“Vs” is a bit strong here since we actually agree on a few points and this isn’t even an official article series (I don’t even have a category, never mind a logo but I should change both situations). However it is me going through an article and commenting on it, so read the article first and then come back to me. Said article is by GQ contributor Keith Phipps, writing about how many gritty reboots we’ve been getting lately.
I get concerned when a show or movie or any story is praised for being dark, as if a lighter story can’t also be interesting or speak to the human condition or whatever else. Maybe I don’t want to be depressed, immediately hate my fellow human for the crime of still using oxygen, or see a bunch of bloody guts fly onto some woman’s naked breasts. That’s why I tend to shy away from so many stories supposedly targeting my demographic. (Remind me to talk about how bullcrap demographics are someday.) So when something I enjoy gets pulled to the dark side I know what Obi-Wan Kenobi felt, watching something you love turn to everything you fight against. This article, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League : The History Of The Gritty Reboot”, features some good examples, but you can guess what it focuses on.
Earlier this year, The CW announced it was developing a new version of The Powerpuff Girls that sounds far removed from the clever, frenetic, Craig McCracken-created cartoon that first premiered on the Cartoon Network in 1998. In this new version, scripted by Diablo Cody and Heather Regnier, the erstwhile pint-sized crimefighters will be disillusioned twentysomethings who reluctantly reunite despite being jaded by their past experiences.
It’s like someone looked at the recent reboot and said “the problem isn’t that they took a fun and smart show then loaded it with stupid and cringe, it’s that it wasn’t cynical enough about the plight of preschool crimefighters born from a vat of concepts”. In other words they didn’t watch either version of the show and decided to drain the fun out of it like a vampire Shaggy Rogers.
This announcement, while intriguing, was in no way shocking, given the imminent arrival of a “punk rock” Cruella de Vil origin story, and a forthcoming Grease TV spin-off said to “explore the peer pressures of high school, the horrors of puberty and life in middle America with a modern sensibility.”
Considering the Powerpuff Girls desecration announcement came first, the lack of shock was the continuing trend of this stuff. It’s on the CW. Look what they did to Archie. Frickin’ ARCHIE and friends when from fun teen antics to murder mysteries, sleeping with your teacher, and whatever the hell they did to Jughead, Betty, and Veronica. I think Cheryl Blossom got the worst of it but that would require me to watch this garbage and I’d rather not, thank you very much. I’m sure depressed teenagers who never heard of the comics love it enough that it has more than one season but I know Archie and Riverdale ain’t it.
This is the first I’ve heard what the Grease TV version is supposed to focus on just because I didn’t have a chance to look into it but you know they’re just trying to bank on the name because this sounds like the worst idea for a musical ever. People who like Glee might not like this show. As for the Cruella I’ve long since stopped caring about Disney’s continuing efforts to destroy their animation legacy because Hollywood snobs neutered animation’s chances of getting a Best Picture Oscar and they have to have that validation. I don’t know why but I don’t live in Hollywood. Thank God!
This isn’t to rush to judgement about Powerpuff Girls 2.0, which could end up being a smart consideration of early adulthood ennui and the pains of growing up.
I don’t even care if it is supposedly “good quality” since it’s already destined to be a poor adaptation. Like with Grease someone just wants the popular name so they don’t have to put any effort in creating an original property and they don’t really care about the original anyway.
The best gritty reboots build on what’s come before and explore it through the lens of more mature themes.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Also, did I make the blue too dark on the captions? I’m just noticing this.
But often the gritty reboot mistakes self-consciously edgy content for maturity. Creating a series in which Robin says “F#$# Batman” is easy. Giving him a compelling reason to feel that way is hard. And while we seem to be getting more gritty reboots than usual in the last decade or so — a decade that saw two films set in what might best be described as the Dark Snow Whiteverse — it’s not a new development.
I don’t even think the Huntsmen films should be considered a Snow White universe but that depends on whether or not she’s in the sequel. As for Robin, he did have a falling out with Batman, leading to his new identity as Nightwing but I don’t think he outright hated Bruce. He just wanted some respect as an equal even with Bruce as his mentor.
For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes a casual cocaine user in an era when the drug’s detrimental qualities weren’t yet widely known. Nicholas Meyer turned Holmes into an addict with his 1974 novel The Seven-Percent Solution (later turned into a film of the same name).
