In 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released into theaters. Paramount Pictures took a gamble on reviving the franchise after the original Star Trek television show was canceled in 1969. It was a gamble driven by a renewed interest in the show due to a passionate fanbase, but most importantly, the show’s massive success of the series in syndication.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture received average reviews at the box office, (it currently holds a 47% at Rotten Tomatoes one of the lowest rated films of the series); not low enough to cause Paramount to shy away from continuing work on another movie in the franchise, but low enough to force them to change creative teams for the sequel. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, who was heavily involved in Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s production, was forced off of the follow-up.
Instead, the studio brought in Nicholas Meyer to direct what would eventually become Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Meyer’s only directing credit at the time was the 1979 film, Time After Time, but in 1976, he had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a screenplay adaption of his own novel. Meyer purportedly, and without credit, finished writing the original screenplay by Jack B. Sowards in just 12 days.
Meyer had, now famously, never seen the original Star Trek series.
In a 2014 interview on StarTrek.com, he discusses his initial take on the franchise, despite knowing next to nothing about it.
Star Trek is fast approaching its 50th anniversary, and there are a lot of people out there who do not think it would have gotten this far as an ongoing franchise were it not for the work you did on II, IV and VI. So, as modest or as modestly or immodestly as you can answer this, what do you see as your role in Trek history?
MEYER: Well, partially, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. And the other thing – and this is just, you know, one person’s opinion, but artists lose all proprietary authority or insight into their creations when they’re finished. So, my opinion is just another opinion. But I think it probably helped at the time that I didn’t know anything about Star Trek. And so, I could sort of reinvent it, in my own image. And my own image was that it was a story about the Navy. And I think coming to it from that perspective may have given the whole thing a shot in the arm, and just sort of another way of going about it.
Meyer elaborates, discussing his reaction to the Star Trek material he was shown for the first time:
And Harve showed me the original movie. And he showed me some of the episodes. And I began to think about… this reminded me of something that I really loved, and it may have taken me a while to put it together. But, what I realized was it reminded me of the books by C.S. Forester that I read when I was about 13 or 14, the Captain Hornblower books. And I thought, “Oh, this is Hornblower in outer space. That could be a lot of fun.” I could make my own submarine movie.
Wrath of Khan premiered in 1982 and it was a critical and financial success.
Many reviews praised the film’s pacing and story as being dramatically improved over its predecessor, and it is often seen as one of the best in franchise. It currently holds an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes; one of the highest collective grades for a Star Trek movie.
The film is also a fan favorite; with many often citing Spock’s death (spoilers?) as an emotional high-point for the franchise; the movie itself being parodied and referenced countless times in pop culture. Many elements of the film were even alluded to and helped to inform the plot of the 2009 J.J. Abram’s reboot of the Star Trek series, brilliantly, but somewhat hilariously-in-hindsight-titled, Star Trek.
So, what happened? A guy who had never seen this beloved Science Fiction series makes one of the most successful and well loved entries its ever had? How?
Simple: Meyer didn’t set out to make a “Star Trek” movie. He simply made a movie; it just happened to be a movie set in the “Star Trek” universe. “Star Trek” was and is the least important thing about it.
As “Superhero” movies now dominate every aspect of our society, you’ll often see the director or screenwriter attached to one of these highly anticipated and much-loved properties discussing their love of this ready to be adapted franchise or character, as if to reassure fans that, “Hey, it’s all right , I am one of you.” Granted, that’s all part of any big budget title’s PR cycle, but people tend to really latch onto this kind of thing with someone like Batman or Superman, in a way that an adaptation of a character like The Whizzer probably wouldn’t resonate with a potential audience.
One example of this that springs to mind, was in 2002, when Mark Steven Johnson was attached to write and direct 20th Century Fox’s Daredevil, which ironically also starred Batman V. Superman co-lead and wicked pissah, Ben Affleck.
Comic book movies were definitely in their infancy at the time; no one was quite sure what to do with them, or how to make them, though there were good examples, such as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. This interspecies mingling we see among television, movie and streaming services today, for example, wasn’t even a possibility.
Johnson’s Daredevil, while moderately successful financially, was a terrible movie.
Johnson, for his part, was a self-proclaimed and massive Daredevil fan. Just look at this excerpt from an interview taken from Manwithoutfear.com, where Johnson discusses his love of and path to adapting the character:
Mithra: With Bullseye, Elektra, Kingpin and other DD supporting characters all appearing in the movie, you’re obviously familiar with the comic on a level higher than the general public. I’m guessing Frank Miller rates high on your list of DD creators, but what creators defined Daredevil for you as a character? Have you always been a DD fan? Do you still read the comic?
Johnson: I started with Stan Lee, of course, then got hooked on Frank Miller in High School. I was a rabid fan and collector but, like many others, fell out of Daredevil in the 90's. Kevin Smith brought DD back in a huge way and is single-handedly responsible for my passion of comics returning. I’ve grown to really love both Bendis and Mack’s storylines. I thought Mack’s “Parts of a Hole” was just terrific. Besides DD I’m currently reading Elektra (of course), Punisher, Ultimate Spider-man, Ultimate X-Men, and Alias from the Max Line. I am a Marvelite. No question about that.
