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Back to the Beginning

Reinventing the creation myth behind franchise films

By Steven Rosen · May 20th, 2009 · Movies

We’ve gotten so jaded about the hackneyed, hyperactive “franchise films” that Hollywood floods us with each summer — X-Men Origins: Wolverine, anyone? — that we fail to recognize when the movie business comes up with a good new idea.

It has. Even while the usually uninspired sequels, prequels and flat-out remakes continue to get made (and earn money), Hollywood has come up with a variation — The Reinvention — that shows promise. Each hero-based franchise film that has lasted in memory as anything more than an embarrassment — James Bond, Star Wars, Batman, Superman — comes with a creation myth capable of being updated with affecting power. (No, not Rambo.) Collectively, they are the closest thing we have to a post-Judeo- Christian religion.

But reinvention means interrupting the continuum of a box-office sure thing through sequels. And it takes a degree of thoughtfulness, not just splashy digital effects and superficially developed characters. That might be why the recent reinvented movies are those with the least to lose — their franchises (or stars) had already played out.

The new Star Trek is a good example. It reinvents a series drained of power because of cast changes and lax storytelling. Directed by Lost creator J.J. Abrams with writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, it respectfully treats the legacy with seriousness and sincerity.

This is remarkable because Star Trek’s legacy — beginning with a three-season TV series from 1966-1969 — is actually sort of cheesy. Overly talky while tackling big social issues of the day under the guise of sci-fi, it seemed well meaning and even sweet but also pretentious and naive.

The draw was inspired casting, especially the virile William Shatner as Captain Kirk and the remote Leonard Nimoy as the pointy-eared, ultrarational Vulcan, Mr. Spock. Amid all the subsequent movies and TV series, that relationship lost its attraction as the original stars aged and then left for replacements.

But the newly reinvented Star Trek infuses Kirk and Spock with interior lives worthy of probing. It starts out at the beginning of their journeys and is about how those characters became the ones played so memorably by Shatner and Nimoy. This is made explicit by the fact Nimoy appears in the film along with Zachary Quinto as the young Spock.

The film wants to see how the young Spock and Kirk (Chris Pine) become what they became and how their relationship grows. It attempts to add psychology and a sense of history to Star Trek’s creation myth, just as contemporary religious scholars do when studying Biblical events and stories. And it works.

Two other recent franchises have been reinvented in recent years: James Bond and Batman. Bond had become pretty much a joke in the Pierce Brosnan years (long before, actually), what with the casting of Denise Richards as a scientist in The World Is Not Enough and that invisible car in Die Another Day. With Brosnan due for replacement, it was time for boldness.

Bond was reinvented as a tough spy whose actions had life-and-death consequences that couldn’t be laughed off with a bon mot. The new Bond (Daniel Craig) looked craggy, not suave. The film went for realism over fluffy escapism. It worked well in 2006’s genuinely tense Casino Royale, an Ian Fleming novel rescued from the ignoble 1960s spoof made from it.

Alas, the strategy backfired with last year’s joylessly violent Quantum of Solace, an original screenplay. Without a decent story, Craig’s Bond was just another sadistic action-movie anti-hero, not much different from a B movie like Transporter with Jason Statham. At this point, Bond needs a luster makeover.

In 2005’s Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan started the all-too-human comic-book superhero’s creation myth over, draining it of even the modicum of humor in Tim Burton’s earlier stab at movie reinvention in 1989. Nolan went for unrelieved darkness with a truly glum hero, played by Christian Bale. Last year’s Dark Knight amped up that vision, turning the Joker into a psychotic nihilist played by Heath Ledger, who had died before the film was released. It worked big time, but there’s not enough humanity in Bale’s cold interpretation to give this reinvented Batman any emotional weight. That means the villains have to be vivid, without succumbing to the hammy acting in the pre-Nolan Batman movies.

Superman also is a good candidate for reinvention. Superman Returns came and went so fast in 2006 that it’s hard to even remember if it was made. But instead of being hampered with a sequel-like “returns” theme, a reinvented Superman that probes his very conflicted creation myth could work.

And it’d be interesting to see how Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego, deals with being a modern-day newspaper reporter. With all the stories, Blog entries, Tweets, podcasts, webcasts, etc. he’d be required to produce, he’d have trouble running off to be Superman whenever the need arises.



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