I’m not an avid Holmes reader or watcher but this addition makes a bit of sense. From what I’ve heard of this story, Holmes actually felt the pressure to perform and live up to his own hype, a hype not necessarily of his own making, and had trouble relating to others because of how his attention to detail altered perceptions. Sherlock Holmes isn’t the Powerpuff Girls or Archie and friends so it’s the kind of story that can go this route.
These are the best-case scenarios for gritty reboots. But as the approach has congealed into a formula, there are plenty of less-than-best-case scenarios too—Josh Trank’s sullen Fantastic Four, for instance, or Tim Burton’s aggressively unpleasant Alice in Wonderland.
Trank’s Fantastic Four did more wrong than that. The Human Torch was race-swapped for no good reason, Doctor Doom was one of the weakest villains ever beyond everything else they got wrong about him, and I haven’t heard good things about anything in the movie. Maybe someday I’ll force myself to watch it for a proper review. However, Burton’s take on Wonderland is a mess and a half from someone who just wants to write dark and disturbing stories and had no real idea of what the Alice books are doing. It’s just another excuse for him to have Johnny Depp act weird and wear a funny hat. From there the writer starts talking about Zack Snyder and his darker take on the DC universe with the four hour “Snyder Cut” of Justice League about to drop on HBO Max. I have a hard time believing the original was going to be four hours long because even Peter Jackson isn’t going that long (though I bet he’d love to) so I don’t even think we’re getting the true Snyder Cut. I think Snyder’s taking the chance to put every one of his cynical and depressing opinions on superheroes to film. This isn’t being made for Justice League fans, it’s being made for Zack Snyder fans.
No creator has committed to the grit-for-grit’s sake reboot quite like Snyder, who first revived Superman with the gloomy 2013 film Man of Steel, which drew criticism for a climax that casually killed off countless Metropolis residents.
Actually it was drawing criticism before it even hit theaters for Snyder’s dark remake. Even people who like darker stories were saying that Superman shouldn’t be a dark story because it goes against what a Superman story is conceptually. It’s supposed to be fun and exciting, not grim and gritty. If I wasn’t doing this site I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it, and after I did I stated it was actually a good superhero movie…just a terrible SuperMAN movie. And the more Snyder and his Snyderites defend the tone of the movie the more I’ve come to actually dislike the movie.
Snyder then moved on to a graying, weary-but-ripped Batman played by Ben Affleck with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Synder’s interpretation of Batman captures his approach to DC’s characters at its most extreme. Not only does his Batman brand bad guys with a Bat symbol,, he kills some, too, and even totes a machine gun (in a dream sequence, at least), all of which are actions off limits to the comic book Batman since 1940. Which raises a question: at what point does an interpretation of a character stray so far from its origins that it effectively stops being the character? In the world of gritty reboots, it sometimes becomes hard to see what’s being rebooted beneath the grit.
Zack Snyder’s view on superheroes fit perfectly with Watchmen since that was basically Alan Moore’s view of superheroes as well. However, it’s not what the DC universe was built on before Dan DiDio came around with his own darker views on superheroes, which he pushed by bringing in guys like Brian Michael Bendis and Tom King once he got control back after Rebirth. There’s something I call “multiversal continuity”. While some things change between media and continuities there are still certain personalities and looks that are central to a character and universe that shouldn’t be changed to the point that you’ve essentially created a new IP. Looking back at Grease I think.
Though Batman v Superman proved divisive, with 2017’s Justice League, Snyder got the keys to an even larger swathe of the DC Universe. The circumstances of his departure are complicated. In a recent Vanity Fair profile, Snyder and his wife and producing partner Deborah Snyder describe losing the will to fight with Warner Bros. after the loss of their daughter, who took her own life during production. The main reason for the fight: after the completion of a rough cut, the studio grew concerned Snyder would take the film into territory too intense (and, yes, gritty) for the company’s iconic characters, and that the criticisms lobbed at Snyder’s previous DC films would undo the company’s attempts to create their answer to Marvel’s universe-anchoring team-up The Avengers (also directed by Whedon).
