Thu
Jul 26 2012 11:00am

Nobody Gets Mad About Hamlet Remakes: Why Superheroes Are the New Cultural Mythology

Nobody Gets Mad About Hamlet Remakes: Why Superheroes Are the New Cultural Mythology

There is nothing remotely subtle about The Dark Knight Rises. Everything the characters say and do is designed to inform of us of who and what they are. Batman may be a “complex” character, but he’s fairly easy to understand. And so is Spider-Man, and so is Hamlet, Faust, and the nordic God Thor, Sherlock Holmes, and Cyrano de Bergerac.

Like it our not, Batman, Spider-Man, and other big comic book heroes are poised to be around just as long as “classic” canocial characters. If you’re irritated they remade Spider-Man too fast or you’re worried they’ll remake Batman to soon after Dark Knight Rises, just wait until they remake all of this stuff for the 40th time in the 22nd century.

A recent article from The Los Angeles Times is a great example of what is, in my opinion, a misunderstanding or less-than-thoughtful explanation of the remake/reboot phenomenon. In the piece, Neal Gabler rails against the young generation of millennials who “don’t think of movies as art the way so many boomers did.” Now despite being a problematic us-versus-them argument, I don’t think there’s any compelling evidence to suggest the appreciation of film as art has anything to do with the reboot phenomena, nor being young. Being ignorant and unappreciative of great stories knows no generational boundaries.

The real problem here is that Gabler’s analysis seems to suggest that remakes (or re-stagings if you will) of beloved stories and characters is somehow an epidemic brought on by an ignorant generation’s lack of understanding about the artistic merit of films, and therefore a new phenomenon. But remakes are nothing new. For centuries around the globe, there have been countless remakes of plays by Shakespeare that probably didn’t look a lot like they would have looked in The Globe. And sure, scholars of Shakespeare still freak out about various inteprations, updating, omissions, abridgements, etc, but for most of us, Hamlet is a story that we will see at some point in our lives and be all the better for it. Is Batman, who is over 70 years old at this point, really any different in the big cultural picture? Is Spider-Man?

To put it another way: Did Steve Martin’s Roxanne harm the essence of Cyrano de Bergerac? No. I love all versions of Cyrano. And I like both the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man AND the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man. The Gerard Depardieu version of Cyrano may be the defentitive one, but it doesn’t mean the José Ferrer version sucks. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is now considered along the same definitive lines as the Gerard Depardieu version of Cyrano. So, if they remake Batman, we can’t freak out.

Most children who are familiar with the average crop of fairy tales rarely read the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen originals first. And while this might be a shame, it doesn’t mean anything has necessarily been ruined, nor does it indicate a lack of appreciation for the stories. A good number of people who saw the Avengers movie did understand these characters from their comic book roots. Another, larger portion of the population didn’t read comics before or after.

Should we care? Is this that big of a deal? It’s not like comic book source material which is commonly adapted into film is really, really subtle and complex. Further, it is possible that these iterations of big, broad characters and themes work better as films. Nobody who puts on a serious production of a Shakespeare play thinks “oh, ours will just be okay.” They want to do the source material justice. And that’s what’s happening every time our culture remakes a superhero.

The Dark Knight Rises is epic and operatic. The only thing separating Batman from a character from a Verdi opera is that he doesn’t break into song. (Probably because of that gravely bat-voice, but you get it.) These stories are over-the-top. These aren’t ultra-realistic, quiet stories which illuminate a specific part of the human existence. These are big stories. Love. Hate. Revenge. Duty. Betrayal. Obligation. This is Shakespearean stuff, and if Shakespeare were around now, he’d probably be writing plays about superheroes.

Comic books (like television) are created from the input of a lot of different artist voices, from writing to design to art direction. And while I could extend some theatre metaphors about the natural collaborative process with the artwork, that’s not the point. The point is that comics have always had several different narrative voices at work on these heroes over the course of decades. Meaning that by the time the stories get translated into big, watchable movies, all of those narrative voices are condensed down into a single composite story.

And because there’s so much material not adapted into the film version, why wouldn’t someone want to make another one? More interestingly, though, the fact that comic books do have a composite narrative, means they’re more accessible to a large group of people. Most people don’t think Batman = Bob Kane or Batman = Christopher Nolan. Most people think Batman = ME. The public thinks they own Batman, which is how mythology works.

