A good title can make a world of difference. Would we have so many TV shows and sequels to a space movie called Journal of the Whills, or make high-schoolers read a book called Trimalchio in West Egg? Those were both seriously considered titles for Star Wars and The Great Gatsby, but the problem with those short, punchy, instantly memorable titles is there are only so many of them. 

Sometimes, the best title for your story has already been taken by a different one, and that's where you have to get creative ...

Blade Runner Was Taken From A Story Actually About Blades And Running Them

Science fiction legend Philip K. Dick anticipated a lot of 21st-century problems. If you think about it, Blade Runner is basically about Harrison Ford as a badass, gun-toting CAPTCHA, making sure robots don't get away with pretending to be human.

still from blade runner

Warner Bros.

"You're in the desert, and you see a turtle. Which of these squares have turtles in them?"

But PKD (as we'll refer to him from here on out because even we have our limits on Philip K. Jokes) was still writing for a 20th-century audience, and he knew what they wanted. He was a veteran of the pulp SF magazines that defined the genre for decades, where stories had to be immediately arresting and intriguing enough to grab someone who's considering buying some M&Ms or cigarettes instead. That's why so many of PKD's titles aren't just long but downright ungainly, like "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" or "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" or "A Little Something For Us Tempunauts" or "Luigi Kincaid's Seven-Figure Memory" -- Okay, we made that last one up.

In any case, when the time came to adapt one of PKD's most famous novels, everyone knew it would need a different name than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Early versions of the script had titles like "Android" and "Mechanismo," but you probably don't want a meditative, visionary future-noir to have the same name you'd give your vibrator. Eventually, screenwriter Hampton Fancher turned to one of his inspirations for adapting the book: Yet another dystopian novel called Blade Runner (A Movie).

Blade Runner a movie book cover

Blue Wind Press

Definitely not a name you'd give your vibrator, especially "(a movie)."

Blade Runner (A Movie) (a book) was a trippy, gory vision of a collapsed future New York written by William S. Burroughs, who was known for having trippy and gory visions of pretty much everything. The grand tradition of ripping off the cool knife-speeding title doesn't end with him, though. Burroughs actually started the project as a film adaptation of Bladerunner, one last dystopian novel by Alan E. Nourse. 

Nourse was a practicing doctor as well as a writer, and Bladerunner is about a medical dystopia: Everyone who gets medical treatment legally has to be sterilized to combat overpopulation, so most doctors work illegally and in secret. They need medical supplies, mostly stuff for surgeries like scalpels, and so they need smugglers like the main character to run those blades. Good thing Nourse didn't call them "scalpel smugglers," or we'd be back in vibrator name territory.

I, Robot Wasn't The First To Say So

Isaac Asimov was another science fiction writer who was both ahead of his time and hopelessly stuck in it. Just to give you a taste, one of his groundbreaking robot stories was a merciless takedown of the Birther movement written 15 years before Obama was actually born, but another is about how a female programmer isn't happy with any of her robots until she creates a robot baby she can mother.

 Dr. Isaac Asimov, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right

New York World-Telegram

"Cool story babe, now make me a positronic brain."

That's the kind of stuff you only get if you go back and do the reading, instead of just zoning out and watching the soporific Will Smith movie, the one that was literally a completely different movie they decided to call I, Robot instead of actually adapting the story. But you can't blame them too much for swiping that title, especially when that's exactly what Asimov did himself.

The first thing to be called "I, Robot" was a short story from 1939, the first in a series about a robot named Adam Link. Adam was a lot like all the other Indiana Jones-style adventuring heroes you got in those stories -- on the run from the law, fighting bad guys -- but he'd do it with his robot super-strength and perfect memory instead of a jetpack or whatever Americans in the 1930s thought martial arts were.

January 1939 issue of Amazing Stories Cover art by Robert Fuqua

Robert Fuqua 

"Gee whiz, the gun didn't work! I guess I better try the mystical Asian technique of karatijitsu!"

A decade later, Asimov wanted to call his big robot book Mind and Iron, but his publisher wanted something punchier and suggested reusing the Adam Link title. Asimov eventually agreed, but he never wanted to take the title, mostly because he had too much respect for Adam Link and his author, Otto Binder. Given that Binder would go on to spend decades writing for DC Comics, where he gave the world such timeless creations as Comet the Super-Horse and Titano the Super-Ape, Asimov probably didn't need to be so precious.

The Man Who Wasn't There Was Supposedly Stolen By A Man Who Wasn't There

It must be pretty damn cool to be the Coen Brothers -- not that you'd know it from looking at them. Joel and Ethan have made some of the funniest and most emotionally complex movies of the past few decades, but they both perpetually look like math teachers who were just given the news that they have to cut algebra from the curriculum because of budget cuts.

Ethan and Joel at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival

Rita Molnar

"We can't even teach functions? How will the kids function without functions?"

The brothers are successful enough they can insist on doing everything their way, no matter how normal or even legal it is for filmmakers. For example, they edit their own movies, even though that goes against a metric shit-ton of Hollywood union rules and regulations, so the official editing credit always goes to "Roderick Jaynes," which isn't just an Alan Smithee-style fake name but a whole elaborate fictional persona the Co-Bros have cooked up.

