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Thursday 10 September 2015

Saving the Soul of a Movie Franchise

The Batsuit of The Dark Knight, worn by Christ...
The Batsuit of The Dark Knight, worn by Christian Bale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Forgive my pedantry here, but there are feature film Remakes, feature film Re-Adaptations of non-feature film material and – the subject of this article - Reboots. When I read lists of good or bad remakes I often see a mishmash of these three and yet each is quite different. Remakes are films that make a clear attempt to produce a new version of a single film. A re-adaptation, in the context of this article, describes a second or subsequent adaptation of a novel, a play, video game or some other non-feature film source material. A movie reboot occurs when an established franchise of films starts anew. The overwhelming majority of reboots will start with a remake or a re-adaption, but the motive of the producers is to refresh an established franchise anew, disregarding previous continuities. A good reboot meets the torturous task of doing justice to the core “spirit” of the original work with obvious respect whilst laying believable foundations for the rest of the series. A bad reboot does the complete opposite. Therefore, the purpose of this frivolous and unashamedly geeky article is to put forward my favourite and least favourite attempts to refresh a movie franchise. 

If we look at the lists of movie franchises that have occurred throughout the history of motion pictures, we note that post-2000 offers the greatest volume of examples. Remakes and Re-Adaptations are nothing new in the movie world. The concept of both pre-dates the invention of feature films, and can be seen in the history of plays. However, the Reboot marks the establishment of the historic and continued success of an ongoing series, and is a clear indication of the increasing presence of the hard-core fan element. That clearly came into bloom around the turn of the 21st century and has become a distinguishing feature of the movie-making industry in the early part of that century. Rebooting has accelerated so much that we are getting more than one attempt to re-boot a franchise occurring within shorter spaces of time.  We also have interesting variations on the reboot, such as the “soft” re-boot whereby a franchise re-starts as a sequel and either dismisses only some of the continuity, as in “Superman Returns” or makes a clear new focus for the franchise, as in “G.I. Joe Retaliation”.  Despite growing criticism over reboots, the nature of the franchise business indicates we will be seeing an increasing number of them. It almost seems inevitable, but this doesn’t mean that originality, creativity and artistic integrity have to go out of the window. 

Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy was the perfect example of how far good style can take a regimented formula. I accept that his three films meet all the cynical production-pleasing criteria; including being obedient to the standard script structure that has become sickeningly predictable in Hollywood blockbusters, but the film still succeeds as art in spite of this conformity. All due credit should go to Tim Burton and Sam Raimi for laying down some brave foundations in the superhero movie world, but what set Nolan’s vision above most was his honouring the core spirit of the character. By grounding Batman in a more realistic world carefully crafted in an exaggerated noir style reminiscent of Bob Kane’s earliest work and the 1980s work of Frank Miller via Alan Moore, Batman finally got the respect he deserved. If we add to this the excellent casting of Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Heath Ledger and Tom Hardy, the finished product is not only the best example of a reboot, but is also amongst the best movie trilogies.

Sadly there are more bad reboots than good and they don’t even get the mitigation of being called heroic failures. 1998’s “Godzilla” regarded its Kaijū genre source material in the same way the original monster regarded Tokyo and hungrily stole from the Jurassic Park franchise. The attempts to reimagine the titular character were so abstract and pompous that the single film might as well have gone by a different name. What further qualifies it as a terrible attempt at a reboot is its hackney-eyed ending. It is a throwback to “Critters”, “Venom”, “Alligator” and other creature features that tagged on these lazy cliff-hangers in hope they could make a sequel even if little actual forethought had gone into this possible future film. 

The attempted 2014 reboot of “RoboCop” gets a mention for exhibiting near enough the same level of cynicism and consumerism the first film sent up. Whatever the merchandizers were trying to do upon the release of the first “RoboCop” film it is quite clear that Paul Verhoeven’s 18 certificate cyberpunk satire was not a superhero film. However, it would appear that the creative team behind the remake had other ideas and set their sights on 12a certificate market. The commercial success of this film appeared to be a triumph of clinical algorithm prediction over artistic integrity. It delivered to the lowest common denominator, appealed to a wider new audience and, in a shallow move that is now a patronising staple element in most remakes/reboots, it threw titbits to supposedly please fans of the original franchise. 

However, the soul of a franchise may yet be saved in the same haven that has allowed a wide range of original drama to flourish. After “Hannibal Rising” seemingly killed Thomas Harris’s franchise in both literary and filmic versions, Bryan Fuller’s grotesquely brilliant “Hannibal” is the antithesis of bad reboot. Nolan’s vision of Batman may have finished with his great trilogy, but its spirit has risen within the even more understated and adult “Gotham”. The acceptance of a patient audience that relishes a slow-burning plot and complex character development to occur, regardless of the genre, provides creative writers and directors with many possibilities. The strength of a franchise is its ability to sustain the interest of its fans. Television provides the perfect medium to achieve this objective, allowing a great movie idea to thrive with less corporate influence.

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