How Everything Became a Gritty Reboot

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Keith Phipps
·12 min read
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Earlier this year, The CW announced it was developing a new version of The Powerpuff Girls that sounds far removed from the clever, frenetic, Craig McCracken-created cartoon that first premiered on the Cartoon Network in 1998. In this new version, scripted by Diablo Cody and Heather Regnier, the erstwhile pint-sized crimefighters will be disillusioned twentysomethings who reluctantly reunite despite being jaded by their past experiences. This announcement, while intriguing, was in no way shocking, given the imminent arrival of a “punk rock” Cruella de Vil origin story, and a forthcoming Grease TV spin-off said to “explore the peer pressures of high school, the horrors of puberty and life in middle America with a modern sensibility.”

We’re in the middle of an entertainment moment dominated by the revival of old shows, movies, and characters, from Magnum P.I. to Punky Brewster. The movie industry has become increasingly dependent on reviving existing intellectual property over the last two decades, and now the practice has spread to TV, supercharged by new streaming services and their need for bottomless content. Everything old seems destined to return, sometimes in darker forms than before — occasionally in forms so dark as to render them unrecognizable. The “gritty reboot” approach to IP, which emphasizes the original work’s potential for dark themes, violence, and other intense material, has a few advantages: It allows creators to argue they’re reinventing material, it carries a patina of artistic seriousness, and as movies from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins to Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes series have shown, it can bring in audiences. It’s also at risk of becoming a cliche.

This isn’t to rush to judgement about Powerpuff Girls 2.0, which could end up being a smart consideration of early adulthood ennui and the pains of growing up. The best gritty reboots build on what’s come before and explore it through the lens of more mature themes. But often the gritty reboot mistakes self-consciously edgy content for maturity. Creating a series in which Robin says “Fuck Batman” is easy. Giving him a compelling reason to feel that way is hard. And while we seem to be getting more gritty reboots than usual in the last decade or so — a decade that saw two films set in what might best be described as the Dark Snow Whiteverse — it’s not a new development. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes a casual cocaine user in an era when the drug’s detrimental qualities weren’t yet widely known. Nicholas Meyer turned Holmes into an addict with his 1974 novel The Seven-Percent Solution (later turned into a film of the same name). Angela Carter wasn’t the first writer to explore the sexual subtext of folk and fairy tales, but her 1979 short story collection The Bloody Chamber inspired later writers like Neil Gaiman to follow in her path.

These are the best-case scenarios for gritty reboots. But as the approach has congealed into a formula, there are plenty of less-than-best-case scenarios too—Josh Trank’s sullen Fantastic Four, for instance, or Tim Burton’s aggressively unpleasant Alice in Wonderland. And now the impending reappearance of Zack Snyder’s take on the DC Comics universe via the March 18 HBO Max premiere of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a much-anticipated/dreaded four hour reboot of a reboot — his original version of the movie was heavily reworked by Joss Whedon before release in 2017, and the resultant outcry from Snyder fans led Warner to turn it back over to him again — may mark the apotheosis of the trend. No creator has committed to the grit-for-grit’s sake reboot quite like Snyder, who first revived Superman with the gloomy 2013 film Man of Steel, which drew criticism for a climax that casually killed off countless Metropolis residents. Snyder then moved on to a graying, weary-but-ripped Batman played by Ben Affleck with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Synder’s interpretation of Batman captures his approach to DC’s characters at its most extreme. Not only does his Batman brand bad guys with a Bat symbol,, he kills some, too, and even totes a machine gun (in a dream sequence, at least), all of which are actions off limits to the comic book Batman since 1940. Which raises a question: at what point does an interpretation of a character stray so far from its origins that it effectively stops being the character? In the world of gritty reboots, it sometimes becomes hard to see what’s being rebooted beneath the grit.

