Film is about 125 years old, television nearing 90 and this week: Jokerside turns three! As the next year will see this blog cast its sideways glance even further – with even more splintering of pop culture to come – this anniversary is marked by the start of a new series. Jokerside’s Fictionside will look at storytelling trends and memes – in this first instalment, five recent ways that Hollywood has coped, or perhaps failed to cope, with ageing franchises.
SOMETIMES IT’S BEST TO START SMALL, AND THAT’S BY NO MEANS LESS. 1976. WHEN THE DOCTOR WHO PRODUCTION TEAM TEMORARILY GAVE WAY TO FOURTH DOCTOR TOM BAKER’S CONVICTION THAT HE DIDN’T NEED A COMPANION IT WENT FAMOUSLY WRONG. But that resultant mess, where the Doctor is forced to talk to himself, there aren’t traditional characters to draw out the danger and in its place are long, dull scenes, failed to materialise as the ever-brilliant Robert Holmes crafted a classic tale from adversity. In fact, the fantastically named The Deadly Assassin, heralded a number of reboots. A key one was controversially defining the Time Lord culture that the Doctor had rejected – an astonishing 13 years into the show’s lifetime. But then Doctor Who is a show that, thanks to luck, brilliant decision-making and the marvellous eccentricity of its state-owned production company, has change built into its core. From one episode to the next the sets, characters and even the lead actors can be completely different. That poses a huge and irresistible challenge and one that hopefully can roll on forever. But it’s a freedom that’s all too rare in fiction, scared as it is to paint itself into a box with confidence that a writer, as should be their raison d’etre, can paint themselves out of. Even in Who’s incredible fictional framework, one which had no issue with running that small mid-70s experiment, we have a great demonstration that reboots often don’t go the way they should.
And that’s on television. On film things are slower. Much slower.
Hollywood’s war of franchises may be more heated than ever as studios create, reassert, reboot and continue whatever their rights can manage. It may seem that a lot of energy falls on that mythical and never ending quest to find a new young adult property, as indeed it does, but there are older blockbuster sagas that have asked the question. And the answers vary greatly.
Aging Action – James Bond
Method: Whether shamelessly ignoring continuity or making a joke of it, there aren’t any hints or suggestions that marketing and a few years can’t spin. Welcome to timelessness.
The franchise has remains charged by that cusp it emerged from
A worthy early nod to the British-themed champion of change. Is there a coincidence that Britain lies behind Bond and Who, if not always in money and creative talent? Certainly changes in British society have been tied into the genesis of both. While the Doctor would struggle to hide away in an East End Totters Yard in a Police Box these days, unlike his birth 18 years after the Second World War, Jamaica had gained independence from the shrinking British Empire in the time between the first Bond film, Dr No’s filming and release in 1962. The franchise has remained charged by that cusp it emerged from, external change and Bond’s response to it has played very real role in the super spy’s longevity.
In 2012 Jokerside looked at the intricacies of the Bond timeline, a vague and intriguing string of adventures that have often shamelessly overcome any sticking points by confronting them early and full on. Even when Bond changed his looks five films in, the script took pleasure in smashing these alterations through the fourth all (with the rather balletic punch of George Lazenby). In dropping back to a more faithful take on Fleming, it even had Bond meeting Blofeld for the first time in the second film in succession. It was clear that consistency wasn’t a top priority – clearly a less important consideration in the 1960s without home media. And as wonderful as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is, the return of Sean Connery in the following film left the real legacy of OHMSS as proving that audiences accept a change of Bond.
But calling back to the early 1960s, it was the rapid production of the consistent first three films that secured the franchise a degree of freedom to later take a laissez faire attitude to continuity. Building to the defining two hours in Goldfinger, the gulf between that 1964 film and its mooted sequel that transformed into 1971’s Diamonds are Forever are huge.
Over time, especially the 1970s, as the shunned OHMSS critical stock grew and Bond found himself being dragged through exploitation and Star Wars, little nods such as the opening of 1981’s For Eyes Only (where Bond gets belated revenge on Blofeld after visiting his dead wife’s grave) are less about continuity than grabs at context.
When it came to the reboot in 2006, Casino Royale was a simple tale that again looked back to Fleming. It’s was a brilliant move, especially as we’d never seen a fresh Bond – having arrived rather fully formed in 1962’s detective romp, albeit a few years away from the Connery superman archetype. That prequel idea is one of the default templates when it comes to finding new narrative ground in adaptation, see Jokerside’s recent overview of Super Mario Bros. The Movie. But in the rapidly changing creative set-up of Bond, any idea of Bond Begins was well and truly dispatched by Daniel Craig’s third film in the role Skyfall. It remains vague, but if it was to be forced into some kind of overall chronology, it would sit at the Die Another Day end rather than near the early Craig excursions. Still, Skyfall felt the need to delve into Bond’s past, tricky ground that also appears to form the foundation of the upcoming Spectre. Recent reports have drawn out some intriguing rumours from the Skyfall production – the idea that at one stage Bond’s family home would instead be some form of home for retired agents, and none other than Sean Connery would pop up in the Kincade role, a mysterious former agent. It seems a very unlikely development to me, one bound to diminish a film which otherwise has strength in its simplicity. And it just doesn’t seem like something that Connery would have been party to.
