Stranger Things 3 – How not to move on

Stranger Things, Season 3, was okay. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good. It made a familiar mistake: trying to do everything and doing nothing well. Growing up is hard. Changing and maturing is fraught and sad. These were the obvious themes the season set up, then ignored in favor of rabbit trails. It wanted to do Red Dawn, but also Upside-Down Horror, but also The Wonder Years, sorta? Somehow, this blunder is old hat to us now. It’s common in the Golden Age of Television, not even that interesting. Plenty of shows burn out, like us.

Really, the season needed to do the opposite of Raising the Stakes™ and Going Bigger™. It needed to dial back, focus on one thing—ch-ch-ch-changes—and the quiet dread and ultimate hope that accompany them. The Mall, Puberty, Moving, Normal is Boring, etc., they all fit nicely into that theme, but the Magical Russians building a magical underground facility under a random mall in Indiana oh so did not. It made it very hard to care, not just because it was impossible to get past those nagging logistical questions, like, uh, “how did these guys get here?” or “why is the Gang so hilariously unprepared for something they’ve been through twice now?”, spoiling much of the screen-time. These were such a blaring hook for Next Season that it robbed them of all gravity. The Magic Box wasn’t inviting, just obnoxious. (Did you get that, JJ?) The best part of Season 3 was those brief, resonating minutes after the climax and before the credits, which had nothing to do with either Slavic Mole People or Squishmeister 3.0.

Like, who cares about those. Those are concrete problems with concrete solutions. Throw a bomb at them, shoot them, punch them, whatever. What’s terrifying is the agony of watching things you care about collapse before your eyes, not at the hands of a Corporeal Evil eating them alive, but normal winds of change. Will’s heart being carved out, watching his tight-knit circle of friends dissolve, innocence lost, moments defaced and spat on, things that will never, ever return, that was awful. I understood. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. Isn’t that why we’re drinking from this stupid nostalgia well? Wasn’t that pain the whole point?

I was struck by how much I felt I was in the Upside Down this time round. The “happy” parts of the 80s were horrible, weird, and alien. It was all shit: the aesthetic, the mentality, the casual brutality of suburbia, none of it seemed appealing in the slightest. Sure, I’m a 90s kid, through and through, but, take note: the 90s were also terrible in most of the same ways. Their only redeeming value was that bygone optimism of our victory in the Cold War, cut down before its time thanks to 9/11. But seeing the 80s paraded in front of me this happy time,—all the seeds of the shitfruit we have to eat day after day in our present—arranged on a silver platter, as if we should miss this: that was a straight kick in the balls. For example, malls were the worst deal ever sold to America: hey, let’s straight-up murder vibrant, walkable city centers, nexuses of community and history that have been around since the dawn of our country. What do we get in return? Oh, lame, tacky shopping parlors that won’t last for even one generation. Wow, that was so worth it. Sign me up!

It made me glad to have not grown up in this time. It made me appreciate the lessons we’ve learned as a culture since then, how it’s become much more acceptable—casual, even—to talk about our feelings, to accept people with slight differences, etc. It made me despise what I was seeing. It was so clueless of its consequence and impact. More insulting was how almost self-aware the depiction seemed, teasing at deconstruction, but still fundamentally cool with the thrill and adventure of it. And that was the thing: there wasn’t any. Did I care what was happening to Billy and Whatsherface? No. I most definitely did not care what the Monster was up to. It’s gonna scream and munch on things, like the last two times. I didn’t care about what Boris and Pals are doing thanks to their obvious Russian Portal that’s gonna be explained in Season 4, maybe, if they bother. Whee. Exciting.

But I did care as the Gang gathered round and looked on that empty house, realizing how much time and effort they’d wasted on petty bullshit, pissing away something irreplaceable, a lost jewel they’ll long for until the end of their days. That tragedy of it, that it all fell apart just because things fall apart, that the factors that bring us together are precisely what cause us to part, that time and chance happens to us all. If there was going to be a Monster, it should’ve been a small, creeping thing, an standard but effective metaphor for this unstoppable tide of change and the dread of it, nibbling at their buried fears and anxieties, helping them fester, gnawing at this side of us that we try to shove behind a bolted door, turning the characters on each other. There should’ve been less physical separation, but vast emotional and psychological gulfs, the tweens, teens, and older adults approaching and dealing with this challenge in their own appropriate ways. “I don’t want to lose this. Please don’t take this away from me. I’ll do anything. Anything.”

