Warner Bros. had half the right idea with their Buffy the Vampire Slayer remake. It's about time somebody picked up the baton Joss Whedon dropped seven freaking years ago. But we don't need more Buffy, just more heroes like her.
After I heard about the plans for a new Buffy movie without Whedon's involvement, I had profoundly mixed feelings, which it's taken me a while to sort through. I mean, I had the same feeling of "a disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out of terror yadda yadda" that everybody else had. I mean, Buffy is one of the great stories of our time, and a lackluster remake without the creator involved just obviously seems like bad news.
But after more consideration, I had a more nuanced feeling about this remake. First of all, the absence of Whedon's involvement is a symptom, not the cause, of the likely suckitude. Second of all, we need more heroes like Buffy — but more than that, I desperately want to see what the next thing after Buffy is. And third of all, there hasn't just been a shortage of strong female heroines since Buffy went away — there's been a shortage of strong heroes and stories about heroism, period. We're in a weirdly cynical era where we have tons of heroes but not much heroism.
So taking those one by one:
The absence of Joss is just a symptom.
You could make a great Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie without Joss Whedon's involvement — it's not likely, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility. It's not as if there's a secret Buffy formula that only Whedon knows — plenty of other writers have handled the character well, and there's much about her that's a tad generic, including the "there can be only one" thing.
Imagine, for a second, that Warners had hired writer extraordinaire Jane Espenson to write a Buffy movie script, instead of novice screenwriter Whit Anderson. Would you be as upset? I know I wouldn't.
And sweet muppety Odin knows, some of the recent Buffy season eight comics have had me wondering if Whedon himself still has any idea what to do with the character who made him famous.
But at the same time, we live in an era of cynical, dumbed-down remakes. Studios are constantly digging through the scrapheap of old stories, looking for pieces of IP that they can break down and sell for parts. They don't see anything unique about Buffy, any more than they do about Total Recall or any of the tons of other remakes they're pushing through. They're just brands that haven't been drained dry yet. They have some name recognition and a smidge of nostalgia value, which can be turned into money before they're tossed back on the heap. In other words, to the studios, Buffy is Mr. Peanut.
Where remakes have worked, it's been because the creators were willing to go back to the source material and really engage with it. Like in the case of the surprisingly good Let Me In — Matt Reeves was determined to go back to the original novel by John Ajvide, to create a fresh take on the novel's themes and ideas, instead of just doing a bad copy of the Swedish film. But that just brings us back to the fact that the source material of Buffy is in Whedon's head, if it's anywhere.
And looked at in that light, the decision to shut out Whedon feels cynical. How hard would have been to rope him in, in some kind of producer role? The absence of the character's creator, combined with the decision to hire a novice writer, just sounds suspiciously like a quick and dirty assembly-line remake, to mine the last bit of value out of the old girl.
And Anderson's comments to the L.A. Times also didn't fill me with confidence — they sounded like a summary of the movie and TV show by someone who'd seen a few episodes, but didn't really get the themes of sacrifice and strength of character that Whedon instilled into Buffy Summers. In particular there was a lot of talk about "duty and destiny" and the conflict between Buffy's responsibility to save the world and her reluctance to do it — which seems like a charcoal sketch of the character's conflict, not the rich character study that Whedon created.
So yeah, a Buffy movie without Whedon could be okay — but it probably won't.
We're still waiting for what comes after Buffy
Jeez, Hollywood. Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air in 2003. And we're still waiting for someone to take it to the next level.
Buffy made a bold statement in the context of 1990s pop culture: What if this tiny blonde girl, who looks like the victim in every horror movie ever, is actually the monster-killer? What if she's badder and tougher than everyone else? What if she's secretly grappling with the weight of the world because she's the only one who can save us all?
Whedon often talks about the idea for the original Buffy movie coming from the image of a girl running from a monster, like in every other horror film — but then it turns out she's actually hunting the monster, and she catches it by surprise. Because she's not just your typical sacrificial cheerleader.
That was a radical idea in 1992, and even in 1997. I would be very sad to think it would still be radical in 2012, or whenever this film comes out.
A lot of the themes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ought to feel dated, even if they don't. The whole idea that even though she just looks like a regular cheerleader doesn't mean she's not something special, for example — we got another dose of that from Heroes, except it was stripped of all its humor and, well, heroism. The novelty of "a young girl who's not just a victim" definitely ought to have worn off by now.
