The evolution and rise of geek culture over the last couple of years has been nothing short of phenomenal. Comic book movies are now the most profitable form of film in the industry, cosplay has become cool, and toys just really aren’t for kids anymore. They’re for Collectors. You know what else is cool? Geek documentaries.
A lot of people will point the finger at 2008 and the successful development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the time where fantasy suddenly became fantastic. Before that, society and the media had largely poked fun at anything that had emerged from the pages of a comic, or involved adventures out in the depths of space. Both fans and wider audiences had been left nonplussed and negative about a string of low budget and poorly scripted films and TV shows, that had butchered the original source material.
But of late, something quite strange has started to happen. The very material that was once ridiculed and reviled by audiences, often only having a short life on our screens because of savage reviews by the critics, is now coming very much back into fashion. Those TV shows that were cobbled together with a shoestring budget and hammy acting? They’re suddenly being rebooted into major Hollywood blockbusters. The crazy and outlandish comic book characters that the big companies were happy to sell the rights to for forgettable TV movies, whilst they stubbornly hung onto their more valuable properties? They’re suddenly the new wave of superhero movies. So whats the cause of this massive change of heart?
The simple answer? Money. Which is also the very factor that so often killed all of these old nerd classics at the time they were conceived. Audiences get very tired, very quickly, of repetitive material. After several years of Marvel studios blasting out the same origin-story format, the big studios are now desperately searching for new and different ways to present their characters. And as TV shows have become ever darker, grittier and well funded, the hunt is on to take the ridiculous shows of the past, and reboot them into new and profitable streaming platform classics.
The concept that with the arrival of ‘Iron Man’ in cinemas, suddenly everyone loved the genre is nonsense. There is a much beloved culture of geekiness and nerdiness that runs through the entertainment industry over the last sixty years, much of which has unfortunately been buried or forgotten about as the makers have jockeyed and fought to try and find the ‘next big thing’. A lot of the things we are seeing on our screens now are either reboots or re-imaginings in some way, shape or format, and this has led to the gradual rise of a new sub-genre. The Geek Documentary. Or the ‘Geekumentary’, as no-one’s calling it…
The last few years has seen a steady surge in documentaries about where the modern love of sci-fi and fantasy has come from. These projects often prove very popular with fans and critics alike, crammed full of hilarious anecdotes from cast and crew, and stunning facts and figures that will impress fellow nerds and geeks. They jog treasured childhood memories, and take audiences back to weekend mornings sat in front of the television set, or dusty old VHS copies.
Now, we’ve watched A LOT of these, partly because we’re hopeless self-confessed nerds, and partly because it’s our job. And we’ve selected five of the best that you, the viewing public, simply NEED to watch. So, sit yourselves down. Strap yourselves in. And let’s begin:
Now, don’t let the title for our first selection mislead you. This isn’t biopic about a legendary first-person shooter and an awful Dwayne Johnson movie adaptation (though that, we would also watch…) No, the title instead refers to iconic Marvel bad guy Dr Doom, and the misguided attempt to bring him and the Fantastic Four to the big screen in the early 1990’s. But it’s not simply the tale of something that was tried and failed. No, it’s a much more sinister story about something so truly ill-conceived and awful, that Marvel studios actively destroyed and buried everything to do with it.
The project was raised in 1992, at a time when the best that comic book adaptations could hope for were a movie in the same vein as the original Captain America and The Punisher outings, or a TV series on a similar scale to ‘The Incredible Hulk’ and ‘Spider-Man’. The idea of taking the Fantastic Four story and trying to film it using a special effects budget similar to the ones employed in those projects was laughable. To the extent that even Troma Studios refused to get involved. But Roger Corman thought he could do it, and entered into a shady deal between Marvel and Constantine Studios to quickly hammer out an FF movie for cinema release, on a budget of about $1M.