This is simple thematics, stuff that garners a much bigger and more lasting payoff than yet another CGI jump-scare. Despite being a 90s kid, Season 1 drew me in through the courage of its convictions. It went all in on a very specific place-feeling, one it examined with skill and passion. It was compelling. Season 3 was not. It was a familiar, shabby ritual. A wasted opportunity. It was doing a Thing, but This Time Bigger and Betterer. It didn’t work.

Nostalgia has a lesson for us, but we refuse to learn it. Can we stop doing that, maybe?

The Game Must End

I seem to be among the few souls satisfied by Game of Throne’s final dumpster fire, which is less dumpster or fire than it seems. I’ve had no high hopes for the franchise’s conclusion ever since I read A Dance With Dragons and realized this was all going nowhere fast. Part of me wants to be baffled by how so many did, but that would be lying. Long have I beat this drum of doom. Now the day is here, this very day, in fact.

Before we continue, full disclosure and honesty: I am a Tolkien fan. Yes, a great part of my grudge with George R. R. Martin (GRRM) and GoT has been me being butt-hurt about how much LotR and Tolkien’s legacy gets dumped on vis-a-vis the former. “The American Tolkien”? I’ve been on a self-gratifying rant against that moniker for a decade, which informs much of my sentiment in this matter. Ironically, Tolkien too had trouble finishing his own works—the Lord of the Rings took about a decade of dithering to finish—but the key difference is that John suffered in private silence until he could produce a finished product, while George has leveraged his struggle in broad daylight, painting a picture of himself that was never going to stand the test of time. He’s cast himself as a ruthless scribe who’ll kill your puppy because that’s “realistic” or “unexpected,” a painstaking realist who pays close attention to logistics and time and something. This is a fire any writer knows not to play with. It’s irresponsible, unprofessional spin. He’s gotten away with it for far too long. What goes up must come down.

Nevertheless, to be fair to George, the “bad” season at hand is not all his fault, nor is he a hack. No matter what I say, no matter what stupid slice of my mind I’d like to indulge, the man is perhaps the most successful author ever. His characters are on everyone’s lips. His Song has been rightfully celebrated as one of the last few common cultural strands we enjoy in this polarized world. In terms of success and scale of influence alone, if not baseline quality of writing, he easily matches Tolkien. This I do not gainsay.

Instead, what irks me now is this attempt at damage control over something that neither needs it nor deserves it, with everyone, from George to D&D (the GoT show-runners) subtly pointing fingers, walking back earlier statements, and just plain lying about the roles they’ve played in this. To the first, the main problem with the last two, probably three, seasons of GoT has been pacing, and with it, characterization, which is indeed a betrayal of the show’s roots. Its earlier seasons were defined by its plodding pace and quieter moments filled with characters talking, getting us to like them through that talking. It was restrained. Now everything is compressed to hell for no better reason other than “we didn’t feel like taking our time.” Alas, things do take time, and Time does not suffer fools.

Still, it’s way too easy to take this mistake of execution and conflate it with a mistake of essence, which brings us to the divide tearing a once proud fandom apart. Take away all the shoddiness of bad scheduling and the core of the plot, the essence of what happens, the points on the outline and the beats they’ve aimed to hit—those all remain well and good, fitting neatly into the Song’s long tack. The Night King and the Walkers are Walking MacGuffins on page and screen. It’s only fitting they would come to a MacGuffin-y end. Dany’s turn to insanity has been set up from the very first book. You might be mad it went there, but you can’t deny it was a pretty straight shot. If you have earnest grievances with what’s been happening, not how, then I’m sad to be the bearer of bad news. Alas, the books won’t save you either. This is your supper. It’s Martin’s vision, albeit squeezed and dehydrated through a studio, but he signed that deal with his own arm and led it every step of the way.

Before we continue, let’s agree: D&D own all the blame in the world for the extent of the pacing problem. They had the luxury and leisure to choose whatever amount of time and resources they’d’ve liked to close this sucker out. They chose poorly. Nobody put a gun to their heads and told them they had to wrap up everything in 13 episodes. On the contrary, plenty extended the offer of more time. Nah, they wanted to do other things, which, uh, no. It doesn’t work like that: you don’t get to shirk from the obligations you sign up for. You made your fame and fortune on GoT. It’s only right and professional that you give it a proper send-off.

