If you haven’t heard, the latest complete failure at the box office was the flaccid reboot Pan, an attempt to create a franchise out of the Peter Pan story by starting with Mr. Pan’s origin as a young boy on an adventure to Neverland. In which the villain is Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard and Peter’s best friend is a guy named James Hook.
That’s right: in the new version of Peter Pan that you didn’t see, Pete’s best friend is a young, two-handed, two-eyed Captain Hook in his pre-pirate days. Meaning that the narrative is an origin story that includes a tragic bromance in which we watch one of the central characters become a villain.
This is the exact reboot/origin story/cheesy narrative that we do not need. And it’s a strange trend, with examples including the Star Wars prequels, Wicked, and a variety of superhero films and television shows in which the villain first appears as a classmate, friend, or family member of the hero.
It’s redundant and unoriginal and redundant.
As stated above, there is very little original left in the idea of “let’s imagine what happened in the part of the story before what we’ve seen,” whether its Pre-Pan or Not-yet-sleeping Beauty. It would perhaps be more interesting if it wasn’t so common, but there’s no longer anything unique about the idea that “what if Poison Ivy was a little girl before she became a bad guy” or “guys, maybe the wicked witch wasn’t always wicked?”
It’s sad and disturbing, but not in a compelling way.
There’s something very sad about a narrative in which we see a kid become a villain. There’s a reason that no one has made a summer blockbuster about Adolf Hitler as a kind little boy who becomes corrupted by evil. It would be disturbing and awful and sad. Although, based on the trends, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone creates an gritty origin story in which Jesus of Nazareth and Pontius Pilate are classmates who fight a battle against Herod before Pontius becomes a villain and Jesus becomes a hero.
The only good example of this trope is Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot, because at no point is Michael Myers an innocent young boy awaiting corruption. He’s evil from the start, killing animals in his bedroom and classmates after school. This works because it’s an over-the-top absurd slasher film in which Zombie’s endgame is overwhelming the audience with a visceral, brutal experience.
Other than that, this cheap trope of the eventual villain beginning as a child is too brutal for a children’s story and too obvious for adults. Even the Sam Raimi Spiderman trilogy was weakened by the hackneyed writing that turned James Franco from Peter Parker’s bff into Green Goblin Junior.
It paints the world in unrealistic terms.
Here is the narrative we’re given in this unneeded origin stories: “He was good, and then he became evil.” The one exception is probably that of Darth Vader, in which the narrative is “He was good, and then he became evil, but then he became good for a second right before he died and then he went to Star Wars Heaven.” Either way, it declares that the world is good guys and bad guys.
The worst part is that these narratives often pose as “darker interpretations” or act as if they’re asking poignant questions about morality and heroism, when really the only question they ask if “what’s an easy way to show a good person become a bad person?”
It eliminates suspense from the story.
“Oh, his name is James Hook? So what, he’s Captain Hook? Yep. Okay. Wait, I need to watch him become Captain Hook for the next two hours? Great. This is exciting and suspenseful.”
This is the trouble with prequels and origin stories. They’re often yawn-inducing, because we know exactly what’s going to happen. Even Better Call Saul, a show I kinda like that provides some good laughs, suffers from the flaw that it’s completely unnecessary and we know what the ending will be. I mean, the ending already exists. It’s called Breaking Bad.
With Pan, we have reached peek reboot. And it’s a good lesson for anyone who has plans for an upcoming reboot or origin story or prequel, whether it’s the Adventures of Young Jesus and Pontius described above or the inevitable Back to the Future reboot.
There is only one way to make a reboot work now: you need to make anything possible. Don’t write the story into a corner in order to match the original plot points or the expectations that the audience has. Ensure suspense by making anything on the table. This is some work and some don’t. Batman Begins and its sequels gave us moments we’d never seen; Craig’s Casino Royale killed the villain and the love interest surprising, unexpected scenes; Man of Steel, on the other hand, failed because it opened with the exact same Superman origin story that we’d seen a million times, in which the baby Superman is put into a spaceship and sent from Krypton to Earth.
So, please, if you are currently hard at work on a gritty reboot in which we see a familiar villain begin life as an innocent, a hero, or a child: ask yourself if you are providing us with anything new and anything that anyone wants to see.