Zack Snyder's Justice League, 2021.
Zack Snyder's Justice League, 2021.
Courtesy of HBO Max

Though Batman v Superman proved divisive, with 2017’s Justice League, Snyder got the keys to an even larger swathe of the DC Universe. The circumstances of his departure are complicated. In a recent Vanity Fair profile, Snyder and his wife and producing partner Deborah Snyder describe losing the will to fight with Warner Bros. after the loss of their daughter, who took her own life during production. The main reason for the fight: after the completion of a rough cut, the studio grew concerned Snyder would take the film into territory too intense (and, yes, gritty) for the company’s iconic characters, and that the criticisms lobbed at Snyder’s previous DC films would undo the company’s attempts to create their answer to Marvel’s universe-anchoring team-up The Avengers (also directed by Whedon). Short version: It didn’t work. Justice League became a high-profile disappointment rejected by audiences and critics alike, and a Warner Bros. gave Snyder a not-inconsiderable amount of additional money for effects and new scenes in order to complete a new version in accordance with his original vision.

However it’s received, Zack Snyder’s Justice League will likely end up being a footnote, since both Snyder and DC have otherwise moved on—story threads laid out in his version are not expected to continue in subsequent films. But the split hardly marked the end of the director’s influence. Snyder’s dark color palette and casual violence has helped define DC’s films even after the split, sometimes confusingly so. Aquaman features both drum-playing octopi and brutal stabbings. Shazam! sprinkles an otherwise kid-friendly story of a boy who becomes a superhero with a running gag about strippers and a scene of boardroom slaughter seemingly designed to give younger viewers nightmares. Suicide Squad is, well, Suicide Squad. The Wonder Woman films are probably the least upsetting for younger viewers who buy Wonder Woman t-shirts and branded granola bars, and even they feature a World War and a global apocalypse. And then there’s the strictly-for-grown-ups, Taxi Driver-influenced Joker. DC Films’ output often seems so caught up in reminding viewers that superheroes aren’t just for kids that it’s easy to forget they ever were.

To be fair, if any company has the right to see how much grit its characters can support, it’s DC. The company didn’t invent the gritty reboot with Frank Miller’s 1986 miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, but that comic was a turning point for the form. Set in an alternate, borderline dystopian version of the DC universe in which an aging Batman picks up the cape and cowl after a decade of retirement, the violent series explores the darker implications of Bruce Wayne’s nightlife as a masked vigilante, and of superheroes in general. Released at a moment when the general public’s perception of Batman remained tied to the campy ’60s TV series, Miller’s take on the character broke through to the mainstream in a way comics rarely did at the time in part because the popular version of Batman provided such an easy contrast. Its success helped alert the general public that something interesting was happening in the world of comics (and inspired countless variations on the headline “Bang! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!”).

It takes nothing away from Miller’s achievement to note that The Dark Knight Returns was less a revolution than a culmination. On the mainstream superhero front, comics had taken a turn toward more grounded storytelling for years. Spider-man watched his girlfriend Gwen Stacy die and pal Harry Osborn overdose on drugs, Green Arrow helped his sidekick struggle with heroin addiction, and Iron Man struggled with alcoholism. Batman titles alone saw writers and artists like Marshall Rogers, Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, and Steve Englehart start to bring the Dark Knight back to his detective roots, and Miller's own run on Marvel’s Daredevil joined efforts like the Chris Claremont-penned Uncanny X-Men in telling complex, layered, serialized stories for an older-skewing audience that showed up month after month to find out what happened next.

Watchmen, 2020.
Watchmen, 2020.
Courtesy of Mark Hill for HBO

Elsewhere, new voices had begun pushing the boundaries of what comics could do with superheroes and otherwise. Often mentioned in the same breath as The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen became the highest-profile, but far from only, example. That Watchmen itself began as a kind of gritty reboot featuring new takes on the superhero characters DC had recently acquired from the down-on-its-luck Charlton Comics in itself suggested that great art could be created by looking at old characters in a different, darker light — or at least, it could in the right hands. What happened in comics in the years after Watchmen now looks instructive to gritty reboots in any medium. While some creators used the moment to develop more complex stories, it also led to countless gun-toting badasses and a storyline that asked readers to vote whether Robin should die or live by paying to call a 900 number. (He didn’t make it.)

