Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
This year reminded me how happy and grateful I was to be a nerd.
Most of the time while writing this column, I avoided writing about the coronavirus. Oh, COVID-19 slipped into my thinking here and there. I did start the year talking about how some superhero masks gave a certain advantage against disease transmission. I did decide against seeing New Mutants in the theater, calculating that it was safer to stay at home. Overall, I just stayed away from the topic.
That felt like instinct, but in life that usually means my brain is doing some kind of math that I have not understood. Part of this stance was a concern about the seriousness of the topic. This column bounces between joyful celebration and snarky irreverence. Neither mode seemed quite right for so terrible a pandemic. Another, and certainly larger, part was the desire to avoid the topic. I wanted a distraction. I wanted an escape.
Thinking about those motivations caused my renewed appreciation for my nerdiness. I needed a lot of escapes this year.
At first, it seemed that popular culture might not bring them. Movie theaters shut down early in the COVID crisis. And for a while comic books were not being published. But still, there was streaming. Glorious programming delivered at the highest possible internet speed.
Remember when we all watched Tiger King separately but somehow together? You might be inclined to say that it was not a truly nerdy show. Maybe that is true, but I would argue that Joe Exotic lived in a fantasy world all his own and his enforcement of it harmed the many people and animals around him. It was one of those uniquely American tragedies and the fact that it was a real story made it hard to sometimes endure.
That is why, more often than not, I stayed ensconced in the imaginary realms. Escape does not mean simplicity. Many of the shows this year were surprising and exciting.
Doctor Who spun its whole central premise upside down, revealing things that we did not know about our main character but somehow reaffirming all the goodness we expected of her.
The Mandalorian provided all the comforts of a good Western, its themes of honor and fatherhood often reminded me of episodes of classic shows like The Rifleman.
Star Trek: Discovery earnestly charted a path into a new future where the Federation had failed in the face of disaster. This fractured setting only spurred the show on to address what Trek has always been about—hope for the future.
And that wonderful WandaVision! The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s return brought a powerful tale of grief and recovery wrapped up in the nostalgic form of sitcoms past. Nostalgia and mystery fueled so much fan speculation.
While The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was sometimes unflatteringly contrasted against its genre-bending Disney+ predecessor, that show also challenged the identity of its main characters as Bucky sought redemption and Sam Wilson fought to define heroism for a new age.
There were misses too. Despite its 80s mall nostalgia, Wonder Woman 1984 failed to cohere into a great movie. Still, I will never forget watching a superhero movie debut in my living room on Christmas Day. The Snyder cut of Justice League was a sprawling, unnecessary affair that I simply could not enjoy despite all the happy pain meds I would take after my surgery. Godzilla vs. Kong gave us Godzilla vs. Kong. As always, it was best to ignore the humans.
I am sure I forgot other examples. But the point is, there were many examples.
I hope you had some too. Enjoy more this summer. Be good to yourselves! Stay safe and stay healthy!