As Black Panther became the highest grossing film domestically for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it helped to cement the studio’s status as the dominant figure in its field. To date, the franchise has made over $14.7bn worldwide, making it the highest grossing franchise ever. It’s currently $6bn ahead of Star Wars. Four of the top 10 highest grossing films of 2017 are comic book adaptations. Number one was Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
In 2017 alone, consumers in America spent $14.6bn on video games, hardware and related accessories, with December sales up 10% from the previous year. The first San Diego Comic Con in 1970 featured 145 attendees. Last year, that number exceeded 130k.
In 2019, the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida will open its first official Star Wars themed hotel. Guests will be able to take part in a completely immersive experience, interacting with characters and actively influencing a story over a two-day narrative. Essentially, live-action role-playing is the newest mainstream family vacation.
I list these details and statistics, as impressive as they are, to put forward a potentially controversial but in no way new hypothesis: Geek culture is dead.
I’m hardly the first person to say this and I won’t be the last, yet every time this reasonably simple and harmless proposal is suggested, it’s met with a barrage of hate and misunderstanding. To say geek culture is dead is to attack something sacred and historical to many people. Once upon a time, being called a geek or a nerd or a dork was the ultimate insult, the prime sign of your ostracising from ‘coolness’ and acceptable society. I count myself among the countless kids who were mocked and bullied for being a geek.
It seems only fair that the geeks have fully inherited the earth, or at the very least the basic foundations of modern pop culture. All the genres and hobbies we obsessed over were dismissed as cheesy frivolities only a couple of decades ago: Now, they dominate the box office and define media empires. Comic books were kids’ fare until they became the primary source material for multi-billion dollar blockbusters. Despite being one of the biggest films ever made, Star Wars still carried the stench of unacceptability, to be loved only by ‘those nerds’, yet today it’s an enduring cultural landmark. The BBC report from Comic Con; dragons dominate prestige TV; your dad still has Angry Birds on his phone.
Geek culture is dead because everyone is a geek now, and that’s probably for the best.
What strikes me as particularly strange about this undeniably reality is how it seems to anger certain slivers of the demographic who should be most pleased by this development. Finally, those who felt shunned and derided for their hobbies, for their opposition to fleeting coolness, had exactly what they wanted. They’re getting three Marvel movies a year, and they’re all guaranteed to be at least pretty good. Video games are plentiful and readily available on a multitude of devices. Science-fiction and fantasy literature is more respected than ever. The supposed geek minority’s dreams came true, and yet that noisy minority still cry foul. It’s not fun anymore, apparently, now that everyone’s invited to the party.
The problem with getting everything you’ve always wanted is that it seldom makes you truly happy. It doesn’t satisfy the real root of your dissatisfaction. That’s become abundantly clear over the past few years, as geekdom has reached the stratospheres of mainstream consumerism. Geeks aren’t victimized anymore. How do you pull that off when you need the biggest audiences possible to go and see these films that cost 9-figure budgets to make? For those who wish to hold onto that mentality, clutching it with utmost cynicism, then they have to focus their targets elsewhere. It’s not that the world judges them for being geeks; it’s that geekdom’s been spoiled by all these fake fans, these social justice warriors, these feminists and activists who only want to spoil their fun.
The pop culture and media image of the typical geek, despite endless evidence to the contrary, is still a scruffy white dude with glasses and an Atari t-shirt. This endures despite us knowing that women make up the majority of paying audiences to American cinemas. The Revenge of the Nerds stereotype is the preferred model, even as we see people of colour turn out in droves to make Black Panther a smash hit. The contemporary bastions of geek culture are by and large still dudes, even in its most commodified form. Think of the love lavished on guys like Kevin Smith, Chris Hardwick, Wil Wheaton, Ernest Cline and Neil Gaiman for representing that massively diverse community, being positioned as leaders. Then think of how women of colour never get elevated to that status. This is something studios and companies are increasingly aware of: Scruffy 20-something straight white dudes aren’t the only demographic they need to appeal to, and they’re not even the most powerful one in the crop. Perhaps that’s what makes these geeks so mad. They’re being pandered to, but not exclusively. They have to make room for everyone else now.
One of the major problems I’ve always had with the mere concept of geek culture is the way it tends to foster uncomfortable and elitist attitudes. It encouraged these notions of ‘us versus them’, and while I understood why, I didn’t get why this continued well past the point where liking comic books and video games was a niche interest. Liking things and knowing a lot about them was never a heroic attribute, and it should never have been elevated in such a manner. You can’t be an outsider and an influencer at the same time. Either accept that we’re all in this geekdom together or log off.
There are wonderful upsides to the diversification of the geek world. Even five years ago, Black Panther would have been written off as an impossible dream, and the world of comics has never been more interesting thanks to writers like G. Willow Wilson, Gail Simone and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The indie video game market is flourishing with creativity and ambition, and TV networks are keen to invest in daring projects, even if the intended audiences will never surpass a couple of million viewers. Things are so much more interesting, especially if you’re not a cishet white dude. There’s a real place for us.
What often gets overlooked in ‘geek culture’ discussions are how its death is rooted in something more insidious than mere commodification. Increasing media monopolies are built upon ownership of properties like Marvel and Star Wars. The Walt Disney Company has strengthened its stranglehold on the market through business deals that have fans cheering. There is something especially troubling about swaths of fans ignoring the real dangers a monopoly like this poses because hey, Deadpool might turn up in an Avengers movie someday. Every other studio trails in their footsteps, trying to copy the golden formula, to the point where the homogenisation of our pop culture feels inevitable. This glut is unsustainable, yet it’s now the industry’s safety net.
And then there’s the hate groups: GamerGate, the Sad Puppies, the increasing problem of sexual harassment and gendered abuse in the comic books world, the online attacks on Leslie Jones and the reboot of Ghostbusters, and so on. When geek culture fosters exclusivity and victimization, it makes it pathetically easy for those groups to be commandeered by bigotry. Sometimes, they don’t even need to be hijacked because the hate is already there.
Whatever geek culture is now, it’s not the geek culture of old, and that’s generally a good thing. We still need to clear up the issues left behind by the toxic mentality of exclusivity and the false underdogs, but the worlds and ideas that can be built upon with the remaining structures have limitless potential. The geeks won, and now they rule with the iron fist of the jocks that inspired that mindset in the first place. It’s sweet justice or cruel irony, depending on how you look at it. It would probably make for a pretty decent superhero movie.