Ol' Roddy J is supposedly a geriatric Englishman who's edited movies for decades but is completely retired apart from editing the Coens' movies. They're so committed to the bit that when No Country For Old Men got Roderick Jaynes an Oscar nomination for Best Editing, they hatched a plan to have actual geriatric Englishman Albert Finney show up to the Oscars in character as the man himself, complete with a speech in case he won. The Oscars could only take so much shenanigans, so it never happened.

Mondadori Publishers

Mondadori Publishers

Finney was nominated for five Oscars but won none, cruel irony clearly scripted by the Coens.

That wasn't the first time they'd use Roderick Jaynes as something halfway between Ali G and Eminem's Stan. In 2001, they used him as a scapegoat, writing an article in character as him for The Guardian, explaining that he was the one who thought up the title The Man Who Wasn't There for the Coens' latest movie, without knowing it was also the name of a Steve Guttenberg spy movie from the '80s. He defends his choice by saying he thought it up because he was thinking about the brothers themselves -- "Here are two men respected in the arts [ ... ] who are in fact clods" -- and admitting he had never heard of Steve Guttenberg. The Coens probably thought that was a pretty sick burn on "Jaynes," rather than perfectly normal for most people under 30, which is how they got away with stealing his title in the first place.

Duke Nukem Was Here To Kick Ass And Avoid Trademarks

Not to get all "wanna feel old?" on you, but it's been 10 years since Duke Nukem Forever came out. Of course, given the Duke Nukem game series is best known for a mechanic where you can pay strippers with about the same frequency that you pick up health packs, maybe it makes sense that culture has left the series behind.

stripper in duke nuken 3d

3D Realms

The most immersive and titillating sprite graphics 1996 had to offer.

Duke Nukem was never going to make it very far past the late '90s, but so much of the modern Internet started out as a Great Pacific Garbage Patch of '90s culture, and so it'll never completely go away, taking up bandwidth and storage space as it slowly rots but never decays.

Speaking of both pollution and forgotten '90s culture, let's shift our focus over to Captain Planet, the quintessential example of "I guess these dumb Saturday morning cartoons have to have something to say." The show followed a team of five teenagers who would summon a be-mulleted superhero named Captain Planet to protect the world from various eco-terrorists who were all variations on a certain theme: A pig-man named Hoggish Greedly, a rat person named Verminous Skumm, an evil businessman named Looten Plunder, a man with a seven-figure memory named Luigi Kincaid -- we made that last one up again.

captain planet villains

DIC Enterprises

In fairness, all of these people wouldn't be out of place in a Philip K. Dick story.

That big yellow guy up there was also named Duke Nukem, and he debuted a couple years before the first Duke Nukem video game did. The official story that the game devs didn't know about the cartoon villain, and this was a wacky Dennis The Menace-style coincidence, but there are some holes in that story, like how they say the character is from "overseas," even though the two Dukes Nukem (that's the correct plural, right?) are two of the most American ideas you could ever conceive. 

Ultimately, the video game Duke won the day since Captain Planet's production company had never actually trademarked the Duke Nukem name. In theory, though, they could still bring the developers to court today if they ever thought that one hopelessly '90s character was worth risking for the chance to own another.

Captain Marvel Stole The Name From The Guy Who's Now Shazam

At first glance, Marvel having a superhero named "Captain Marvel" would seem like the result of Stan Lee having to come up with a new character just before his lunch break. But the first comic book with that name was actually published in 1941, well before Marvel was founded. And things get even more baffling when you actually take a look at an original Captain Marvel comic:

captain marvel comic book

Fawcett Comics

This issue was written by Otto Binder from the I, Robot story -- small world, huh?

That isn't Captain Marvel; that's Shazam -- at least, that's what he has to be called now because Marvel owns the name "Captain Marvel." Even though Lightning Von Bigchin came first, he lost the rights to his name in a copyright law case that was won by ... DC Comics?!?

Let's start at the beginning here. The first Captain Marvel, the guy up there on the left who needs to figure out something to do with his hands, was created in 1939 by Fawcett Comics and became one of the biggest comic book characters of the '40s. He got so big he threatened to overtake Superman, who kicked off superhero comic books as we know them today. Superman was published by National Comics, who would later rename themselves DC, and they set out to annihilate their competition in court, just like that other DC

The legal battle took almost a decade, involved multiple absurd technicalities, and was eventually decided by a judge named Learned Hand, in case you couldn't tell this was about comic books. Judge Hand ruled that Unnamed Red And Yellow Hunk was legally plagiarism of Superman in 1950, and so the "Captain Marvel" name was abandoned ... until an upstart company named Marvel Comics got their hands on it a few years later

captain marvel movie poster

Walt Disney Pictures

Eventually, Marvel would become stupidly overpowered (the company, not the character)

It took a lo-o-o-ong time to actually attach the name to a character anyone cared about, but eventually, the Brie Larson version gathered up enough hype to get a movie literally the exact same month as the original Captain Marvel, who DC had purchased outright decades later but still had to call "Shazam."
 

 

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