It is 2014 and we geeks have never been more powerful, more profitable, more sexy and more sought after. Hollywood is desperate to spend the GDP of a small African nation to bring obscure comic book or sci-fi novel material to the big screen if they think it might please us. We are the social Caligulas of our time, devouring more source material than we could possibly ever need, vomiting up remarkably expensive films that don’t quite meet our now impossibly spoilt tastes and bringing down studios with a wave of our hand.
It wasn’t always like this though. So how did we get to come so far from our roots?
We Were Once a Humble People
There was a time, in the not so distant past, when being a geek meant being free of the normal hierarchical social constructs that other groups adhered to. To be labelled a geek meant that because of the nature of your opinions, thoughts, actions, talents or passions you had fallen between the cracks of the other easily labelled social groupings; you weren’t sporty enough to be a jock; not computer literate enough to be a nerd; too driven and free of intoxicants to be a stoner; and too emotionally balanced to be a goth. The beauty of it was that by being part of a mishmash of undefinable individuals there was never an Alpha Geek. No one setting a trend or train of thought that other geeks felt pressured into emulating or mirroring, lest their geek credentials be called into question. To be a geek meant being an individualist, not afraid to voice your opinions and passions in a group of other individualists. It meant being free from having to fall in line or fall away.
For those of us who lived the life of a geek in those times it could be as lonely as it could be liberating. Finding like minded individuals in an era of limited connectivity often proved challenging. The mainstream media handled the source material that formed the foundations of our passions with a limp hand and little concern for the quality of end product. Sure, big ticket comic book characters would get their day in the sun. Your Batman. Your Superman. But anything unknown to less than 9 out of every 10 cats was considered too niche to care. We knew though that with the right money and artistic vision comic book movies and geek culture could be for everyone. We weren’t precious. We wanted to spread the love. But our voices were weak, spread too thin and without a coherent platform.
Then something glorious happened; the internet exploded to life-like a binary fuelled reef. And in that moment everything changed. We were presented with a unified and powerful platform where the voice of the geek masses could finally be heard by those with the money and the power. We were finally granted our wish. And for a time it seemed like this time would never sour.
Yet as we stand in 2014 at the pinnacle of the power of the Geekosphere has this new found voice cost us what ultimately set us apart from others. Has “Geek” lost it’s meaning through over liberal use of a label in a media obsessed world desperate to always be seen to be cool? Have we reached the saturation point of geek culture?
Where Trends Go Hollywood Execs Follow
As you would expect, where trends go showbiz follows. TV networks can’t clamber over each other quick enough at the moment to commission shows about zombies, vampires and werewolves. The Walking Dead books were, and still are, phenomenal. And because of the appetite from audiences for quality geek TV AMC have given it the budget and latitude to be tonally faithful, creating one of the darkest and most captivating TV shows currently on air (particularly in the fresh absence of Heisenberg). And while they may be of varying shades of quality in comparison shows like True Blood, Hemlock Grove and Vampire Diaries in recent years have all done big numbers.
Arguably, this trend is nothing new, merely just a repeating pattern with a different genre. After all, in the 90’s and early 00’s The X-Files was a huge hit and in it’s wake we got shows like Roswell, Stargate, Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and 4400. Equally you can point to the success of Buffy and Angel in the late 90’s and early 00’s as early examples of the increasing popularity and mainstreaming of geek culture. In fact the current appetite for comic book adaptations that Joss Whedon is turning into billions of dollars for Marvel and Disney is probably partly attributable to the success of those TV shows and his ability to make geeky material funny, sexy and broadly appealing. It’s a trait that he is using to great effect once more in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that even three of four years ago would not have been given the budget, or had the fevered anticipation and ready made audience it had on it’s release last year.
It is not a show specifically for geeks though, as much as it is a show about geeks, that personifies the shift in the cultural paradigm in my opinion. No show personifies the popularity of geek culture than The Big Bang Theory. Emerging quietly in 2007 it has exploded into one of the most critically acclaimed and highest watched comedy shows in America, regularly topping ratings charts. And for good reason, because it is genuinely funny. It also treats it’s central characters exaggerated geek and nerd traits with love, respect and good humour. Whereas 10 years ago a geek in a sitcom would have been boiled down to a generic side character, essentially a punchline, now they are leading men, women and sex symbols. In Britain the IT Crowd gained a cult following through an incredibly funny and empathetic take on the stereotypes of IT support and the myriad of geek/nerd culture associated with it, making stars of it’s leading men Richard Ayoade and Chris O’Dowd in the process.