Continuing on, the sad fact that there was Everything To Wrap Up rests on the lone shoulders of George. He sowed the seeds of this fire long ago. Those who’ve been keeping careful eyes on his progress have known how troubled his handling of ASoIaF has been. As someone who’s taking a stab at writing books, I know very well how some parts of the piece write themselves, while others are a chore and a slog in the best of moods. Martin, like every author, has his preferences. He has a knack and love for historiography, that granularity of lists, names, details, heraldry, attention to (certain) details, that make his heart sing. But people age, the neurons adapt, time passes, and lo, chores that were once easy become monkeys on your back that won’t ever get off. It’s way more fun to plant seeds and watch them bloom than bring in the harvest. It even seems kinder: letting things grow, not cutting them down, yet in truth, unrestricted growth leads to choking and death. Pruning is just as necessary to health and prosperity in any sphere. In realizing how poorly we’ve exercised our will over the generations, we tend to overemphasize the catastrophe of will and ignore the catastrophe of chaos, even though catastrophe is catastrophe no matter its seed. Here, Martin has planted an overgrown garden of characters, plots, places, and names while procrastinating about that pruning. As of the last book, there remain more winding, disconnected plotlines than ever festered in the worst of Dorneville with less relative time to resolve them. I have no idea how you’re going to snip off Zombie Catelyn (wait, what?), the Dornish Cul-De-Sac, the Euron and Victarion (who?) Cruises, the Aegon (who too?) Invasion, the Littlefinger Loitering, the High Sparrow Session, the Jon Snow Resurrection (yep, still in the wings), the Flayman Chronicles, the Arya Training Montage (yep, still in progress), the big Meereen battle (still hasn’t happened after two books of setup) and bring things to a close within two books. Not without breaking a few omelettes, at least. There were (never counting the one-offs, of course) eight point-of-view characters in the first book, each with a relatively even amount of narrative. In the fifth, there were twice that number, but Jon, Tyrion, and Dany took up the lion’s share with the other baker’s dozen spread out like thin butter. There isn’t enough time to give them all their due. Some are redundant, easily pared down or dispensed with, but a reckoning there must be for any of this to move on.

Now, a Reckoning we have. Characters get cut, die like flies, or tossed out of the script like bad Halloween candy, begging the question: what did you expect? What were you expecting, really? Something unexpected? What would that look like? There’s only so many battles and scheming and routine treachery and shock and surprise you can take before it becomes provincial and boring. Chasing the phantom of “unpredictability” paints you into a different predictable corner, not above it. The flat circle remains flat and circular. People age, the neurons adapt. It’s been ten years. Cersei has always been the evil, ruthless, short-sighted wanna-be queen who’s been absurdly successful. Jon has always been a bland, expressionless idiot Chosen One who’s been absurdly successful (he got resurrected, for Christ’s sake). Daenerys has always been an absurdly successful semi-mad queen with no idea what’s she’s doing. Bran was always going to be the Three-Eyed Raven. Arya was always going to stab important people improbably. You see, Westeros? The tropes didn’t ruin you. The tropes were inside you all along. 

The Reckoning is putting GoT’s reputation in its proper place, and with it, Martin’s. That place isn’t a trash heap, but it’s not Valhalla either. Any author worth their salt knows damn well you can’t just kill off characters willy-nilly. They know better not to go out on that limb lest it break off while you’re dancing on it. Martin has. He’s done it guns blazing, because he, like a human, thought he could handle the risk when the time came. Now the limb’s cracking. That temptation to spin it as somehow being different, to kinda wash your hands of it just enough to get off the hook, is very strong, well-nigh irresistible.

