The Kobayashi Maru of
"The Force Awakens"
“CANON” FODDER ...
OR “BANTHA POODOO”
Almost a year ago, during the initial release of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, the former version of our THE MOVIE SNEAK podcast (then dubbed “THE GRINDHOUSE: WITH CRAIG & JIM”) debuted an episode centered around “Comic Book To Film Adaptations”. Wanting to take a look at both sides of the coin we featured a perspective from the comic book world with award winning illustrator Adam Hughes (STAR WARS: LEGACY, WONDER WOMAN), as well as one from the film world – in the personage of THE BLIND SIDE, MY DOG SKIP, THE BOOK OF ELI film producer Steven P. Wegner. Citing good, bad and other adaptations (everything from DICK TRACY and THE WATCHMEN, to ROAD TO PERDITION and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) the ever ubiquitous subject of “long running canon” arose – with all parties agreeing that Richard Donner’s 1978 SUPERMAN THE MOVIE rated as one of the all time best ever comic-to-film adaptations, but with your's truly splitting from the pack in the opinion that Zach Snyder’s 2013 epic MAN OF STEEL was not the dog-in-drag bastardization which most people seemed to consider it.
The changing face (and tone) of SUPERMAN in print (1930s, 1960s, 1990s)
With four individuals rapidly tossing opinions, and citing examples and references back-and-forth and two-and-fro with near stream of consciousness-like abandon, a pertinent comment mentioned by one didn’t register as profoundly as it should have until after we’d wrapped and everyone had signed off. A moment when he acknowledged “I admit I was a bit more down on MAN OF STEEL being unfaithful to canon until it dawned on me, ... ‘Well, to which canon am I referring?’”. This in reference to the fact that the character of SUPERMAN himself, while maintaining the same basic “character DNA” (so to speak) over his 80+ year existence, has been necessarily re-invented and altered time and again according to the exigent social climate of the day.
The changing face (and tone) of SUPERMAN on screen (1950s, 1970s, 2000s)
SUPERMAN first appeared in print in April 1938. And those familiar with those earliest issues by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster know the original “sacred text” of the character was much more tonally akin to the “alien seeking an identity in an alien world” intergalactic immigrant as represented in the 2013 Snyder film than he was to the proverbial “Big Blue Boy Scout” – this popularly quaint and generally-more-accepted-as-canon character / interpretation born during the 1950s comic book censorship purge spurred by Fredric Wertham’s “psychological treatise” SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT (1954), as well as from the success of the more "Mom-and-apple-pie” THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN tv series which aired from 1952 – 1958.
The changing face (and tone) of SHERLOCK HOLMES (Rathbone, Downey Jr., Cumberbatch)
Now, while we all love, and will never relinquish, the “truth, justice and the American way” depiction of our favorite Son of Krypton (and Christopher Reeve will always be Superman as far as we’re concerned), keep in mind that, at the time of his 50s era "Truth, Justice, etc." family-friendly makeover, that major tonal change in the character and stories was viewed as blashphemy by many lovers of the original Siegel / Shuster creation. So, was the character dumbed down, or was he made more accessible to a larger populace who otherwise would not have taken as much of a shine to his earlier, more gritty depression-era depiction?
In that original version Superman didn't even fly. That wouldn't be added until 1941. Until then he literally "leaped tall buildings in a single bound". At the beginning there was also no such thing as Kryptonite. First mentioned in print in 1939, our hero's famous "Achilles' Heel" really wouldn't become a major plot device (and subsequent canon) until the later radio show of the 1940s. And it also wasn't until later, when the character became a regular daily newspaper strip, that Siegel and Shuster had the luxury of time to provide him with background in the form of conversations about, and flashbacks to, his home world of Krypton as well as references to his father Jor-El - all of these which are now considered "scared text" canon from which one cannot deviate. But this wasn't always the case.
The same would happen with the dark vigilante known as “The Batman” – going from a terrifying urban avenger in the original “sacred text” / canon of Bob Kane and Bill Finger in the pre WW2 late 1930s, to the more emotionally nurturing “father figure” of the late 1960s depicted in the Adam West tv series, the Lou Scheimer / Filmation Studio cartoons, and TV’s THE SUPER FRIENDS. The more cynical and violent 1980s and 90s would instigate a return to the more dark (near psychotic) Kane / Finger version - now popularized by Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (1986), Alan Moore’s THE KILLING JOKE (1988), and the trio of Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT films from 2005 – 2012.
