Nerd Factor

Nerd Factor: PSA in the Brain

By Michael Robinson ~ PhD

Schoolhouse Rock' On Disney+: Still The Best Way To Teach Kids History
School House Rock Logo. Image from https://decider.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Schoohouse-Rock-.jpg?quality=80&strip=all&w=646&h=431&crop=1

Recently, I learned about an assignment in my son’s civics class. He must memorize the Preamble to the Constitution.  “I can’t say it,” I said, “I can only sing it.” In fact, the very second that he mentioned the subject, the song had popped unbidden into my head. It was another example of a highly successful earworm from the good people who made School House Rock! 

Back in my childhood, Saturday morning television belonged to kids. We could not wait to watch hours of cartoons and live-action shows. Peppered in among the programs were a number of public service announcements, small segments designed to help young people learn important information and demonstrate that the networks were not just money-grubbing entities trying to lure us to commercials for toys and cereal. I am always amazed at how deeply some of those items are buried in my brain. 

“The Preamble” is not one of School House Rock!’s best tunes. It eschews the more upbeat jazzy sounds of “Conjunction Junction” or manic frenzy of “Ready or Not Here I Come” in favor of a folksier solemnity. It works though. That thing is etched so deeply into my brain that I have to work hard not to sing the Preamble.

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Nerd Factor: Fantasy Island Gets Creepy

Michael Robinson ~ PhD

Image from: https://www.hulu.com/series/fantasy-island-fee4965d-96a7-42b9-9ed2-1acf20ef8aa1

Guests are once again going to Fantasy Island. The newest iteration of the popular franchise, which began in the 1970s and returned briefly in the late 1990s, continues a familiar format. Guests come to the Island with fantasies to fulfill but often leave having learned unexpected lessons along with way. 

In its current form, the Island, capitalized here because it is treated on the new show as having magical powers and undefined intentions all its own, is run by Elena Roarke and her new assistant Ruby. The location of the tropical paradise is not revealed. I’ve always suspected that it’s somewhere near the islands on Lost and Gilligan’s Island myself, part of some incredible archipelago. 

A recent episode raised some questions for me though. At first, “Twice in a Lifetime” seemed like a fairly standard installment of the series. A guest named Nisha sought to discover her life partner, choosing from a fun-loving but not so ambitious boyfriend (Josh) or the serious future doctor (Savin) with whom her parents were trying to arrange a marriage. A second plot unexpectedly involved Javier, the pilot who flies guests to the Island on his seaplane, spending personal time with Elena Roarke. More on that in a moment.

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Nerd Factor: Martial Arts Master

This column contains mild spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The spoilers are mostly just things that were in or can be deduced from the movie’s various trailers, but be forewarned. 

By Michael Robinson ~ PhD

Who is Shang-Chi? | Entertainment News,The Indian Express
Shang-Chi and Shang-Chi. Image from https://indianexpress.com/article/entertainment/hollywood/who-is-shang-chi-7482965/

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the latest successful entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, Shang-Chi first appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15 in 1973. From his very first cover, Shang-Chi was billed as the “Master of Kung Fu.” His initial adventures centered around fighting his evil father, Fu Manchu, a sinister criminal mastermind with racist “yellow peril” overtones that Marvel had licensed after failing to obtain the rights to the popular television show, Kung Fu

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Nerd Factor: Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Space Pioneer

A Shroud of Thoughts: You Only Live Many Times: James Bond's Archenemy--Ernst  Stavro Blofeld
Many Faces of Blofeld. Image From: http://mercurie.blogspot.com/2015/04/you-only-live-many-times-james-bonds.html

Supervillains fascinate me. I enjoy their variety and their machinations. Their monologuing thrills me. I love their origins and their motivations. I am particularly fascinated by those supervillains so dedicated to a theme that it actually interferes with their success, baddies like the Riddler whose compulsions force him to lure heroes to his every crime or like the Calendar Man who stick to a theme no matter the cost. 

There are other kinds of compulsions beyond just theme though. Another type of villain is so busy trying to do evil things that they fail to realize what they’ve really accomplished. The perfect example of this overachiever is James Bond’s archnemesis, Ernst Stravro Blofeld.

Blofeld is Number One, the leader of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). As the anagram so neatly outlines, SPECTRE is dedicated to the destabilization of world powers so that its members may assume control of the planet. Whether they are doing something relatively low level like breaking codes or something epically dangerous like seizing atomic devices, they are a truly ruthless bunch.

