The 4 Biggest Missed Opportunities in Fiction
It's really easy (and fun, too!) to look at a bad movie or book or TV show and talk about how much better it could have been, because technically everything bad could be better in really obvious ways. Live Free or Die Hard wasn't great, and could have been improved if it were more like the original Die Hard. Maid in Manhattan was bad, and could have been improved if it were more like the original Die Hard.
But Maid in Manhattan is a waste of time, and I'm not talking about wasted time -- I'm talking about wasted potential. Movies, shows and comics that, at one point, started out with amazing premises. They had all of the ingredients for greatness; they were impressive seeds that could have grown into trees of perfection, instead of shrubs of rotting poop.
This article is about seeds that grew into poop.
The Walking Dead
I've mentioned my feelings about The Walking Dead before. In short, it's the only show that I watch every single week specifically for how good it isn't. I watch it with the belief that it might be a great show one day, based solely on the concept and the amazing, incredible pilot.
I still think about that pilot today. It was well-paced, well-acted, tense and uncomfortable at all the right times, and it introduced you to characters who were real humans dealing with a real zombie problem. Rick, the injured sheriff who wakes up disoriented in a world gone to shit, is just trying desperately to find his family. He meets Morgan and his son, two of the few survivors left. Morgan is emotional but realistic. Rick is confused but optimistic, and determined. They swap stories, bond, try to make a plan together and then go their separate ways, both having changed a little bit. Two complex, interesting characters, and on either side of their brief meeting, we're treated to the best zombie action ever seen on television.
"What if zombies ... but cowboys ... and helicopters ... EXPLOSIONS!"
After the pilot, the pacing went to hell (40 minutes of slow nothing followed by four minutes of HOLY SHIT SOMETHING BIG AND CRAZY JUST HAPPENED), and every character became a stereotype. The hothead. The wise old guy. The black guy, who is such a stereotypical throwback that his name has "dawg" in it, even though it's 2012. The Southern, racist redneck. The other Southern, racist redneck. The Southern, racist redneck's brother, himself a Southern redneck with racist tendencies. Even Rick transformed into Good Ole Rick, the Good Guy Sheriff. Every character was one note, but it didn't really matter, because this show would get rid of half of its cast every other episode. "Here, let's briefly introduce you to these 12 characters but -- OH, never mind, they decided to go in a new direction, they're gone now. Let's have you get to know this blonde girl a little better, she's sticking around -- OH, never mind, she's a zombie now. How about you meet this guy, he's -- OH, zombie."
I think I have a new favorite character and -- ah, shit.
The show is just a series of underdeveloped characters yelling at each other and occasionally shooting zombies. I don't care if any of the characters die, because I can barely remember their names.
But What if Instead ...
What if this show were about a group of strangers making a new life together after the world ends? I've watched 12 episodes now, and all everyone does is complain and walk, complain and walk. The show would be much more interesting if it explored what real people would do if all of our laws and everything in society suddenly just broke down due to zombie-related complications. What would people do if they suddenly didn't have to follow the law? That's what I'm curious about. I want to see society break down. I want to see what people would do if they could rebuild the world however they wanted. I want anarchy. I want Lord of the Flies but with zombies.
"Fuck your ass-mar, Piggy!"
Instead, we've got a bunch of flat characters who still do everything that a sheriff tells them to do. A sheriff! His badge is only as good as his skin is resistant to zombie bites, which is to say, not at all.
Spider-Man Comics After Civil War
Civil War was one of the best things to happen to mainstream Marvel comics in decades, because its story line focused on answering a single question: What would happen if Congress passed a law demanding that every superhero (and superpowered human) register their identity with the United States government? (Yes, it's not a new idea in comics, but I still maintain that Civil War did it the best.) Would anyone sign it? Should anyone sign it? With power and responsibility, should accountability also follow?
