Editorial: How (and How Not) to Reboot

In these times of economic recession, home theaters, and splintering niche audiences, film executives are strip mining the back catalog of entertainment in search of the name brands that will draw in the bucks. Some call it a “re-imagining.” Others refer to it as a “reboot.” Let’s call it for what it is: a lack of backbone. Few studios seem to want to take a chance on properties that are either completely original or have established themselves in other media without previously making the jump to the screen. My argument: keeping a property true to what made it popular in the first place takes the risk out of it.

One of the things that’s amused (and irritated) me over the last couple of decades or so is how the theater marquees read like the TV guide from when I was a kid. Some of these films have been fun, others have been disasters. I leave it to the readers to decide for themselves. Rebooting is inevitable, so it really does no good to express why it shouldn’t be done. But I’d like to offer my thoughts on the formula that will make it work every single time.

1. Identity. Everything starts and ends here. Further points will likely just express this point from a new angle. Just like in my “Heroes” editorial, all of the reused properties have one thing in common: some magic formula made it work the first time around. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. There’s no reason to haphazardly change defining elements of a character or story to make it exciting for modern audiences. What thrills people now is what thrilled people then. You simply have to shine it up, make it faster, and make it speak to modern sensibilities… without losing focus on what made it work in the first place. This means the characters have the same qualities. The story tells the same message the same way. If any of this changes to speak to modern sensibilities, chances are the message was era-specific, the wrong property was picked to be the bully pulpit, and you will offend nearly everyone. Fans of the original will revile you for changing it, and newcomers will simply know that something doesn’t work. Recent example: The Day the Earth Stood Still. We get it; the environmental system of this world is broken. We’ve heard all the arguments. Regardless of what side of the fence you’re on for this political debate, it hardly carries the same immediate sense of urgency that nuclear annihilation did for the original audience in its time. Maybe it should, but a movie isn’t going to change that perception. Likewise, even with properties that are wildly successful, like Batman, for example… chances are you can build the fan base, the box office, and the franchise as a cohesive whole if you stick to what made the character popular in the first place. If you want a killing machine, use a character that reflects that. Batman is a superhero with a hard-coded sense of morality. No guns are needed on his vehicles, and no executions are needed of his rogues gallery to make the character exciting. Likewise, if you make James Bond into a cheap thug and use all of the great defining effects from the Jason Bourne series, Bond becomes a Johnny-Come-Lately rather than the suave superspy that should rightfully lead his genre. Yes, the books are grittier. So were the Connery movies, and he’s often the first and last name in 007 films. Reference the template that made it work before, without directly ripping it off, and it will work again. These classic characters evolve over the years, but they still remain true to who they are because who they are still speaks to their fans. Doesn’t it stand to reason that if something inspires on one level, it’ll inspire on a larger level in a mass exposure for the same reason? It’s all about proportion.

2. Adapt from page to screen with respect. This is a subtopic of identity, if a novel or comic book is translated to the big screen (or even to the small screen for that matter), chances are it was picked because it made all sorts of money and was hailed as a success in its market. When Richard Donner was tapped to direct Superman in the mid-70s, the word he used was “verisimilitude.” The idea was for people to completely buy that the world of the Superman comics was realistic. Everyone on the project had to believe it so that the audience would believe it as well. Likewise, identity was taken into account. The Man of Steel wasn’t transformed into something he’s not. Times have changed, and now being called a Boy Scout isn’t quite as complimentary as it was when Big Blue was created. But what’s seen on screen is still hailed as one of the best comics-to-film translations ever created. Likewise, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings stayed as true to Tolkien’s original work as possible, changing or omitting sections only to promote the thrust of the main story. Anyone that’s read the original knows how Tolkien rambles with great detail through several side trips. It makes Middle Earth more grand in the books. Sadly, running time is a constraint that keeps Tom Bombadil out of the film. But with respect to the story, only the ending is the big glaring change from the source material. The result? You guessed it; angry fans. The rest of the work was policed not only by Jackson and his writing team, but also by the artists and the actors themselves. There was a consensus to honor the story, and that came across. The result? Box office gold, in spite of the ending. I, Robot is a prime example of what not to do. Was it a fun movie? Sure. Was it true to Asimov’s work? Not past the infamous 3 laws. Short stories are just that – short. If you try to expand them, you tend to have to make up a lot that had nothing to do with the original. Look also to How the Grinch Stole Christmas for the same thing. It’s perfect where it touches upon the original story. The other hour is needless expansion that tears the movie down. I grant you, studios are in it for profit. If it makes a buck, that’s all the justification they seem to need. But again, if it’s true to something that worked for a reason, it’ll make even more money.

