"Scott Pilgrim": The end of the nerd as we know him

From "Scott Pilgrim" to "Knocked Up," the movies' favorite whipping boy isn't what he used to be. What happened?

Published August 12, 2010 3:01PM (EDT)

"Hey, skinny ... yer ribs are showing!" That was a bully's taunt in an ad for bodybuilder Charles Atlas' illustrated fitness book, advertised in the back pages of comics for decades. Readers of a certain age will recall how this tale turns out: The bully humiliates his target, a skinny, hapless nerd, and the nerd works out, develops Charles Atlas-style muscles, returns to the beach and lays the bully out with one punch. "Oh, Joe!" the nerd's girlfriend peals. "You are a real man after all!"

As played by Michael Cera, the title character of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” looks like the 98-pound weakling in the Charles Atlas ad. But if those two fictional constructs ran into each other at a party, I doubt Scott would give the Atlas kid the time of day. Adapted by Edgar Wright ("Hot Fuzz") from Bryan Lee O'Malley's comic, the film positions itself as a triumph-of-the-nerd story. Scott, a smart but aimless 22-year old, must win the heart of his dream girl, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), by defeating Ramona's "seven evil exes" in combat scenes that mix elements from video games, martial arts film and music videos. 

But something's off -- and it's off in a way that casts a revealing light on other recent movies starring hyper-intelligent, dorky-looking straight guys.

Visually, Scott reads as a nerd, a geek, man-boy pariah. Yet he carries himself like an aw-shucks high school football hero -- a blazing sun around which fortunate planets revolve. Other characters warn Scott to give up the chase, not because he has no hope of winning Ramona, but because she's not worth it, or because there are other things he should spend his time on. He’s treated no differently than the young Tom Cruise would have been treated on-screen circa 1984 or so: as a desirable viewer surrogate who's free to move about in his cinematic universe, unencumbered by preconceived notions. Other characters may underestimate, stereotype or dismiss him, but it’s their problem. As far as the film is concerned, Scott Pilgrim is the man.

Clearly, quite a lot has changed since that Charles Atlas ad first appeared. The popular image of the nerd used to be a pathetic little weenie -- not just an inadequate physical specimen, but a reedy-voiced social pariah who trips over his own shoelaces, laughs through his nose, and favors white short-sleeved shirts with a protector in the breast pocket and horn-rimmed glasses with tape on the bridge. When he showed up in movies or TV shows, the nerd was a supporting character, often providing comic relief (Anthony Michael Hall in "Sixteen Candles") or certifying the handsome nice-guy hero's innate goodness in scenes where said hero teaches the nerd how to talk to girls or protects him against local sadists. Without the approval and affection of whomever the storyteller identifies as the dominant culture (the beautiful people, the rich or the jocks -- categories that often overlapped or fused) the nerd was a lost cause, a lost soul.

Not Scott. He has a high voice and a toothpick physique, but beyond that he’s a NINO: Nerd In Name Only. He’s a strong, silent type with a self-deprecating sense of humor. He’s in a rock band that's a plausible contender for a record contract. Unlike countless nerd/geek/pariahs from time immemorial, he has no trouble getting laid -- as evidenced by the substantial romantic history he discloses, and the beautiful sorta-ex-girlfriend, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), whom he callously slights while wooing his heart’s desire, Ramona. (Knives can't live without him, so she stalks him.) And in the combat sequences he holds his own against all comers and dispatches them without breaking a sweat. Even if you grant that the film is a fantasy (which it is) and that the fight sequences are purely metaphorical (they are), it all seems so … easy, somehow. Philadelphia Weekly film critic Sean Burns called the film, "Fan Service: The Movie."

And that’s surely the appeal. "I've always believed (and secretly hoped) that the Geek would inherit the Earth," New Zealand film critic Darren Bevan wrote in an early review of the film. "And man, after this I'm not disappointed or giving up on that hope at all."

And why should he? The nerd as we once knew him is ready to take his place in the Hall of Outmoded Stock Characters, alongside the snooty French headwaiter, the Irish beat cop who calls everyone “me boyo,” and the wisecracking white ethnic cabbie in the porkpie hat.

This weekend, "Scott Pilgrim" goes head-to-head with Sylvester Stallone’s 1980s-style, tough-guy action picture, "The Expendables," at the box office. ("Pilgrim" will win, trust me. Box office is driven by young viewers, and young viewers don't line up to see films starring 64-year-old men.) Meanwhile, David Fincher, a director whose cool quotient is beyond measuring, is about to release his latest feature, "The Social Network," a biography of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shot in the somber tones of a "Godfather" movie.

Then there's the curious case of writer-director Judd Apatow and his many protégés and imitators. The Apatow-style comedy -- exemplified by "The 40-Year Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Funny People" -- is often referred to as a "bro" film, for its emphasis on the deep but tense friendships between loquacious and/or slobby heterosexual guys. These characters tend to make fun of anybody who cares about eating well, looking good and staying fit ("Scott Pilgrim" has a touch of this as well, earning big laughs from Scott's defeat of a tall, athletic action film star, and hilariously sending up vegans as cult members with mutant powers). And they banter incessantly in archly facetious, David Letterman-style tones about movies, music and TV -- often while playing video games or complaining about their girlfriends, who don't understand or appreciate their interests and keep trying to turn them into boring, "responsible" sheep.