Geek Is The New Sexy, And Sexy Is Bank
It has never been sexier to be a geek than it is right now. Phrases like “geek chic” are part of the popular lexicon. Although I struggle to understand where geek ends and hipster begins sometimes.
Whereas it used to be cool and sexy for celebrities to be these unobtainable symbols of everything that could be different, now the internet and celebrity magazines love telling us how they are just like us. Twitter in particular has given a never before seen insight into just how like the rest of us celebrities really are.
And it has never been hipper or sexier to be a gamer or comic book nerd than 2014. Publicists are not stupid and know that actresses like Megan Fox can earn big brownie points by telling people how much she loves playing her XBox 360. Ten years ago if a starlet was a World of Warcraft fan her people would have told her not to reveal that information to anyone ever. Now it’s almost like all aspiring actors and actresses getting off the bus in LA walk into CAA and are given coffee, a script and a copy of Diablo III. Which is not to say that many of the celebrities who have embraced their geek lifestyle aren’t genuine or honest about their passions. It would be remiss, arrogant and extremely snobbish to be so broad. But showbusiness is a cynical place and agents know the dollar benefits of ensuring their client has the right image.
The internet is strewn with top 10 lists of the hottest geeks, the sexiest nerds. Being a geek has essentially been boiled down through mass saturation to a marketable image, rather than a state of mind. Something you can buy rather than something you are or organically grow to become. This was what we always wanted though, right? So the question is; if we are reaping the benefits of this new found geek chic through better treatment of our source material why does it matter?
The Inevitable Oversaturation Of The Summer Blockbuster
Twenty some years ago in 1992 there was nothing cool or profitable to the mainstream fashion or media industries about being a geek. Grunge was still bubbling away and the full impact of the Nirvana led Seattle sound revolution was still yet to be felt around the World. HBO was still years away from re-inventing TV. And the top 10 worldwide grossing films for year contained little in the way of geek source material; Aladdin, Home Alone 2, The Bodyguard, A Few Good Men and Dracula were among the top 10. Only Batman Returns could lay claim to representing the Geekosphere.
Fast forward ten years and the box office of 2002 was a different animal. Peter Jackson had shown the year before that SFX had finally gotten to a point where justice could be done to such visually complex fantasy material as LOTR. Arguably it was the runaway critical and commercial success of the LOTR franchise that first truly reignited the geek flame in Hollywood and opened executives eyes to the vast untapped geek dollars just waiting to be spent on movies and associated collectibles. That the market was not just for Star Wars and George Lucas to dominate. In 2002 Jackson again straddled the worldwide box office with LOTR:The Two Towers. The next three top grossing films of 2002? Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Spider-Man and Star Wars Ep II. Compared to ten years before the amount of money being both spent making, and spent consuming, fantasy, sci-fi and comic book material was way up.
Whilst it is all to easy to point to te events of post 9/11 for any sea change in pop culture, politics or public opinion, it is probably little coincidence that in the 13 years since those tragic events that no genre has flourished quite like the superhero. At the end of the day we all just want to be saved from the complexities and tragedy of the World, and nothing is simpler than the idea of a single man, woman or beast to sweep us up in a flair of triumphant heroism. Sam Raimi paved the way with the monstrously successful, if eventually stale Spiderman trilogy. Christopher Nolan then proved that you could make smart and artistic blockbusters with the phenomenal Dark Knight trilogy.
