As evidenced by the recent popularity of the “Power/Rangers” fan film that recast the entire ‘90s kid series into a hardcore violent, sexualized, drug-fueled, and bloody affair, there’s something about turning a narrative concept on its head that really fascinates viewers. However, darker doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Everyone knows that film executives and plenty of other people in charge of long-standing properties have reboot fever. But while the term “reboot” is something that has only come into the mainstream within the last decade, the idea of reinvigorating old properties with new takes has been around for decades. While remakes have been happening since the dawn of film, the reboot approach is a more trendy take, with studios hoping to jump start a worn-out premise for a new and lucrative series.
After all, it’s easier to get the general public to be interested in a new movie, show, or book when it is centered on a very familiar and long-loved character or world. And the fastest way to capture their attention is to reintroduce said property with a new spin. That being said, many franchised concepts have a lighter and brighter take in their original forms, so the easiest change is to make them darker, more violent, and more “adult.”
The term “This isn’t your dad’s (mom’s, parent’s, etc.) …” is cliché, which is why it isn’t used in most marketing anymore. But it’s still the central concept to the grim and gritty reboot. While there are some instances of dark characters being recast in lighter stories, like the Adam West Batman television show from 1966 or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles changing from grim violent heroes to cartoon icons, most reintroductions aim toward darker shades.
This isn’t to say that there is no merit in giving an old property a new spin. In fact, focusing on the more adult emotions within a concept may expose more interesting elements and ideas that weren’t as prominent in a children’s format. And the dark humor of grim and gritty developments in a previously light world can lead to some very meta fun. But that takes hard work and a skilled writer. All too often these changes are the result of a fast cash grab and a slapped-together plot.
From the Good to the Bad
There is nothing inherently wrong with giving a darker spin to a property. The following properties show that a retelling can be anything from the best take ever to a disastrous wreck.
Daredevil – Long a swashbuckling and lighthearted character more akin to Spider-Man in his early days, Daredevil was cast into a darker frame by writer/artist Frank Miller in the ‘80s and only got darker from there. But the narrative style really clicked with the character. However, writer Mark Waid’s lighter throwback style showed Daredevil can have both fun and pathos at the same time.
Star Trek – The Star Trek franchise has always had a more mature and sophisticated tone, but it also knew how to tell a light and fun story like the best of them. The 2009 reboot most certainly added the grit that executives felt the series needed to stay relevant. It’s debatable whether it was really necessary.
Bionicle – Yes, LEGO got the dark treatment. How does a toy line get dark? By making an entire subset focused on edgy robots and then giving said robots their own film series. But The LEGO Movie showed that toys are meant to be fun. They’re for kids after all.
Robin Hood – The legendary character has been around so long that he’s been recast in narratives of all shades. Ridley Scott’s Robin Hoodfocused on a real world origin complete with post-traumatic stress disorder. Recently, word came that Leonardo DiCaprio was working on a new take with the “gritty reboot” phrase thrown around. God help us all.
Transformers – Maybe the poster child for the concept? The various Transformersseries have always had some death and destruction in them, especially the ‘80s feature film, but the Michael Bay series changed it all. Yes, this series is still meant to appeal to kids, but it also has sex, crude humor, and many many violent robo-deaths. It’s a fine line to walk and Michael Bay is clearly drunk.
Batman – Even Batman has gone from light to dark and back again. In particular, Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One gave him the gritty treatment in comics while Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins did it on film. Even Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was seen as a fresh dark take. Since the character started out dark, the takes fit like a glove. But so do the lighter versions.
Superman – Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is clearly a gritty reboot of the character, especially given that all previous film versions have fallen in line with Richard Donner’s 1979 Superman. But should Superman be made a darker character? Or does he work better when he’s a beacon of hope in an appropriately darker world?
Friday the 13th – How can a horror film franchise get a gritty reboot when it’s already filled with brutal death? Get rid of the supernatural element, kind of ignore all the previous films, and try to restart the dead series. It didn’t work.
The Fastest Ways to Get Gritty
While it’s clear that darker iterations do have many positive examples over the years, many of these changes seem rushed and the result of a shorthand way to get darker easier. Rather than approach a concept from a genuinely adult manner that looks at familiar concepts in a mature and more realistic light, writers may simply take a few concepts and inject them into the story to darken them as easily as possible.
It goes without saying that this is lazy writing, but let’s just make it clear. This is lazy writing. So what are some of the elements that are often shoehorned into lighter fare to get dark? Look for these elements and more when your favorite ‘80s cartoon gets turned into a new movie.
Violence – The more brutal the better. Blood, guts, and innocent victims. Make the people cringe and have their jaws drop!
Drug Abuse – A fast way to get a character to be more conflicted and layered is to hook him/her on alcohol, the needle, or pills.
Sexuality – You know what’s never in kid’s cartoons? Sex. Throw it in and put it in the trailer. It will certainly make your point.
Crude Humor – Sure, fart jokes make kids laugh. But having jokes revolve around bodily functions, the objectification of women, and any other adult situation will surely show the adults you were thinking about them.
Of course, the truth of these elements is that they all happen in the real world. But their relevance and honesty are frequently not considered when used as a tool in “maturing” a property. When not handled properly, they come off as cheap and even offensive due to the lack of care given to sensitive issues.
The Gritty Reboot Fantasy Draft
What if your favorite property from years past was given the gritty reboot treatment? What would it look like? What would make you write sweeping generalizations that compare changes to stories you never owned to acts of real world violence and harm via internet comment boards? Let’s have some fun.
Darkwing Duck – Go The Dark Knight Returns route on this one. An aged Darkwing Duck returns to action in St. Canard a decade after the death of Gosalyn. Now he’s out for blood in his war to clean up the streets. Plus, he kills Negaduck with his bare hands at some point.
The Goonies – Don’t sequelize, reboot instead. Here, The Goonies are juvenile delinquents on the run from the cops when they stumble on One Eyed Willy’s treasure. Have one of them get fatally shot by a cop along the way, Once Upon a Time in America style. This actually sounds pretty good. Someone do this.
The Little Rascals – See reboot for The Goonies. But make Alfalfa a sociopath and by the end the gang has to put down their bulldog Petey after he gets rabies.
Barney – Real giant scaly talking dinosaur who tries to protect the children he loves from the evil Baby Bop. Sacrifices himself at the end to protect them, Land Before Time style.
The Wizard of Oz – Same exact story. Dorothy’s really in an insane asylum at the end and about to get a lobotomy.
My Neighbor Totoro – The friendly monster next door is now a child-hungry beast, symbolizing Satsuki and Mei’s father. So basically the film version of Where the Wild Things Are.
The truth is, if Hollywood turns something you loved as a child into a terrible new version, you still have those memories and experiences from your early years. You can even rewatch the versions you loved. So take everything Hollywood does with the maturity and levelheadedness that you wish they had shown in the first place. Except Star Wars. Those original versions are never coming back.