It was fun, well-written and relevant to a post-9/11 America that was evenly split between its desire to have the government protect us at all costs and its paranoia that the government wants to know way too much about us. We were scared of terrorists, we were scared of illegal phone-tapping and the Patriot Act and we didn't know if we could trust our government. Civil War spoke to all of that. For the first time in years, we were given a title-spanning Marvel story that wasn't just about Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. It was about privacy. It was about government intervention. It was about freedom. Captain America wasn't jumping out of planes to punch some clown with a red face, he was fighting Iron Man about how forcing heroes to hand their privacy over to the government was a violation of civil liberties. The book featured long speeches about freedom versus security, and what the role of government really should be, and amid all that, we got to watch superheroes fight each other!
Part of the fun was finding out which heroes were going to join the pro-registration camp (Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic) and which would join the anti-registration camp (Captain America, Luke Cage, The Punisher). One of the most controversial things to come out of Civil War was Spider-Man joining the pro camp and revealing his secret identity on national television. You may even remember certain news shows covering this event back in 2007. That's how big of a deal it was.
For the first time, everyone knew who Spider-Man was. Every schoolteacher who scolded Parker for falling asleep in class, every employer who fired him when he was late, every friend who thought he was lazy and unreliable -- they all had a new perspective on Parker. And we, as readers, had a new comic to read. We'd never read a comic featuring an "out" Spider-Man; this was so exciting! After reading 40 years of comics about a shy, down-on-his-luck guy with a big secret, we finally get to read what happens when that secret gets out!
But, after Civil War, Spider-Man ran into a magical demon who retconned everything. For non-comics fans, "retcon" means "retroactive continuity," and it refers to a device whereby previously established facts are altered or undermined. It's like ending a season of television with a character waking up and saying, "Oh wow, it turns out everything that happened was just a long, elaborate dream." In the case of Spider-Man post-Civil War, a powerful demon shows up and clicks "undo" on the part where Spider-Man revealed his identity. He undid the reveal, he undid Parker's marriage to Mary Jane and he undid Harry Osborn's death. Three of the biggest things to ever happen to Spider-Man were completely thrown out the window, as if they'd never happened.
But What if Instead ...
What if instead, absolutely anything else happened? Spider-Man fans were thrilled that they were finally seeing a brand new Spider-Man comic. The Amazing Spider-Man is great, but you can only read about a guy who screws up as Peter Parker and fights crime as Spider-Man so many times, and I would know, because I have read that exact thing many, many times.
That's why fans found it so frustrating when, instead of exploring what a post-reveal life would be like for Spider-Man, the ASM writers basically started from scratch. "Let's make Spider-Man's identity secret again. And let's make him single again. And let's give him all of his old friends again." Why not put him in high school again, you stupid jerks?
Obviously I have some issues to work out.
The unexplored aftermath of Civil War will always, to me, be one of the biggest missed opportunities in fiction. What would Parker's friends say? What would J. Jonah Jameson say, now that he knows that his trusted photographer was his biggest nemesis for years? How would Spider-Man's enemies react, and how would it impact Mary Jane? What about the people of the city? Would they all try to sue Spider-Man for all of the damage he's caused over the years?
We'll never know, because no one bothered to answer those questions.
I say Superman Returns, though this also applies to Superman III. Basically it refers to any third Superman movie (Bryan Singer treats Superman Returns as a sequel, of sorts, to Superman II).
The original Superman was a great, classic origin story. We got to watch an alien boy grow into a man and accept his rightful place as Earth's protector.
Superman II tells a good follow-up story that feels like a natural evolution of the first one. Once the thrill of accepting the responsibility of being Earth's protector is gone, and the Superman honeymoon period is over, Superman has a crisis of faith and realizes that maybe he doesn't want to be a superhero anymore. He wants to live a normal life, so he abandons his powers, abdicates his responsibilities and tries to move on and live happily ever after with Lois. Until, of course, he realizes that he can't give up. He needs to save the world, so he regains his powers and fulfills his destiny.
"How about 'punch,' asshole!"
Then Superman III happened, and it sucked in some very profound ways (one of the characters is a "psychic nutritionist"). It's just another basic Superman story, except worse. There's a high school reunion involved. Someone is trying to monopolize the world's coffee crop. In my memory, Superman fights a computer at some point, but that can't be right.
