Nick Picks | When Did Nerds Become So Popular in Entertainment?

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Welcome to Nick Picks, a regular column by Nick Spake. There are countless important questions regarding the current state of cinema and I’m here to answer them.


In Mission: Impossible III, Simon Pegg’s Benji was only a minor supporting player. In Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Benji was upgraded from tech guy to field agent. In Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Benji was practically the main character aside from Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. Part of this is of course because Pegg has become more famous in America since the third Mission: Impossible. However, it’s also because Benji proved to be a fun character and a great comedic foil.

We’ve actually seen this trend in a several popular movies and TV shows over the years. In the Fox series 24, Chloe O’Brian started out as a fairly inconsequential tech girl. Of all the supporting characters, however, Chloe ended up having the most staying power. In last year’s 24: Live Another Day miniseries, she solidified her place as Jack Bauer’s most trusted colleague and best friend. The same can be said about Arrow’s resident computer genius Felicity Smoak, who went from one-time guest star, to series regular, to Oliver Queen’s love interest. All of these characters are great examples of how nerds are stealing the show and becoming increasingly popular in mainstream entertainment.

In many respects, the nerdy sidekick is one of the oldest archetypes in the book. Over the past several years, though, the archetype has finally started to evolve into something more. Nerds no longer have to just be dweebs that spout jargon at their desktops. They can be cool, complex, witty, and varied individuals while also being the brains of the operation. In most franchises nowadays, the nerd is typically the fan favorite and thus gets just as much screen time as the action hero. As a matter of fact, sometimes the traditional action hero is cut out altogether and the nerd takes center stage.

You could argue that this trend started in the late 90’s with Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day and Matthew Broderick in Godzilla. Of course those weren’t exactly positive or accurate portrayals of nerds. They were just kind of cheap stereotypes that didn’t have much personality outside of being nerds. Picture the guys from Revenge of the Nerds without the charm or humor. As lousy as those characters were, they did at least make leeway for a different kind of protagonist.

In 2001, we got the first Harry Potter movie. Although Harry isn’t really what one would classify as a conventional nerd, a skinny boy with glasses isn’t usually what comes to mind when we think of action heroes either. Despite not having bulging biceps or a machine gun, Harry still became one of the most iconic and beloved fictional heroes of all time. As much as moviegoers and readers look up to Harry, they look up to Hermione Granger even more.

Always the smartest person in the room, Hermione got her friends out of numerous jams with that big brain of hers. Hermione wasn’t solely restricted to being the smart one, however, or the token girl for that matter. She was also funny, caring, and willing to face certain death for the greater good. At a time when we were getting the most cookie cutter protagonists in mainstream movies, both Harry and especially Hermione demonstrated that characters don’t need to be defined by one character trait.

Where Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the biggest film of 2001, Spider-Man dominated the box office in 2002. While Spider-Man had been part of our popular culture for eons, it was Sam Raimi’s first live-action film that elevated the character into another class of popularity. Part of what makes Spider-Man such an encouraging protagonist is that it’s the awkward Peter Parker behind the mask, demonstrating that even the most unlikely individuals can make a difference. Being an unlikely hero isn’t enough to be a compelling hero, however. We identify with Spider-Man/Peter Parker because of his inner demons, dedication to others, and everyday problems.

Spidey’s a perfect example of how versatile a nerdy protagonist can be. The same can be said about numerous big screen superheroes that followed like Iron Man, The Hulk, and Ant-Man. They’re all still depicted as strong, powerful men, but also have their fair share of nerdy moments that make them more human. After decades of primarily admiring action heroes for brawn alone, we’re starting appreciate them for their brains too.

The reasons why nerds have been stealing the spotlight as of late is because they’re much more relatable than John Rambo, John Matrix, or the other action stars that ruled the screen in the 80’s. That’s largely because the nerd archetype is now given more than one note to work with. Some nerds are hipsters like the new Q from Skyfall. Other nerds are adorkable like Anna from Frozen or Mabel from Gravity Falls. Nerds can even have the whole package from Tali’Zorah from the Mass Effect games.

Even some of our best recent ensemble pieces are primarily comprised of nerds. A majority of the characters in Judd Apatow productions could be construed as nerds, dating all the way back to Freaks and Geeks. All of the major characters in Big Hero 6 were science geeks, but each had their own distinctive personality. The cast for The Big Bang Theory, American’s most watched comedy series right now, is primarily comprised of diverse nerds that have matured into identifiable and even endearing leads. Nerds no longer need to be token characters because there’s so much a writer can do with them.

It isn’t surprising that nerds are so prevalent in modern media seeing how society is starting to soak up nerd culture. Years ago, comic books, video games, and anime were widely considered to be exclusively for nerds. Today, however, they’ve all had much more crossover appeal with mainstream audiences. That’s why superhero and sci-fi movies rake in so much moolah. It also helps that the people behind the camera are usually nerds themselves to some extent, like Joss Whedon.

Outside of entertainment, some of the wealthiest and most influential people of this era are self-proclaimed nerds, from Bill Gates, to Steve Jobs, to Mark Zuckerberg. Since nerds have given us some of the greatest things of the 21st century, they’re no longer solely depicted as weird, social outcasts. If anything, they’re glamorized and worshiped. This has opened the door for representations of nerds that are more multi-layered and positive in media. It also goes to show that perhaps our society is becoming more open-minded, realizing that nerds are people too and that they’re essentially ruling the world right now.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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