5 Less-Known (But Superior) Versions Of Iconic Characters
You may literally have never seen a movie character who was wholly original. Batman borrowed from Zorro, which borrowed from The Scarlet Pimpernel, and so on. But the most well-known (and lucrative) versions of these characters aren't always the best. Look at how ...
Upgrade Is A More Existentially Haunting Version Of RoboCop
I pride myself on always trying to find the good in everything, no matter how bad, which is a habit you develop when you're me and own functioning mirrors. So, for example, the 2014 reboot of RoboCop was bad, but it also introduced an interesting concept: At one point, Alex Murphy's human consciousness gets sort of blended with his programming, resulting in him being fed computer commands while mistaking them for his own thoughts. This essentially blurs the lines between man and machine, making you question the very nature of free will. Sadly, the movie questions it less than you do and drops this plot point almost immediately.
Fortunately, Upgrade picked it right up.
This 2018 sci-fi thriller is about Grey, a man who's attacked by a group of psychopaths. His wife comes down with a fatal case of Tragic Origin-itis, while he gets paralyzed from the neck down. But then he gets an AI chip implanted in him which allows him to walk and do martial arts, because we live in a post-Matrix world. The chip also starts talking to him, and together they go on a brutal revenge spree. The whole thing has a slightly less erotic Venom feel to it, until we get to the big plot twist: The man who gave Grey the chip was himself being controlled by it, and that the AI orchestrated Grey's "accident" in order to gain a host body.
It is also made clear that all of the heinous violence and torture that the character employed on his quest for vengeance were a result of the AI taking over (granting him fighting skills the character himself never had), forming a sort of partnership. But over time, it's also made clear that the AI is asserting more and more decision-making power, and near the end, you get to the point where you can never be sure which of "Grey's" choices are fully his. In retrospect, it makes his robotic kung fu look less awesome and more like a meat puppet being pushed to gruesome murder by a soulless piece of machinery.
Just before the credits roll, the AI takes over Grey's body completely, but he never notices it (his consciousness is given a perfect reality to live in), much like you wouldn't notice if a parasite started to slowly eat your brain until there was no more of you left to notice. The RoboCop movies always end with the heroic Murphy overcoming the programming and reasserting his humanity. It's a more upbeat ending, but Upgrade asks a more challenging question: If super intelligent machines took over, would we even notice?
The Last Season Of Jessica Jones Has The Best Live-Action Lex Luthor
Lex Luthor is one of my favorite supervillains ever, and it's because of his complexity. That's one advantage of having nearly 80 years of comics to flesh out his psychology. In his mind, he worked hard to become one of the smartest, most powerful humans on Earth, but then here comes Superman, who not only has godlike power, but is so effortlessly likable. Lex hates that about him, and basically views Superman as a sort of cheater. But you wouldn't know this about Luthor if you watched the Superman movies, which tend to portray him as either a shady businessman or a weird guy who's prone to monologues.
That's why I say the best portrayal of a Lex Luthor on screen doesn't come from Superman flicks. Hell, it doesn't even come from DC. You can actually find it in Jessica Jones' third season, with serial killer Gregory Salinger. He's a polymath holding degrees in law, psychology, chemistry, engineering, physics, and biology. He's also an experienced wrestler, talented photographer, and all-around fine specimen of humanity. And that's why he absolutely hates the superpowered Jessica.
He calls Jones and her kind "cheaters," because despite his insanely impressive accomplishments, Salinger feels small and insignificant in the presence of superhumans, and when he feels small, he gets stabby. In the past, he most likely killed his brother and definitely killed his friend simply because he was jealous of all the praise that they were getting. And while you got hints of that in Smallville's version of Lex, it was muddled by the show desperately needing to balance its comic book mythos with being a kryptonite-laden version of Dawson's Creek.
Salinger eventually tries to destroy Jones, because he believes that by doing so, he will prove to himself that he is better than a woman who can literally punch through walls. And just like Luthor, he goes about it intelligently. In the better comics, Luthor hides in plain sight as an upstanding citizen, and Salinger does this too, cultivating a public persona of a good, accomplished man. He then uses that to its fullest against Jones, playing as her victim and turning the entire city against her. Salinger fights his enemies with his mind, just as comic Lex does. Meanwhile, onscreen, Luthor's most famous plan was to drive up real estate prices on the West Coast.
The Magicians Does A Better "Magical Kid" Than Harry Potter
Quick question: What is Harry Potter's favorite book? What kind of music does he like to listen to? How would you describe his personality, aside from broad positives like "heroic" and "loyal"? This is left vague by design. The readers are meant to project themselves onto Harry. He's a standard "blank slate" protagonist, and thus needs to be kept blander than air-flavored water, because otherwise, someone might not be able to relate to him.
So while this equates to a lot of novels being sold and a bunch of online quizzes ending with you exclaiming, "Yes, I would TOTALLY be a Gryffindor," it means that the main character is the least interesting part of the story. But this isn't so with Quentin Coldwater, lead of the Syfy series The Magicians. If you couldn't tell from the show's title and his needlessly elaborate name, he is also a magic dude. But unlike Harry Potter, he actually has, well, a basic personality.