Superman Returns, similarly, is another straightforward Superman movie. Superman shows up and does a bunch of Superman stuff until all of the bad guys are gone. Just like we've seen him do before.
But What if Instead ...
Most superhero trilogies follow the same structure as the first two Superman movies (movie #1 is an origin story that ends with the hero accepting his role as a hero, movie #2 is an expansion on that where the hero questions himself and temporarily quits before realizing that he must keep fighting), and then they all sort of fall to shit around the third movie.
Why hasn't there been a Godfather of superhero movies?
Why hasn't someone made what, to me, is the logical extension of those first two movies: Hero grows resentful of the ungrateful people he's sworn to protect and becomes the villain.
That's what I want to see. The origin, the acceptance of power and then the corruption that absolute power inevitably leads to.
Imagine a Superman movie where Superman is tired of protecting the people who have absolutely nothing to offer him. These stupid people, running around and constantly getting into trouble -- what could they possibly do for Superman? They're just accident-prone little children, and when you're the parent of a child, your house is not a democracy; it's a dictatorship. Superman III (or Superman Returns) should be Superman coming out and saying, "Look, I want to keep you safe, but because you're so bad at staying safe, I have a new rule: Do whatever the hell Superman says."
It would work. Superman is all-powerful, so all he'd need to do to protect everyone is rule them with an iron super-fist. No one would break Superman's laws or else he'd fry them with laser vision. America would be full of completely safe slaves.
How much would you pay to see a Superman movie that was all about Superman's corrupt abuse of power, and the only one who could bring him down and save the world is the brilliant and technologically creative Lex Luthor (the son of a bitch always has kryptonite)? The people turn to Luthor to protect them from Superman? I would pay all of the money to see that trilogy.
More like a thrillogy. Or a trilorgy. SOMEONE MAKE THIS MOVIE.
The Star Wars Prequels
Twice a year, fellow Cracked employee Cody Johnston and I make it a point to drink a whole lot and talk about Star Wars. It's a fun and important tradition, usually done on our birthdays. Sometimes we talk about how great Star Wars is, but mostly we talk about how great the prequels could have been. It might be my favorite thing to do.
Let's get something straight before we move on: A lot of people talk about very obvious, superficial ways in which the Star Wars sequels could have been saved. Get rid of Jar Jar. Make it less about the Trade Federation and a powerful Sith Lord's rise to power under the guise of a corrupt bureaucrat and more about other things that aren't that. Hire someone who knows how to handle George Lucas when he gets all ... George Lucasy. And they're right, but fixing a movie shouldn't just be about getting rid of the shitty stuff.
Some people think that the prequels never should have been made at all, and that the original trilogy, while not perfect, is perfect enough in our rose-tinted imaginations that any additions to the franchise not only won't live up to the originals but will actually undermine the originals and highlight all of their flaws. Any Star Wars fan who is vocal about their hatred of the prequels based on the woodenness of the acting, the awfulness of the dialogue and the goofiness of some of the characters is forced to confront the fact that all three of those flaws were also very present in the original trilogy.
They think the prequels shouldn't have been made because no matter how good they are, they can only taint our memory of the originals. But I know the prequels should have been made, because I've talked about them with Cody.
But What if Instead ...
For starters, there never should have been any impetus to bring absolutely every plot point or character in Star Wars full circle. No one needs to know where C-3PO came from, especially when his back story (he was built!) isn't all that exciting. No one needs to know where Boba Fett came from, especially when his back story (he was cloned!) isn't all that exciting and doesn't help you understand the character any better. Just as one broad, sweeping decree: Not every character ever brought up in Star Wars needs to be represented in the prequels. No one needs to see a few seconds of Chewie and a few seconds of Jabba, because no one has any reason to wonder, going into the prequels, "Hey, what do you suppose Jabba's doing during this whole pod-racing adventure?" Don't force answers to questions we have no reason to ask.
