The 8 Great Geek Tragedies
I would never for a second forget how good we geeks have it right now. There’s more superhero movies coming out than we can shake a web at. We finally got the Deadpool movie and it’s as good we could have hoped for! The entire run of any show we’ve ever cared for is at our fingertips. Sometimes when I’m cueing up the original Star Trek series on Netflix I imagine showing it to an OG Trekkie of the 70’s, effortlessly scanning back and forth to catch every odd word and pausing to examine any small detail, and watching his mind just explode. Comic books are bound in glossy collections. Just about every video game we imagined as kids now exists in some form.
So yes, it is amazing. But even so, geeks are creatures of passion. And when you have passion, you will suffer disappointments, and hard. Some of those disappointments pass. Others have stayed with us, wedged in our chests like an arc reactor, floating through the background of our collective unconscious like an asteroid field where a nice little planet with no weapons used to be.
In no particular order, let’s take a moment to bow our heads in remembrance of some of those times when geeks’ shit got well and truly fucked.
WARNING: Spoilers for the Ultimate Marvel Universe event “Ultimatum” to follow.
1) Marvel’s Ultimatum Event
Nine. Billion. Dollars. That is how much box office gross Marvel Studios has so far earned with its shared universe superhero films, and that’s not even counting movie rentals, deals on streaming sites, or Captain America underwear. And they have the Marvel Ultimate Universe to thank.
The classic guys and gals of Marvel were mostly created in the early to mid-60s, making them just barely younger than color television. So in 2000, Marvel launched another shared universe, one populated by the same characters but with tweaked origins and modern settings to make them slightly less bonkers. This is how we got many great titles, but special mention goes to Mark “Kickass” Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates, the new Avengers title upon which Joss Whedon’s The Avengers movie owes so much.
And then, it all came crashing down. It can be laid at the feet of one man: Jeph Loeb. What’s really incredible is this guy is a great legendary comic book writer, whose work with artist Tim Sale includes Batman: The Long Halloween (which Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was heavily influenced by) and a number of really incredible Marvel origin retellings.
But when it came to writing for the Ultimate Marvel universe, it’s as if the entire concept of classic Marvel characters reimagined in a 21st-century light was repugnant to him. In the third Ultimates miniseries Ultimates 3, he regressed most of Millar and Hitch’s Ultimates team into closer matches of their classic universe counterparts, then revealed a team of heroes who looked like the Ultimates used to but were in fact evil robots there pretty much for the new-classic-look Ultimates to smash. And if that’s confusing to you, rest assured Jeph’s readers felt much the same way.
But this didn’t compare to Ultimatum. Billed as the universe’s first big world-shaking event, it turned out to be less an epic crossover saga and more of a straightforward massacre. Loeb butchered the Ultimate universe cast without rhyme or reason, and in the worst ways. When superheroes weren’t being casually discovered already dead buried under some rubble, they were being gruesomely dispatched in scenes more desperate for shock value than a cheap neighborhood haunted house. Perhaps no death was more famous than the Wasp, who was discovered being cannibalized by the Blob.
The Ultimate universe never recovered. After struggling for years on life-support, the grand experiment was finally gifted with a mercy-killing through the (second) Secret Wars event last year. And with it, dozens of imaginative, multi-faceted, morally gray versions of characters, and hundreds more we’ll never get to see.
2) The Sega Dreamcast
It is stunning to think that one of the coolest consoles of all time toppled a major player from the ranks of console royalty. Sometimes it’s stunning to think that Sega was once a major player in the console wars at all. The rivalry between Nintendo and Sega is now so ancient that primary historical sources documenting the conflict must be handled, like the Constitution, with the most utter care. But there are still gamers alive today who can remember a time when Sega claimed they would “do what Nintendon’t.” Among these things they would do, as it turned out, was create bizarre console hardware add-ons like the Sega CD and not making games for them.
By the time the Dreamcast was on the shelves, Sega’s name was mud to many gamers who had bought the 32X and only had Knuckles Chaotix to show for it (which wasn’t really so bad actually) (It’s not like you had to play as the bee).
Which made their mountainous financial investment in their new system a little crazy. Not only was the company of Sonic the Hedgehog losing money on every system they sold, but they were even footing the bill for gamers’ Internet. One of the best-remembered Dreamcast titles, Shenmue, was the most expensive video game ever developed at that time.
In the end, every incredible innovation of the Dreamcast–the modem, the VMUs, the quirky and original games–came with mounting price tags that the company couldn’t recoup. Especially when their entire market was saving their money for the highly-anticipated PlayStation 2, which could play DVDs!!
3) The Big Bang Theory
Nothing quite boxes in society’s view on a certain slice of the population like a sterilized sitcom depiction. So nothing could have really crippled the collective view of people living under the banner of the twenty-sided-die like the CBS car of crying clowns, The Big Bang Theory.
The show broke out in 2009 and suddenly millions of Muggles across America were turning to their bespectacled coworkers and saying, “You remind me so much of Sheldon!” And if you’re not sure why being compared to an OCD stereotype who makes superficial references to Spider-Man is so cringe-worthy, try smearing some fake butter on untoasted bread and telling someone it reminds you of their cooking. And then remember that in this metaphor, the cooking is their personality.
Big Bang Theory didn’t normalize geeks. It didn’t make us “cool.” It gave the mainstream license to laugh at us, with the condition they pat us on the head after. The characters of the show are desperate, shallow, clueless cartoons of ourselves and our friends. And for ten years, the show has dressed an old idea in a new way: that we are objects of derision, our every eccentricity something to be pointed out and laughed at, and all our passions turned into punchlines.
