Geeky pop culture sometimes feels like a collection of cool stuff: "Hero" moments and "holy shit did you see that" images. And sometimes it feels like the people who update our most beloved stories want to include those moments — without doing anything to set them up properly. The premature nerdgasm is a serious problem.
I've been thinking about this a lot since San Diego Comic-Con — every year, we go and see glimpses of upcoming movies and TV shows, and every year we're hit with glimpses that prove that a movie will include our favorite moment from the source material. But then you see the actual movie in question, and the cool moment totally doesn't work because we didn't see all the stuff that leads up to it and sets it up.
And this feels like it's becoming a bigger problem, as creators throw in the one moment they know fans love, but they don't build up to it properly at all.
For example, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan contains a couple of iconic moments: one where somebody looks up and yells "Khaaaaaaaaaaaaan," and one where someone sacrifices his life inside a radiation chamber and talks about the needs of the many. Those moments only work because of the long history between Kirk and Khan, and because of the 15+ years of friendship between Kirk and Spock. You can't just jump to those moments out of nowhere and expect them to have the same oomph.
Likewise, the notion of doing some version of the big Superman-Batman confrontation at the end of The Dark Knight Returns — which is what Zack Snyder and Harry Lennix were basically teasing at Comic-Con — is pointless unless that fight comes at the end of a long history between Superman and Batman. There's a lot of subtext going on in that fight, about Superman and Batman being former friends who've drifted apart because Superman became a tool of the man while Batman went underground. The reason why Batman's speech, which Lennix read aloud, is so powerful is because it's a man putting down his former best friend of many years. It's not a particularly great speech in itself, otherwise.
Another good example from the past is how Spider-Man 3 handles the Venom storyline — the black suit kind of comes out of nowhere, and there's no explanation for why Spidey would suddenly want a new costume. When Spidey takes a turn towards darkness, it feels incredibly sudden, and the famous "church bells" scene lacks any of the impact it has in the comic, because we didn't take the time to earn it. All payoff, no setup = no actual payoff.
And then there's Ultron. Joss Whedon, director of Avengers: Age of Ultron, insists that you can have the killer super-robot without Hank Pym, who created him in the comics. Which might work, if you have Tony Stark create Ultron — but a huge part of what makes Ultron work as a character is Hank Pym's screwed-up psyche. Hank is an insecure jerk who can't ever settle on a single heroic identity, and Hank's dysfunctional relationship with Janet Van Dyne also helps to shape Ultron's bonkers oedipal complex. I worry that with anyone else — even Tony — creating Ultron, he'll just be another evil robot.
Part of what's going on here is a natural process — when you adapt a huge bulky source material, like a long-running comic book, to the big screen, you gotta make sacrifices. You have to simplify and condense, and just keep the important stuff.
But you don't have the reason why things happen, then you're actually missing something important. And certain "hero moments" need their context in order to function within the story. You can't just spring them out of nowhere, or toss them in without earning them.
Of course, I have some confidence that Joss Whedon can make Ultron work without Hank Pym — true, the first Avengers movie featured the Chitauri, who were the Skrulls without anything that make the Skrulls interesting, but the focus was on Loki and the Chitauri were basically just cannon-fodder. In any case, we still have hope the Ultron thing is will work better than in some other instances of this phenomenon.
And then there's the thing where storytellers smush together two popular stories, and it sort of works, if you don't squint too hard. Like, the ultra-popular Extremis storyline, and the rise of the Mandarin. Iron Man 3 only works because it winds up completely gutting the Mandarin as a villain — but I'd argue that's better than if they'd tried to do a straight-up version of the Mandarin without taking the time to give him all the power and majesty he deserves, and ended up with a cardboard terrorist villain.
And then there's the reliance on cameos and easter eggs to stoke up the base: whenever a movie trailer comes out, we pore over it looking for easter eggs and clues to which fan-favorite bits the movie will reach for — but then you actually see the movie in theaters, and those bits feel just as gratuitous in the actual context of the movie as they did in the trailer. (My favorite example of this is still X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but lots of movies work in pointless cameos and easter eggs, only to fumble them in the execution.)
What makes all of this somewhat sadder is that there's a place where these classic heroic moments are being captured without losing the things that support them: animation. You only have to watch DC's direct-to-DVD animated movies, or some of Marvel's animated TV shows, to see classic comics characters and storylines being done justice, on a regular basis. In the 1990s, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's DC Animated Universe regularly took knotty, intense storylines and simplified them, with zero loss of meaning.
Also, it's interesting to watch live-action movies try to compress these great stories, with all the attendant pattern loss, when the opposite has been happening in comics for a couple decades. Comics have moved more and more towards de-compression, in which stories are more drawn out in order to explore every moment leading up to a big event — so that every time a classic origin story or other early adventure is retold, the setup gets more elaborate and slower. Events that Stan Lee or Bob Kane covered in a single page now take five full issues to unfold — making it even weirder that movies try to turn them back into the single page, or just one "panel" out of context.
I sort of imagine we're eventually going to end up with a movie that's just two hours of hero moments strung together: a woman inside a power loader shouting "Get away from her you bitch" at a River Tam lookalike, who's just announced that no power in the 'verse can stop her, and then someone else immediately announces that that's no moon. All it'll take is a few more corporate mergers. And then our heads can finally pop open, spraying brains in a spiral pattern across the movie-theater ceiling.
The premature nerdgasm represents a misunderstanding of geek culture: the idea that we just like our bite-size quotes and nifty pictures. And sure, we all sport our T-shirts and watch two-minute fanvids obsessively — but usually, those things are synecdoche: they stand for the whole. They're only cool because they're meaningful, and they're only meaningful because of their rich context.
We're also insanely good at claiming brand new favorite moments — at this point, fandom is a well-oiled machine. The time between something happening and it being immortalized in T-shirts, memes and animated GIFs has gotten shorter and shorter, to the point where it's basically measured in picoseconds. And there's no cool thing like the newest cool thing — the best moments in Avengers were all brand new, like "Hulk slamming Loki," and we glommed onto them in real time.
Fans don't just love decontextualized chunks of wow — we love the whole story. And the story doesn't work without the set-up and the reasons why things happen. When you decide to redo or celebrate an old beloved "wow moment," you can change the reasons why it happens and you can compress the timescale in which things happen — but you do have to include some setup and context, or these things lose their power.
This isn't just a matter of nitpicking and purism — although those things are part of fan culture, as well, and deserve respect — but a love for the thing that separates great heroes from pro wrestlers: rich, complex storytelling.