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Nerd Factor: Drop Into the Multiverse

By Michael Robinson ~ PhD

The Spider-Man No Way Home Trailer Can't Possibly Live Up to the Hype
Spiderman: No Way Home poster. From https://collider.com/spider-man-no-way-home-trailer-hype-explained/

Falling is just something Spider-Man does. It’s part of his job description really. When he’s not having his web line cut by a supervillain, he’s getting knocked off a Goblin glider or being thrown out of a helicopter. If he can’t shoot a web to a nearby building or catch a flagpole at the right moment, fear not. By this point in time, our hero is so used to this that he is adept at making web parachutes to save himself. Once he even made a hang glider out of his webbing. 

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Nerd Factor: Hulk Smashed

By Michael Robinson ~ PhD

Picture (above) of Hulk flexing as it is about to enter a battle. Photo retrieved from ap2hyc.com on Aug. 17, 2021.

Many activities pose a challenge for superheroes, particularly social drinking. The Human Torch needs to be careful because alcohol is flammable. The Flash metabolizes alcohol so quickly that it has no affect on him. Of course, any metahuman runs the risk of harming another should they become drunk. One particular superhero though runs into a surprising risk. 

When Dr. Robert Bruce Banner was exposed to a massive dose of gamma rays, his body was transformed dramatically. If certain conditions are met, then Banner becomes the Incredible Hulk. As we know, the Hulk has vast levels of strength, endurance, and invulnerability. However, there are some important questions about the Hulk that need to be considered. Can the Hulk become intoxicated? And what happens if a drunken Hulk turns back into Banner?

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Nerd Factor: Beware the Widow’s Bite

Black Widow (2021) - IMDb
Black Widow Theatrical Poster – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3480822/

By  Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

Many theories have been offered to explain the relatively poor performance of Black Widow at the theaters this summer. 

The film had been delayed for a year as the world worked its way through COVID. Were audiences still shy about returning to the theater? Had the gap reduced some of the legendary MCU momentum? Eager and vaccinated, my family and I sat in an IMAX theater ready to return to big screen magic. But not everyone feels safe. 

The movie served as a flashback, centering on a character that we all saw die in Avengers: Endgame. Did audiences not wish to see a film that had low dramatic stakes? After all, it is kind of hard to worry about a character who technically cannot die. As much as I appreciate a good trip back in time, I felt that lack of danger for the main character. Still, I love the Black Widow. Besides, we almost always know the superhero is not going to die. 

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Nerd Factor: Grateful Nerd

Wanda and Vision from the Disney+ show, Wandavision. Photo retrieved from https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2020/12/the-biggest-nerdy-tv-shows-and-movies-coming-your-way-in-2021/.

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. 

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Nerd Factor: The Five Stages of Flash Grief

A poster for the new season of CW’s “The Flash.” Photo retrieved from https://twitter.com/cw_theflash/status/1359200652895879177.

Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

     In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what we often refer to as the five stages of grief. These stages represented a process through which people coping with terminal illness or conditions progressed. Over time, the model has become a kind of common wisdom. Applied, or misapplied as critics argue, to a variety of experiences, the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, may serve as a way to organize experience. 

     Here, the five stages of grief will be used to organize a problem I have been having with The Flash, now in its seventh season on the CW network. So yeah, probably another misapplication of the theory. Still, it helps. 

     1. Denial – As another bit of common wisdom suggests, the first step to resolving a problem is admitting that there is a problem. For many years, I have been in complete denial about the decreasing quality of The Flash. While many of my readers have grown up in a time of abundant superhero stories, I grew up in an era of relative metahuman poverty. Oh sure, there were plenty of comic books, but I always felt like I had to support most movies, television shows, and games. If I did not, what would happen to the genre? 

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Nerd Factor: A Close Shave

Superman with a beard.

Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

     Shaving is a daily ritual for many people, but for the superhero population this basic routine of personal grooming offers exceptional challenges. The implied goal of the superhero’s costume is to hide the identity of its wearer, thus protecting their friends and loved ones from attack by supervillains. This adds additional pressure to the task of maintaining facial hair. 

     Fully masked superheroes have a certain advantage here. Although his identity is publicly known, Tony Stark’s visage is fully covered by his Iron Man armor. As with many other choices in his life, Stark grooms for vanity’s sake. Likewise, Peter Parker does not really have to shave every day thanks to his mask. His tendency to do so regularly was no doubt instilled in him by Uncle Ben, whom we can imagine taught his nephew that a regular routine of daily grooming was a matter of great responsibility. 

