Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Remakes, Reboots, and Retcons: Looking at the Superhero Narrative in Relation to Non-Comic Book Movies


Looking over all the summer movie previews I couldn't help but notice how relatively scarce films based on comic books were this season. Coming from last summer where it seemed as though every other week featured a new "comic book" movie, I must admit I am a bit surprised (although that alleged piece-of-mediocrity officially titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine counts but I'm just not excited enough to drive out and see it). However, taking in a few movies released this year I couldn't help but see certain literary devices traditionally used in comic books popping up in a few non-comic book movies.

In general terms, a comic book movie is seen as either a.) based on characters originally and/or predominately featured in comic books or b.) a movie where one or more characters are not based on any published character but exhibit traits and superhuman powers generally found in a superhero comic. Films borrowing from all different genres like Mystery Men, Unbreakable, Dark City, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, and even both Kill Bill (Vols. 1 & 2) and The Matrix trilogy can be included in this category (among others of course). These films all play a major part in creating the film language of the superhero/comic book genre and sub-genre. However, is it possible for a film based on previously established characters not associated with comic books (or any of the above categories, for that matter) be qualified as a comic book movie by using continuity devices typically found in traditional superhero narratives?

In this blog post, I will attempt to make the argument that the recently released Star Trek (2009) along with the last two James Bond films (Casino Royale & Quantum of Solace) can be certified as self-conscious examples where modern comic book narratives can inform another medium on pure textual level. To begin: in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, a film originally conceived on television and later carried on in movies, spin-offs and books; the main plot is triggered when a gang of newly-extinct Romulans along with the elderly Admiral Spock accidentally create a black hole sending each other back in time. The viewer learns that moments before the initial time travel the planet Romulus was destroyed when plans to disengage a supernova went awry (thereby creating the said “black hole”). The few Romulans who survive become good and pissed and decide to take action by waging war on Admiral Spock and the entire Federation of Planets but inadvertently change key moments in our heroes past. Without rehashing any more of the plot the film wisely uses the time-travel angle as a way to “retcon” which allows Abrams and other future Trek filmmakers a sense of artistic freedom to deviate from its long established canon.

The term retcon is a fusion of two words "retroactive" and "continuity" and is used by adding new information to either explain or to deliberately change established facts in a work of serial fiction. It's argued when the term "retcon" first came into use but it really took off during the mid-80's superhero upheaval in DC Comics. In 1985 a 12 part story called Crisis on Infinite Earths was published in an effort to clean up 50 years of convoluted storylines by killing off any unnecessary multiple Batmans and parallel-Earth Supermans. Today, this story is considered a classic and it sparked a full-scale wave of retconning that's still being felt and debated today.

Off topic, slightly, here is an example of one of my favorite retconned moments.

Since many of the popular superheroes were established generations ago, the superhero comic thrives as a medium conscious of its own history. One unique advantage of the superhero comic is its ability to engage in a level of narrative play that a less staunchly followed medium might not be able to maintain thanks to its devoted readership. In superhero comic books, revisions of superheroes traverse time and space to engage in dialogue with their previous iterations and if that doesn’t work or fails to make sense then comic book writers are afforded the luxury to clean up and retcon any discrepancies away.


In the Abrams film, new dynamics and relationships are established when the timeline is changed causing all kinds Oedipal conflicts and budding romances never fully explored in the original series. The appearance of the elderly Spock (or as the Internet insists on calling him: Spock Prime) reminds me of the 2006 comic series Infinite Crisis where the elderly Earth-2 Superman (DC's re-offering of the Superman of the 1930's and 40's) fights the current Earth-1 Superman over grief and conflicting values (they eventually make nice and realize their battle was merely a distraction orchestrated by the story's true villain: Earth-3's Alexander Luthor (trust me this story actually makes sense)). Luckily, both Spocks never exchange fists, or Vulcan pinches, but with their divergent memories and shifting attitudes one can't help but look at them as the same yet (tragically?) different.

In 2005 producers of the James Bond franchise made the announcement they were going to restart the series despite the fact the previous film Die Another Day was the most financially successfully Bond film to date. To be fair, the Bond formula was successful in deviating away from the serial structure of the original Ian Fleming novels and instead focusing on the fashion and sexual mores of the times while also being keen to possible technological advancements. In all Bond films, events (for the most part) seemed to occur independently and had no connection from one film to the next. Most major villains and Bond girls/allies operating outside of Mi6 had no further purpose once the film was over and usually played no part in shaping the subsequent film (the exception being the villainous Ernst Stavro Blofeld who appeared in five films and served as the inspiration for Mike Myer's Doctor Evil character).

With the release of Casino Royale in 2006, I believe the filmmakers made the conscious choice to streamline the narrative by giving Bond a true centralized villain (Mr. White) and making him part of a large organized criminal empire that’s still early for both Bond and the viewers to fully understand. With the recent release of its sequel Quantum of Solace, the Bond franchise seems committed to follow a serialized structure where characters both alive and dead seems to inform subsequent narratives. Of course there are no parallel-Bonds and Earth-3 Vesper Lynds but the filmmakers do effectively retcon aspects of the Bond character to make him more vulnerable and modern (one effective touch, which probably sent Ian Fleming into a coffin tailspin, was the moment where Vesper Lynd literally constructs the image of Bond by putting him in the tuxedo and upgrading his beverage from rum and sodas to high-end vodka martinis).

The retcons used in the recent Bond films have a more necessary feel than the imaginative angle Abrams takes but like all works of continuous fiction - the comic book genre has always stretched, ruptured, and often exploded its boundaries in order to reshape its identity to meet the demands of similarly shifting and transforming audiences and cultures. And it is this rampant revisionism and convergence that the superhero genre continually reinvents itself and it would serve other genres and mediums, especially stories with a long canonical history and multiple authorship, to follow suit.

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