So, once again, to which canon are we referring?
Any character or franchise popular enough to span multiple generations (Superman, Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Wonder Woman, Tarzan, James Bond, STAR TREK, STAR WARS) will necessarily alter and conform to the needs of it’s era. Most of the Marvel superheroes as depicted in today’s uber popular films aren’t necessarily straight-ahead versions / adaptations of their original 1960s – 1970s incarnations, but are actually amalgams of those originals cross-pollinated with their rebooted depictions in Marvel’s “Ultimates” books – which, starting with ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN and ULTIMATE X-MEN in 2000, began to re-imagine the characters and their origins in an “alternate comic book universe” if they were born say 30 - 40 years after their original literary conceptions.
The changing face (and tone) of Marvel: Ultimates 3 (2008)
This is when the Nick Fury character went from, as Samuel L. Jackson affectionately puts it, “... looking like David Hasselhoff to looking like me”. So, once again, when we rate, judge, condemn or praise the newest reboot / depiction / re-imagining of a beloved character or franchise (since we’re discussing THE FORCE AWAKENS let the pieces fall where they may) because of it’s adherence to, or departure from, canon or “sacred text”, where do we begin? And which is the "one true" canon?
Any audience member is, to a degree, a slave to his or her own personal past and nostalgia. And as such an interpretation of a “new version” of a beloved staple from their own “better, simpler years” is going to be judged not just for it’s justifiable merits or demerits as a single creative work. But it’s subconsciously going to be judged for “fu*king around” in the mine field of precious personal life memories associated with the time of that old version.
One more example before closing out. And yes, we know we've already made the point - already "struck oil" (if you will). So there's no need to keep drilling. But you'll agree this one's too good not to bring up.
CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981/2010)
We recall when the 2010 remake of CLASH OF THE TITANS opened, and there was an uproar from both fans and critics alike about how "... a classic film was being sullied”. And we honestly scratched our heads on that one as, back when the original CLASH opened in 1981, it was pretty much dissed by critics as one of master film maker Ray Harryhausen’s lesser works.
Even Harryhausen himself, while supportive of the film – and doing a massive worldwide PR tour to promote it, mentioned in more than one interview how CLASH was far from his best effort. While most of his and producing partner Charles H. Schneer’s other films (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, et al) had been produced by Columbia (Sony), CLASH (ultimately his final film before retirement) was produced by MGM. Given for the first time a much larger budget, as well as a huge cast of international stars with whom to work, the legendary film maker found himself more confined to the role of producer, and less able to, as he had on his other films, spend time on the more creative aspects.
Yet to those who were ten to twelve years old when CLASH debuted, it was their introduction to the world of Ray Harryhausen. And just as we’d been introduced to him with 1973’s THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (our personal fave Harryhausen film), and then backtracked to experience all of his earlier films ... . And just as an earlier generation had been introduced to him with 1963’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, then backtracked to experience those earlier still (THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, etc.), so would CLASH resonate as more than a film to that generation which came after us, but rather as an emotionally nostalgic tentpole for them loaded with fond memories of that time in their lives when they were twelve year olds. And how dare any big budget CGI remake try to take it’s place.
With STAR WARS those of us old enough to have experienced the original trilogy in theaters have a hard time believing that (yes, it’s really true) there was / is a generation of fans who grew up after us loving the Ewoks TV movies, … and (gulp!) even Jar Jar Binks. Once again, whether a work of art (film, song, book, painting, etc.) is “good” or “bad” or a “faithful adaptation of canon” very often will have more to do with the emotional / psychological baggage we as an audience bring to it, than it will often have to do with the work itself. Hey, how else can you explain the Jar Jar thing, right? Ouch!!!