     Ironically, it is the superheroes that have superhuman physiologies who face the greatest challenges in this regard. While their metahuman natures may offer them protection from harm, these enhanced protections complicate the maintenance of the old mustache and beard. 

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Nerd Factor: And Now, Starro, the Conqueror!

Starro from the New Earth comics. Photo retrieved from https://dc.fandom.com/wiki/Starro_(New_Earth).

Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

     There is a moment in the red-band trailer for The Suicide Squad that some may not have reacted too. That is understandable. There is a lot to process. There are tons of new characters and a lot of fan favorite actors showing up (what is the deal with Nathan Fillion’s arms? Etc.) And there is the wonderful joy in knowing that director James Gunn is about to play in a sandbox built on characters designed to be wiped out with reckless abandon. 

     Still, towards the end of the trailer, some unknown functionary observing the superheroic action on a monitor shouts “Oh my God! We have got a freakin’ kaiju up in this sh*t!” But that is not just any kaiju, that is the one and only Starro the Conqueror!

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Nerd Factor: Godzilla vs. Kong

Godzilla (left) fighting King Kong (right). Photo retrieved from https://www.empireonline.com/movies/reviews/godzilla-vs-kong/.

Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

     It will be the Battle of Kings, a royal rumble a whole lifetime in the waiting. But by the time you read this, we will know the outcome. Who will win, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, or King Kong?

     In one corner stands the original, the giant monster from which all other giant monsters descended, the one and only King Kong. In 1933, King Kong not only electrified movie theaters to the awesome spectacle of film, it also saved the RKO Pictures from bankruptcy. The stop motion animation used to create Kong’s adventures might look quaint to our contemporary, CGI-dazzled eyes, but when Kong climbed the Empire State Building, the film prophesied the way that blockbuster special effects extravaganzas would enrich box offices and thrill future audiences. 

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Nerd Factor: Food, the Final Frontier

Captain Picard with a drink. Photo retrieved from cenblog.org.

Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

     In the Star Trek universe, food is easy thanks to a miraculous pseudoscientific device known as the replicator. An offshoot of the transporter technology that allows an entity to be disassembled down to its component atoms and then beamed to another location for immediate reassembly, the replicator basically builds food from scratch. From special alcoves all throughout the ships and often in the personal quarters of Starfleet officers, these devices allow nourishment on demand. 

     The most famous example of which is, no doubt, Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s beverage preference. “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot,” Picard says to the device and a few special effects lights and sounds later, there the tea is, steaming and presumably perfect to his order. 

     Logically, the existence of hot, Earl Grey tea implies the possibility of tepid, Earl Grey tea or cold, not Earl Grey, Coca-Cola. The opportunities would appear to be limitless since one assumes that the devices can create just about anything that a recipe exists for from a variety of planets in any point in their history. 

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Nerd Factor: Be Careful What You Wish For, Super Ladies

Wanda Maximoff having a really hard time. Photo retrieved from https://www.cinemablend.com/television/2563556/8-big-wandavision-questions-we-have-after-episode-8.

Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

     Warning: This column contains spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984 and WandaVision

     In many ways, the superhero genre is about wish-fulfilment. Superheroes have powers and abilities we can only dream of. Additionally, the device of secret identities often encourages us to imagine that inside us all, there exists a great hero ready to emerge.  

     Of course, mythology, folklore, and popular culture have long taught us that wishes can be dangerous things. Not surprisingly, the superhero genre also shows us this dark side. Spider-Man learns perhaps the best-known lesson about great power and great responsibility when his inaction leads to the death of his beloved uncle. Recently, Wonder Woman and Wanda Maximoff ventured into this thematic territory and their stories have led to some controversy. 

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Nerd Factor: The Trouble with Alternate Worlds

Marvel’s What-If Poster. Photo retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_If…%3F_(TV_series).

Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

     A multiverse appears to offer a variety of options. There are, however, a number of problems that confront the would be probability tourist who wants to visit Elseworlds based upon the simple question of “What If?”

     Some alternate universes just do not work: 

     The basic idea behind alternate universes is that something has changed historically. We tend to think of them as counterfactual tales. What if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated? What if the Nazis had won World War II? The mind staggers at the possibilities. 

     These worlds become intriguing places to visit or perhaps nightmare worlds to escape. One can understand their appeal to cross-dimensional tourists.  

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