Who is the author of the Greek myths? It’s not exactly Homer. Because we are the ones who have kept it alive over centuries by retelling the stories in a myriad of different forms.

My guess is that what bothers people most about the reboot phenomenon isn’t the quality, or the disrespect for previous films, or even the cynical money grabs from the studio. Instead, it’s the speed. It just seems like too much too fast. And there, I sympathize.

But it’s not oppressive. (And sure, there might be some less-than-altruistic motives here. But it’s not like Shakespeare didn’t enjoy money.) Either way, these characters, these heroes, are the new mythology. 100 years from now anthropologists will be writing about the origins of these characters in ways we can’t imagine. You’re watching the future of human storytelling unfolding.

We’re not going backwards, nor are we out of ideas. We’re doing what we’ve always done and what we’re always going to do: Tell our favorites stories over and over again.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.

32 comments
Hello There
1. praxisproces
Interesting argument. Though I think there is one big problem in that Batman actually is a pretty simple character, which is his strength, whereas Hamlet, for example, or Macbeth, or Falstaff, are profoundly complicated characters, which is their strength. So I might say that the superhero remakes and the Shakespearean restagings are both good but for different reasons: when you restage Shakespeare you're excavating a different piece of his inexhaustible complexity, and when you reshoot Batman you're pouring in a different set of concepts to fill up and animate his relatively straightforward story. But in both cases the new version is rich and fresh. Operatic is definitely the conceptual lens to understand the Nolan movies though, in their virtues and their flaws alike.

One serious objection: the Depardieu Cyrano is good and whatever, but I think most people would - or at least should - acknowledge that the 1950 Jose Ferrer Cyrano is where it is at. I mean this is one of the all-time best pieces of movie acting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyCEqpMupIc
Sam Brougher
2. Azuaron
Disclaimer: I haven't yet seen the new Spiderman.

My problem with reboots/remakes is always about the quality. I do not read comicbooks, so I don't even care if they are "true" to the "source" material.

But I care when Hollywood execs throw out crap like The Green Lantern movie and expect to get paid just because it says "Green Lantern" in the title, not because they've made something worth watching.

Do you know why The Amazing Spiderman was made so close on the heels of Sam Raimi's films? Because Sony owns the film rights to Spiderman, and if they don't keep making Spiderman movies, the rights revert to Marvel/Disney. And no Sony exec wants to be the guy who let Spiderman return to The Avengers juggarnaut.

If anything even decent came out of that environment, it's a miracle. I've heard The Amazing Spiderman is a travesty, both for Spiderman and as a film. Personally, I love story and character, much more than action and spectacle, and I've heard that's where The Amazing Spiderman falls down.

Of course, not having personally seen it, it's hard for me to be definitive. But it's enough that I'm waiting to catch it on video.
alastair chadwin
3. a-j
These stories are over-the-top. These aren’t ultra-realistic, quiet stories which illuminate a specific part of the human existence. These are big stories. Love. Hate. Revenge. Duty. Betrayal. Obligation. This is Shakespearean stuff, and if Shakespeare were around now, he’d probably be writing plays about superheroes.
I must beg to differ. Shakespeare's characters, especially in the tragedies, are studies of subtlety and many of the plays are fairly low key. Many miles away from the superhero genre*.

*with apologies to the subtle writing that sometimes appears within the superhero genre, but I am writing here about the big block storytelling that is more standard.
Tesh
4. Tesh
@2 For what it's worth, I liked the characters in this film much more than the Tobey trilogy (and I did like those, Emo Peter aside). Gwen, especially, is a much stronger character than MJ. I'll concede the story is a bit... unfinished, maybe, but it's really no worse than the first Tobey film. All in all, it's a much better film than it perhaps has any right to be, framed as a cash grab.
Tesh
5. SF
@2 "Personally, I love story and character, much more than action and spectacle, and I've heard that's where The Amazing Spiderman falls down."