The problem is that Whedon was given Snyder’s rough cut and asked to add to it rather than start over again. Snyder’s darker take on DC didn’t work either, though I hear Batman V Superman had a host of other problems as well. I still haven’t brought myself to see it knowing I’m not going to like it on concept alone and all I’ve heard about it, including very deep analyses of its problems. Justice League was trying to course correct the tone that was chasing off DC’s fanbase and casual fans of Superman and Batman in general but it wasn’t designed to take that direction. Has Whedon been allowed to start from scratch, which would have been way too expensive considering everything already shot, we might have ended up with a film as good as The Avengers. Instead we got a movie that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be.
And then there’s the strictly-for-grown-ups, Taxi Driver-influenced Joker.
Let’s not throw Joker into this. Todd Phillips outright stated he was trying to use the Clown Prince Of Crime to “win” people away from superhero movies and more towards movies he thinks you should be watching while remaking The King Of Comedy. The movie was built on bias and snobbery against “comic book movies” and really doesn’t belong in this discussion.
DC Films’ output often seems so caught up in reminding viewers that superheroes aren’t just for kids that it’s easy to forget they ever were.
That’s not even the last time Make-A-Wish made a kid into a superhero. Kids love superheroes. I’m always reminded of an image of a boy using a walker who ran to hug a man in a Superman costume he saw in a store. There are tons of stories of window washers who wear superhero costumes while cleaning at a children’s hospital. Some of the best superhero shows and movies were animated, most of who target kids. The comic industry, especially (annoyingly) the big two, have taken superheroes away from kids by “maturing” their mainstream titles in some insane belief they can convince non-readers that comic books aren’t just for kids. Hasn’t been working out, has it?
To be fair, if any company has the right to see how much grit its characters can support, it’s DC. The company didn’t invent the gritty reboot with Frank Miller’s 1986 miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, but that comic was a turning point for the form.
It takes nothing away from Miller’s achievement to note that The Dark Knight Returns was less a revolution than a culmination. On the mainstream superhero front, comics had taken a turn toward more grounded storytelling for years. Spider-man watched his girlfriend Gwen Stacy die and pal Harry Osborn overdose on drugs, Green Arrow helped his sidekick struggle with heroin addiction, and Iron Man struggled with alcoholism. Batman titles alone saw writers and artists like Marshall Rogers, Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, and Steve Englehart start to bring the Dark Knight back to his detective roots, and Miller’s own run on Marvel’s Daredevil joined efforts like the Chris Claremont-penned Uncanny X-Men in telling complex, layered, serialized stories for an older-skewing audience that showed up month after month to find out what happened next.
There’s a big difference between what Miller did with The Dark Knight Returns and the Batman stories of the Bronze Age. I could read a story about a man hunting down the homeless “for their own good” because he was twisted himself, and I wasn’t even 10 yet. Dude was using poisoned coins as his weapon, not cutting their heads off or anything. However, that was bringing Batman back to its roots and creating a story that wasn’t too scary for kids while still being smart enough for adults. It’s why I love the Bronze Age. Nowadays I’m not sure I’d let a 10 year old read a modern Superman story, and that saddens me.
The gritty reboot can be a powerful storytelling tool. Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films both raise serious questions about the ethics, and sanity, of their hero. And the darkness-for-darkness sake that threatened to overwhelm superhero comics for much of the ’90s hasn’t taken root as readily in other media. The version of Battlestar Galactica developed by Ron Moore in the early ’00s stripped the original idea down to its bones and fleshed it out with post-9/11 paranoia and a newfound political awareness and sense of peril. Some reboots wear their grit well.
I’ll give you that Burton’s FIRST Batman movie and Nolan’s FIRST Batman are versions I mostly get behind. (These also feature a Batman who either doesn’t care if you get killed or will leave you to die, and that’s not right.) I have a few problems with their second films I won’t get into here. Meanwhile Moore’s Battlestar Galactica bears little resemblance to the original show outside of ship design and the non-human Cylons. The tone is wrong, the theme is wrong, the characters are namesakes and even that’s not correct because classic names are now callsigns for Apollo, Starbuck, and Boomer. It’s Galactica in name only, which is yet another topic I’ve gone over before.
