Someone should go to ComicCon and give everyone in attendance a wedgie.
ComicCon 2011 is this week, and as I look over its announced offerings — retrospectives on Planet of the Apes, screenings of Captain America, panels on whether vampires or zombies would win in a fight — I feel a deep weariness for which there's probably a long German word. Disreputable genre pieces that once would've gone direct-to-video now command hundred-million-dollar budgets, which means they completely dominate our cultural landscape. Me, I used to have twenty books about Star Trek; I own the Alien series on DVD and Blu-ray; I went to computer camp, for God's sake; and I never want to hear about any of this stuff ever again. Here are five reasons we were all better off when geeks were getting beaten up:
1. Geek culture is escapist.
More and more, geek culture has moved towards "universe-building" — the development of vastly complex fictional universes a la Tolkien, Rowling, Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel Comics, et al. Characters who may appear on screen for five seconds in the movie get their own backstories, spin-off novels, videogames, and so on. For producers, this is great, because it means you can sell a ton of action figures. For fans, it's even better, because it means mentally and emotionally you can live on Dagobah and never leave. Maybe that's helpful when you're a kid sitting in the lunch room with no friends, but it's not very appealing behavior for an entire culture of putative adults.
2. It's simplistic.
"But Pete," you say, "it's not just escapism! These stories are full of real-life metaphors about morality/self-empowerment/being a gay teen." And that's true, to a point, but those metaphors are usually reductive, adolescent, and about as subtle as a large green man with anger issues. The Dark Knight got outsized acclaim for its "dark, nuanced" take on moral ambiguity. But remember that boat scene, where a boatload of prisoners and a boatload of normal people each have the chance to blow the other up, and neither side does? That's the kind of "nuanced, morally ambiguous" scenario that a twelve-year old would think up.
Moreover, most popular geek franchises fall back on a Manichean worldview of total good vs. total evil (again, see Tolkien, Rowling, Star Wars). It's lazy, it makes for bad storytelling, and now that it routinely gets validated by giant showers of money, it's starting to seem a little fascist.
3. It's dogmatic.
Even as you read this, a few thousand people have begun writing angry letters about someone treating The Dark Knight with slightly less respect than is afforded to the Sistine Chapel. Geeks are obsessively protective of their beloved fantasy worlds. That thin-skinned defensiveness was understandable when geek culture was routinely shat upon by the mainstream, but it's a lot less attractive now that geek culture is the mainstream.
It's an immature understanding of the relationship between art and audience; it flattens critical thinking and demands uniform approval. (Videogame fans will actually express outrage if a lone publication criticizes a popular game and thereby damages its Metacritic score, of all things. No one should need validation that badly.) Bottom line, The Dark Knight made a billion dollars; I don't make that much, so you really don't need to protect The Dark Knight from me.
4. It's sexist.
Not all of it, but a lot of it. Of the twenty-three films produced by Marvel Studios, exactly one has a female lead. (And to add insult to injury, it's Elektra.) The women in geek stories are occasionally afforded superpowers, but they're more often eye-candy needing mainly to be rescued. For every Marion Ravenwood, there are a dozen women whose place in the story is closer to that of the Lost Ark — not a character with insights and flaws and agency, but a glittering object for the hero to win. You could say this reflects the culture at large, but in geek culture it's often a little worse, because it's more fetishistic. And don't get me started on the ass-kicking-lady-elf-in-a-plate-mail-bikini thing; that's almost more patronizing than the standard Mary Jane.
5. All this stuff was better when it was cheap.
Zillion-dollar budgets don't make for good art. When that much loot is at stake, anything quirky or understated or idiosyncratic gets flattened out. (What if paying customers don't get it?) Epic CGI-addled apocalyptic battles between Good and Evil leave no room for picaresques, farces, character studies — the quieter, more anecdotal stories that are much truer to daily human experience. (Notice how George Lucas's movies got worse and worse the more he cited Joseph Campbell's hackneyed hero's-journey shit instead of the pulpy, cheap serials that originally inspired him.)
Meanwhile, runtimes bloat ever longer as creators, freed from monetary restrictions, pile on more and more empty spectacle. (See Lucas again.) Work that might have had a scruffy charm when it was it was pieced together as a labor of love and shuffled onto late-night television now bludgeons us noisily in multiplexes throughout the year. James Cameron's original Terminator cost $6 million, compared to Avatar's $237 million; I defy anyone to convince me the latter is a better film than the former, which remains lean and terrifying. Geek culture was better when it was the underdog; geeks, of all people, should know that sometimes things are worth more when you have to fight for them.
This piece was written by Peter Malamud Smith, notorious Cool Guy.