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The seeds of today’s all-encompassing geekdom were planted a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
In 1977, a Boomer generation of parents who loved “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Lord of the Rings” books took their kids to see “Star Wars.” Just as Beatlemania inspired a generation of kids to pick up guitars, “Star Wars” inspired the next one to pick up toy lightsabers. Even so, as recently as the turn of the new millennium, adults were less public about their love of sci-fi and comics.
“For a really long time, being a nerd or being into nerdy things was seen as something kind of embarrassing or culturally taboo,” says Sam Maggs, author of “The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy.” “The advent of social media and online culture really solved that problem because suddenly all of the people who liked this stuff felt that they could form their own communities and find their people online.”
The result is beloved TV and movie franchises that Hollywood is loath to part with. But as “Game of Thrones” and the Avengers series draw to a close, some observers wonder if studios will embrace fresh ideas for tempting audiences.
Outside a Boston cinema, Jeffrey McNamara and Brian Antonelli are huddled in mutual support. Co-hosts of a pop-culture podcast titled “Mac & Gu,” they’ve just finished watching “Avengers: Endgame.”
“I cried a little bit,” admits Mr. McNamara, a millennial clad in a Spider-Man T-shirt.
As with two other immensely popular series, “Star Wars” and “Game of Thrones,” this year marks the end, of sorts, for the Avengers. All three sagas are regular subjects of discussion on the geeky podcast, which discusses TV and movies as if they were sports. For the duo that hosts it, “Avengers: Endgame” is the superhero version of an all-star game. The culmination of 22 movies with interlinked storylines, it features among others Captain America, Captain Marvel, Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor. Plus a talking raccoon from outer space.
“We had butterflies in our stomachs,” says Mr. McNamara, “almost like a sporting event, like you’re gonna watch your favorite team play.”
A few generations ago, grown men might have been ridiculed for expressing more interest in the heroics of Ant-Man than Tom Brady. But fare that was once deemed purely adolescent and nerdy – science-fiction, fantasy, and comic-book series – is not just mainstream but all-pervasive. That’s reflected by the staggering global record $1.2 billion for the opening weekend of “Avengers: Endgame.” Even after such lucrative franchises end, observers say “nerdy” fare will continue to drive society’s shared cultural experiences. The challenge for Hollywood is how to keep what comes next fresh.
“The thing that’s different now is just how well major corporations have been able to capitalize on that sort of transition from geek culture to mainstream – and also of nostalgia,” says film critic Lindsay Ellis, whose YouTube channel has more than 600,000 subscribers.
The seeds of today’s all-encompassing geekdom were planted a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. In 1977, a Boomer generation of parents who loved “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Lord of the Rings” books took their kids to see “Star Wars.” Just as Beatlemania inspired a generation of kids to pick up guitars, “Star Wars” inspired the next one to pick up toy lightsabers.
Directors such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg changed Hollywood by ushering in the modern blockbuster and with it the attendant sequels, prequels, spinoffs, merchandising, and theme parks. But as recently as the turn of the new millennium, adults would sooner admit to building model railroads in their basement than to reading “Star Wars” spinoff novels such as “Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka.”
“For a really long time, being a nerd or being into nerdy things was seen as something kind of embarrassing or culturally taboo,” says Sam Maggs, author of “The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Girl Geeks.” “The advent of social media and online culture really solved that problem because suddenly all of the people who liked this stuff felt that they could form their own communities and find their people online.”
By 2007, the greater visibility of geek culture was reflected by the debut of “The Big Bang Theory,” a sitcom about four lovable nerds whose hobbies included games of “Rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock.” The CBS show, which takes its final bow in May, exemplified how entertainment conglomerates had ramped up marketing for related products. Produced by Warner Bros., which owns DC Comics, “The Big Bang Theory” included numerous tie-ins to brands such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
‘They have to move forward’
The acknowledged leader of the Hollywood business model is Marvel, whose expanded universe has made more money than Stark Enterprises. It has hewed close to established comic-book storylines so as not to upset the existing fanbase.
“It’s basically just stories they’ve already read before, but people don’t want to disappoint the fans by telling them a different way. So they just basically copy-paste it instead of making something different,” says Stephanie Marceau, a writer for Screen Rant and Nerd Bastards.
But even the most durable franchises eventually have to change. The Transformers have mutated more often than Optimus Prime, most recently shifting from Michael Bay’s five movie series to last year’s reboot in the form of “Bumblebee.” Tampering with established properties can be a commercial liability. When auteur director Rian Johnson usurped established norms in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” it created a disturbance in the fan force.
“Right now we see this tension between content creators and fans. And if the fans feel, as happened with the last ‘Star Wars’ movie, that it wasn’t made the way they wanted, they’re going to fight back. And there’s this discussion out there, ‘Who owns these properties?’” says Ty Burr, film critic of The Boston Globe. “Bottom line is the corporations own the properties.”
Jason Bischoff, former director of Hasbro’s Global Franchise Creative team, compares franchises to monorails. There’s a constant tension between those in the front trying to drive the monorail forward and those at the back who want to pump the brakes.
“There’s people constantly getting on, and there are people constantly getting off,” says Mr. Bischoff, who gave a 2017 TED Talk titled “The Rise of Geek Culture.” “But if we want them to stand the test of time, they have to move forward.”
Marvel has made cautious adjustments to its series, which will continue with a new phase after “Avengers: Endgame,” by slowly diversifying the gender and race of its lead characters. It has also changed up the tone and genres of each entry. For example, “Black Panther” plays like a spy movie, and “Thor: Ragnarok” is like a sci-fi road trip comedy. But there’s a limit to just how far Marvel will innovate. It’s not about to reboot “Howard the Duck” anytime soon.
“They’re risky in their way, but they’re not artistically strange,” observes Ryan Britt, author of “Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: And Other Geeky Truths.” By contrast, he observes, Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies were remarkably quirky in a way that modern blockbusters wouldn’t dare emulate. “You know, Christopher Walken is running around with giant penguins, and Michelle Pfeiffer is licking from a bowl!”
But if big-screen movies cater to fan service in a bid to maximize global audiences, the smaller screen allows for riskier approaches to lower-budget escapist stories. That’s why Marvel’s short-lived series on Netflix, including “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones,” were more tonally and narratively audacious than their big-screen cousins.
Similarly, the character-driven and thematically rich “Game of Thrones” has often been compared to the works of Shakespeare. (That said, it’s hard to imagine the Bard putting a zombie on a flying dragon.) Indeed, the most complex characters and most challenging drama are often on television, says Mr. Burr of The Boston Globe. That’s where many of the most creative writers and directors have set up camp. An example of that is Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon's upcoming Star Trek series, with Patrick Stewart reprising his role of Captain Picard.
Another reason to be optimistic: Hollywood is always looking for innovative creators of a geeky disposition. The next breakout storyteller may emerge from traditional publishing. That’s why Netflix recently snapped up the rights to numerous young adult books, says Ms. Maggs, who also wrote Marvel’s “Fearless and Fantastic!” The goal? Find the next Harry Potter.
“They sometimes wait until something is proven already to have a market in publishing before it moves into movies,” says Ms. Maggs. “There will always be an appetite for fresh stories.”