This is a genuine fan. I don’t think he’s rattling this stuff off from a note card; he truly grew up reading and loving this character, which makes his unfortunate handling of it somewhat tragic.
I think it’s safe to say there was probably some level of the dreaded “Studio Inteference” that got in the way of that movie, but I think the initial problem was clear; Johnson set out to make a “Daredevil” movie. He didn’t consider the basics of what that actually meant first; he was too close to it, too enamored by the aura of the character and the genre.
Thankfully, we do have the wonderful Netflix Daredevil series to give us a renewed insight to the character, but one of the things you’ll often see said about why that series works, is that its story and tone are all superb. Ultimately, it doesn’t really need to be a “Daredevil” story to work; it just has to be a good one. That it happens to be “Daredevil” at all, just adds a bit more flavor, and attachment to the already delicious cup of soup in boiling in front of us.
To me, the biggest problem though, is this: “Superhero” itself, is not a genre. It’s not really a thing.
It’s merely a mishmash of any number of other genres in which our protagonist(s) simply do extraordinary, or even, heroic things.
Granted, “Superhero” fiction has been around long enough that it’s certainly developed it’s own tropes, such as secret identities, larger than life villains, and the struggle of what it “means” to be a hero, to name a few, but ultimately, the best films or books about character’s like Batman or Captain America set out to tell a specific story about them, and identify something core to what it is that makes those character’s successful and enduring, and then builds the rest around it.
For example, Batman is a character rooted in pulp detective and noir fiction of the 1930s. Early Batman stories were very different from what most people of think of as “Batman” today.
He was incredibly violent. He killed. He carried a gun! (All three of which he apparently does now.)
But this was no different from many of the popular characters of the time, a notable example being The Shadow. In that sense, Batman was kind of generic initially.
There was and always has been definite mystery element to Batman; hell, he first appeared in Detective Comics, a series that up until issue #27, the first appearance of Batman, featured mainly detective stories. This kind of “back door pilot” approach to introducing characters was incredibly common in the Golden Age and early Silver Age of comics. Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy, Ant-Man first appeared in Tales to Astonish, and so on. The characters were just one offs in books designed to sell pulp stories based around a particular science fiction, fantasy, horror, or whatever theme, and eventually, just took off as “Superhero” stories exploded.
In regards to Batman though, he was eventually altered, such as losing the gun and the impetus to kill, but it wasn’t really until the character was refined and creators started thinking about what it was that made “Batman” work that he began to flourish, and they did, by thinking about what makes a good story, first and foremost.
“Batman” at his best, often just becomes the lens for which we view a specific moment; be it our sense of mortality, a damn good murder mystery, or the strength of the human mind. This is not to say that the character himself is a throwaway, but if you take away the tried and true trappings of plot, conflict, and drama, you don’t have a character.
You have a mascot.
Ultimately, a movie like Batman V. Superman fails because it’s about two of the biggest mascots for the DC universe getting into a fist fight. It fails because it sets out to explain why they might fight, but it doesn’t explain why we should care. It fails because it’s worried about getting us hyped up for the other mascots, such as The Flash, or Cyborg, and it doesn’t do much else.
It’s selling you the DC universe; it’s not showing it to you.
There’s a definite power to our pop culture icons, and it would be a mistake to assume that what makes them enduring figures shouldn’t factor into the equation; devote some time to that! Then move past it. Dig deeper.
The problem isn’t just limited to Batman V Superman, of course. Fox’s 2015 Fantastic Four film reeks of similar issues, as does 2014's Amazing Spider-Man 2. For ASM2’s part though, a lot of the issue’s feel studio mandated, and the chemistry of the cast is great; it’s just kind of a mess of a movie. Still, it’s trying to sell you a Spider-Man FRANCHISE before it’s doing anything else. And that blows.
After the success of Avengers, “Superhero” movies became an almost instant cash cow. They aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. And that was/is a pretty exciting feeling, and I was/am fully on board!
But I think somewhere along the way, studios got the idea that they could start serving us RC Cola, instead of Coca-Cola. Yeah, it’s technically a cola, but it’s just not the same. It’s watered down and flat. I’d argue this is a problem with Genre Fiction in general; too often, stories and franchises become secretaries to themselves or to their own hype machines. They lose track of what made them enjoyable in the first place and settle simply for the strength of the label to carry the story.
At the end of the day, I don’t care about “superhero” movies or stories. I just care about the good ones.
Do I want them to happen to feature heroes that are super? Hell yeah.
But let’s not make that the goal.
Poey Gordon is a journalist, poet, and fiction writer living in the Bay Area.
Follow him on Twitter at ThePoey for more about comics, Gilligan’s Island 2K1 fan-fiction, or decades old Simpson’s quotes.