With the recent release of the rebooted Spider-Man franchise (this time it’s “Amazing”… Marvel Pictures is taking a cue from the Comic division), and the impending end of the latest Batman reboot, I started to think about the current trend of rebooting and retconning and rebooting. I discussed this topic in the past (Tales of Future Past was written on 4/26/11), but it was more about creators changing their own work.
So many of you know what retconning and rebooting are, but just for the sake of being thorough, I’ll go over them quickly. The term “Retcon” is short for Retroactive Continuity; it’s the idea of a creator (or in far too many cases owner) of a story changing key plot or back-story elements in order to pursue a new idea. Generally retconning is what I would call “eye forward editing”, meaning that while they change plot elements from the past, it’s unusual to go back and redo previous works to include the retcon (unless you’re name is George Lucas). It’s more common to simply act as if the change was always the truth. Star Trek is lousy with retcons. Rebooting is when a franchise is taken back to the beginning and completely re-imagined. Major plot elements are may be left intact, presumably to keep the end product recognizable to fans, but there is no regard for previous work done, unless it’s tongue-in-cheek. A good example of this, honestly, would be the latest Spider-Man movie. Hollywood is very guilty of this, as are comic books and professional wrestling (I don’t know why I added wrestling, but it’s a true statement).
Retconning annoys me, but rebooting pisses me off, even if it’s awesome.
Yes, I paid to see The Amazing Spider-Man and yes, it was appropriately amazing. But it still pisses me off. Comic book movies are a different breed, too, so it pisses me off even more. Why? Because comics have history, a history that the fans love (or they wouldn’t be fans). Changing that to relate to today’s readers, and ignoring decades of previous readers is irresponsible and arrogant. In the comic universe, they learned the hard way, and deal with the reboots by continuing old story lines later and creating “alternate” realities. In the Spider-Man example, the Sam Raimi movies actually were based on the character in Ultimate Spider-Man (technically Earth-1610; the traditional Spider-Man is an inhabitant of Earth-616 and we inhabit Earth-0000 or Earth Prime), which was started 2 years earlier at the request of publisher Bill Jemas. Joe Quesdada (Marvel’s then Editor-in-Chief) almost didn’t do it because previous attempts at re-imagining the Spider-Man origin were failures (which should tell them something).
Comic books companies have gotten away with retconning, because let’s face it, sometimes stories need to be updated because superheroes don’t age. Back to the Spider-Man example; in Spidey’s origin, he used his new-found superpowers in a wrestling contest; the kind where they would dare people from the audience to come in and try to last three minutes with the champ). In the 1960′s, no one but the wrestlers and promoters knew that wrestling was rigged. Most of the times, those types of challenges were themselves part of the event, with the person who comes in a worker too (anyone who remembers the debut of the old WWF wrestler “Earthquake” knows what I’m talking about here). But since Stan Lee didn’t know that, he wrote it into the Spidey origin. Seeing it applied in a modern setting in 2002′s Spider-Man I nearly laughed out loud. As much as I hated the idea of a Spider-Man reboot, I like the updated origin story a little better (I mean if you’re going to reboot, at least do it right). Comparing that to the Star Trek reboot; they didn’t just reinvent the wheel here, they gave some plausible (well in Star Trek terms – anything Spock says is plausible) reasons for the changes in look and feel. I’m actually looking forward to the retelling of the Khan story (even though, in my heart of hearts, Ricardo Montalban will ALWAYS be Khan). But at the same time, TNG and everything after proved that there are still stories to tell. Hell, even Star Trek Online (which continues the original universe after the destruction of Romulus and Spock’s disappearance) has a decent story.
The reason I decided to write this was that at the San Diego Comic-Con, Teen Titans writer Scott Lobdell revealed that Tim Drake (the third person to wear the mantle of Robin), was never actually Robin, essentially rewriting over two decades of stories. This is what happens when comics “relaunch”. The new writers think they have better ideas than the old writers and make changes. This was a totally unnecessary change. Seriously, why did they feel the need to change this? I have this image in my head of a writers meeting where they said “Dick Grayson and Jason Todd were the real spirit of “Robin”. You know what? Fuck Tim Drake; he was never Robin.” Forget that Tim was arguably the best Robin. Forget that an entire generation of readers think of HIM when they think of Robin. Nope. Wasn’t Robin. He was “Red Robin”.
On the reboot front, one of my favorite Sci-Fi flicks of all time, Total Recall, is getting a modern makeover this year. I suppose you could call it a “remake”, but the point is that it’s a vastly different story from the original (which is, itself, a re-imagining of the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Imagine It for You Wholesale). All right, I’ll say it. They took out Mars. I know, right? As much shit as I give them for the googly eyes, swollen tongues and alien machines that fill the atmosphere with oxygen in under a minute, Mars was almost it’s own character in the movie. Honestly, the only story with a more iconic image of the Red Planet was Doom (the video game not the movie). And Ridley Scott entered the debate with Prometheus, the prequel that wasn’t a prequel. It’s been called a rebooting of the Alien universe, but really, it’s just a prequel that went too far into the past (a la Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace).
The reason these things bother me is because as creative as some of these retellings are (and I acknowledge that some of them are arguably better than the original), I’ve always felt it’s less creative to rewrite someone else’s work than to come up with something on your own. I mean any writer can find a thing, tweak it, and call it better; we’ve been doing it as long as we’ve been writing. Most of Shakespeare’s works were retellings of older tales (Romeo and Juliet comes to mind). But there are so many great franchises out there that have never resorted to “reboots” and “retcons” to tell their continuing stories. Doctor Who is probably the most well-known, but I don’t really count it in the “no retcon” camp because when you can travel through time and make changes along the way, retconning IS the story. However, they’ve been through 11 doctors now, and have not ever felt the need to retell the beginning of the story. In fact, NOT knowing the beginning of the story is one of the things that makes the franchise great. Another long running series that hasn’t felt the need to reboot (even though they called it a reboot, it was by no means an actual reboot), is James Bond. They avoid difficulties by simply avoiding making references to previous adventures in later movies. The only real exception to this is the latest rendition (played flawlessly by Daniel Craig), in which Quantum of Solace was in fact a direct continuation of the story from Casino Royale (which itself is a remake – the original was very campy, but lends to the idea that James Bond isn’t a name, but a persona adopted by many different agents).
I suppose my point is that there isn’t a real reason to retell the story from the beginning. Sure, people today would have a difficult time relating to the concept of Batman’s parents taking him to the movies and getting killed while being mugged… wait that can happen. People can’t relate to the difficulties of being a teenager thrust into an adult role after the death of a loved one… wait that can happen too. Oh yeah, people can’t relate to struggling with the loss of a mentor while dealing with the egos of the other people he’s mentored… shit. Seems to me like writers need to forget their own egos, leave the origins alone, and just keep telling the awesome stories. If they can’t think of new stories, and have to retell old ones, then they aren’t really writers, they’re parrots. It seems to me that they wouldn’t have to reboot entire universes if they just told good stories to begin with.
Now to find my copy of the Crisis on Infinite Earths compilation…