Actually, I think story and character are where Amazing Spider-Man is a step up over the first Raimi film. Particularly with regards to Uncle Ben.
Teresa Jusino
6. TeresaJusino
Incidentally, there are plenty of people who get mad about remakes of stuff like Hamlet. I say this as someone who went to theater school and heard all the time that we should be focusing on new plays rather than re-treading the same old classics.

It's not about Hamlet being high-brow and superheroes being low-brow, it's about people being frustrated by the fact that, rather than having brilliant new voices in their generation telling new stories that resonate, we have to resort to going back and telling old stories in order to have stories of "value." Many people disagree with that idea.

I, for one, get much more excited by films like Chronicle or Hancock, that at least attempt to create new stories using superhero tropes. Is it Batman or Spider-Man specifically that's important? Or is it The Superhero Tale? I think it's the second more than the first, and in my opinion, I think it would be of immense value if both comic book companies AND film studios put more effort into creating new superheroes stories that are relevant and entertaining. We don't need this generation's retelling of Batman as much as we need this generation's hero.
Tesh
7. Lsana
I would like to point out that there is a big difference between staging a play or an opera multiple times and remaking a movie. For those that need the obvious pointed out to them, I can't go back in time and see Shakespear's staging of Hamlet, but I can get Tim Burton's Batman on DVD if I want to see how Batman was done before. Doing a play multiple times requires no more justification than, "It's a good story, people want to see it again." Making a movie again requires you to have something to say that the original didn't.

That's the real problem with most of the remakes out there. There's nothing inherently wrong with multiple people taking the same material and making movies out of it: the 60s Batman, the Tim Burton Batman, and the Dark Knight triliogy each wanted to do something different with the character and his world, and I love all of them. Too many remakes, though, don't have anything to say. I haven't seen, and don't plan to see the Spiderman remake, not because I'm offended at the idea of the Sacred Film of 2002 being remade, but just because nothing in any of the trailers I've seen suggest that there's really anything there that wasn't in the first one. If I want to watch a story about how a nerd gets bitten by a magic spider and turns into a superhero, I'll spend $5 at Target for the DVD rather than $20 at the theater.
Ryan Britt
8. ryancbritt
@7

Yeah, I agree it's different in the logistics. But my larger argument is that in 100 years, the cultural will regard this in the same way as constant Shakespeare adaptations. (It's not likely anyone could have predicted West Side Story or 10 Things I Hate About You back at the ol' Globe theatre!)

The person in the year 2112 won't be as offended as you are now. Though it's totally valid to be offended. :-)
Ryan Britt
9. ryancbritt
@1
I do prefer to the Jose Ferrer version. It's the first one I saw.

I guess we just sort of disagree. I think that both Hamlet and Batman both have a lot of facets to them, but I don't find them to be "complex" as people. Everything they think, they say. Everything they do reaffirms who they are.

Does Hamlet have something on Batman here? Of course. But that then becomes of question of the medium. I will totally cop to the idea that Batman is more low brown than Hamlet. But the way the culture thinks about the two is getting close to the same.
Tesh
10. Tesh
@7 There's actually a fair bit of new story that isn't in the Tobey movies. In ASM, you get Peter's parents, Peter actually being smart, and hints that it's all tied together with Oscorp. There are hints that Peter's story is just a cog in a bigger story. I, for one, welcomed that, as it hints at a larger arc than "NYC kid gets superpowers".
Mimi Epstein
11. hummingrose
Because it seems relevant to this discussion: a theater company in Atlanta is currently producing Bat-Hamlet. Here's a review: http://www.accessatlanta.com/AccessAtlanta-sharing_/review-bat-hamlet-has-1483057.html

Disclaimer: I haven't seen it (and won't, alas), as I live in the wrong part of the country, but a number of the actors are friends of mine.
Tesh
12. Lsana
@8,

I think you missed my point. "Offended" is nowhere close to how I feel about the Spiderman remake. "Bored" is much closer to the mark. It does not ruin my life to know that there is a Spiderman remake, I just don't see any point to it. If the rest of the world disagrees with me, then I'm happy for you to enjoy it. Meanwhile, I'm not going to shell out the big bucks to see a movie that is in its essentials the same one I saw 10 years ago, even if it differs in a few plot points.

