Going back to the start
I was excited for the launch of the Combiner Wars subline for Transformers, because I really like giant robots that transform and I really like when those giant transforming robots themselves transform into combined robots. But I was also apprehensive, because I had a pretty strong feeling that it was going to mean a whole bunch of the same thing we see every time. And sure enough, we have another Optimus Prime, and the first two combiners are the Aerialbots and the Stunticons.
This was not altogether surprising. As we prepare for another Spider-man movie that yet again sets the clock back to the earliest stories, it’s worth asking the question of why we keep feeling the need to retell these stories until we’re all blue in the face. It’s not that there’s a problem with remaking things; I quite like when someone takes something familiar and puts a new twist on it. I am, however, less thrilled when that “new twist” is just an update in the time of release.
If you’re not familiar with the Aerialbots or the Stunticons, let’s make this explicit: Every combiner team from the first series of Transformers had some sort of gimmick. The Aerialbots and the Stunticons were teams defined solely by their alternate modes; what made the Aerialbots unique is that they were all Autobots that turned into planes. See, it’s different because usually Autobots turn into cars. And the Stunticons are cars but they’re Decepticons.
Five minutes of thought should produce at least ten better themes for groups to be based around. It’s not a challenge. And since the subline ties in very loosely to ongoing fiction that could have used a variety of different groups, this wasn’t a case wherein the powers that be were in any way forced to do these specific groups; IDW’s comics aren’t being used as a basis for the upcoming Devastator toy, for example. But no, it’s the same old song and dance.
So why is it the old standbys? Well, because those were the first groups back in the day, and changing things up would… cause someone’s head to explode, or something.
In the broadest strokes, this is something that can happen a great deal in any franchise that’s been running for a while. Spider-man, for example, has years and years of stories to be drawn upon. It makes a certain amount of sense that creators would want to pull from his biggest and best villains when making a new film, and of course there’s reason to tell a story that old fans can enjoy. The problem is when the story becomes one that old fans can predict, beat for beat, because it’s the same story they’ve already read. Over and over.
I’m well aware that every new Megaman game is going to involve killing eight bosses and taking their weapons. But every new Zelda game is going to not just feature me going into dungeons and fighting bosses, it’s going to feature the same items in roughly the same order. I was promised that The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds would be something I’d like, simply because it’s a love letter to my favorite game in the franchise; my problem centers around the fact that it halfway is that game, with only one new gimmick to change things up.
The glory of having past history to draw from for a franchise is that you can take familiar elements and combine them in new and unexpected ways, take the opportunity to do something new without having to do as much of the hard work of laying down base characterization. Instead, it so frequently becomes an all-purpose crutch, a chance to just do the same thing that was done before, but now there’s a new actor or a new platform or a new gimmick or whatever.
Being attached to what came before is understandable. It’s a good thing, even. But it’s a poor excuse for not making anything new, for not trying to reinterpret and move forward. And yes, we can all talk about horrible remakes until the day approaches its nadir, but at least those projects tried to do something new.
Some people are always going to want to be fed the same thing from dawn until dusk. That’s fine. For some people, every single Autobot leader should be Optimus Prime, every Spider-man should be a white Peter Parker, and every Zelda game should fundamentally aim toward when you get the Master Sword yet again. But there’s so much space to do more. There’s so many other options. You can take these ideas and break them down, make something new out of them, twist the formula and make something distinct and different.
Yes, you need to protect trademarks, sure. But not every Transformers story needs the same basic lineup of characters. Every time combiners are produced, the Aerialbots don’t need to be on the shortlist. Put these characters on new teams, even! Mix up their allegiances! Do something, anything, that we haven’t seen before!
Because that’s the greatest risk of continually going back to the past for inspiration, that all of it eventually becomes so similar that it’s impossible to tell the difference any longer. You can’t really see what makes one incarnation of Starscream different from any other incarnations, because it’s all the same story notes every time. The differences come down to increasingly minor elements, differentiated only by minutiae that matters more to fans than the casual audience.
There are characters with near universal recognition, games that people understand almost as a matter of course, and you can generally assume that your audience doesn’t need more elaboration. Let’s launch into the craziness. Let’s stop acting like every superhero film needs to start with an origin story; let’s jump into strange stuff, more obscure options, plots no one would expect.
Let’s stop just recycling back to the same starting point every time and seeing where we wind up, because we can do so much more with every medium other than just performing slight tweaks on the same format.