So there’s a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot coming out this weekend, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Do I think it will be good? Nope. Do I find it frustrating that we’ve become so devoted to nostalgia that this is the best we can usually hope for at this stage? Yep. Do I find the redesigns big, obnoxious, and uninspired? You betcha. Do I think this is just another case of “missing the point” of what made the TMNT so charming and unique? That’s another yes. But do I expect this film will still make a billion dollars through sheer marketing and unearned fondness? Probably. And still, I don’t care about any of that. Much.
What bothers me about the cannibalizing devouring hunger to make money from established safe bet properties isn’t that they tend to be lazy or that they’ve empowered a generation of semi-talented creators to become highly paid cover artists of actual creative people. Nor that the general audience really doesn’t care much about whether something is good or bad, just familiar and predictable. These are all things I’ve come to terms with.
What bothers me is that the fantasy genre has always had trouble gaining respect, and then along come these reboots and reimaginings that seem determined to destroy whatever self-respect they once had.
I’ve always struggled with this assumption. Probably because I’ve always loved weird fantasy. Superheroes. Robots from outer space. Mutant turtles. I don’t see them as something to look down upon. I don’t see them as innately stupid. Fantastic? Yes. Ridiculous? Certainly. Fluffy and frivolous? No. Not for a minute.
So we’re stuck here. Either a film is dull and pretentious, like the Godzilla reboot, in a misguided attempt to be better than its fantastic origins OR it’s loud and obnoxious with a sly wink toward the camera that says “Relax, this is stupid and we know it.” It’s a trap that is almost impossible to escape, but at least it used to be the audience that was throwing it on the work and not the creators themselves.
I’m reminded of Freddy vs. Jason, one of my favorite films. The premise is absurd. The movie started as a title. Somehow, it works. And it works because the people involved wanted to make a good movie based on something they liked. They weren’t slumming it. They cared about making a story that made sense within the context of their reality, and the characters of the two monster serial killers were integrated into the plot. Yes, Freddy and Jason aren’t just along for the ride. They drive the story, and their conflict is both grounded in consistent motivations and some of the most surprisingly well thought out fantasy you will find out there.
Meanwhile, I keep getting the impression from these reboots that everyone involved doesn’t like this stuff. J.J. Abrams has said, multiple times, that he was never really into Star Trek. That’s not a crime, and sometimes, an outsider can revitalize something by coming at it from a different angle. But Abrams decided the best way to reboot Trek was to turn it into a twisted amalgam of brainless action adventure and silly references to the original. The Transformers movies have devolved into gruesome exercises in robo-gore and mindless destruction. And the people in charge of such things don’t see the problem because they don’t care. They’re slumming. They’re making cotton candy, but the thing is, they don’t give a shit about cotton candy.
All those classics of fantasy and science fiction exist because the creators came along and decided to make the fantastic respectable. Star Wars surprised the hell out of our culture because George Lucas made a sci fi fantasy epic for love of the genre. Heck, even Ghost Busters succeeds because the people involved were invested in it.
One of the reasons the Marvel superhero films tend to work well is that they don’t look down on the superhero genre. They don’t feel a need to apologize for it, nor do they attempt to legitimize it. Guardians of the Galaxy worked so well because it feels like a film made by a guy who actually liked the Guardians, who didn’t think a giant space adventure was beneath him, who thought these were characters worth our time. People keep referring to it as “light” film, but that’s dismissing the genuine effort and care put into it. And, yes, it’s also because the nuances are easy to miss, as opposed to something like Man of Steel that keeps shouting into your face that this is a serious film for serious people, so it’s okay to like Superman now.
(If you don’t think Guardians has some great, subtle character moments then you didn’t hear Rocket’s “We all got dead people” speech or tear up a little with the words “We are Groot”)
As a writer who loves fantasy without apology, I admit that this new age of cinematic fantasy is both amazing and frustrating. For every, Avengers and Guardians, we’re stuck with a Transformersand Man of Steel. I’m not too bothered by that because variety is cool. Some people (many people, in fact) will always consider fantasy to be escapist nonsense. That’s just the way it is, and as a writer who has written ten weird novels (who constantly hears my work dismissed, even by well-meaning fans), I’ve gotten used to it. But there are times when the automatic assumption of FANTASTIC equals STUPID or that ESCAPISM means EMPTINESS get to me.
Much of the audience is already going to assume this. We don’t need creators encouraging them. We need people making fantasy who like fantasy, who are convinced that they can get other people to like it too.
I want to live in a world where a Howard the Duck movie isn’t viewed as a mistake waiting to happen, but a joyful possibility because, at its best, that’s what fantasy is:
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,