"West Side Story" and "10 Things I Hate About You" are precisely the sort of remakes I would applaud: take the stories of "Romeo and Juliet" or "Taming of the Shrew" and use them to say something new.
Tesh
13. SF
@6: "in my opinion, I think it would be of immense value if both comic book companies AND film studios put more effort into creating new superheroes stories that are relevant and entertaining. We don't need this generation's retelling of Batman as much as we need this generation's hero."

I agree that new characters can be good to have (Marvel's Runaways for example, and DC's current Batwoman), but some characters transcend generations. I'd place characters like Spider-Man and Batman in that group.

And every so often, it's worth updating and retelling their origins. Look at Batman: Year One back in the 80s, decades after the character was first introduced. Look at the retelling of Spider-Man's origin (and eventually his entire story) in Ultimate Spider-Man, starting in the early 00's.

"Is it Batman or Spider-Man specifically that's important? Or is it The Superhero Tale?"

I think both can be important.

The difficulty with creating new characters is that it's not easy to come up with something that speaks to people on some basic, archetypal level, the way iconic characters like Spidey, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Hulk do. I think those are the five that will last the longest. (And Batman and Superman are the two which have lasted the longest so far.)

The X-men do something similar, as a group rather than as individual heroes. And I think they'll last a long time as well, even though individual characters might not last. That concept, particularly as refocused by Chris Claremont in the 70s and 80s, speaks and will continue to speak to a lot of different groups.

Those five iconic characters, along with the X-men as an iconic team, are robust enough yet simple enough that they both remain relevant and lend themselves to re-imaginings that can keep them in focus and useful for contemporary audiences, now and in the future.

And there are a few other characters which are maybe a tier down, and which will probably last as well, for similar reasons - Captain America, for example. Batgirl/Oracle, in her various incarnations. A few others. I hope the new Batwoman lasts for a long time. I think she has a shot at being the first iconic lgbt superhero.

In terms of movies, Nolan's Batman is kind of a distillation of the character that really works for this particular historical moment. The X-men as presented in X-men: First Class have the potential for that as well, depending on how the next movie turns out. Same with Spidey. These are robust concepts that can be brought forward and made relevant again and again. And that's a good and valuable thing.

In terms of new characters, in comics, one basic problem with creating new superheroes is that, at the moment, the market doesn't seem to support new characters. So the major companies focus on what they can sell, and that means continuing with pre-existing characters.

And in movies, it seems rare that screenwriters and/or studios, when starting from scratch, are able to come up with a superhero character or story that really speaks to people on a deep level. I think Chronicle is probably the most successful in that regard. So it can be done. But there are even less opportunities to experiment, try things out, and create an effective superhero character in film than in comics, where those opportunities are, at least right now, already limited.
Shelly wb
14. shellywb
There's one thing that makes me sad about remakes, and it's that if people watch them many won't feel the need to go back and watch the original. Sure, a few people will seek them out. But for the most part people will think, "I've seen the new and improved Casablanca. Why would I want to watch an old black and white version of the same story?" And when the pretty new color version is sitting next to the original on Netflicks, people will choose the newer even if it's inferior, when in the past they'd have been forced to choose the original. (There is no remake of Casablanca yet, as far as I know. I'm sure it's coming though.)

Note: I don't think this really applies to Batman though. He is iconic because of his comic, and no movie version has been definitive in my eyes. Though I can tell plenty of folks feel otherwise.
James Enge
15. JamesEnge
What's missing here is an recognition of the difference between a story and a text. The act of restaging (or refilming) Hamlet is different in kind from retelling the Spider-Man origin story. I can buy comic book characters as (part of) modern mythology, where the same story is told and retold, reshaped in each telling. This makes Spider-Man like Hercules--but not like Shakespeare's Hamlet, a particular telling of a myth with other forms is other tellings.

Also, no superhero movie has a script as good as Shakespeare-on-an-off-day.

The audience's boredom is the real test of a story's retellability. Apparently we have a high tolerance for origin stories right now. Whether this will last is hard to say. For myself, I feel some of the boredom of Lsana@12, but it hasn't reached toxic levels yet.

