Has there ever been a better time to be a nerd than now? The nerd—named for a 1950 Dr. Seuss creation and distinct from the geek, the drip, the wimp, and the square—might be identified, for our purposes, as one who possesses an obsessive ardor for marginal, and arguably trivial, subject matter (sci-fi novels, comic books, the differences between Orcs and Half-Orcs), to the detriment, and possible outright neglect, of more widely embraced pursuits (attentive hygiene, communication skills, the differences between men and women). As such, nerds have long been the disdained wallflowers of popular culture. But these days, everyone’s lining up for a dance.
On Broadway, Monty Python’s Spamalot is nourishing hundreds of “Ni!”-spouting fans each night, like a nestful of chirping baby chicks. At the movies, the film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—a kind of On the Road of nerddom—topped the box office in its first weekend, squashing the burly, testosterone-soaked XXX. This year we’ve already seen the slavishly faithful, nerd-delighting Sin City, and there’s a new Batman movie on the way—a dark and authentic version that has comics fans churning in their Batman sheets. And, of course, this weekend brings the long-awaited release of Revenge of the Sith, the climax to that ongoing, three-decade-spanning, bacchanalian nerd orgy otherwise known as Star Wars. It’s fitting, in fact, that a new Star Wars film should mark the zenith of this nerd ascendancy, as the first film, way back in 1977, was the movie that launched the ascent. Unlike Star Trek, Star Wars crossed over immediately to the masses—nerds and civilians braided together in lines that curled around the block.
But unlike today’s films, Star Trek and Star Wars weren’t created for nerds—rather, they created nerds. (Gene Roddenberry is to nerds as Henry Ford is to Model T’s.) And I say this as one of the creations: a grown man who, while not fluent in Klingon or Elvish, got poleaxed by Star Wars at age 7 and who to this day carries a Han Solo key chain, dangling in my pocket like the medal of a patron saint. Now movies like Hitchhiker’s or Spider-Man 2 or the recent Lord of the Rings trilogy are made for nerds, by nerds, and with nerds in mind. Nerds have always had their culture. But now it’s become the culture.
It’s not hard to see why Hollywood has gone cuckoo for the nerds. For starters, they’re the ideal audience. They are legion. They are rabid. They are loyal—to a point. They are also famously finicky, and you tinker with their passions at your peril. Nerds did not flock to the first Star Trek film, for example, because they could sense that this snoozer lacked an essential Star Trek–y-ness, an essence they understood better than did the film’s own creators. On the other hand, Peter Jackson’s been canonized to geek-saintdom for the strident fidelity of his Tolkien trilogy.
And, thanks to the Web, nerds are more powerful than ever. Their brand of obsessive fanboy quarreling, which used to happen among three friends in someone’s basement over a twenty-sided die, has been focused and amplified by the Internet, the single greatest tool ever devised for collective heartfelt blathering. For proof of the nerd’s new clout, consider this: The line of Star Wars fans already assembled outside L.A.’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, waiting for Revenge of the Sith to open, not only has its own Website, liningup.net, but its own PR representative.