The Reckoning is taking you to task for not keeping yourself in check. This is the advantage of maturity in consumption: when the bill comes due, you can afford it. The message behind Ned Stark’s death wasn’t “life is cruel” or “the good guys don’t win,” but “being a good guy itself isn’t enough to win.” Even that falls into the realm of “dying mentor figure sparks the Action.” Likewise, where its plot could have gone was always very predictable. There were only a handful of roads to follow, each fraught with charges of “ugh, obvious.” If Dany somehow defied all the odds and ruled wisely, wouldn’t that strike you as canned and contrived? Or what if Tyrion died without any resolution to his loose ends? Were the dragons were going to come through unscathed? …well, no otherwise there wouldn’t be much tension in the final arc. She’d just steamroll everyone, hmm. Did you think there wouldn’t be a Zombie Dragon? …well, it’s pretty obvious, but all the pieces were there and it’s a straightforward way to raise the stakes, huh. Did you think Dany was gonna waltz up to the Iron Throne and suddenly become a Good Queen with zero problems? …err, wait, she had that depressing vision of the Iron Throne with the ash and she didn’t get to reach it and, yikes, she does tend to make weird angry faces and over(re)act a lot…oh. Whatever the choice, someone will braid it into a rope to hang you with. Think about what that says about fandom.

So you’ll forgive me if I savor, just a little, not too much, how people, after enjoying their delusion for years, have turned on their baby in murder. “Why does GoT keep trying to surprise me? I CAN’T BE SURPRISED ANYMORE. EVERYONE’S SO HORRIBLE AND DUMB AND I’M OVER IT.” Hmm, well, maybe it was never that horrible, and maybe being horrible isn’t inherently noteworthy. How many of Shakespeare’s characters die horribly? Is that why people love them? Maybe. Or maybe “realism” isn’t what we’re looking for in stories, but something a bit more human and useful than “life is shitty.” Life is more complicated than that. We humans are capable enough that we’re right to expect more from each other. This uncomfortable truth is why GoT is failing to rise above its own essence. Martin’s critique of fantasy, that ruling is hard, life is cruel, virtue isn’t enough, etc., has always been insufficient, trite in its own way. “He ruled wisely” isn’t a dilemma he’s managed to solve because his take is still steeped in and wedded to a contradictory fascination with byzantine schemes, backstabbing, betrayal, awfulness, and the voyeuristic thrills that come with them. The Game is the point. The Wheel isn’t meant to be broken, not really. There are no people in Westeros questioning why hereditary monarchy or autocracy is flawed and inevitably leads to Mad Kings and Queens, that even the best kings suck because you’re still basing power and authority on random chance and Survival of the Fittest, that Ned Stark, Jon Snow, and Daenerys Targaryen end up looking rather the same to the common peasant. We can do better than the Game, both as individuals and as systems. It’s not enough to be “honest” in one direction. What saves Tolkien’s works is a lack of such pretense. The Lord of the Rings is an unabashed fairy tale, celebrating fantastical things, but reaching deeper and truer into our core through that. Game of Thrones is trying to have it both ways: take the fancy trappings of the fairy tale to get people on board, but still be edgy and “real” enough to be “taken seriously.” Which means, in the end, we can’t take it seriously at all.

The irony of fandom is that it’s so wrapped up in being smarter than stories, analyzing them, picking them apart, theorizing about them and bickering about those theories (the Protagonist Is Related to Someone Unexpected?!!), constantly hanging lanterns on “unlikely” things and demanding creators hang more of them on their own works, whatever the cost, that it’s ended up being too dumb for stories. The basic concepts of contrivance, theater, and the cute silliness of a narrative are unacceptable. Somebody has to comment on how silly it is. We can’t be children anymore. We have to be adults, very smart adults. Turns out that sucks, like we always knew. Most of Martin’s characters have survived, otherwise how else would you have a show? And most of those characters have done really stupid and baffling things from the beginning. Did you remember how Cersei started all this for…some reason? Remember how she constantly proclaimed her only concern was her three children, but then she killed Her Last Boy because zpzocbhapoihdproaksjds right after blowing up the Westerosi Vatican…right after that Vatican publicly humiliated her …and then people crowned her Queen instead of just storming the Red Keep and ripping her, one of the most despised figures in Westeros, apart, because apparently nobody in King’s Landing can put two and two together? Wait, this is a story? It has plot-holes? It’s been playing fast and loose with time and consistency forever? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

This is not LOST. This is not two suits making things up as they go along, or a sleazy auteur playing cutesy with a Mystery Box. No, there was a vision, an end-goal. The Original Screw-up, the only one that ever mattered, was in getting there. Martin set the stage for ridiculous expectations. D&D tripped off it. And yet, despite all that, this season is fine. Episode 2 was fantastic, easily on par with the series’ other great moments. Episode 3 was gripping and satisfying. Episode 4 was really stupid. (Ed Sheeran took up like ten minutes of gratuitous screen-time once, remember?) Episode 5 was abrupt and odd and filled with tons of people dying in horrible ways. That all sounds like GoT, doesn’t it? Things are turning out…pretty okay, and for a series that was always pretty okay, rough around the edges and trapped between competing mediums, treading a lot of familiar paths well but lying about it, enhanced and hampered by its production values, uplifted and leashed by its plot and actors, that’s hardly the worst end. You’re not mad at GoT. You’re mad the high is over, that you’re coming down to earth again.