In updated-Shakespeare news: last year's Coriolanus was a freakishly, brilliantly modern movie about war, in spite of altering Shakespeare's text little if at all.
Tesh
16. MJN9
I HAVE seen Bat-Hamlet (the world premier in Atlanta, in fact) and it was very clever and funny.
Tesh
17. yenny
@14: Actually, there is sort of a remake of Casablanca: the 1996 film Barb Wire, which takes place in a distopian future but (loosely) follows the plot of Casablanca with the genders flipped. Humphrey Bogart's character is played by Pamela Anderson.

If you couldn't tell from that description, it is not a good film.

@15: I agree, it is important to differentiate between story and text. I've heard comic book stories be referred to as modern mythology (just as you seem to have), and I think that analogy works better than the Shakespeare example. There are a lot of variations in the Greek and Roman (and probably other cultures I'm not familair with) myths, just as we have a lot of slightly different versions of Batman, Spider-Man, etc. They follow the same basic STORY, but the details and the TEXT are different.

Another good analogy is fairy tales. We just had two very different versions of Snow White come out this year, each telling the same basic story but with different emphases and details.
Alan Brown
18. AlanBrown
Telling our favorites stories over and over again. You make a good point, Ryan--when you look at it from a certain perspective, it is perfectly natural and normal for us to remake movies over and over, or continue stories through sequels because we don't want to leave those favorite characters behind.
Now, remaking books, that is another story entirely. I remain utterly baffled why that Scalzi guy felt he had to 'reboot' the Fuzzy tales of H. Beam Piper. Heresy! ;-)
Robert Kehl
19. idleprimate
i think sometimes people create either/or situations that don't in fact exist. someone said we need chronicle more than spider-man. well, we got both, i watched both. This year, I also watched some comedies, some big star dramas and some little indie flics, not to mention some horror films. and i read a bunch of books, and i watched some tv.

people love stories, without a doubt. There is a constant flutter of voices lamenting or ranting about the loss of this, that, or the other concerning stories. It makes no sense to me. As near as I can see, we are living in the wealthiest era of stories ever.

more films are produced every year than ever before--including the democratization of film-making due to low cost options. More books are published than ever. television has more channels than ever. all of these option have many methods of delivery, and are so widespread that economies of scale make the price affordable even to the unemployed. I have more access to older films and older books than I did 20 years ago, certainly more than my parents did 40 years ago. It is an age of plenty.

There is all this hand-wringing about running out of ideas, or cynical bean counters controlling decisions, or too many people having unwashed tastes(or being programmed to like the wrong things--however the hell that is accomplished???). Its all nonsense. your average person--read: not overly literate, not overly nerdy--is more culturally literate and articulate today than ever before. I don't mean comparing the average person today to an ivy league graduate of 1940. I mean the masses in total--there has been an ever rising tide that has raised all our ships where cultural heritage and stories are concerned.

Did avengers vacuum up a disproportionate amount of movie revenue? did twilight books do the same? sure. so what. studios and publishers have always used their biggest moneymakers as umbrellas. Do you have any idea how many little movies are made every year with funding from one of the bigger studios or more? movie that aren't even at the theatre, they just go to dvd, or streaming, films with tiny niche markets, not because they are not at the cineplex, but because they just have a small audience. Those films get made today. In the so-called "golden age" of cinema, they were not. Far fewer films were made from a much smaller stable of actors. Culture was, as a result, more homogenous then--easier to spot the icons, but less diverse, and literally less.

I know this has been sort of off topic. i agree that the comics characters have taken on a life as mythic characters. i like it. i always like retellings of stories that reflect different features or different aspects of the culture that creates them. Arthur and Robin Hood may be the best examples of that--who they were and what they stood for changed radically as they were retold in different cultures.

i just like to remind people that there is no story telling crisis. nothing is being lost, there is no drought. It is absolutely inarguably the opposite. and i love it.
Robert Kehl
20. idleprimate
oh, p.s. for anyone in the thread bored of a new spider-man film, or feeling it is too soon. fine, skip it. but i hear many voices denouncing it as bad without seeing it.

it turned out to be a wonderful film, great story-telling, and better characters. As a bonus, if you happen to have ever been a comic reader, it felt more like the mood and stories from old school comics. There is a lot of loyalty for the Raimi films, but I doubt that a young person exploring them in twenty years will find them superior to this new one.
Anthony Pero
21. anthonypero
I hated the Raimi films, and I love Raimi in general. I even stuck with Legend of the Seeker for almost a full season. I'm a masochist, what can I say?

