If there’s a duller ongoing pop culture trend than angsty teen dystopias or decrepit old action heroes, it would have to be the “re-imagining” of classic literature, fairy tales, mythology, archetypes and characters—you know, everything that’s gone before. Fantasy franchises as different as Shrek, Fables, Once Upon A Time and Grimm all work very hard to present edgy, modern takes on fairy tale tropes familiar to anyone old enough to be read to. But no matter how good they are—and some have been very good (hint: I like two of these)—it’s hard to be original when you’re tilling soil previously explored on Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales, back when TV executives apparently never looked at scripts.
Straining even further for hip relevance, Snow White and the Huntsman gave us the dwarf-befriending songstress as laconic action heroine (aided and abetted by Thor, no less); while this week takes an even more desperate turn: Hansel and Gretel as vengeful bounty hunters because, you know, This time it’s personal, rhymes-with-witches! Further straining credulity is the fact that the actors playing the PTSD siblings are fifteen years apart in age, which makes for awkward flashbacks.
Classic literature has been re-imagined with Jane Austen and zombies, Sherlock Holmes as modern urban shut-in aided by distaff Watson, and a Dante’s Inferno comic book based on a video game based on a fourteenth-century poem. (Huh?!) We’ve already seen the witches of Oz reimagined as Wicked frenemies, and are about to learn how a Great and Powerful Wizard played by doughy Frank Morgan could ever have once looked like James Franco. (Apparently, wizarding is really hard work.)
In comic books, this week alone gives us dubious recycled ideas with Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E., The Bionic Man, Transformers, Masks, and even Secret Agents at Devonton Abbey, which I understand relates to some popular British thing that makes American viewers feel smarter. Even Marvel and DC have repeatedly re-imagined their own universes, the former Ultimate-style (motto: things are dark and edgy here!), while the latter would rather re-invent its Golden Age than introduce a new one. (Instead of Alan Scott being “the gay Green Lantern,” why not someone entirely new? If Abin Sur had to choose a successor after crash landing at the West Hollywood Halloween parade, that would be awesome.) And whatever you think of the arguable innovations of The Walking Dead and its TV spin-off, it is after all just another take on zombies; and as ubiquitous and fun as they and their vampire cousins are, remember, someone else created those things.
For the love of God, what are you going on about, you say? Well said, me, on behalf of you! Here’s the thing: by re-inventing and re-imagining, re-cycling and regurgitating, creators are denying us (and themselves) any welcome shock of the new. Something wholly original, like The Matrix, will have a much deeper, richer and more lasting impact than something tired and recycled, like, say, The Matrix II and III.
Imagine if instead of creating Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had re-imagined D’Artagnan and his Three Musketeers as seventeenth-century French detectives; or if Gene Roddenberry had pitched a TV series about a time traveling H.G. Welles instead of a contemplative vision of the future; or if Siegel and Schuster, instead of literally inventing the superhero genre, had simply recycled the Yellow Kid as modern urban avenger. Yeah, that last one is a little weird but you get the idea.
The point is, creators create. From scratch. With originality. Sure, all artists owe a debt to the work that’s come before them, even Kirby. (Well, maybe not Kirby.) The nineties saw an explosion of creative energy in comics that led to the founding of creator-owned imprints, and characters as uniquely singular and impossible to replicate as Hellboy and Madman. J.K. Rowling created an entire magical universe while stuck on a train, when most of us would have been poking away at our smartphones. Pixar has created the most original, visionary work of any film studio since the early days of Disney—and, tellingly, has only failed when attempting a sequel (Cars 2). More recently, the Wachowski siblings finally followed up the Matrix franchise with the flawed but visionary Cloud Atlas… and whether you admired its bold storytelling or were painfully confused for three hours, they probably won’t repeat it two more times.
So while I’ll always prefer something new that stretches boundaries to something familiar that doesn’t, I do have one caveat: Muppets. If the Muppets want to rescue Snow White or battle zombies or join The Avengers or take over Downton Abbey? Bring. It. On.
READ PART 2, “AX-GRINDING: THE UNORIGINAL SEQUEL“