Welcome back. When GoT ends tonight, however it ends tonight, think a bit more about these things. Develop your tastes, refine them, and remember why you loved this series so much in the first place. Don’t rewrite history yet again because it’s uncomfortable. Look at it in the eye this time. The moments that resonated with you will stay that way…if you let them. If you admit this is all pretend, that if anyone is to blame for being disappointed with the ending of a soap-opera of Swords, Boobs, and Dragons, it’s you. Not Martin, not D&D, but you. They have their own things to answer for. Take out the log in your own eye first. See clearer.

The show will go on, one way or another. But the Game…

Space Gaslighting

Fans suck, especially the Star Wars variety.

I don’t have much pity for The Last Jedi. It’s a terrible movie, as I’ve explored at length. That said, I’ve despised the alt-right bullshit “reactions” around it from the very beginning, exploiting the existence of a banal, weak character like Rose (as opposed to every other character in the same movie) to rally around an anti-SJW agenda. SJW is pronounced “s’jewwwwwwwwwwwwww”, by the way, just in case it wasn’t clear it’s become a meaningless slur in direct harmony with its anti-Semitic predecessors. These are liars, idiot bigots who want to go back to a magical time when there was no progressive message in their media and everything was just nice and timeless and oh wait X-Men the Animated Series was more leftist and hardcore than most things on the air today and remember how Captain Planet was overtly anti-corporate with a highly diverse cast?

None of these alt-right losers care about “cinematic integrity” or “ethics in game journalism.” It’s an excuse to act out their bigotry in public, pure gaslighting meant to reframe and reshape reality to fit their goals, to restore public acceptability for their hatred, to make their bile seem like good ol’ common sense. Meanwhile, the alt-right is about as natural as a nuclear bomb. It’s an artificial monstrosity, one that has been deliberately fostered by its advocates and tolerated by corporate hacks in favor of profitability, as well as the occasional naive moron in a comical position of power who probably has sympathies towards them.

The insulted male wracked with grief over the injustices foisted upon him by the FEMINISTS and a rabidly leftist world is a farce. They’re assholes seething at a world that now might punish their obnoxious, childish antics instead of rewarding them. Everything else is a smokescreen. An angry man ranting about how a bad corporate turd of a movie is RUINING THEIR FRANCHISE WITH A POLITICAL AGENDA (whatever that is) should not be given any benefit of the doubt, let alone respect. Can they define what that agenda is? Can they explain what the hell they’re talking about? No, because that’s not the point. The point is to find an excuse to make their hatred and bitterness sound reasonable, whatever form that takes.

You want to know why these fans, authors of 10-hour-long videos about how Rose is somehow the worst Star Wars character ever, really hate Rose? It’s because she’s Asian and has chubby cheeks. That’s it. They’re racist woman-haters. End of story. Nothing that Rose does in TLJ is remarkable. There’s that one stupid line at the end where she says “Love Will Save Us” as the Space Empire’s Lazer Ram breaks through the door. Oh no. As opposed to this:

This scene pissed me off way more than anything else Rose ever did. Why? Because it’s also gaslighting. Noticing a theme here?

“The height of their power?” Have you all forgotten that the Jedi were consistently stated to be at a worrying nadir in all three prequel films? Go back and watch them. The Jedi were in trouble the whole way through, and they knew it. It’s not like they were being deliberately undermined by an evil Sith Lord. Oh no, it was all the good guys’ fault for being mercilessly slaughtered by a power-hungry tyrant while trying to keep the Galactic Republic from falling apart. No no no, the legacy of the Jedi was total failure…apart from over a thousand years of peaceful, stable, democratic rule. More than we’ve ever done. If that’s failure, then what’s success?

