the surface for awhile now, indications that the mainstream audience – the so-called normal folk of the world – were reaching the limit of how much new-ness they were willing to absorb. Sure, everyone and their grandma came to appreciate The Dark Knight for its darkness, its edge and its intelligence… but they didn’t exactly warm-up to the much darker, much edgier, much more intelligent Watchmen in the same genre. What happened? Well, Batman is more marketable, for sure. And PG-13 tends to out-earn and R. But, let’s get real: what went most wrong is that Watchmen enthusiastically embraced the geek elements of superheroes – science-fiction, genre-bending, primary colors – that Dark Knight largely sidestepped.
A year before that there was Grindhouse. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, the two filmmakers most responsible for helping the sensibilities of underground-fixated cinephiles come to reign over the action genre, teamed up for an epic that dropped the mix geeky B-movie flavors with mainstream filmmaking pretense and offered audiences a straight-shot of the hard stuff, (at a two-for-one price, no less!) Audiences turned up their noses, evidently still preferring to imbibe their film-geekery heavily diluted.
Earlier this year, Lionsgate thought they had a sure thing with Matthew Vaughn’s magnificent Kick-Ass. A heavily-promoted comedy send-up of the never hotter superhero genre? What could go wrong? Well, opening to soft money and vanishing quickly (though, to be fair, it’s doing gangbusters on DVD), for one.
Let’s toss the recent “Tonight Show” debacle in there, too. Conan O’Brien owed his initial fame to being the first Nerd God of late-night comedy, the precursor to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But while notoriously change-skittish NBC honored contract and protocol by handing him the reins of “Tonight,” they kept safe, secure, opposite-of-geeky (and opposite-of-funny) Jay Leno on the payroll – all the better to plug him back in once a chance to jettison Conan presented itself.
And then came Scott Pilgrim, arguably one of the geekiest films ever released by a major studio: Its hero is a geek, his love interest(s) are geeks, his supporting cast is geeky, even 6 out of 7 of his enemies are geeky to one degree or another, the whole thing takes placed in a geeked-out alternate universe Toronto assembled from equal parts 1960s Marvel and 1980s Nintendo; and it’s all based on an indie graphic novel (pretty geeky) published in the style of Manga (MEGA-geeky.) It’s box office fate? Opening somewhere near fifth-place, a devastating bomb.
In fairness, some of this is about misplaced expectations. As I may have mentioned before, the decisions of which movies to spend money and effort on are generally made by people who don’t really know all that much about what they’re paying for. Pilgrim and Kick-Ass are the kind of films that their fans should be surprised (and overjoyed) even made it to theaters in the first place, not propped up as tentpole releases. But that’s what happened, and it happened largely because some not-terribly-bright decision maker followed an incredibly naïve logic-chain: “Comic-Con went nuts for Iron Man, Comic-Con went nuts for these movies, therefore these movies will make as much as Iron Man did!” Uh … how ’bout no?
But in the bigger picture, there does seem to be a real resentment building toward the geeking of the popular culture. In particular, the message from John (and Jane) Q. Public to an increasingly geeked-out Hollywood seems pretty clear: “We’ve had enough. Stop it. Stop blurring the genre lines. Stop expanding the reference pool. Stop growing beyond the constraints of reality. Stop asking us to think. Stop blowing our minds!”
Ah, well. All existence is conflict, all good times are fleeting. Stuff like The Expendables, for example, has spent it’s time in exile – maybe it’s earned a turn back on the field. But it’d be a crying shame, from my perspective, for the Geek Age of Cinema to falter now … when there’s so much yet to be done (re: Where’s my Doctor Strange movie?)
If I had to guess, I’d say the real concrete test of whether or not the nerd boom is on the wane will be the release of Tron: Legacy this December. Even setting aside the unmatchable geek-bait of its premise – anthropomorphized computer programs locked an ideological conflict with videogames as gladiatorial combat in the quasi-feudal society within cyberspace – its very existence is 100 percent nerd-oriented: An expensively-produced sequel … not a remake/spinoff but a genuine in-continuity original cast returns sequel … to a mostly-forgotten 1982 curiosity-piece that wasn’t successful in theaters, has been openly mocked in mainstream film circles in years since and is regarded as a cult classic mainly by film geeks in their early 30s. If Disney can wring a hit out of that kind of pedigree, then the geek age probably isn’t over yet.
And if they can’t? Ah, well. Good times are fleeting. Blind Side 2, anyone?
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.