Trends and fads are generational. The hippie movement died with Watergate. Disco ruled, until it became a bad word. MTV once dictated popular culture; now it airs Jersey Shore.
But geeks and nerds? They’re forever — and their ranks are growing.
In Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, one of the films screening Thursday through Sunday during O Cinema’s Comic Book Movie Weekend in Miami, director Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) follows several attendees to the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con — the largest nerd mecca in North America — as they pursue dreams of drawing superheroes for a living, winning elaborate costume contests, or tracking down prized collectibles.
Not so long ago, their passionate, sometimes quixotic quests — like one man’s frenzied hunt for an 18-inch Galactus doll — might have been written off as trivial pursuits.
Today, though, everyone is paying attention.
“There was a time when nerds were guys who sat around on their computers and geeks were the ones who read comic books and action figures, and everyone made fun of them,” Spurlock says. “But now, those two worlds — geeks and nerds — have collided, and today they control every aspect of the media and the entertainment business.
"Geeks and nerds are the ones who are creating those tablets we’re using to read, the iPods we’re listening to, the movies and TV shows we watch, the books we read," Spurlock says. "These people who were once seen as fringe and weird have become incredibly influential. And now you see frat guys wearing Green Lantern T-shirts. It’s almost become a badge of honor to show you’re an adult who still embraces your childhood passions and has a sense of play in your life.”
Evidence of a nerd-friendly culture abounds. On Sunday, The Avengers broke box office records by grossing an astonishing $200 million in its initial three days of release in the U.S. (its worldwide tally stands at $642 million). Due later this summer: a 3D reboot of The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s final entry in his trilogy of Batman films.
The prevailing acceptance of all things geek transcends superhero movies. On HBO, the medieval fantasy Game of Thrones — based on George R.R. Martin’s perennial bestsellers — is drawing nearly 4 million viewers per week, despite having been dismissed by The New York Times as fodder for “Dungeons & Dragons types.” A Game of Thrones videogame is due May 15.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, another videogame released last November in which players slay dragons and perform magic, generated $620 million in its first month of sales. Other past and present cultural phenomena - the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, The Hunger Games – have proven there’s a healthy appetite for geek fodder around the world.
More than any other genre, fantasy has benefited from the advent of CGI and special effects technology, which have revolutionized the way movies are made.
“More people are embracing nerd culture because so much of it is so good,” says Michael Avila of AviLand Productions, a content provider for SyFy.com and other entertainment websites. “If they had tried to make Game of Thrones a decade ago, it would have had the production values of Xena: Warrior Princess. There were several Marvel movies made in the 1970s and ’80s, but they were terrible. Gradually, though, the budgets got higher and the talent pools got deeper.”
A movie like The Avengers, for example, would have been impossible to make as recently as five years ago: The exploits of the hammer-wielding Thor or the shield-flinging Captain America might have looked hokey, even ridiculous, on the screen. Today, though, filmmakers can match and sometimes even top the indelible images comic-book artists create on the page.
Not every geek-friendly movie is an instant smash: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The Green Lantern, two seemingly can’t-miss nerd magnets, both tanked. The merits of Zack Snyder’s R-rated Watchmen, arguably the most ambitious comic-book movie ever made, are still being debated. The mega-budget John Carter disappointed in March, despite an extensive promotional campaign by the Walt Disney Co.
But filmmakers such as Joss Whedon, a lifelong reader of comic books, have become powerful forces in Hollywood and are making the movies they saw in their heads when they were children. Films such as The Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger are imbued with a deep love and respect for their source material. Their resounding success doubles as a testament to the artistic achievements of the people who originally conceived of the characters on the page.
Will Hess, one of the co-directors of the documentary With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, argues that the creator of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four deserves a place alongside other influential pop culture godheads, because his reach and influence is greater than ever today.
“Stan Lee is in the same category as George Lucas or Jim Henson or Walt Disney,” says Hess, who is scheduled to attend screenings of his film at the O Cinema this weekend. “He is one of the great creators of the 20th century. He’s had an enormous impact on multiple generations. Stan is almost 90 years old, and people are still discovering him.”
With Great Power is an affectionate and lively recounting of Lee’s personal life and amazing career. Much like Spurlock’s film, it is peppered with guest appearances by famous stars (including Nicolas Cage, Kenneth Branagh and Tobey Maguire) talking about the impact of comic books on their lives.
And unlike traditional paper-based media such as newspapers and magazines, which are scrambling to reestablish their place in an increasingly digital world, the popularity of comic books is soaring. The prevalence of computer tablets and smart phones has made comics more accessible than ever before in the history of the medium.
Kids will still grow up reading about Peter Parker and the evil Thanos and the angst of being a mutant: They’ll just be reading about them in a different way. And the success of superhero movies continues to drive the comics industry, which has rebounded from the downturn brought on by the economic recession.
“The story isn’t just that the multiplex is booming: We are also booming,” says Axel Alonso, editor in chief of Marvel Comics. “Our current series Avengers vs. X-Men is the biggest hit we’ve had since I’ve been at Marvel. The digital sales alone have been as big as some of our top 100 titles. And tablets allow us to try new things with the medium, such as ‘infinite comics,’ which are specifically designed to be interactive. We’re really embracing digital, but always to complement our print product, not to replace it.”
For old-school fans, the growing popularity of digital comics carries a bittersweet sting: A big part of the fun was hunting down pristine copies of cherished issues you could hold in your hands and carefully turn its pages, inhaling the sweet smell of ink and pulp.
That sense of nostalgia for a lost art - collecting - is explored in Spurlock’s film. But the director says the method of delivery is ultimately not as important as the actual product. Comic books will adapt to technology just like the music and film industries have transformed their distribution methods.
“There will always be people who will pine for the old paper comics,” he says. “My generation has a very nostalgic attachment to comic books. But my son, who is 5 and reads digital comics, is not going to have that same kind of affinity. The environment is shifting. We’re just going to get used to this new way to consume this media.”
COMIC BOOK WEEKEND
O Cinema, 90 NW 29th St., Miami, hosts a celebration of comic-book culture May 10-14 with exhibits by local Miami artists (including Marvel Comics illustrator David Sexton); costume contests; sales of comic books, collectibles and paraphernalia from the venerable Miami store A&M Comics and Books; and an appearance by the actual Batmobile used in Tim Burton’s 1989 "Batman” (7 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday.)
Here is the schedule of screenings. For more information, including tickets, visit www.o-cinema.org or call 305-571-9970.