How odd that all these defenders of integrity don’t seem to care about a movie rewriting history. They know few, if any, will go back and watch what amounts to a historical record, so they can just lie and say whatever they want, tweaking Star Wars to appeal to the tired cynicism of the 2010s, reinforcing the caustic idea that good and evil are lies, no different from one another, legitimizing distrust in our institutions and the good people in them. This is far more insidious than Rose saying something stupid in one scene. There’s way stupider shit in the movie itself anyway. Luke Skywalker cynicizing the entire legacy of the Jedi? Who cares! Rey wanting to save a murderous asshole who killed his father showed no remorse for it? Eh! Finn forgetting about Rey, the person who changed his life? Meh! Leia having no plan and flying through space like Mary Poppins? Whatever. Poe having no character arc? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But “LOVE IS WHAT WILL SAVE US” is what gets you riled up. Sure, Jan.

Stop taking these people at face value. Their grievances are a performance to themselves, curated rage, all to enjoy the experience of being an awful human being while gaining power. Most of all, they want you to defend these movies. That’s their game: to put you between a rock and a hard place. Do I try to justify TLJ because defending representation in movies is more important, even though, yeah, Admiral Holo’s actions make no sense?

No. This is a Disney movie made to sell toys. You don’t owe it a damn thing. Captain Phasma being a woman doesn’t make her character good. That plays right into their hands. It makes you seem like a zealot out of touch with the real world. Here we have a corporation and racists exploiting your well-meaning idealism from different angles. As a different example, the new Ghostbusters was a travesty, and everyone who tried to defend it simply because it had an all-female cast fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. This harms our cause, as less informed, less insightful people on the sidelines will watch the movie and think of us as fools, reinforcing the cynical message of the alt-right: we weird coastal elites and liberal activists don’t care about the truth that us common folk can grasp; we’re just purple-haired activists who don’t care about whom we trample to remake the world in our image. Unlike them, beleaguered guardians of reason and justice.

Don’t fall for it. TLJ is bad. Why? Because most movies today are bad, because studios have turned an artistic exercise into a focus-group-centered mathematical puzzle. There’s no mystery to it. It just so happens that nowadays putting more women and people of color into them stirs up hype. I just saved you hundreds of hours of arguing on the internet.

It should be noted that even this half-hearted effort is worthwhile. Black Panther is a good example of how it can pay off eventually. Cultural change has to start somewhere. You just have to approach it with some cunning and patience. There are countless good movies out there pushing the bounds of diversity and social justice. You don’t have to die on any particular hill. Save your blood for something worthy.

By the way, the climate is changing really fast and we’re so far behind on addressing it that we’re probably completely screwed.

The Weight of Nerddom

I saw a Facebook Memory today that I haven’t been able to retrieve since losing it amidst the chaotic flow of algorithms, but to sum it up, it was about Star Wars, as is appropriate for May 4th. More precisely, it concerned my belief that Star Wars is a middling sci-fi franchise that made its contributions to culture thirty years ago and has offered little of substance or worth since. This spawned some rather productive conversations among my friends on not just the Star Wars franchise, but what it means to be a “nerd”. I took the tack that nerddom, as a whole, has been compromised by its success on the larger cultural stage, that it has by and large prostituted itself before general society in exchange for money, fame, power, and influence. In my view, that takes it out of the sphere of nerddom altogether. Others disagreed. Two years later, I still hold to this view with an even tighter grip, Infinity War creeping overhead.

I say this not to be some sort of cruel gatekeeper in the vein of Ready Player One‘s malefic, mediocre protagonist, but as a sort of gadfly to remind people of what the original conceit of nerddom was and how it has morphed over time. Nerddom has always carried with it a connotation of uncompromising confidence, a kind of shameless zeal towards a certain topic or topics that both commends and damns itself. From my view, a nerd is someone who loves things such as comic books and Star Wars in a passionate way regardless of the social consequences, although not in a way that excessively harms oneself or others, of course. One can be a nerd for just about anything, but the idea is that you’re willing to put up with the philistine fists of an ignorant bully for the sake of something you love, or perhaps mockery, shame, exclusion, etc., because the thing you care about is more important.