Yet no one has taken greater advantage of the new found geek chic revolution than Marvel. They have emerged from the kings of comics to the undisputed kings of Hollywood. Since Iron Man 2 no one in their right mind would bet against a Marvel release making a serious profit and dominating the box office. Their genius has been in using their vast balance sheet to release a series of standalone movies in Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Capt America with a common narrative thread building to an ensemble action thriller that would have previously been unthinkably expensive. With each “phase” of Marvel’s releases their Universe gets exponentially bigger whilst paradoxically also getting ever smaller. Avengers 2 will incorporate parts of Guardians of the Galaxy by all accounts, itself already looking like a multi-part franchise. X-Men Days of Future Past, itself a huge ensemble piece that lives in part because of it’s own franchise’s previous profitability and the overall cash cow that is Marvel Entertainment, may also eventually cross into Avengers and GOTG territory to form one gargantuan summer movie that will have to be about 18 hours long and cost $1b to satisfy all the screen time each star will want. And that’s without mentioning the seemingly inevitable Avengers/Justice League crossover that keeps being mooted.
All of which begs the question; at what point does the golden goose stop laying? While Marvel may not be suffering financially, certainly other studios trying to ride the geek wave all the way to the bank are wiping out before they get to the deposit box (what a weird surfing/banking analogy….). Pacific Rim didn’t do the money it anticipated in 2013. And previous sure things, like Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow has struggled to do much at all in the US and is likely to only just about break even. All of which is starting to have an effect on the confidence in studios to pump major dollars into franchises that don’t already have an established and expoitable fan base.
Twitter and the Emergence of the Geekerati
Arguably none of the above would have been likely or possible without the rapid proliferation of the internet and the ability to instantly and, almost limitlessly, spew opinions out to an endless audience of like minded individuals. And if social history teaches us anything it’s that humans like to follow a good trend. So somewhere around 2008, when Twitter really took hold, so with it did the Alpha Geek; trend setters and taste makers within the Geek community. Along with YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, the explosion of blogging and vlogging and a host of other websites, the stage was set; finally, Geeks really would inherit the earth.
Of all of the aforementioned websites and apps none had as much of an impact as Twitter. Whereas there had always been pockets of the internet dedicated to fervent discussion about the finer points of Wesley Crusher’s role within TNG and message boards filled with venomous debate about D&D, what Twitter did was provide a single linear way of consolidating all of that for the uninitiated, unsure and previously not bothered to quickly digest all of that information. The most vocal, funny or interesting started gaining a following, their voices grew and with it their influence. Podcasting exploded, cheaper video and editing equipment meant YouTube channels could become outlets for semi-professional quality shows about board games, geek banter and literally anything that before would have never made it past a network TV security guard.
Previously obscure celebrities like Wil Wheaton were suddenly ruling the internet with millions of followers hanging on their every post, retweeting to their collective millions of followers. Twitter’s Geekerati Gods like Chris Hardwick, Veronica Belmont and Olivia Munn wield phenomenal power to bridge the gap between the socially awkward and the socially aware by rubbing shoulders with Hollywood A-Listers while talking about the minutia of the Marvel Universe or breaking news in the tech world. Such is the influence of the top of the internet’s Geek elite that we are now 180 degrees socially from where we were as a geek community 20 years ago. Rather than setting our own agenda the geek community is all to desperate now to be seen to be cool, align themselves to the tastes and opinions of their idols rather than own their own obscure passions and, worst of all, admonish those that don’t follow suit. Geeks have, with lightning speed, become the thing that they for so long defined themselves as being the antithesis of;
Geeks are the new Jocks.
Ultimately What Does It All Mean, And Does It Really Matter?
There is an argument that as long as we are all profiting both monetarily and culturally from this golden age of geek that the cost of our collective identity is worth the price. To some degree I am aligned to that school of thought. I, though, unlike many move through this time with open eyes. For it will not always be like this. We are not the first social group to ride the crest of a golden age. And while we may enjoy this for longer than those that have come before, due in most part to the continued rise of technology working with us rather than against us, our time will come. Geek will eventually eat itself. The market will saturate. Hipsters and Geeks will become indistinguishable from each other. Both will be resented. And the next social phenomenon will begin, leaving in it’s wake a sea of broken thick rimmed glasses and ironic t-shirts.
Thankfully though that looks to be someway off. For now we should all enjoy this bright and prosperous time. Just live every geeky day like it is the last of our time. Because before you know it a new revolution will be here and then we’ll be the fat King that everyone wants to burn at the stake.