Unsurprisingly, what Corman went on to produce was horrendous, so when Stan Lee came onto the set and witnessed what was going on, the project was quickly bought to a halt, and the makers paid off. What followed though, is the stuff of movie legend. All the cast and crew who had signed on for the film were fans of the comics, and felt rightly outraged when Marvel tried to erase it from existence. A two year campaign then started, where the cast would juggle filming filler shots with other projects, and the crew would beg, borrow and steal props and editing suites to produce a final cut of the movie.
Ultimately, only legal action from Marvel ended this campaign, but as the documentary shows, DVD copies of what the crew produced can now easily be located at conventions and on eBay thanks to the development of modern technology. There are so many good reasons to watch this documentary, if only for the horrendous special effects, the sheer blindness and naivety of Roger Corman, or the fact that it turns out future Marvel alumni Mark Ruffalo and Titus Welliver both auditioned for parts in the film.
Ultimately, the stars are the original cast. Led by a wonderfully sarcastic Alex Hyde-White (Reed Richards), the story emerges of a small band of true comic book fans, who continue to wage a private war against a seemingly invincible Marvel Studios, in the hope of finding a little justice and respect.
Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD (2014)
Sticking with the idea of a small band of heroic comic book fans raging against the system, we move to the next documentary on the list, which chronicles the story of British comic 2000 AD and their most notorious character. Mega-City One‘s Judge Joseph Dredd. It’s a no-holds barred look at how comics went from the sugary and pulpy fayre of the 1940’s and 50’s, to the dark and edgy publications that are today being adapted into profitable blockbuster movies. And this was in no small part due to the actions of a radical and rebellious band of British writers.
By the end of the 1970’s, the British comic book industry was on life support, with indications that that US market was starting to slide the same way. A small group of writers and artists came together, and started to produce comics that turned their eye towards what was wrong with society. They identified everything that was tragic and laughable about the time period they were living in, and started to parody it. Sometimes in a humorous way, other times in a much more direct and open way. The idea of an anti-hero was key to this. 2000 AD’s heroes didn’t rely on moral codes, or a traditional value system. They got the job done, and drew the scorn of critics and politicians the world over.
The artwork was visceral and bloody. The way in which minority groups and women were treated was sometimes shocking. But all the public condemnation and criticism did was make the comic more popular, and lead to contributors such as Mark Millar and Garth Ennis being asked to come to fly over to the States to reinvigorate their flagging franchises. This would lead to some of the most notorious storylines in comic book history. But the documentary also doesn’t shy away from the mistakes made by the writers and artists, or the very nasty arguments that flared up between them, and the comic’s owners. A must-see for anyone who’s ever leafed through and loved a comic book.
Electric Boogaloo (2014)
It’s the concept of a small group of misfits turning an industry upside down that brings us to our next item, which is the history of Cannon Films. And boy, what a rollercoaster ride it was. You probably remember the name of the studio, but are struggling to remember why. Well, let me tell you, most of those crazy action films you watched from the 1980’s featuring Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson were produced by the studio, and they gave industry starts to the likes of Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude Van Damme. But it’s the story of the meteoric rise and fall of the studio itself, and the utter chaos that ensued during that time, that’s far more interesting than any of the crazy films at the studio produced.
As the 1970’s came to a close, two Israeli cousins with a love of film and absolutely no background in the industry whatsoever decided to start a film studio. But they were appallled at the costs and resourcing required by Hollywood to make a simple feature film, and so they decided to do it their own way. Scripts were rushed from page to screen and rewritten mid-shoot. Sets were non-existent, with shooting taking place guerrilla-style wherever locations could be found, or footage was simply stolen from other similar movies. Fading A-listers were pulled in for a single short scene merely to justify their presence on a poster, whilst a string of up and coming actors had to wade through the insane dialogue and fight scenes.
As money started to come in, the studio’s ambitions went into overdrive, and they threw bids in for the Superman, Death Wish and Delta Force franchises. It was always a case of quantity over quality, with up to 10 movies being at various stages of production at any one time, and fake movies created to entice investment and acting talent. Eventually, the studio imploded under a landslide of fake economic forecasting, and uncontrollable budgeting. As you watch the movie, with clips from such classics as ‘Masters Of The Universe’, ‘Lifeforce’ and ‘Runaway Train’, it’ll become apparent just how much this studio influenced your upbringing.