It’s been a recurring gripe of mine towards nerd culture in the past decade as it has ascended the heights of capitalism and reaped the rewards of longsuffering. Nerds are the hot demographic now, all their formerly embarrassing passions the very object of the System’s desire. Nerd culture is everyone, embedded in everything. I can’t go a literal three seconds without some sort of post or allusion to the MCU, Star Wars, or D&D. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, but it reflects a colossal change in the power dynamic that has governed this subculture until now. It follows that its nature would shift to respond to it.

I don’t see that shift as a good thing–certainly not a net positive. I heed some of Tolkien’s words: Reward on earth is more dangerous than punishment. It’s a good thing that nerds aren’t shoved into lockers as much for carrying around Marvel comics, that cosplayers have a safe, welcoming space to practice their careful art, that Star Wars is the thing that the host casually referenced on the local American radio station without any sort of stigma. In the grand scheme of things, though, these aren’t exactly fantastic achievements either. They come with some heavy costs, most of which are invisible or intangible. Nerd culture is starting to demonstrate more and more, well, excess than anything else. It’s becoming less and less comfortable for me to outright associate with it in a proud way. I hover more on the fringes, enjoying things as I can in as healthy a way I can manage, a balancing act that grows more difficult with time. It welcomes more, but feels less welcoming deeper down.

As an example, I go to Blizzcon every year to visit my guildmates who helped me through a lot of bad times, whose company I cherish and enjoy, but the con itself is just an excuse to plan that gathering. In my little group, we’re more like to make fun of those around us, to keep our interests within measured confines, to raise our eyebrows at the next new “epic” announcement from a giant corporation that likes money and spare no insult against those who bend the knee. Each Blizzcon for the past five years now, things get a little more whacky, the convention offerings get a little more shameful, dragging Whil Wheaton onto the stage to embarrass himself with bad comedy that drags on forever. Probably the most enjoyable event for us is the cosplay contest, but only the cosplay is fun and interesting. Everything else around it–the announcer, the judges, the way attendees behave–is a terrible joke that we all hate and love to hate on. We could never say that in public though, hashing this out while waiting in line to test out the latest build of Overwatch. People would not approve. We have to do it in the comfort of our own house, in our own little safe space away from the larger safe space.

Nerd culture has always danced with that particular flame of gluttony. Now the chains are weaker, allowing people to act out more freely. Their criteria for approval is less sheer knowledge and more a check for a certain kind of psychology and attitude. The MCU gets most of my public ire these days, mostly because it’s an easy target that keeps shoving itself into my field of view. It’s a simple fact of taste and a competent critical eye that Marvel movies are bad. They don’t suck, but they aren’t good. They’re passable action movies at best, easily forgettable in their prime form. That’s not the coverage or opinion you see in most media, though. The demographic must be appeased, lest nobody answer the journalist’s calls next time around. There’s an ironic, yet natural element of bullying to all this. Since they’ve had a taste of popularity and power, nerds (those in their lucky fiefs, that is) are less willing to tolerate someone just saying that. The New Yorker got crucified for pointing out Infinity War is weak, baffling without the heavy context of twenty other mediocre movies. It’s not like that’s an outlandish take on the matter. That’s exactly what IW was hyped as: come see this movie to see all your favorite Marvel superheroes IN ONE MOVIE!!!!!! What’s followed is a shameless offensive of mendacity that involves everyone pretending IW’s highly predictable cliffhanger (not ending) is something worth an ounce of thought. Point that out and, well, I guess you’re an asshole who hates nerds or just wants to yell. Ten or twenty years ago, that offensive might’ve proven less effective.

Look, nerds. I think it’s a bit wise to step back and wonder how you’re coming across. That’s healthy advice in real life; it’s healthy advice here too. At the moment we live in a happy bubble of success and spotlight, but these halcyon days will pass, in one form or another, and then we’ll have to live with the choices we’ve made as a subculture. Stranger Things Season 2 wasn’t as good as the first one. That will continue. As it is right now, I don’t like the choices we’re making. I don’t like that we’re treading a worn path of indulgence. I don’t like that we’ve become more willing to censor those who don’t fall in line. I don’t see nerddom as something to be proud of if it isn’t somehow brave. It’s not brave to like Infinity War or The Last Jedi. It’s not brave to dislike them either. It’s brave to think about them, to wonder what real value they have and what your passion is worth to you, and finally to follow those conclusions wherever they lead. It’s brave to love something, but knowing how to let it go when it starts to hurt you, no matter how much it stings.

May the 4th be with you.