I don’t care about Star Trek. But I can still appreciate some things about it: its history; its legacy. When JJ Abrams’s Star Trek movie came out in 2009–largely jettisoning the distinctive elements that defined the series in favor of action and spectacle–I wasn’t offended. But, as fan of movies and science fiction in general, I was disappointed. Why take one of the 2 most beloved sci-fi franchises in history, and do everything possible to turn it into the OTHER one? I mean, don’t get me wrong: I like Star Wars more than Star Trek too… but that’s why I shouldn’t be hired to direct a Star Trek reboot. Yeah, I know it made a zillion dollars. It doesn’t matter; if you care about the soul of Star Trek, and not just the franchise’s “brand,” you should care about the integrity of the adaptation.
I recently saw the new James Bond movie, Skyfall, and while I liked it a lot more than Star Trek, I felt it committed a similar crime: grand cinematic larceny from a closely related series of films. Skyfall’s thievery didn’t necessarily negate the property’s essence the way Star Trek’s did, but it did seem particularly blatant and cheap, in light of the fact that the series it burglarized is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the conclusion of which came out on DVD only a month after Skyfall opened in theaters. Now, I understand that Nolan’s Bat-films are incredibly popular, and that their style is so striking that they’re going to be hugely influential; I don’t expect other action movies to ignore them completely. But there is a difference between being inspired by someone else’s work, and glomming leach-like onto another movie and taking its specific successes for your own.
Christopher Nolan himself cited the James Bond series (and the original Star Wars…) as an influence on his Batman films, and it’s not hard to see the similarities: the globe-trotting scope; the science fiction-y gadgets; the Q-like technology expert. But while Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins looked to Bond for inspiration, he wasn’t taking direct plot points from the most recent iteration of the character; he was reaching back to the initial run of films from the 1960s, in a general way, searching for the language to use to translate Batman faithfully from comics to film, in an authoritative way, really for the first time. Skyfall, meanwhile, not only took scenes directly from The Dark Knight–Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva gets himself arrested and escapes on purpose as part of an elaborate plan–but it divulges the details of Bond’s childhood, which unfold with remarkable similarity to Bruce Wayne’s own. According to Skyfall, James was an orphan whose rich parents died unexpectedly, sending young James into depression, hiding for days in a cave on the grounds of his family’s countryside manor. Returning to the manor for the last act of the movie, it’s even revealed that James Bond had his own Alfred in the person of Albert Finney’s character Kincade.
My problem with all this is that despite the similarities that James Bond and Bruce Wayne might have, they’re different characters at the core, and the question of origin is right at the heart of that difference: Bruce is haunted by the death of his parents; he’s got everything–money, looks, intelligence–but he can’t move past the crusade he’s devoted himself to in their memory. His origin defines him. James on the other hand lives constantly in the moment; the risk of death that comes with every mission gives him absolute freedom, and imbues him with a borderline immorality. He is completely unmoored from any past he might have had; his origin does not matter. Casino Royale hinted at a possible background for 007 without making it the centerpiece of the story. That film also made James Bond a believable, emotionally-relatable character without resorting to giving Bond a facile, 1+1, “his parents died so he’s angry” origin.