Chaos On The Bridge (2014)
The craziness and conflict we found over at Cannon Films segues nicely into this hilarious documentary about the unseen issues and battles behind ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. Whilst the show is seen historically as a massive success, that reinvigorated the franchise and acted as a springboard for a wealth of sci-fi talent, in truth, the series was dogged by political infighting and arguments, and was lucky to make it past its first season. This forensic examination of the show demonstrates who the characters were who bought the series so close to destruction, with the worst offender being creator Gene Roddenberry.
To most viewers who aren’t hardened Trekkies, Rodenberry is just a name that features during the credits for all of the programmes produced during the franchise. Some people may also know he was married to one of the actresses, Majel Barrett, who starred in the original show and voiced the computers in TNG. But what the majority don’t know is that he was a control-freak, who was happier to see the project fail that lose any creative input to the studios. Roddenberry had created and supervised the originAL Star Trek series, and had been badly affected when it had been cancelled before the second planned instalment. Determined not to let this happen again, he used unorthodox tactics to bully and cajole the makers of TNG to keep him in charge, and then proceeded to fire anybody whose work he didn’t agree with, or alter it behind recognition.
The first series went through a record number of writers, some of whom would go on to achieve much greater accolades, and the cast and crew were constantly at war with each other as a result of Roddenberry’s tinkering. This would go on for several seasons, and the documentary focuses on some notorious episodes and events from the show, explaining the real reasons behind them. The sudden exit of a Denise Crosby’s Lt Tasha Yar is one, as is the firing and re-hiring of Gates McFadden as Dr Beverley Crusher. Both done for political rather than practical reasons. As expected, Sir Patrick Stewart absolutely steals the show, with a host of anecdotes and stories about how he walked off the Shakespearean stage into wearing a purple unitard, and proceeded to verbally abuse and berate anything he didn’t like about the production in the hope he’d get fired. Luckily for us, despite his best efforts, he didn’t, and the rest is history…
Elstree 1976 (2015)
Finally, we move from one iconic franchise to another, with a British documentary about the story behind the production of ‘A New Hope’. Due to the requirement for a large number of supporting players to film the sci-fi epic, when George Lucas started filming in the south of England, an open casting call went out for hundreds of extras. The majority of these had no idea what they were signing up for, and were quickly thrown into stormtrooper uniforms or rebel flight suits as the cameras rolled. The documentary charts some of the more memorable of these unsung heroes, and their stories before and after Star Wars entered their lives.
None of the actors concerned in this documentary managed to find fame and fortunes, and indeed, the lives they would go on to spend at conventions and autograph sessions is an intriguing insight into the world of modern geek culture. There are a number of heartwarming anecdotes about Lucas and the rest of the principle cast, but it’s the characters themselves that the documentary managed to track down that intrigue the most. The stormtrooper who banged his head on the opening door, his comrade so famously fooled by Obi Wan at the Cantina, Greedo, Biggs Darklighter…
Boba Fett and Darth Vader (Jeremy Bulloch and Dave Prowse) both pop in to share their experiences, but the real star of the show is Angus McInnes, who played Gold Leader. Utterly untouched by the hype around the franchise, McInnes recounts his dabbling with acting and other jobs since he starred in the series, also revealing that he was expecting to be cut out of the film, as he had been reading his lines off his leg.
He’s a character that has been bought back for ‘Rebels’ and ‘Rogue One’, and an actor that managed to bag roles in movies such as ‘Judge Dredd’, but McInnes is a sharp contrast to the other more desperate and fragile actors who starred alongside him. The documentary is an absolute gem to watch, scientifically capturing the joy and simplicity of a New Hope, which you’ll have to put on immediately after to catch all the cameos…
Will you be watching any of these geek documentaries? Be sure to tell us in the comments!