Mainstream Nerd Culture and the Dilemma of Success

Weird how the nerd nation have suddenly decided that box office and profitability are the most important metrics after all these years of living in the genre ghetto.

I mean, we spent decades having our cultural touchstones misunderstood, derided, or ignored by the mainstream. Comics, cartoons, books, games, movies. Movies! The Thing, Blade Runner, Buckaroo Banzai – all bombs, all great. TV series that went for a season and were summarily executed for their weird and limited niche appeal. Even the big names were the province of the dorky – prior to, say, 1999 at the earliest, being deeply into Star Trek, Star Wars, or Doctor Who meant you were a nerd, and not in a good way. Tolkien? Fuck off back to the library, poindexter.

The early 21st century marked the beginning of the shift, with SF&F properties becoming valuable IP, attracting big budgets. The prequel trilogy, The Matrix, LotR and all their imitators.

Then things really began to shift in 2008 with Iron Man and the birth of the MCU, and I’d argue the dawn of a new and troubling kind of commodification – the relentless, crushing focus on franchising and shared universe building. Now, barely a decade later, Endgame is the biggest grossing film of all time, and the Phase 1 Marvel flicks seem almost quaint and certainly limited in their economic aspirations. You’d hardly call Thor or Captain America a tentpole blockbuster by the current standard; they’re small even measured against the relatively low-key Spider-Man: Far From Home. In less than a decade these flicks went from surprise hits to the dominant cinematic paradigm. It is ludicrous right now to posit a year without superhero movies, or even a year in which the genre doesn’t account for the top half of the box office leaderboard.

The problem is that fans still carry that defensiveness and gatekeeping mindset common to niche subcultures, and the uncritical love that’s almost essential to being a committed genre fan – the idea that as long as product X ticks enough boxes to qualify as a member of genre subset Y, considerations of quality are meaningless. I like urban fantasy, show X is urban fantasy, therefore I like show X. I think it’s a hangover from the years when genre fare was relatively scarce so you’d take what you could get. Space Rangers? Sounds like my jam. Mutant X? Okay. Frickin’ Stargate.

With that mindset the notion of box office dominance is just another arrow in the discourse quiver, to be fired at whoever has the temerity to deride or even question or unpack a text that falls under your fannish rubric.

But here’s the thing: when you deploy it you’re really opening yourself up to some pretty damming extrapolations. BO is always a tempting rhetorical tool because it’s a number and numbers are easy to understand: Endgame made eleventy billion, Wolf of Wall Street did not, ergo Endgame is a better movie than Wolf of Wall Street. It requires no nuance, no deep reading, no understanding of cinema. It just is, and it seems unarguable.

Cool, so let’s take it further. If you want to use that as your core argument, it has some unfortunate implications that you, by cleaving to this principle must, de facto, support. Because if box office and profitability are the paramount measure of excellence…

I, Robot is a better movie than Blade Runner.

Neighbours is a better TV series than Doctor Who.

The Da Vinci Code is better than every fantasy book ever published except for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the first Harry Potter.

Hell, The Macarena is a better song than anything The Ramones ever released.

And so on.

But but but…

No, fuck off – if these are the parameters and measures you’ve chosen, this is the fallout. You can’t spend decades lauding some works *in spite of* their popularity and then decide that others are great *because of* their popularity. You can’t change the rules now that you’re winning by different metrics. (Well, you can, but it kind of makes you an asshole, and not too bright to boot)

I get it, though, I really do. Back in the day relatively few people were casting a critical eye over genre material, and those that were generally had some skin in the game. You don’t become a comics critic without loving comics, you don’t write a thesis about heroic fantasy without being across your Howard, your Lieber, and your Moorcock. It was fans writing about fannish things, with an understanding of the tropes and limitations, historical and formal, of the material.

But now, for a variety of reasons (technological advances in effects; simple, archetypal, spectacle-based stories carrying across cultural barriers for bigger BO; Marvel Studios simply getting their shit together) our nerdy stuff is in the spotlight, and that means it’s subject to criticism – by which I mean critical assessment, not just throwing shade – from people, learned, cultured experts, who haven’t spent their years in the nerd hinterlands, but certainly know their stuff regarding the forms that nerd culture has recently infiltrated – specifically cinema. Guys like Scorsese and Coppola and Loach know what they’re talking about, and to pretend otherwise is weak sauce. But countering their criticisms with your own cogent critical thoughts is difficult to say the least – hell, if you want to argue movies with Marty Scorsese you’re pretty much bringing a pea shooter to a Panzer fight. So the general pushback comes in one of two forms: Old Man Yells at Cloud (and if you don’t get why that’s weak, I honestly can’t help you), and But My Cape Movie Made Eleventy Billion Dollars.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s poor form for formerly marginalised subcultures to suddenly decide that popularity matters, because if it’s so important now, we have to ask why it wasn’t important then. Maybe, just maybe, we have to accept that if our nerdy shit is now mainstream, it’s going to attract mainstream criticism, and some of that is going to both unkind and absolutely valid. And maybe that’s simply the price of maturity and acceptance, and if you can’t take that hit without suddenly trying to mitigate it by moving the goalposts; by changing the argument from a qualitative to a quantitative one, you’re tacitly agreeing with the criticisms that got you so riled up in the first place.

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