Franchise IP is Leveling Up and Reaping the Rewards
Give it a remix it and it had better be a bop!
After finishing the 4th episode of HBO's ambitious 'Watchmen' sequel, I was struck by how it's faithfulness to the graphic novel that proceeds it has led to some genuinely rich storytelling. By setting the show in the sandbox that is the alternate history of our world Alan Moore created 33 years ago, the creative team has been able to build an impressive sandcastle that respectfully adds to the mythos of Watchmen, rather than just take from it.
Most of us are familiar enough with the basic premise that the 1986 graphic novel put forth "Superheros, but this time they're gritty and real!", it is an idea that has been messed with and tweaked in various properties since the graphic novel's publication. A recent example is the Amazon Prime adaptation of Garth Ennis' 'The Boys'. Though a more traditional take on the idea of a super-powered being, they still live in a world we can relate to and parallel to our own. With the new Watchmen tv series, series creator Damon Lindelof wisely uses the original story to spin off into an unapologetic comment on race, the state of law enforcement, and the kooky sci-f acid trip that is the Watchmen universe. The original story's ingredients are there, only this time the heat is turned up with a sprinkle of cayenne pepper.
One needs only to point to the unprecedented success of the MCU(Marvel Cinematic Universe), in particular, the behemoth that is 'Avengers: Endgame', as an example of "leveling up". Over the course of 11 years, Marvel has been able to move beyond the foundational set up of characters and the world they inhabit to now fully dive into the quirks that have made comics so soapy and enjoyable for the past several decades; time travel, alternate realities, resurrection, outlandish inter-dimensional missions, character overload, epic set pieces ect.. Kevin Feige and co. have taken what's come before and use it to create a layered story that continues to get twistier and twistier. They keep us guessing, and ultimately, bursting with anticipation for the next installment. We have been rewarded for sticking with the series and its multi-branching narrative.
Though arguably just a 'Taxi Driver' in drag, Warner Bros. and Todd Phillips' 'Joker' wisely takes a well known IP/character and sets it/him in a time and place that mirrors a 1970's NYC. Our protagonist isn't simply a mustache twirling clown, but a man struggling with mental illness while also navigating the class divide that too often abandons people in his position. Alright yeah, it's basically just the origin story of the yin to Batman's yang, but told with an unexpected level of reality and nuance, something the character isn't typically known for. Last fall's Sony release, 'Into the Spiderverse', is also a prime example of giving the audience something familiar but wildly new and inventive(Look for Disney + and their various Marvel offerings to give us something similarly wacky cough >Wandavision< cough)
A recent financial failure that highlights the lack of invention and subsequently our indifference toward it is the entertaining but ultimately empty "Terminator: Dark Fate". Directed by Tim Miller and produced by James Cameron, Dark Fate is basically a rinse and repeat of 'T2', and though that is high praise, especially considering the overall quality of the last few installments in the series, it isn't bringing anything new or particularly inspired to the table. Instead, audiences stayed in and streamed whatever the latest Netflix offering was that weekend ('Let it Snow' starring Kiernan Shipka and Shameik Moore dominated the top spot of my page this past weekend, but I blame the Netflix's sneaky algorithm for that one...Damn you, Sabrina!)
Since preexisting IP is the manna of Hollywood entertainment these days, it may be wise for studios to give it's audience a fresh take that exploits the rich history and unminded potential of the source material they will inevitably go back to, instead of just playing it safe.