Why Is It So Hard For Hollywood To Create Brand New Heroes?
The other day, director Matthew Vaughn argued in favor of going back and retelling the story of Anakin Skywalker and his scrappy kids. Vaughn said he would only direct a Star Wars movie if he could "play with the characters I loved," including Luke and Han Solo.
Vaughn's position might seem controversial at first, until you consider that most of our beloved movie and TV franchises keep circling back to their iconic heroes. (We now have both Chris Pine and Paul Wesley playing James T. Kirk, for example.) It seems entirely likely, if not inevitable, that Luke Skywalker will be recast in the next decade, perhaps more than once.
Why does this keep happening? Mostly because when the most famous geek properties try to move away from their best-known characters, they often struggle to bring audiences along.
I obsess a lot about the difference between a saga and a universe. A saga is the story about a particular set of characters, whereas a universe is more open-ended, a setting where anyone can have an adventure. A successful universe is a license to print money — just ask Marvel! — but sagas are still much more common.
And maybe it's just harder to create a character audiences want to follow than it is to create a setting where audiences will want to spend time. There are a thousand fantasy worlds that bear a strong resemblance to Middle Earth, but there's still only one Frodo, and one Gandalf. Settings tend to become generic and recognizeable, but good characters remain somewhat unique. Or maybe it's just that people bond strongly with a particular character whom they encountered at a particular time in their lives, and they want to keep going back to that person, rather than the world where they met them.
But those are just my guesses. I actually have no idea why Hollywood's heaviest hitters keep coming back to the same characters. To find out more, I asked Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the creator of The Middleman (which I praised in last week's newsletter.) Javi recently pitched a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy TV show that wouldn't include Arthur Dent, so I was curious to find out what he thought about this topic. Here's what he told me.
Star Wars has arguably had a hard time moving away from the Skywalkers — every Star Wars TV show or movie up to now features characters who are at most two Kevin Bacons away from Luke. The Wizarding World has stumbled when it tries to move too far away from Harry Potter — the Fantastic Beasts movies very quickly pivoted to being about Harry's mentor Dumbledore. The only Hunger Games spinoff is a prequel that focuses on a guy who spent a lot of time with Katniss. Why is it so hard to move away from characters we already know, or the familiar version of the saga?
Having worked on one or two franchise projects, I would add the caveat that it's easy to armchair quarterback some of these decisions when one is not aware of the parameters under which they were made. That said, the biggest issue is always money. Every single project you mentioned above is an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars that has to be recuperated -- not to mention that these projects also have to buttress entire empires of merchandising, theme park attractions, and publishing across all media. It's not a business model that rewards risk.
There's also what I call "The Fog of War," by which I mean the often desperate need to make things work for no reason other than being committed to a something like the availability of a piece of talent, or setting a release date before having a robust concept, or a weird contractual obligation (like Sony needing to produce a Spider-Man movie every six years on pain of losing the rights to the characters), or having too many powerful producers who disagree about everything, and needing something -- anything -- to put before the camera. Those sorts of artificial constraints lead directly to the lowest-hanging fruit, and often to decisions that make little sense when examined with the benefit of a greater perspective. The idea of handing the Star Wars sequel trilogy to three vastly different film makers without ensuring that they would each adhere to the most rudimentary conceptual framework is such a decision -- they paid 4.5 billion dollars for something and needed not just to produce, but to announce a lot of product and star power in very short order... and we can all see how well that ended up.
That much said, some of these projects are clearly bigger swings than others: Rogue One, for example, and the television series it begat are really great examples of using Star Wars as a setting rather than as a switchboard through which all circuits lead to the Skywalker family - even if Darth Vader appears in a slightly extended cameo. Looking at everything that has been said and written about the making of Rogue One, however, it truly does feel that the studio caught lightning in a bottle in a confluence of absolutely unreproducible accidents.
It’s ironic that the greatest twist in movie history -- I am your father -- is also the Original Sin of franchise filmmaking. Knowing that this was a retcon created after the success of the first film really says something about humanity’s ability for perverse instatiation. We took what was essentially an ad-lib and turned it into the basis for an entire business.
Then you have something like the Fantastic Beasts spin-offs, which truly felt more driven by a need to capitalize on the IP than anything else. I work in TV, I'm no stranger to the the quest for filthy lucre, and may be on some version of it myself, but good god man, it's hard to look to that first film and not see a sort of hodge-podge of ideas thrown together as a piece of business rather than out of a genuine need to express something about the human condition. I am a firm believer that art needs to survive as both art and business in order to succeed, but in the case of those spin-offs, the pendulum truly was way too far on the side of business than the side of art. Somewhere in that spinoff, you can see the faint outlines of what could have been a really cool version of Doctor Who -- maybe protecting muggles from runaway beasts or defying the wizarding world in order to help us mere humans… but somewhere in the interaction of egos, deadlines, and capitalism it either didn’t gel or no one had the will to make it something in and of itself.
It's no surprise they went running back to the pensieve -- they really had nowhere else to go.
I was up for the assignment of writing what eventually became the Thomas Jane iteration of The Punisher. The feedback on my pitch was gloriously positive and I was told more than once I had it in the bag (for whatever that’s worth). When the studio and producers went with an established screenwriter, I was given one single reason why I had been passed over -- and that was that no one ever got fired for going with an established writer. If you want a one-sentence answer, there it is.
On the flipside, there's Star Trek, which made a definitive break from the original crew with TNG. Is this something that was easier to do in 1987 than today?
