American Splendor

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Running time: 101 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 10
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Religion may be the opiate of the masses, but surely comic books are the opiate of the misfits. Walk into any comic-book store and just take a look around. The apparent irony is how all these people obsessed with superhero stories of strength and power, of beating up enemies and winning the girl, are mostly the sort who got stuffed in lockers and never even had the courage to say "hi" to a girl.

In that light, comic fantasies like "Superman" or "Spider-Man" represent a surrender to the values of the jocks and cheerleaders, the popular cliques who oppressed these misfits through their teens. You can see the self-loathing of the nerds reflected in characters like Peter Parker or Clark Kent, putzes who only become cool when they transform into the super-powered Spider-Man or Superman. The radical move would be not to worship such ermensch,instead to champion the "alter-egos" for what they are -- nerds, imperfect but colorful.

Just look at the movies: Actors like Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman or Timothy Spall have succeeded by embracing who they are, not by sitting back and dreaming they could be Brad Pitt in "Troy." The secret to nerd success is -- to quote Morpheus, the spiritual guru of the nerd-magnet "Matrix" -- to "free your mind," to have the courage to reject conformist, "normal" standards of what's beautiful, what's ideal, what's cool.