Mind you, the theme of being torn between duty and your personal desires is fairly timeless and intrinsic to the "hero" thing — but Buffy did bring something special to it. Especially after the first season and a half, Buffy learns the value of sacrifice, and gains strength of character from making tough choices. She's not just permanently struggling against her destiny, and heroism doesn't just drag her down, it also enriches her life — it's complicated. And it's that complication that I'd love to see taken to the next level.
A lot of my favorite Buffy moments, not surprisingly, are the "fuck yeah" moments where you think Buffy's finally going to give up, but then she comes back twice as strong or does something surprising and awesome. People used to talk about how empowering Buffy was, and it's really true — at its best, the show was inspiring, and there hasn't really been anything like that since then.
So what kind of female heroes have we gotten after Buffy? It hasn't been a particularly great time, at least on screen. The best you can say, for the most part, is that women have graduated from "damsel in distress" to "sidekick who sometimes needs rescuing." The distinction is a subtle one, but it does carry some weight. Look at Theresa Palmer's character in The Sorcerer's Apprentice — she's mostly the love interest, but she does get to do something to help defeat the baddie. Similarly, I feel like a lot of action/adventure movies now have a role for the female badass who's not quite as awesome as the male hero, but still gets to do some stuff — like Helen Mirren in RED or Theresa Palmer (again!) in I Am Number Four.
So actually the way to get the kind of surprise that Buffy served up in the 1990s would be to have a female character who you think is going to be the "butt-kicking sidekick," but actually turns out to be more awesome than everyone else.
Actually, what may really rule — if we're incredibly lucky — is the upcoming Hunger Games movie. If the movie version of Katniss is half as great as the book version, she could really be our next Buffy.
But yeah, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seems like a trick you can only pull once — and then you really ought to find a new trick. As Whedon himself told Entertainment Weekly a couple weeks back in its big Wonder Woman article, we shouldn't necessarily hope for a Wonder Woman movie — but we should be clamoring for more wonder women.
We're not just lacking strong female heroes, we're lacking heroes
Can you name any other popular story of the past decade that's dealt with the cost — and the glory — of heroism and saving people the way Buffy the Vampire Slayer did? I can't, not really.
I really think Heroes, deep down, wanted to tell a story about heroism, but let's not talk about how that turned out. Lost flirted with the idea of showing someone becoming a hero, but we never quite got there. Most superhero movies are all wish fulfillment and shininess, with no real heroism depicted on screen. Just as we're suffering from a villain recession, we also haven't had a hero who sacrifices, and does the right thing in spite of the cost, and saves people. Not in a while anyway.
There have been hints of these themes a few times — Avatar, for all its faults, does show us Jake Sully making hard choices to become the hero who can save the Na'vi. The Dark Knight deals a fair bit with the idea that being Batman comes with a heavy cost, and Bruce Wayne pays that cost because people need Batman. The short-lived show The Middleman was starting to say some really interesting stuff about the sacrifices that Wendy Watson makes to save the world, when it was yanked off the air by network fish zombies. (Edited to add: And people have mentioned some other great recent stories about real heroism in comments, notably Harry Potter and Supernatural.)
But mostly, we have spectacles with cookie-cutter heroes, who aren't particularly heroic, or even interesting for that matter. Our heroes either don't struggle with their responsibility at all, or they whine about how the burden of responsibility is crushing them. The themes of Buffy — like wanting a "normal life" in spite of having awesome superpowers — have degraded into a sort of dull whine of entitlement. We get the flashiness of having power, and the cost of having power — but nothing about how great it is to do the right thing.
The "refusing the call of heroism" portion of the "hero's journey" story has become the whole story — it was the entire arc (if there was one) of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and most of the arc of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, to name two random recent movies. Watching squirrely young dudes mope for an hour because they don't want to hang out with awesome giant robots or learn how to do cool magic any more may be your idea of fun, but it's not mine.
I know we live in a cynical age, and we don't feel like any one of us can make a real difference, because every war is a quagmire and every politician is bought and sold, yadda yadda. We see evil everywhere, but it's indistinct because it's systemic and we all, as grown-ups, consent to it to some degree because otherwise we'd have to go live in a hut somewhere. To some extent, our heroic power fantasies are meant to help us escape from this reality — if only we had a magic ring, we'd fix all these problems right quick! — but our heroic stories are also supposed to make us think about the real meaning of heroism. The hero's quest is not meant to be easy or always glamorous — but that makes it more heroic, not less.
With Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon issued a challenge to storytellers everywhere — not just to tell better stories about heroic women, but to tell better stories about heroism, period. The challenge has not been answered. A rehash of Whedon's own vision is not an answer to his challenge — it's just more dumb profiteering. Step up, Hollywood — it's time to give us the next generation of Buffys.