I think it's a different answer than 1987... I think the root reason is that Star Trek was designed as a television series, which means that the conceptual framework had to be able to sustain 22 episodes a season for as long as humanly possible in order to turn a profit. As much as we love the original cast, what works about Star Trek is that as long as you have a captain, a doctor, a science officer and some sort of vehicle with a bridge, you're not only in business, you have an open invitation for a diverse cohort of artists to come in and fill that space. Star Trek works because it's very specifically NOT a saga: designing a TV series, especially in the 1960s, with a beginning, middle, and end, was suicide.
Frankly, Next Generation only got good when it ran away from the original - when it stopped doing rehash episodes like "The Naked Now", when it embraced new writers like Ron Moore, Brannon Braga, and Rene Echevarria, and when it introduced new world-expanding ideas like the Borg. Star Trek thrives when it gets away from canon -- and the movies and shows exploiting nostalgia for the original casts do have a very spotty record -- and that is specifically a result of having been made for television in the time in which it was made.
Finally, there's the topic of "cinematic universes," which feels like a very 2019 thing to talk about (except that they just announced Halloween will be a cinematic universe.) Can you talk about the tension between sticking to the same handful of characters on the one hand, and building a wider universe on the other?
I wish more studios truly truly explored and exploited the idea of cinematic universes. It seems to me that most of them right now are an excuse to extend previous success and strip-mine existing popular characters rather than build on the promise of the franchise premise itself.
I recently pitched an extension of the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to Disney (don't get your hopes up, I did it on the same month they got into business with the BBC on Doctor Who, which I suppose made their "quirky British sci-fi bucket" runneth over) -- but my idea was to do something completely different, to coin a phrase, within the universe that Douglas Adams created.
After so many novels, I genuinely felt that Arthur Dent's story had been told. Also, the two things that made me love Hitchhiker's were the idea that the Guide was a legitimate, ongoing concern on its own right, with reporters roving the galaxy to catalog its idiosyncrasies, and the pleasure of navigating the endlessly digressive and fascinating mind of Douglas Adams, his creation of an entire galaxy with the purpose of amiably and hilariously expressing the existential absurdity of our own life. That's the real juice, as opposed to continuing to torture poor Arthur Dent. I wanted to explore that universe and strive to create at that level of randomness and fun while also creating a more robust story engine that could support a lot of different stories by a lot of different people.
This is not to say that every shared universe needs to follow a sort of classic TV doctor-lawyer-cop-case-of-the-week-problem-of-the-week formula (though it helps because it invites diverse talents to come out and play -- it certainly worked well for Doctor Who, and Star Trek, and Stargate) but rather that you tend to get better results when you focus on setting rather than saga.
The most interesting franchise extension out there right now is Star Wars: Visions. If i were given carte blanche over any of the major franchises I would absolutely program big budget tentpole movies with the beloved characters, but I would also program a wide range of lower budgeted features for the streaming services, and give them to emerging film makers: people who are today what James Cameron was when he made The Terminator, of Kathryn Bigelow when she made Near Dark, or maybe that up and coming young whipper-snapper who directed American Graffiti. The roots of genre, and most genius in genre, come from giving talented people some real limitations and letting them exercise their creativity to overcome them. Franchises need incubators and R&D just like any other business.
We all seem to have forgotten that Star Wars was a B-Movie before it was the one true religion of the 20th century. We would do well to remember.
What I've Been Watching Lately
I've still never seen The Witcher (sorry!) but I just watched the prequel miniseries, The Witcher: Blood Origin. (I can't help calling it Blood Orange instead.) And this prequel is utterly delightful, featuring Michelle Yeoh in a Seven Samurai-inspired tale of seven heroes fighting an empire. Watching this right after season two of The Wheel of Time really makes me feel like we're in a bit of a golden age for fantasy TV.
I've always been fascinated with R.D. Laing, the Scottish psychotherapist who overturned all of our ideas about mental illness. So I was excited to check out Mad to Be Normal, the film where David Tennant plays Laing, with Elizabeth Moss and the late Michael Gambon in supporting roles. I found Mad to Be Normal somewhat hard to watch, in part because it dramatizes quite how horrific the treatment of mentally ill people was in the 1960s and in part because Laing comes across as an amoral cult leader. But Tennant is — not surprisingly — brilliant, and it's a very haunting, thought-provoking film.
Alita: Battle Angel is on Hulu now, so I finally got to see it, and it's as good as pretty much everyone says it is. The action sequences are some of the best I've seen in ages, and Rosa Salazar is captivating as Alita. The stacked cast includes Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connolly and a criminally underutilized Mahershala Ali. But as a super-fan of the TV show Minx, I couldn't help fixating on Idara Victor, who plays Tina on Minx and is doing so much with so little in Alita. Victor plays Christoph Waltz's assistant, and in many scenes she gets exactly zero lines of dialogue -- but her facial expressions are a fucking journey. Watch Alita just to see Tina from Minx reacting wordlessly to every cyberpunk trope imaginable, and you'll have a good time.
My latest SFF book review column for the Washington Post just came out, covering books by Cassandra Clare, Samit Basu, B. Pladek, micha cárdenas, and Alix E. Harrow.
The latest episode of Our Opinions Are Correct is about violence in storytelling. Since everyone's talking about John Galt this week, also please check out our Ayn Rand episode. And our JK Rowling episode never seems to stop being relevant.
I wrote a YA space opera trilogy about queer kids who save the galaxy, and it would make me so happy if you bought it and shared it with your peeps. The first two books both won Locus Awards and were nominated for the Andre Norton and Lodestar awards respectively.
I co-created a trans superhero for Marvel named Escapade. She's introduced in the 2022 pride issue, and she has further adventures in New Mutants Vol. 4 followed by New Mutants: Lethal Legion. If you like her stories, please shout about it and let Marvel know you'd like to see more of her.