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No More Gritty Reboots! Part 1 — the Men

by Alex Jacobs

Today I have the pleasure of hosting the first part of an insightful rant by pen-friend Alex Jacobs. Alex graduated from Beloit College in 2005 with a degree in creative writing, literary studies, and rhetoric and discourse. In addition to amateur literary criticism, he currently teaches ballroom in Philadelphia, PA. Alex’s personal writings reside at Suburbaknght.

I’m sick of gritty reboots.

I was going to make a joke here about gritty reboots being the new black, but that doesn’t work. A gritty reboot just takes something and puts black on it. Don’t get me wrong, a gritty reboot can be fantastic (Batman Begins) but it can also be atrocious (Daredevil) or pointless (The Hulk, Star Trek).

I have to lay most of the problem at the feet of Batman Begins. Batman Begins was a fantastic movie, the reasons for which Hollywood seems to have missed entirely. Batman Begins took a superhero who’s always had a problem with camp and whose latest films had spiraled into self-parody and got rid of all the extraneous bullshit. Instead of ridiculous bat-themed gadgets we had tools that were actually useful and based on real technology. Instead of Gotham as a bright neon Blade Runner knock-off we got a shadow-shrouded city that was as much of a character as any of the actors. Instead of Three Stooges-esque comedy fight sequences we got commando-style combat encounters that truly felt threatening due to their violence.

These were great, but they weren’t what made Batman Begins a great movie. Batman Begins was great because it was populated by real characters. Bruce Wayne wasn’t interesting because he angsted but because his angst was a realistic and sympathetic reaction to what he’d gone through. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer wrote someone who was crazy enough that we all believed he could become Batman and but was still sympathetic enough that we wanted to observe the process. Batman Begins was about character.

Unfortunately, Hollywood didn’t pay attention to that. They saw sets with low illumination and characters with tragic pasts and said, “Aha! Keep everything dark! That’s what makes a great movie!”

No, no, no, no, no!

To paraphrase Aristotle, if characters in a drama behave in a believable manner and experience logical consequences because of that behavior, at the conclusion of the story the audience will experience “a useful fear.” It doesn’t matter if the circumstances aren’t realistic so long as the characters act in a believable fashion given the circumstances, because we will continue to identify with the characters and take something away from their experiences. That requires real characters.

Spiderman 3 was a fairly dark movie but the characters were morons. People don’t hate it because of the dance sequence and emo hair – they hate it because the dance sequence and emo hair are out of character, coming completely out of left field. Don’t believe me? Check out Doug “That Guy With the Glasses” Walker’s five-second movie. The first season of Heroes was amazing because it was filled with fascinating characters who behaved like real people despite the absurdity of dormant superhero genes, because we believed them when they reacted to such genes. The subsequent seasons fell apart because the story began to dominate the characters, and once that happens you realize how insipid the story really is.

I’m truly worried about Spiderman’s gritty reboot. I’m worried it’s going to be all grit and the producers are going to forget what made the first two movies so wonderful in the first place.

Then there’s the issue of rebooting origin stories. The origin story is the easiest to portray because it’s easier to sympathize with a normal person going through changes than a superhero dealing with being a superhero, but we need stories that go beyond puberty and mid-life crisis metaphors (X-Men and Iron Man respectively). We need stories about what it means to live in the new life you’ve created for yourself. Batman Begins was a great film but it was The Dark Knight that truly had something to say, and it was a message our society needs very badly.

Hollywood, don’t keep being gritty for the sake of being gritty and don’t keep rebooting because it’s easier to start over than to go forward. I want to see:

– A Superman movie that makes use of the “alien among us” concept to deal with 21st century loneliness.

– A Spiderman movie that uses choosing between two dreams as a theme and not a cheap way to raise the stakes.

– An X-Men movie that contrasts the team’s bemoaning their outsider status with the Brotherhood’s celebration of it (though one scene in X-2 did this very well).

I want stories that matter and characters I care about, not just endless dark-framed long shots followed by closeups of the heroes’ faces.

Images that linger, characters and connections that matter: Bruce brainstorms with Alfred in Batman Begins (Christian Bale, Michael Caine); Wolverine risks his life to heal Rogue in X-Men (Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin); Theo and Marichka risk theirs to take Kee and her newborn daughter to safety in Children of Men (Clive Owen, Oanna Pellea, Claire-Hope Ashitey).

Related posts:
The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade
Set Transporter Coordinates to… (the Star Trek reboot)
Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain

12 Responses to “No More Gritty Reboots! Part 1 — the Men”

  1. Michael says:

    Excellent, Alex.