4) Everything Uwe Boll Ever Did, Just, All Of It
No opponent of video games, whether demagogue psychologist or flesh-eating lawyer, has ever done half as good a job of putting out the message that video games are all heartless, idiotic violence simulators than movie “director” Uwe Boll. Like some German BDSM vampire, he finds shallow video game IP with the properties he craves – blood and tits – and sucks it dry. Then he vomits the contents onto a film with a few passing nods towards what the property once was.
Look, no one is claiming the House of the Dead arcade series was some striking critique of our cultural stagnation before Boll cut it up and clumsily wrapped grindhouse horror film around the pieces like cheap sushi. No one reasonable expected Kristanna Loken’s half-vampire Rayne from the moderately popular BloodRayne games to be the next Buffy. But look at Boll’s heyday, 2003-2010: he made more video game-based movies during that time than all other sources combined. The only other significant banner on the field at that time is the Resident Evil film series, whose strongest distinguishing feature from Boll’s own B-grade horror feel and only loosely-adaptive writing style is a box office the Umbrella Corporation would be proud of.
Today, we’ve yet to see nearly any faithful adaptations of the gripping narratives gamers have been immersing themselves in, Precog-like, for years. Uwe Boll was gaming cinema’s most prolific and recognizable scumbag–er, director. For nearly a decade. And during that decade, he selected exclusively mediocre horror and adapted it into dreck even Ed Wood would have signed “Alan Smithee.” The result is, at the same time Marvel Studios was stepping into that geek darling, the fledgling superhero sub-genre, and spinning thick, sugary cotton candy blockbusters out of B-list heroes like Iron Man, the rich fields of video game film laid fallow. So thanks, Uwe Boll.
You fucking asshole.
5) Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
There’s only been one really transformative Metal Gear Solid title. And that game was Metal Gear Solid. This isn’t to mean that Snake’s subsequent adventures and his winning sneak-shoot-cutscene formula (at least those under series creator Hideo Kojima) haven’t been seriously fun. But none of them have reinvented the stealth genre the way the original 3-D Metal Gear managed to. It doesn’t help that the original title’s most oft-suggested annoyance, its lengthy story sequences, is an excess Kojima just isn’t willing to reign in.
But this last game was almost different. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain tried to do for open-world shooters what the original Metal Gear Solid did for stealth: add a wealth of radical new elements that worked in perfect cohesion. Kojima Productions brought the fluid stealth elements they’d developed in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots to a sandbox shooter environment. Add in the dense system for building up your mercenary army, an utterly unique multiplayer system for clashing with other players at a multiple levels, and graphics and horsepower that could finally keep up with Kojima’s downright hedonistic narrative flourishes, and you had a game that came within a launched robot arm of legendary greatness.
But it seems even the master of stealth gaming couldn’t sneak by Konami’s tight-fisted executives. MGSV:TPP is among one of the most expensive games of all time at $80 million–at least $20 million more than the previous console game, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Unlike MGS4, The Phantom Pain was a multi-platform release with two robust multiplayer modes and microtransactions as a cherry on top. But Konami, eager to exit the video market nearly entirely and get to making pachinko machines and finding more ingenious ways to torture employees, cut the game’s story mode short and launched the game with a still ludicrously laggy multiplayer mode.
For all the hurt Ultimatum inflicted on its loyal readership, there was some solace in that it was still a “fake” universe. The “real” Marvel heroes were still in the “real” universe, safely ensconced in a creative freeze which prevented, for good or worse, any kind of change–like, for instance, getting eaten. Or making a deal with Satan.
And then Spider-Man made a deal with Satan.
When his 137-year-old Aunt May lay dying of a bullet wound (instead of dying next week from getting out of bed too fast and disintegrating like an ancient mummy being exposed to fresh air), Peter Parker did the only reasonable thing: he accepted an offer from the demon Mephisto to change the past so that in the present, Aunt May was never shot. The downside? He and Mary Jane would never have gotten married.
It was such a bizarre story, with everyone in it acting so out-of-character, that it was inevitable that the people behind it would become a story unto themselves. Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief at Marvel and the primary writer behind the “One More Day” storyline, became the pilloried villain of the affair. He’d made no secret of his hatred for Peter’s marriage to Mary Jane, and his belief that Pete’s marriage to a beautiful woman kept him from being relatable, even going so far as to have the iconic redhead killed in a plane crash (it didn’t stick).
But no number of angry Internet comments could be enough to overturn the editorial edict. A few issues later, a Peter Parker not tied down by the old ball and chain was clubbing with other swinging singles and smooching New York’s most glamorous females thanks to his wealthy best friend. Or, in Marvel’s terms, back to being relatable.
7) The Star Wars Prequels
Man did the prequels suck. They sucked so much, you guys.
To this day, people write pleading thought-pieces clamoring for the show’s return on Netflix, despite the inauspicious resurrection of Arrested Development. The arguments favoring further voyages of the Serenity and its charming (I would call them “ruggedable”) crew make great points. But they miss the big one: it’s been fifteen years since Fox kicked this show into their network’s engine intake. The crippling truth is that one season of a show isn’t enough propulsion to break the atmosphere, and without the unassisted momentum of orbit (that is, syndication), the show never had a prayer of a Star Trek-like revival. The show, much like Mal’s dream of independence for the outlying planets, was dead and buried by the time most of us had seen the pilot episode.
It’s painful to watch now. Going back to Star Trek, the first season is a time of experimentation. It wasn’t until the second season that the show’s hot creative magma cools into the Class-M entertainment that would put it over with mainstream audiences in syndication. When you watch Firefly, you’re watching a teaser for the real show, the oyster appetizer with the aroma of steak wafting from around the corner. But we’re never going to get the chance to experience that medium-rare narrative Whedon had on the grill.
The show’s never coming back. The truth is, they already took the sky from us.
What geek tragedies do you still mourn? Let us know in the comments!