The changing face (and tone) of STAR WARS
We’re as psychologically and emotionally tied to our past as anyone. And as such, yeah, the “another Death Star” thing has been played out. And, like most, we agree the search for Luke Skywalker – with each party having a “piece of the map” to his whereabouts (a’la THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY or THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD) would have been a much more pulpishly intriguing (and streamlined) narrative than the “plans to the super base are hidden within the droid” rehash. Yet, while it is admittedly difficult for us to see past these, as the launching point for a new generation of STAR WARS films, THE FORCE AWAKENS does it’s job, and does it well.
For THE FORCE AWAKENS has deliberately chosen to eschew much of what made it's predecessors the legends which they were, ... and actually still are. But there were those who felt the second trilogy of George Lucas STAR WARS films became too dependent on myth and history and family opera to the point of becoming plodding and pretentious. But, as they too were record breaking worldwide smashes upon their releases as well, once again this can’t be entirely chalked up to a simple case of global curiosity. They too indeed resonated with the culture of the generation in existence at the time of their debuts. The same can most assuredly be said for THE FORCE AWAKENS, even if some of us older STAR WARS fans from "back in the day" can't fathom how or why. The STAR WARS films have always been a force of their own; and one has to acknowledge that that force is certainly strong with Episode 7.
To some (we admit, us included) it at times appears to be a deliberate “dumbing down” of the STAR WARS universe. But to a new generation, for whom social media and the Internet has turned what for us was once a large planet into more of a “global community”, THE FORCE AWAKENS in some respects is cannily rather wise. With the world a much smaller and more cross-cultural society than it was in 1977, Abrams' film is the most cross-cultural / interracially and internationally cast STAR WARS film yet. Notice how a number of “nationalist pride” groups called for a boycott because of this.
Also, in something of a bittersweet way, THE FORCE AWAKENS tells the generation raised on STAR WARS that “we’ve had our time at bat”, and that it is now time to (for better or worse) let go and pass the saber to the younger generation. Many felt the sequence where Starkiller Base destroys the Republic Capitol and the fleet was a cheap and lazy narrative “reboot” button designed to now more easily create another hidden and growing resistance movement. And while this is to a degree so, if you listen to John Williams’ accompanying music during that sequence (a heartbreakingly gorgeous elegy), then notice the same piece playing during the death of Han Solo, one becomes aware of a poetic “old leaves must die and fall that new ones may rise in their place” narrative synergy at work here. This is not coincidence. And this is not a “dumbing down in order to cater to ...”. It is an artistic curtain call, and a musical nudge-nudge (not unlike on those awards shows) letting the previous STAR WARS generation know it is time to gracefully exit the stage.
The adage often says, “This isn’t your daddy’s (insert topic, name, product, etc.)”. But with THE FORCE AWAKENS perhaps a more accurate adage would be, “This isn’t YOUR’s … not anymore”. And perhaps that is ultimately the point of contention some audiences have with the new film. Perhaps more than believing our beloved STAR WARS is no longer being faithful to canon per se, perhaps we feel it is no longer being faithful to us. Maybe we see it as being taken away and given to a bunch of young punks who didn’t grow up with it. Y'know, "They didn’t see the first film of the first trilogy when they were a kid, then the last film of that trilogy when they were in college. So they didn’t earn the right to change our STAR WARS!". But, as with any long-running franchise or canon, and even life itself, change it must.
Few characters in the history of literature are as integral a part of the world cultural lexicon as Sherlock Holmes. But when Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle proclaimed “Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world” the character became public domain (at least the novels and stories before 1923), and the floodgates opened to myriad reinterpretations – from the legendary Basil Rathbone, to the popular BBC series with Jeremy Brett, to Nicholas Meyer’s THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION, Billy Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, the animated THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, the spoof WITHOUT A CLUE, all the way up to the Guy Ritchie films, Benedict Cumberbatch series and more. Were many of these re-imaginings outright bastardizations of Conan Doyle’s original stories? Absolutely! But they're all pretty damned good too in spite (or because) of it. So, if Sherlock Holmes and even SUPERMAN can't escape change over ensuing generations, can anyone honestly / realistically expect the near forty-years-long-running STAR WARS to do so?
Perhaps simultaneously “dumbed down” and “deliberately and stealthily made more accessible” to a new audience, in the end STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS proves that the force of George Lucas’ enduring universe will forever …
“Live long and prosper”.
Sorry, couldn’t help it!