There’s an element of storytelling that’s seldom discussed, even more seldom taught or mentioned in reviews, because for the most part it’s objectively unquantifiable. It’s a story’s feel. And it’s become for me the barometer of pop culture properties that pass through many hands before reaching the public.
I first became aware of it thanks to Batman. In 1989, we got the first Tim Burton film, and like a lot of longtime fans, I was pretty damn skeptical. We might not have had the internet to splash spoilers and details all over, but they still leaked out, and they didn’t bode well. Of course things have to be changed to move from one medium to another, but among the changes were:
—the costume. Instead of the traditional blue-and-gray from the comics, the batsuit was now all black, except for the insignia and utility belt.
—the casting. Bruce Wayne/Batman had to be a large, muscular, square-jawed hero, and we were presented with slight, chinless Michael Keaton. Worse, at the time he was known mainly as a comedy performer, which took us into the campy realms of the Batman TV show from the Sixties.
—the director. At that point in his career Tim Burton had made two films, both comedies. Who was he to get a shot at Batman?
And then the first trailer arrived, and we realized how baseless our worries had been. Because although it had problems (who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents??) the movie got the feel exactly right.
Another superhero franchise, Superman, went through two fairly recent incarnations. In 2006’s Superman Returns, the Man of Steel has to face interpersonal crises that no superpowers can fix. And seven years later in Man of Steel, the beacon of truth, justice, and the American way is rebooted into a morose alien misfit who allows his adopted father to die and murders a villain in cold blood.
And yet, to me, despite its flaws, Superman Returns still felt like Superman, while Man of Steel had the vibe of something made by people who lacked a basic understanding of the property. To put it mildly.
In 2009 the Star Trek franchise passed into the hands of JJ Abrams, a director more skilled at marketing than actual filmmaking. Using the screenwriters from Michael Bay’s Transformers series, he rebooted Trek with no comprehension of what kept the original franchise going for so long. Gone was the idealism, the thoughtful approach to interstellar exploration, the idea that mankind could both teach and learn from alien encounters. In its place, and backed by another of his stellar marketing plans, we got a standard chosen-one SF narrative with a story built on absurd coincidence, explosions, and lens flares. And then, when it was time for a sequel, all this brain trust could think to do was remake the best Trek film, totally missing the point of why it was the best.
But all this might have worked if they’d gotten the feel of Star Trek right. But they never did, and never even seemed to be concerned with it. Their contempt for long-time Trek fans dripped from every frame, and was the tentpole of their marketing.
Recently I finally caught up with the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, the latest Trek TV series. Set ten years before the original series, it (at least in season one) gleefully raids the Trek canon for concepts and characters, and tells a fast-paced serial story that packs surprises into every episode.
And, to my delight and relief, it actually feels like Star Trek.
Of course I disagree with some of the changes, including the need to drop Trek’s first onscreen “f-bomb.” Also, the Klingon makeup has grown more and more complex with each incarnation, to the point that the appliance work renders them practically unintelligible. Clearly many of the plot threads and characters will meet unhappy ends, since they’re never mentioned in any subsequent Trek series. And any show that lists twenty producers in the opening credits seems destined to suffer from the curse of too many cooks.
And yet, in spite of all that, it gets the feel right.
What does the feel consist of, then? It may be something impossible to quantify. Perhaps it’s different for each fan. But I suspect that each fan also knows when it’s not there.
Do you have a favorite property where they got the feel right or wrong? Let me know in the comments.