Except for the having girlfriends part, these characters fit the classic nerd profile; that they're rarely tarred with that brush is a testament to the successful renaming of a despised subclass of character. It seems appropriate and inevitable that so many actors in the Apatow universe got their start on NBC's short-lived "Freaks and Geeks" (1999-2000), which Apatow co-produced. Apatow's movies merge two stereotypes defined on his old show, the geek (academically gifted, goody-two-shoes) and the freak (underachieving, pot-smoking and beer-drinking). The merger creates a new archetype, the "bro." It's one of the most impressive examples of rebranding in the history of popular culture, imparting warmth and normalcy to nerd behavior that would once have been considered antisocial, regressive and otherwise undesirable.

Another rebranding is "fan," a neutral replacement for the more loaded "geek" or "nerd." Nobody in the media with half a brain says "comic book nerd" or "sci-fi geek" anymore. They say "comic book fan" or "sci-fi fan." Why? Deference to power.

As New York magazine's Adam Sternbergh wrote about in a blog entry titled "Tyranny of the Fanboys," nerd culture has been systematically mainstreamed and monetized. "All the favorite obsessions of nerds and fanboys (or fangirls) -- vampires, superheroes, manga, and sci-fi -- have now been successfully incepted into our collective pop-culture dreams," he wrote. The most successful films and TV series of recent years have been unabashed nerd-bait: "The Dark Knight," "Transformers 2," "Inception," "Lost." Cable network AMC is betting that they can get a long-running series out of the zombie genre: "Walking Dead," based on (Yesss!) a comic book. And San Diego's ComicCon has grown from a fringe gathering of like-minded obsessives into a hub of American popular culture, a place where movie studios, TV networks and publishers go to curry favor with their target audience. (This year, bloggers griped about the event's terrible organization and long lines, lamenting the end of a more innocent era.)

CinemaBlend's Josh Tyler defined the new dynamic more starkly. In a 2007 article, he warned critics to get behind Christopher Nolan's then-current film or suffer the consequences. "A vote against 'The Dark Knight' is a vote for your own irrelevancy," he wrote. "It's a vote for the unemployment line."

From niche market to pop culture overlord: That's some evolution. The nerd used to be defined by his undesirability, his otherness, his estrangement from the mainstream of modern life. Now entertainment conglomerates place ComicCon-ready projects at the centers of their business plans, and put characters that would once have been confined to comedic supporting parts at the centers of films and TV shows. Twenty or 30 years ago, the nerd character was exemplified by Anthony Michael Hall, Rick Moranis and Steve Urkel. He was a dweeb, a goon, an outsider. The modern version of the nerd is moping in a mansion purchased with millions in stand-up comedy earnings in "Funny People," or shooting it out with drug dealers in "Pineapple Express." And he's called a bro. Or just "the hero."

This all makes sense when you think of the gradual disappearance of hard physical labor as a commonplace way of earning a living, and the corresponding frequency of people spending entire days in desk chairs, their right hand clamped around a mouse, moving "documents" around on their "desktops" and posting "messages" on "message boards" and sending electronic "mail." For a good many people, there is no distinction between the virtual and the real. Something that happened online between two people with phony-badass screen names and avatars lifted from comic books is as real as a conversation that happened last week between flesh-and-blood friends over coffee.

"Scott Pilgrim" gets this. The film is empty-headed and utterly devoid of drama, yet aesthetically elating, with a style that feels truly new. There is no "reality" on-screen. It's an entirely virtual world, one in which comic byplay between apartment roommates can be preceded by "Seinfeld" music and scored with a laugh track, and bodies can absorb as much punishment as a video game character's. There's no "Secret Life of Walter Mitty"-style hopscotching between reality and fantasy; the two blend together into a hybrid world where real people have superhero-style fights, and battling bands disgorge spectral monsters that fight each other in midair as the crowd goes wild. The video game sound effects, comic book-style frame borders, and animated onomatopoeia ("PAF!") are every bit as real (or if you prefer, "real") as Scott's fixation on Ramona, probably more so. At least when Scott gets punched by an evil ex, he recoils in pain. His melodrama with Ramona rarely inspires anything more severe than a mild wince.

The nerd's journey from fringe to center can be vividly seen in the "Die Hard" series. The 1988 original features a hacker character named Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) who helps a band of menacing, handsome terrorists take over a skyscraper. Except for the then-unusual fact of his race (African-American), Theo is a standard-issue nerd with glasses, a high voice, an irritating laugh, and a personality that balances intellectual arrogance against a fear of jock violence. He spends most of the film on the sidelines of the action, observing the fireworks via closed-circuit TV monitors. The fourth entry in the series, 2007's "Live Free or Die Hard," features a more recent-vintage hacker, Matt Farrell (Justin Long). But this time the film is a buddy movie and the nerd is an equal partner in the story, overcoming his understandable fear of violent death, solving tech problems that the meathead hero can't comprehend, and earning the audience's respect.

In light of all these changes, it seems disingenuous for "Scott Pilgrim" to frame itself as a Victory of the Nerd story. For all intents and purposes, Scott is victorious before his mission has even started. His serenity certifies the ascension of the nerd to a position of cultural prominence. He's the coolest cat in the universe. Every scene invites viewers to live vicariously through his victories, few of which are hard-won. It's the most blatant example of a NINO story yet, a film whose protagonist comports himself as an unlikely hero, but carries himself with the deadpan confidence of 1980s-style, indestructible Bill Murray smartass. Scott is adored, envied and worshiped even as he walks all over everyone -- not just Knives Chau, but his band mates, who treat Scott as the leader of their pack and hang on his every word. The old school nerd was an underdog. The new nerd is the top dog. That's reality.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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