But the gritty reboot can also become worn out from overuse or serve as a lazy storytelling tool. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ dark take on the world of Archie Comics in “The Last of the Innocent,” which imagines a grown-up Archie Andrews resorting to murder to free himself from an unhappy marriage is disarmingly effective because it remains so true to the characters’ original world while covering it in shadows, as is Afterlife With Archie, a horrific, zombie-filled comic book twist on Archie written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and drawn by Francesco Francavilla. By contrast, there’s Riverdale: In developing the CW series, Aguirre-Sacasa brought some of the same impulses but, particularly as the seasons have piled up, its connection to the source has started to feel more and more tenuous. It’s a gripping, silly soap opera filled with familiar names and settings, but it exhausted any commentary on what the world of Archie and his friends means long ago.
I’m assuming “The Last Of The Innocent” is one of the Life With Archie stories since they have Archie alternate married to either Betty or Veronica and either way is not a story I want to read. Afterlife isn’t the first time Archie’s teamed with horror but I don’t read horror. Anything scarier than Archie’s Weird Mysteries, which was mostly a tribute to 50s b movies, I really don’t deal with. We already went over Riverdale’s failings.
It’s easy to see why creators reach for the gritty reboot so often. There’s little chance in 2021 we’d be talking about a high-profile show depicting thorny relationships between grown-up childhood friends if they weren’t the Powerpuff Girls’ Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles. It’s tough to get a movie up and running or a show on the air. The promise of a new twist on what’s already worked makes it a little less tough.
Therein lies the problem I mentioned before: laziness. It’s worse now with TV competing with streaming services who all want original programming along with “rerunning” older shows. Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, and even YouTube have gotten into the game and that’s not a complete list. The problem is that too often they’re put in the hands of people who don’t care about these properties, which is how you get to where culturally iconic franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars are now.
The gritty reboot can also provide a way to draw a line between the past and the present. The CW’s ghost-filled Nancy Drew departs drastically from the source material, but no one will mistake it for a modern-dress revival like CBS’ Hawaii Five-0, now entering its 10th season, not that anyone has noticed. Quick, without looking it up: Who stars in the new version of Walker Texas Ranger? Is the revived MacGyver still airing or was it cancelled?
The fact that I don’t know the answer to the last two (I think MacGyver‘s reboot is still up but I would only know that from commercials during Let’s Make A Deal, which is the only thing I watch on CBS these days) says how well that’s working. I didn’t even know Walker was coming out until it was a few weeks in, and I think it’s about him solving his wife’s murder (no, not Alex–this is either a prequel or a reboot). Both of these shows take only the cliff notes description of the show and create something else. Does the new Walker even do martial arts now?
But watching one lightness-challenged reboot after another can be exhausting. Inspired by HBO’s grim new take on Perry Mason, which opens with a dead baby then somehow gets even darker and more dour, last year writer Brian Grubb wondered why we keep circling adding shadows to familiar worlds, asking “Is it because we’ve all lost the plot a bit, to the point that we’ve started confusing serious and sad with quality, as though anything that doesn’t involve a dead body in a dystopia lacks the stakes to be quote-unquote prestige television?”
Certainly feels that way, doesn’t it?
Speaking at a post-screening Q&A in 2019, Snyder responded to those who objected to his vision of what a superhero would or would not do, saying, “It’s a cool point of view to be like, ‘My heroes are still innocent. My heroes didn’t f@$%#$%# lie to America. My heroes didn’t embezzle money from their corporations. My heroes didn’t commit any atrocities.’ That’s cool. But you’re living in a f$@%#$%# dream world.” But what’s the point of superheroes if not to dream? There’s room for darker, self-aware takes on comic book heroes (and Riverdale’s most famous teenagers, and lawyers who always win their cases through amazing detective work, and so on). There’s no value to heroes that can’t be challenged. But we’re living in a truly grim and gritty world if each reboot only plunges those heroes deeper into darkness, and further away from what made them appealing in the first place, just to prove it can be done.
I have nothing against darker stories and there are some I like. However, like with the Super Grover example earlier not everything has to fit that mold, fit the tastes of those who only want those kind of stories. There’s a place for both kinds of stories. Sure I could do a lighter toned Game Of Thrones with a clear good guy, no incest, and less betrayal and general scumminess as everyone bloody competes for the world’s most uncomfortable chair but who would want to see that besides me? Doing a more fun take on Brightburn or ending the movie with the kid reforming would miss the whole point. So why isn’t that the same thing when a lighter concept turns dark?