3. Yesteryear’s adventure is NOT tomorrow’s comedy. I’m looking at you, Green Hornet, and all those that would follow this example. Does anyone else remember when Michael “Mr. Mom” Keaton was first tapped to play Batman in Tim Burton’s film? Everyone screamed in terror that it would be a reworking of Adam West …or worse. The Green Hornet is that fear come to life. Playing an adventure character for slapstick is far worse than insulting or irreverent to the character; it’s insulting to the audience. To any audience. Even to the ones who like Seth Rogen. It goes far beyond the argument of identity. It becomes a question of whether or not the audience will put up with the smell of the crap being flung at them.

4. Not everything needs to be modern to be modernized. Some things arguably work better in the time period they originated or were originally written to inhabit. Some think Superman works better in the Depression era of the 1930s. Likewise, I’ve heard arguments that Wonder Woman works better in a WWII setting, and James Bond should remain a part of the 1950s and 60s Cold War. True or not, the idea is sound. The counter-argument is all about making a character relevant to a modern audience. Sometimes keeping the original time period setting will do exactly that. After all, who wants to see a 21st century Zorro? Or an 18th century Captain Kirk? Granted, some characters have been modernized successfully, but as they said on Jurassic Park, just because you can do a thing, it doesn’t mean you should. Any rule can be broken; it’s just a matter of doing it for a reason other than simply to do it. Instead, the thematic templates can be used to create new characters and new stories if that direction must be taken. But we’re talking the use of the original characters, so let’s keep the conversation based there for now. For my money, nothing says “escape from the world outside your door” like being in another time. There’s something to be said for a period movie. Extra care is taken to get the flavor just right – the atmosphere, the music, the wardrobe, modes of transportation, proper use of slang… the list goes on. The War of the Worlds is a classic example of this. As amazing as the alien walker machines are in the latest reboot, the original story plays best when the threat is unfathomable to the characters in the film. In 1938, the aliens were radio’s unseen enemy. In 1953, the Martian menace played directly on that fear of immediate annihilation. Today? Our senses are dulled to an alien threat and other such disaster movies. Modern audiences are jaded. Likewise, modern characters reflect that sentiment. They will react in ways a modern character would. If you don’t let them do so, there’s an immediate disconnect between character and audience. But when a character connects with the audience, we’re drawn immediately into any time period they inhabit. So imagine for a moment what might have been if The War of the Worlds film actually took place in the late 1800s when it was originally written. Steampunk is a popular genre, and this story lends itself to it nicely. Think of the merchandising potential!

5. Merchandising! Nothing says $$$ like merchandising. That’s how Superman became a larger fandom in the 40s than anything George Lucas is trying now, and if George is anything to judge by, it’s a formula that still works. If you have a quality product on screen, the merchandising will follow. It’s here that cross-platform multimedia begins, especially in sci-fi movies. Toys, costumes, prop replicas, statues, posters, video games, t-shirts, hats, backpacks, school supplies… you get the idea. But there’s a caveat here. If you’re going to merchandize something, the quality of the product has to reflect the quality of the movie, and it must make sense. Did anyone else see the original toyline for the Stargate film? No kid I ever knew wanted to play with those – because they looked nothing like their big screen counterparts. Likewise, I don’t know of anyone that went out of their way to collect all the different colors of Batman action figures in the 90s. I pick on Batman because if ever a character demonstrates all the right and wrong ways to do something across every medium, it’s him. Does it make sense for the Caped Crusader to wear fluorescent yellow and bright green? Of course not. Yet for some reason, he’s versatile enough to have many stories that reflect him as an ancient Samurai, a pirate, Frankenstein’s monster, a vampire, one of Eliot Ness’ Untouchables, and a number of other alternate universe one-shots that lend themselves perfectly to plastic collectibles. That leads collectors to make the often insane comments associated with extreme fandom that scares off the general public. For example, Templar Knight Batman looks a lot better than Dayglow Scuba Gear Missile Assault Batman With Sonar Repulsor Shield. I can tell some of you are now trying to control your eye from twitching. And sadly, I guarantee you that if the character sticks to his fundamental character points, the story holds up a lot better too. It’s every bit as abominable as 22nd century digital Zorro might be, but it’s the kind of thing that sells a one-off comic book when the story actually works (and sometimes it does!), gets collectors to buy, and generates more money for the franchise that can be rolled back into a big screen movie. In turn, the movie can keep the core of the character true, thus inviting new audiences in to judge for themselves if they want to read similar adventures, a crossover story with Judge Dredd, or a story of Batman chasing after Jack the Ripper in the Victorian Era. It satisfies that immediate idea of “what if Batman ended up in this situation that they’d never put in a movie?” and allows the larger perception of the character to remain awesome. Meanwhile, there is just no story to tell with Dayglow Scuba Gear Missile Assault Batman With Sonar Repulsor Shield. Why bother?

As this editorial has now degenerated into silliness, I’m going to come to a close here. I urge people to consider the points and express their thoughts.