    Thank you for putting your finger exactly on the problem.


  2. So true. Sadly it takes talent to do good movies, and if there’s one thing Hollywood has a hard time recognizing, it’s that.

  3. Athena says:

    Hollywood has never been a leader, but its films are now white noise pandering not even to the lowest common denominator. Although Hollywood is extreme in its crassness and its visibility, publishing has gone that route also. When profit is the sole motive, producers and publishers rely on “sure success” recipes to replicate blockbusters. Most of the time they fail miserably and the readers/audiences get fed garbage — MacDonald’s for the intellect.

  4. Caliban says:

    I think you got it exactly right. The gritty reboot worked for Batman, as it did for the first season of Battlestar Galactica (which later got overwhelmed by soap-space opera nonsense), but the attempts to make the Hulk “gritty” failed. And Athena, in agreement with you, has written eloquently about just how mindless the Star Trek reboot was.

    But Hollywood is nothing if just a copycat. We’ve had a slew of movies about dysfunctional superheroes, and now the latest thing is superhero movies from the viewpoint of the villain–there are at least two animated movies coming out soon (“Megamind” and “Despicable Me”). While I find the idea attractive, I’m sure Hollywood is going to beat it to death and make it boring in short order.

  5. Alex says:

    Hollywood is doing what high school and college students have done for years: restating what has already been said. That gets you A’s. Originality can get you anything, from A to F; the whole system cautions against it (paraphrased from Robert Pirsig).

    Movies cost a lot of money to make. A lot of money. Lots and lots and lots of money. Worse, only one movie in six makes money despite everything they throw behind them. That means that one movie, whichever one that is, needs not only to pay for itself but the other five that lost money. Hollywood is set up as a system that can’t take risks.

    There are two possible alternatives. The first is independent film-making. While speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, superheroes, etc.) are more difficult to make in the low-budget independent world, it can and has been done. Usually it means the film must focus on character and story over sets and special effects, something I consider strongly beneficial.

    The second possibility is for Hollywood films to make better big-budget films. I think there’s a chance of this – such films usually do better than crappy films – but it’s harder. Due to the aforementioned copy-cat syndrome, studios have shown an inherent difficulty recognizing what makes a film good, let alone a good speculative fiction film.

  6. Athena says:

    Yes and no about the financial part. Most movies make money outside the US if not within it and routinely recoup their expenses and then some — the profits just don’t show on the official books.

    Also, considering how much goes into “star” salaries and special effects, the amount that would go towards hiring a decent writer is comparatively paltry. However, in addition to being timid and profit-focused, Hollywood is also insulated. They don’t bother with outside writers (as Roddenberry did for the original Star Trek). They just rely on stables of tame script doctors who write strictly by the numbers (and to satisfy enormous egos) and whose literary knowledge begins and ends with other second- or third-hand scenarios and may include Campbell’s ersatz mythology.

    It was not like that in earlier decades. Nevertheless, it is so now and it is the reason why indies may be the only real hope for US films.

  7. Caliban says:

    It’s quite possible these days to do reasonable SFX on a low budget–look at the very successful District 9 (which started off promising but fell down in part because it seemed to want to follow a hollywood model, a kind of buddy movie; if only they had hired Athena for some good advice on the biology and sociobiology!).

    Also, Hollywood is just crippled by “executives” who feel the need to give their input. Talk to any writer and you’ll find out about the just really, really bad input. Here’s an example from Greg Benford, just something I found quickly. They offer no value added, but they control the money…. I think it’s this kind of thing that cripples so many movies…

  8. Athena says:

    Awww! *blush*

    And yes, the Benford examples sound depressingly familiar from discussions I’ve had with other writers that were involved with Hollywood, including consultants to “SciFi” shows. Apparently they send these people the dialogue with the word “tech” written in any passage that deals with a scientific or technological issue/concept/term. With this in mind, we shouldn’t be surprised at the results.

  9. Bootman Begins says:

    Technically speaking, “Batman Begins” was a gritty re-Bat (while “Casino Royale” version 2 was a gritty re-Brit).

  10. Athena says:

    Aargh! Stop this person before s/he puns again! *laughs*

  11. intrigued_scribe says:

    Though the puns crept in so neatly… 🙂 *snerk*

    Seriously, this is an excellent, insightful essay that nicely highlights a considerable deal of what’s wrong with too many Hollywood movies these days. Thanks for sharing this, Alex.

  12. Colin says:

    I’ve told Alex this before, but I really feel there’s one series that needs a gritty reboot, that’s just dying for one: Care Bears.