Superhero myths are simply life writ large. Of course we retell them. As far as coming up with new characters... Have you seen how much one of those films costs? Franchises allow studios to take chances on other films. They need to make 10 Batmans for every Matrix, because 9 out of 10 Matrix's (Matrices?) will flop.
Ryan Britt
22. ryancbritt
@20
Your point here is sort of what made me want to write this piece. I don't feel the same way you do about the new Spider-Man movie, but I too heard people writing it off before seeing it. It has a rigth to exist!
Ryan Britt
23. ryancbritt
@18
The question is interesting though. Could we imagine a future in which people are literally re-writing Moby Dick and calling it Moby Dick? Not an homage but a remake? Could it happen?
Ryan Britt
24. ryancbritt
@Everyone
I am so excited that there is a Batman Hamlet. I was totally unaware. Thanks!
Robert Kehl
25. idleprimate
@23 arguably, the internet is 23% full of this already in the form of fan fiction, but I think the idea of classics being open to reinterpretations or new explorations--copyrights could work in a similar way to franchises, or they could be open, like how you are free to write about norse gods--is an invigorating idea.

remakes could be set in their own time, the present or the future. people already write historical epics, or revamp things into present time (under a different name and under the banner of "inspired by) and as well reset a story in the future (Treasure Planet). If the door was opened so much could be done. Imagine in the future critics wrangling over ideological variations in versions of Moby Dick, or people ranking their top ten Madame Bovarys. we already have books that become genres, like catcher in the rye, or death of a salesman. i like the idea.
Sanctume Spiritstone
26. Sanctume
It's a comics transition to film.

There's a whole bunch of stories from comics to be mined, and it's not limited to the few A list superheroes.

Anyway, I enjoy the movie for their entertainment value as well as convenient schdules of theatres. If you can make Hamlet an easy $6 matinee on Sundays, I'd watch it.
Anthony Pero
27. anthonypero
@ryancbritt:

I don't know about Moby Dick, but I've had thoughts about doing the Illiad and Oddessy that way. I don't see any reasons not to do something like that... except for possibly scorn from other writers, which I imagine would dissipate with good sales. *Cynical? Who, me?*
Tesh
28. Your Mom
Wow, your article got a lot of people with strong opinions, which is good. Looking at the comments, no one mentioned that many of the remakes are better due to advancement in special effects. Not that better techno makes for a better movie but it helps. If Shakespeare were alive today he would be saying," Bring it on. These adaptions and remakes only make me look more like a genius for thinking them up the first time around."
Emmet O'Brien
29. EmmetAOBrien
Just wanted to note that in my family getting incensed about what dfferent versions of Hamlet get wrong is not an infrequent occurrence.
Tesh
30. Baramos
Blaming millenials for watching the reboots baby boomers are making is like Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom Mary Sue going, "Now none of are the fault of a 20 year old college student, but never the less you are part of the worst PERIOD generation PERIOD ever PERIOD." Baby boomers screwed everything up, but somehow you are worse than us. Baby boomers are the ones making these movies, but somehow you are worse because you are the ones watching them.
Michael Walton
31. tygervolant
@1: I disagree that Batman is a simple character. He is actually a very complex character. But he is consistently portrayed in simple circumstances. The morality of Batman is very black-and-white, and he tends to boil his moral choices down to their most basic options. But this is also a man who routinely violates people's civil rights in the name of the greater good (and someone that smart has got to know that he's doing that) and joined a group of other heroes largely because he wants to keep tabs on them, and yet they are his friends. Batman definitely has his complexities, but I would agree that they are rarely explored in films.

@6: "We don't need this generation's retelling of Batman as much as we need this generation's hero."

I agree to a point. I would also like to see film interpretations of some neglected comicbook heroes from past decades rather than constant rehashing of a few of them. Static would make for an awesome movie, for example.
Tesh
32. idleprimate
I donr usually think of shakespeare characters as complicated. They are representing themes and ideas so we recieve them in a complex way. That's how mythology works too.

We msp a lot of feelings onto our hero stories. I like that but recognise they do not address todays challenges that a person should consider.

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