However, it would have added firm support to the franchise’s hidden reboot secret. That not only 007 but the name James Bond are handed down with the double-o rank. It’s a cleaner concept, with M presumably recruiting only from a chauvinistic and psychopathic cloth, explaining why he sometimes seems more Fettes or Sandhurst than Eton, why his reputation usually preceded him in the 1970s, and perhaps flittering away Moore’s tribute to Tracey as a dedication it the cause.
That said, it would also ruin the hugely important role of speculation in the franchise. Let’s hope Spectre doesn’t uncover too much of that shameless mystery and innate reboot strength.
Leaping Time – Star Trek
Method: Time travel of course – it lets you have a fully stocked phaser and fire it.
Perhaps demonstrating more mastery of reboot than any other fictional property
Perhaps the most famous recent example, 2009’s Star Trek combined one of the franchise’s most familiar, though actually rarely used concepts, with the much mooted prequel strategy. Star Trek had long been familiar with reboots of course, perhaps demonstrating more mastery of the concept than any other fictional property. Woven between small and big screens, television remained where Star Trek was strongest and where reboots including the phenomenally successful The Next Generation and the sublime Deep Space Nine flourished. Not bad for a show that floundered in its first 1960s iteration.
When Into Darkness came out in 2013, Jokerside looked at the perils that the franchises third ‘second’ film would face – that’s how much that “wagon train to the stars” has rebooted itself.
And with safety in so many spin-offs, when it came to rebooting, against that extraordinary palette, it made perfect sense to go back to the mythical James T Kirk and crew. Especially as the huge expanse covered by the series had worn some stories thin (yes, poor old Star Trek: Voyager) and grounded most of the story in a far safer 24th century than the frontier-like original series. While Star Trek, quite interestingly seizing on a title no film had boldy chosen before, also took Kirk and crew back to the academy. So far, so mooted over many years. What wasn’t expected is that it took a temporal anomaly to create a divergent timeline, allowing the wealth of Star Trek over the past five decades to live on while carving out a brand new universe on the big screen. It was a bold move, and not one that’s won over all fans, still that may be expected with such a cake and eat it solution.
Perhaps the worst thing is that the only slice of Star Trek lore it leaves intact as conical across both timelines is Star Trek: Enterprise – a fine series by the end, but not the pinnacle. Indeed, even the events of the fantastic First Contact are cast into doubt in this new universe.
Still, it’s some kind of masterstroke to have taken the Next Generation universe and used the character of Spock to pretty much destroy four franchises. Jokerside’s forthcoming look at the new films as we approach Star Trek’s golden anniversary will dwell on the consequences of that, some of them sure unintentional. But it’s no spoiler to say that Into Darkness continued that ‘cake and eat it’ approach while confronting the legacy of The Wrath of Khan.
These new Star Trek films are not piling up, with between three and four years between. Of course, the success of those early films, and perhaps the reason for its incredible television reboot in 1987 came from that incredible 1982 film and the mind of Nicholas Meyer. Interestingly, while it set the bar ridiculously high, it also adopted an anti-prequel approach. Realising the faults of Robert Wise’s earnest Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he aged the crew 15 years and set up a continuing enemy in old age and entropy. With this new franchise dawdling as it is (the anniversary year hasn’t helped), and no speed on the television reboot, that’s a trick they may have to pull again very soon.
Panel to Panel – X-Men
Method: There is nothing you can’t rewrite using mutant abilities. Or sheer force of studio will.
Bryan Singer is now lodged as both the franchise’s’ Stan Lee and Chris Claremont
History is likely to be quite cruel to Fox’s run on its Marvel Comic properties. But amid the horrors, one of which, the most recent Fantastic Four reboot, is likely still keeping Fox execs awake at night, the X-Men franchise remains solid. Again, it’s mostly the laws of the two, with X-Men 2 and Days of Future Past the stand-out films. It seems so long ago that studios were thinking in trilogies. They still are of course, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has unbelievable power. Marvel have dealt with their own inevitable reboot issues by playing to the strengths of the comics and making sure many super-powered eggs are in different baskets. Such a successful strategy in fact that the one time reluctant multiple contractee Chris Evans has just signalled that he’d be happy to stay on board longer than anyone anticipated.
But while Fox made a huge mistake in letting the original X-Men trilogy whimper out with Brett Ratner’s The Last Stand (no one can blame Brian Singer for jumping ship to Big Blue at DC), their approach to the reboot was inspired. In fact it’s mimicked some of the impetuousness, luck and judgment that made the comic so successful, with Bryan Singer now lodged as both the franchise’s’ Stan Lee and Chris Claremont.
