Review: “The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture” by Glen Weldon

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Darkness. No parents.

The issue of so-called “geek entitlement” has been of particular prominence these past few months thanks to a number of high-profile think-pieces, a bizarre culture war centred on women busting ghosts, and the supposed battle between fans and critics. Glen Weldon, best known to many as a panelist on the wonderful NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, probably didn’t foresee the eruption of fury from nerds directed at many writers of less than glowing reviews for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it’s proven to be a helpful conclusion to coincide with the release of his latest book.

Batman, arguably the most iconic of superheroes next to his Krypton collaborator, has taken many forms in his illustrious lifetime: Brooding detective, funky dancing pop art dork, obsessive loner, fascistic warrior, pointy nippled pun machine, growling noir investigator, and much more. Arguments continue to this day as to which incarnation is the Batman; the definitive portrayal that truly captures the essence of the character. Weldon’s conclusion, offered alongside a history of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, is that they’re all valid and representative of Batman in their infinite contradictions.

Weldon’s sardonic wit, familiar to NPR geeks, practically emanates from each page, and offers a droll perspective on the subject matter that straddles the line between ‘nerds’ and normals’: He defines himself as a geek but one apart from the often intimidating communities of fandom. That means you get all the precise knowledge regarding Batman’s origins in Detective Comics as well as the occasional zinger directed at a fan getting too zealous with the Adam West snark.

His preferences are evident – he’s not a fan of the Christopher Nolan trilogy and finds more enjoyment in the 60s TV series – but so is his enthusiasm for the character and the ways he’s evolved. The stirring defence of the campy go-go dancing ‘Bam! Zing! Pow!’ Batman, particularly from gatekeepers prone to homophobic attacks, feels particularly refreshing given the increasingly toxic tone of current geek focused discourse on topics such as the aforementioned Ghostbusters reboot.

While Batman’s success didn’t create the vaguely defined concept of nerd culture as we know it, Weldon argues that the character’s decades of change and the ways fans reacted to them reveal a fascinating societal shift in mainstream entertainment. As the caped crusader became more popular and moulded to the times and demands of the wider audience – or studios and producers investing millions in the name – the ‘hardcore fanbase’ revolted and decried the loss of ‘their Batman’: Adam West and Joel Schumacher ‘ruined’ their Batman because it wasn’t taken seriously, they argue. With Zack Snyder’s recent box office disappointment signalling a possible backlash to the overwhelming glumness of modern blockbusters, Weldon exposes the futility of a creative mindset that insists ‘dark equals serious’.

While Weldon isn’t shy of firing off a few jokes at his chosen targets, it’s the empathy and truly comprehensive understanding of the nuances of geek culture that make the book so worthwhile: Unless you’re willing to criticize the thing you love, and understand why others may enjoy the things you don’t, there’s no joy to be gained from being a geek.

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