The gritty reboot can be a powerful storytelling tool. Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films both raise serious questions about the ethics, and sanity, of their hero. And the darkness-for-darkness sake that threatened to overwhelm superhero comics for much of the ’90s hasn’t taken root as readily in other media. The version of Battlestar Galactica developed by Ron Moore in the early ’00s stripped the original idea down to its bones and fleshed it out with post-9/11 paranoia and a newfound political awareness and sense of peril. Some reboots wear their grit well.

But the gritty reboot can also become worn out from overuse or serve as a lazy storytelling tool. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ dark take on the world of Archie Comics in “The Last of the Innocent,” which imagines a grown-up Archie Andrews resorting to murder to free himself from an unhappy marriage is disarmingly effective because it remains so true to the characters’ original world while covering it in shadows, as is Afterlife With Archie, a horrific, zombie-filled comic book twist on Archie written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and drawn by Francesco Francavilla. By contrast, there’s Riverdale: In developing the CW series, Aguirre-Sacasa brought some of the same impulses but, particularly as the seasons have piled up, its connection to the source has started to feel more and more tenuous. It’s a gripping, silly soap opera filled with familiar names and settings, but it exhausted any commentary on what the world of Archie and his friends means long ago.

It’s easy to see why creators reach for the gritty reboot so often. There’s little chance in 2021 we’d be talking about a high-profile show depicting thorny relationships between grown-up childhood friends if they weren’t the Powerpuff Girls’ Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles. It’s tough to get a movie up and running or a show on the air. The promise of a new twist on what’s already worked makes it a little less tough. And sometimes even a seemingly bad idea can yield remarkable results. A new take on Planet of the Apes didn’t seem necessary in 2011, particularly after the failed Burton version in 2001. And while it’s hard to call the prequel trilogy kicked of by 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes darker than the original series, which goes to some places even the new films wouldn’t touch, it is more violent and intense than the source material. Yet it also joins that violence and intensity to new ideas that stay true to the bleak, inquiring spirit of the original films.

The gritty reboot can also provide a way to draw a line between the past and the present. The CW’s ghost-filled Nancy Drew departs drastically from the source material, but no one will mistake it for a modern-dress revival like CBS’ Hawaii Five-0, now entering its 10th season, not that anyone has noticed. Quick, without looking it up: Who stars in the new version of Walker Texas Ranger? Is the revived MacGyver still airing or was it cancelled? But watching one lightness-challenged reboot after another can be exhausting. Inspired by HBO’s grim new take on Perry Mason, which opens with a dead baby then somehow gets even darker and more dour, last year writer Brian Grubb wondered why we keep circling adding shadows to familiar worlds, asking “Is it because we’ve all lost the plot a bit, to the point that we’ve started confusing serious and sad with quality, as though anything that doesn’t involve a dead body in a dystopia lacks the stakes to be quote-unquote prestige television?”

Speaking at a post-screening Q&A in 2019, Snyder responded to those who objected to his vision of what a superhero would or would not do, saying, “It’s a cool point of view to be like, ‘My heroes are still innocent. My heroes didn’t fucking lie to America. My heroes didn’t embezzle money from their corporations. My heroes didn’t commit any atrocities.’ That’s cool. But you’re living in a fucking dream world.” But what’s the point of superheroes if not to dream? There’s room for darker, self-aware takes on comic book heroes (and Riverdale’s most famous teenagers, and lawyers who always win their cases through amazing detective work, and so on). There’s no value to heroes that can’t be challenged. But we’re living in a truly grim and gritty world if each reboot only plunges those heroes deeper into darkness, and further away from what made them appealing in the first place, just to prove it can be done.

Originally Appeared on GQ