On the other side, Sony’s shameless instant reboot of Spiderman meant that Fox had a long way to fall to treat their property so badly. While Matthew Vaughn’s First Class was a typically vibrant period-piece that followed the prequel formula well, last year’s Days of Future Past managed the impossible by merging the previous trilogy and the reboot. Actually, it not only managed to iron out a lot of troublesome niggles but also managed to rewrite the terrible ending of The Last Stand. Perhaps most importantly, as discussed in Jokerside’s look at X-Men through the decades, those two films injected a much-needed sense of humour. Still, Days and the forthcoming ‘80s set Apocalypse leaves the X-franchise at a turning point.
You have real reboot issues when the mainstay of your franchise is legendarily near immortal and the aging actor is hanging up his claws after 17 years. With Hugh Jackman’s departure after the final solo Wolverine film, rumour holds that much hope hangs on Channing Tatum’s freshly signed up kinetically charged Gambit and that Xavier and Magneto will live on beyond the end of this second trilogy in the younger bodies of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. If so, considering the original X-Men film was ostensibly set at the turn of the century, we have a raft of new Romantic, hose and Madchester X-films to look forward to.
A Real Dystopia – Planet of the Apes
Method: All bets are off, paradox lets you get away with anything. Or alternatively ween yourself off time travel and everyone will soon forget about it.
The Apes could very well roll on for many years
Unlike, Star Trek, time travel and paradox are inbuilt in both The Planet of the Apes and Terminator franchises. Both those franchises have formed the cornerstone in Jokerside’s summer of dystopia, alongside Mad Max and retrospectives of Waterworld and Super Mario Bros. The Movie.
Planet of the Apes is a fascinating example of a reboot in the modern age and surely the most successful. While Star Wars will undergo a theatrical refresh by presenting an immediate sequel to its franchise high points, Apes looked to its underexploited strength. Having showed unusual Hollywood resolve and opted not to pursue the steady box office of Tim Burton’s misguided Planet of the Apes at the turn of the century, attention turned to the latter films of the saga’s 1970s heyday. That original five film run may have been chronologically confusing and proved the law of diminishing returns, but built in the idea of alternate timelines. Ignoring the paradox, although there are nods to spaceflight in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the current mature take has once again gone the origins route, providing a more logical adaptation of the final two original films. It’s a plan that’s working, having already taken far more box office than the original series, and if played well with its elegant CGI and constantly changing cast, could very well roll on for many years.
It’s quite arguably the king of dystopian blockbusters and deserves to be taken very seriously in Hollywood. Perhaps its main hour should be that it adds further weight that contrary to popular opinion, Fox gets reboots right more often than they get them Fantastic Four.
Changing Hands – The Terminator
Method: Ramp up mystery and laugh in the many faces of f ontological paradox, safe in the knowledge that you are the ultimate reboot franchise.
We still have no idea what T-designation a kitchen sink carries
Terminator always wore time travel right at its punctured, transplanted heart. Any suggestion that there was fun to be had outside it was blown apart by the dull and over-earnest fourth instalment, Salvation. Seldom has a film jumped so headily into fiction (up until that point the horrors of Judgment Day had remain resolutely in the future) with such a dull result.
In this summer of dystopia, Jokerside took a look at the horror behind the Terminator’s twisted timeline. And when it came to its most recent, and now it’s fair to say $440million success, things got particularly confusing.
Genisys wasn’t the first time that Terminator had rebooted, most caused by behind the scenes rights transfers and it’s fair to say, refusal to give up a golden egg. But Genisys somehow manages to make other reboots look like the mumbled speeches of demure debutante. Forgetting the two decades of the franchise that were obsessed with the oncoming Judgment Day, Genisys literally exploded in impossible, paradoxical and unanswered questions about timeline distortion. Most pressing is perhaps that we still have no idea what T-designation a kitchen sink carries.
The end result is a strange return to the oncoming storm-clouds of the first two films, albeit with a more frazzled look on the faces of the audience. Like Star Trek, Genisys dared to go back to the franchise’s previously untouched beginning. It even had an original time travelling carry-over, although Schwarzenegger’s Pops is a little more hands on than Spock’s welcome but fleeting gravitas. Now the survived Reese and young again Sarah Connor are in the future, awaiting Judgement Day, like leaving Kirk and co ready to embark on their five year mission.
Unlike the others on this list, from the irrepressible Bond to optimistic reboot master Star Trek, from the luxury of time in the X-Men saga to the serious parallel universe of the Apes, as much as James Cameron may scratch his head at some of the results, The Terminator had reboot built in from the very beginning.
As John Connor said through Kyle Reese, unfortunately not about Hollywood, “I can’t help you with what you must soon face, except to say that the future is not set.”
NEXT FICTIONSIDE: Retelling stories…