Our hair looked like rat’s nests. Our fingernails were unevenly chewed. Our long pants showed ample ankle. Our posture resembled that of the three-toed sloth. Our faces had too many pimples, our T-shirts too many words. We were picked last in sports, then exiled to right-field behind the right-fielder. We were verbally taunted as a matter of course, physically beaten on a smattering of occasions. When we gathered together, we were less likely to toss around a ball than a logic problem or a Monty Python routine. For us, group fun meant role-playing games, where our avatars would compete in game-master-managed scenarios that drew upon alternate worlds/logics we knew from the sci-fi/fantasy novels and superhero comic books we devoured.
We would not have believed you if you’d told us that 30 years later, we’d be running this world right here.
Ever wonder why either of The Avengers created in the 1960s – the Marvel superheroes and the British TV spies – were named that? What exactly were they avenging? Why not The Guardians or The Defenders or whatever? We were nerdy enough to ask, but also nerdy enough to understand that we each harbored secret, mostly benign fantasies of vengeance, of turning the tables on a universe we saw as inevitably stacked against us. This lent an inherent (if incoherent) logic to comic champions and geeked-out 007s having “venge” in their names: in some inexplicable way, they were avenging us.
How quaint that now seems. As Avengers: Age of Ultron aims its hammer, shield and repulsor rays at the nation’s first $200 million opening weekend at the box office, the bullies should be calling for revenge against the nerds.
Let me clarify before I get accused of being pro-bully. Perhaps the natural “enemies” of nerds were the jocks, the athletes, particularly the ones who looked like college-age Tom Brady or Ted McGinley (who are, I’m sure, wonderful people; these are mere physical examples). But one didn’t need to be a jock to vilify nerds; an anti-intellectual, blustery, contemptuous attitude was sufficient, perhaps best symbolized by our 43rd President, George W. Bush. Whether or not Bush personally persecuted his high school’s geeks is beside the point (though would you really be surprised to learn it?) – he symbolizes a type of incurious blowhard who could bully his way straight to Wall Street riches and the highest corridors of power.
Look, “nerd chic” has been kicking around for a while, but it’s really gone into, ahem, hyperdrive in the last ten years or so. Bush sure didn’t help; if he wanted his type to be anyone’s role model, he might have tried not to pack four of the worst management disasters in anyone’s memory into one Presidency – 9/11, the Iraq war, Katrina, and the 2008 financial meltdown. That last one goes way beyond Bush and touches just about everyone wearing Brooks Brothers suits. If you’re not working as a male model/actor, is this really a good time to look like one? Ten years ago, assuming Tom Wolfe’s descriptions in Bonfire of the Vanities were still holding up, a guy who looked as if he’d stepped out of an Armani ad might have cruised his way to a cushy corner office of a financial firm, but today, would anyone trust him to sell them an app?
Silicon Valley has been left as America’s pre-eminent industry, privileging engineering degrees over Bush-style engineering schemes. (An uncle of mine has been working construction for decades, and about five years ago we shared a laugh over the fact that his stout, worn-down fingers can’t work his iPhone as well as the ones on my prissy hands – I believe he cracked, “Damn you nerds for taking over the world.”) Video games and the Internet more generally maximize opportunities for those who are tech-savvy and minimize problems of lookism and social awkwardness. Today’s helicopter parents are more Harvard-Harvard-Harvard than they were even back in my day; you can’t exactly earn a 5.0 GPA by always acting as if you’re in Animal House. And lo, it happened that Hollywood, thunderstruck by the early-century success of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films, went looking for more pre-existing fanbases/literature to which it could lead into expansions and CGI explosions. And yea, after Iron Man (2008) proved that you didn’t need an A-list hero (e.g. Superman, Spider-Man) to deliver A-plus grosses, Hollywood mortgaged the farm on the backs of the kinds of Supers not played by Joe Pesci. Not that everyone is thrilled about this. At a certain point, I expect the former bullies to say “okay, okay, we’re sorry! Just please give us friendlier tech and fewer comic book movies! We’re sorry already!”
It feels like we’re reaching some kind of creative tipping point as the Avengers arrive this weekend with what will almost certainly be the highest-grossing 2015 film without the number “7” on the end. (Furious7 and Star Wars VII will round out the year’s Top Three. Wait, is Avengers: Age of Ultron a part 7? If we don’t count the Thor and Hulk films? Please?) Robert Downey Jr. began his career as a classic nerd-taunting bully in Weird Science (1985); now, as Tony Stark, he makes circular, self-aggrandizing speeches that sound like Peter Thiel or Elon Musk preparing to acquire the next Facebook. When America’s biggest movie star has gone from dropping slurpees on nerds to dropping laser blasts on bad guys, that says something about America, don’t you think?
Look, obviously, bullying is still happening all the time (I wrote a novel about it which didn’t even factor in my son being special-needs); the goalposts have just been moved a little. Don’t cry too hard for secondary school jerks – they’ll find something else to be jerky about. And be hopeful for today’s picked-upon; whatever things they’re into now, heck, maybe those things will be Hollywood’s biggest franchises in 30 years. That’s why rolling your eyes at this weekend’s Avengerpalooza shouldn’t be your only reaction to it. Hokey or clunky as they may be, movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron still represent the culmination of wish fulfillment for some of us who were once marginalized. We got avenged. On some weird but genuine power-of-movies level, that means there’s hope for everyone else.