The Culture Hole, Episode 17: Ebertocracy

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Episode 17: Ebertocracy

It’s another week, which means it’s time for some other bullshit controversy that nerds and geeks need to seriously chill the fuck out about.  I mean, really.

This time, the “controversy” in question is a review of The Avengers by Roger Ebert.  But first, let’s get something out of the way: it is in some ways a pretty positive review.  It gets a pretty good star rating and includes the line, “The Avengers is done well by Joss Whedon, with style and energy. It provides its fans with exactly what they desire.”  That’s some pretty good DVD cover material right there.  Don’t think Marvel and Disney aren’t going to take that to the bank.  The issue was around what came immediately before and after it. “Whether it is exactly what they deserve is arguable,” he says.  Earlier, he writes:

“Comic-Con nerds will have multiple orgasms,” predicts critic David Edelstein in New York magazine, confirming something I had vaguely suspected about them. If he is correct, it’s time for desperately needed movies to re-educate nerds in the joys of sex.

Don’t get me wrong, those bits don’t sit incredibly well with me.  It’s a cheap shot, one I think Ebert should be above, and it disappoints me in the few occasions when he says things like that.  I’m not defending it.

However, I also can’t support or understand the reaction that erupted on Twitter afterward, with people saying things like, “Grow up, Roger Ebert” and “What a pretentious and judgmental review,” or calling Ebert “myopic,” “short sighted,” and “a snob and a major troll.”  I guess I don’t understand them because ultimately, I can’t understand, on a fundamental level, being genuinely upset at a review or, in some of these cases, an opinion about video games (he doesn’t think they’re art).

Let’s look at the video game thing.  It was something he said over two years ago and people still won’t stop bringing it up.  Any time he says something someone in my demographic (men and women ages 18-35 with at least one plastic Batman) might take notice of, that gets trotted out as either an insult or a dismissive, “This old dude just doesn’t get it.”  As if it somehow invalidates his opinions of things.  But all I can do is ask if anyone is actually surprised.

Sure, for a moment, I was taken aback because I respect Ebert as pretty much the only film critic worth a damn, but I also disagree incredibly with his opinion.  In a way, it’s certainly a little short-sighted, as my friend Jay accused it of being, but then I remembered that Ebert is a 69 year-old senior citizen.  He didn’t grow up with video games like I did.  It wasn’t a part of his formative experiences like it was mine, so of course he comes at it from a different viewpoint than I do.

It’s not like Ebert is a big ol’ technological evangelist in other ways, either.  He hates ebooks.  He hates 3D (on that, we agree).  He’s not exactly positive about digital cinematoraphy & projection, either.  He likes films and he likes film, and as liberal as he might be about a lot of films’ content, it’s not surprising that someone who grew up with film and before video games is a bit conservative about them.  He’s a 69 year-old man who’s shaped the course of movie discourse for decades.  You know what?  Fuck it, he’s earned a bit of curmudgeonliness about video games.  Heck, my dad (who is 62) doesn’t really “get” video games either, but that doesn’t make him bad or wrong or anything other than just a guy with a different outlook than me on some things.  More importantly, every time my dad and I disagree about a television show or movie, I don’t say, “Yeah, well you’re a myopic snob, old man.”  It would be beyond rude to say it to him, and I think it sends a similar message when nerds and geeks spend two years repeatedly telling it to a senior citizen they’ve never met who has a different opinion than them.  More than that, it actually goes a long way towards actually proving the point of Ebert’s dig that started this whole mess.

Yes, I’m serious.  I’m absolutely serious.

Nerds and geeks tend to bristle at the stereotype that we’re socially clumsy or inappropriate.  They hate that Simpsons Comic Book Guy image, but then they do something like harass a senior citizen for two years because he doesn’t like video games or mock people who don’t put the hyphen in Spider-Man.  Is that mature?  Is that what our community is, what we want it to be?  Because if it is, then Ebert is right: we might not deserve a movie like The Avengers if we’re just going to be dicks about it.

I understand that feeling where you used to be picked on for liking something and now it’s huge and culturally salient and you want to protect both it and your community.  When someone as well-known as Roger Ebert takes a dig, it doesn’t feel good, but hey!  That is life.  Sometimes a person you don’t know says something you don’t like and the only appropriate reaction is to not give a shit.  That’s part of being an adult, and one reason why terms like “manchild” and “adolescent” seem to follow the nerd and geek communities is because sometimes “love” gets twisted around until it becomes “protecting a multibillion-dollar company from a senior citizen’s mostly-positive opinion.”

And as messed up as that is, I’m at least used to that.  Passion begets a passionate response, and sometimes that’s a dickish one.  But what’s worse is the sinking feeling I’m getting, the growing suspicion that a consequence of the popularization of nerd and geek culture is that people can’t just like The Avengers or, in a few months, The Dark Knight Rises.  They have to love it.  You have to say it was perfect or risk some bizarre, inexplicable wrath.  I’m not just saying that apropos of nothing, either.  Those are real things I have heard said by fans of even members of the comics media.  Last night, before I went to bed, I saw this pop up in a tweet:

“I better wake up to hundreds of tweets talking about how perfect Avengers was!!”

That’s a real thing a real staff writer on a real comic news website wrote.  Some of the comments about Ebert came from a writer on another.  The Spider-Man hyphen issue is something I’ve seen Marvel’s Social Media Coordinator say.  These are all smart, passionate people I like!  And while there’s surely an element of playfulness to something like the Avengers tweet, a real enthusiasm for the material, there’s a bit of an edge to the demand that the reaction has to be perfect.  I wonder what would happen if someone told that person they didn’t like the movie.  Or if they said it was good, but not great.  Is it okay if I don’t think The Avengers is perfect?  Earlier in the week, I’d have said of course, opinions are like assholes because everybody’s is a Community reference, but that was before I saw people bring up a two year-old non-issue to harass a reviewer over a small part of an article about a movie he liked.

This isn’t pointing out the fact that Rex Reed’s Cabin in the Woods review is full of damning factual inaccuracies from beginning to end that imply he is objectively bad at his job.  It’s not taking issue with Moviefone’s offensively sexist article about how women should approach The Avengers when their boyfriends take them to it because that’s how gender works, I guess.  This is about being overly sensitive about a couple of lines in an article instead of just closing the damn browser tab and forgetting it ever existed.

Ebert’s entire point in those throwaway lines, as I took it, was that if a superhero movie can drive a nerd to orgasm, something is fucking wrong with nerds.  This is a guy who’s based his life around consuming & obsessing over media saying, “Hey, let’s not get carried away here.”  Nothing about the hysterical responses to him have convinced me he’s wrong.  Quite to the contrary, they’ve actually made me more or less change my mind and agree with him, and that’s really worrying.

Part of being treated like an adult is acting like one, and I’m not sure the reaction to Ebert’s Avengers review comes anywhere close to furthering that – or any geeky – cause.  More than anything, it strikes me as a reminder of how far the community still has to go.


  1. I don’t even think I speak the same language as the people who are capable of getting upset about that review. Thanks, James, for bridging the gap.

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