Both series deal with people enrolling in a secret magic school, learning about this new world, having to deal with a magical Big Bad etc. There's also a lot of drinking, smoking, and sex in The Magicians, but I won't argue that this is what's been missing from Harry Potter, because I'm on enough government watch lists as is. So the main difference comes with Quentin, who is a dork, but not in the same way that Harry Potter is a dork. (People just seem to pick on Harry for the simple reason that everyone needs to clap for him by the end of each book.)
Quentin has real trouble relating to other people, or even holding a conversation for long, because he eventually geeks out about one topic or another and ends up scaring people away. He likes close-up magic, and is good at it. He loves a sort of Narnia parody fantasy series, is very emotional, and is often depressed, because as he enters adulthood, he fears that the hobbies he's kept closest to his heart are not adult enough to be accepted by his peers. Also, he just keeps screwing up in endearingly small ways, like failing to properly take off his sweater.
Those might seem like standard "beleaguered nerd" traits, but they go a long way in establishing a protagonist who is more than just "Everyone hates him for no reason whatsoever, so the reader should like him."
Merlin Is The Morally Complex Origin Story The Star Wars Prequels Should Have Been
On the surface, it might seem like the 2008 British TV show Merlin couldn't have less to do with Star Wars. After all, one is the story of a powerful magic user coming across a boy prophesied to one day bring order to the world, trying to shape him into a noble warrior, and watching his complete transformation into someone very different from what he was as a child. And the other is ... oh.
So in Merlin, we meet the titular wizard when he's still young, as he hangs out with a young Arthur, who is destined to one day become ruler of the realm. They eventually form a special bond, going on adventures, fighting evil, etc., with Merlin playing the role of Obi-Wan, looking out for the hotheaded Arthur, who experiences the sort of journey we wanted to see Anakin go through. The key word is "wanted" -- in the prequel trilogy, his transformation is a jarring start/stop affair where he has a loving wife, a close mentor and friend, and an entire faith-based support system, but every once in a while, someone hisses "Join meeeeee" at him, so he goes full Dark Side.
Merlin paints a much clearer picture. Arthur is the son of a petty and cruel king, so it's unsurprising that he'd grow up to be the kind of jerk who torments his squires by throwing knives at them. But then comes Merlin, a low-born who straight up calls Arthur a "prat" and fights him twice, despite knowing it could get him executed. This impresses Arthur, and the two eventually start hanging out, during which time Merlin slowly transforms Arthur into a good person through the sheer example of his badass character.
But the show also has Arthur experience conflict between Merlin's influence and the "tough ruler" philosophy that his dad instilled in him. At every step, Arthur is pulled in different directions, an inner conflict that is engaging even though we know the outcome (in this case, that Arthur isn't going to turn supervillain). In the prequel trilogy, it felt like we got 2 1/2 movies of Good Guy Anakin and then, boom, one Palpatine speech and he's ready to murder kids.
Arrow Covers A Facet Of Batman's Life Better Than The Batman Movies
Every Batman fan has heard the tired old argument of "Oh, Bruce Wayne could do more for Gotham if he donated money to charity, etc." And though it's kind of BS, because no one wants to watch a billionaire psychopath sift through his tax write-offs, I get why people bring it up. That said, the movies and TV series revolving around Batman always land him squarely in the territory of "Old-money ninja beats up the mentally unwell for justice-esque reasons," and barely hint at the good that Wayne can do with his cash. But that's not the case with Arrow.
The original Green Arrow is basically a buff Bernie Sanders cosplaying as Robin Hood. And when the Arrow TV show was made, the character took more than a few cues from Batman, mostly in how dark and brooding he became. But while it also features amazing action sequences, the main character also gets his contractually obligated face time as his secret identity and public persona, Oliver Queen. This is where Arrow really shines.
Because we see this man outside his costume quite often, we see his everyday life and his work with various Star City charities, public functions, the works. In Season 5, he actually becomes mayor, and through this, we understand that Star City suffers because of underlying corruption and crime that no amount of charitable donations can fix. And when you put a man like Oliver in charge of fixing it, he actually becomes less effective at enacting change because of the confines of the law. In the episode "Spectre Of The Gun," for example, he tries fighting crime with legislation, but in the end, he finds out that he can only affect real change by getting personally involved. And by "personally involved," I mean "doing more punching."
You can interpret this as the character's need for control and doing everything himself, which is fair. But you also have to admit that this is as Batman as you can get, while focusing on an aspect of Batman's life that never gets enough screen time. Oliver really is trying to solve these problems within the law before running off to don a costume. Arrow doesn't shy away from this dilemma, and because of that, we get a view of an ass-kicking vigilante from all angles ... including the one where the ultra-gritty Arrow shoots a man in the face with a boxing glove.
Cezary is a freelance writer and editor. You should follow him on Twitter.
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