Here is the only question you should be answering in a Star Wars prequel:
How did Anakin become Darth Vader?
George Lucas went wrong when he made the prequels an origin story for everything, when he should have made an origin story for Vader. That is an intriguing story worth exploring.
With that in mind, imagine, if you will, a Star Wars trilogy that was all about the close friendship and eventual ruin of two great friends, Anakin and Obi-Wan. Even though Liam Neeson was the best part of Phantom Menace, I don't need Qui-Gon. I don't want to see Anakin as an annoying little boy who can't act, and I don't want to see him as smart-mouthed teen who makes Obi-Wan look like a cranky, overprotective mother. I want to see two 20-something badass wizard-knights trolling the galaxy and ensuring order.
There's a scene in Revenge of the Sith when Obi-Wan and Anakin are laser-sword-fighting on the hell-planet when Obi-Wan, clearly feeling hurt and betrayed, yells out, "You were supposed to be the chosen one!" And we, as the audience, feel nothing. The ultimate divorce between Obi-Wan and Anakin carried no emotional weight. The only evidence of their friendship was when Anakin said something along the lines of "You know, Obi-Wan, you've always been a good friend to me," at some point in Episode III, about 30 minutes before they fight each other. That's the only glimpse of friendship we get. When a character flat out tells the audience, "No, we're very good friends, trust me."
"Character development, character development, exposition, tragic flaw, character development."
But let's say that the first two movies were devoted solely to Obi-Wan and Anakin training and being Jedi warriors, kicking ass and being best friends. They're Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in space. A friendship that you believed as strongly as you believed that Luke, Leia and Han would be forever bound to each other. Not only would movies about two Jedi warriors be objectively more entertaining than movies about trade federations, galactic senates and stuffy, over-bearing Jedi councils, but it would make the eventual Obi-Wan and Anakin betrayal so much more powerful. We already knew going into the prequels that Anakin was going to turn into Vader, so making him a whiny, aggressive, cocky little shit does nothing for the character. When Obi-Wan slices up Anakin on the hell-planet, we shouldn't be saying "Finally," we should be heartbroken that a character that we'd spent two movies knowing and loving had to chop up his best friend, another character that we'd spent two movies knowing and loving. The only way that Anakin's transformation into Vader can make any kind of impact is if his fall from grace is an actual fall, and not a stumble.
I want to like Anakin. Luke was a whiner, but you still liked him. Anakin was just a dick, and you couldn't wait for him to get his ass laser-chopped. You could make a Star Wars movie that was, essentially, a buddy cop movie set in space with an enormous budget, setting up Anakin as the space-Riggs to Obi-Wan's space-Murtaugh.
Once the friendship is established, the betrayal that leads to Anakin's eventual turn to the dark side a) will have more of an impact and b) could be about almost anything. Cody's pitch is that Anakin and Padme were a loving married couple, but Obi-Wan was always secretly in love with her and, eventually, acted on that love. Your wife cheats on you with your absolute best friend and mentor; that sounds to me like a pretty good reason to flip out and kill all of the Jedi. Certainly a better reason than whatever they did in the movie (Padme died in a dream? Obi-Wan wouldn't let Anakin be a Jedi Master? Something something, Sand People? I honestly can't remember what Anakin was so mad about).
"Yoda thinks I'm too unstable to be a Master so I am going to SLAUGHTER JEDI CHILDREN."
It would also explain why Obi-Wan feels such a strong responsibility to hang out and watch over Luke. If it hadn't been for Obi-Wan's affair with Padme, Anakin never would have flipped out and Luke would have had a father growing up who wasn't Darth Vader.
So that's our Star Wars prequels. Two best friends patrol the galaxy until one breaks the other's heart so profoundly that he dedicates his life to wiping all Jedi out of the galaxy. I think that's slightly better than the tricky nuances of trade negotiations and asthmatic Sith lords, but hey, that's just me.
Daniel O'Brien is Cracked.com's Senior Writer (ladies), and this column is dedicated to Kiera McCourt (Ms. McCourt).
For more movies given the Dan O'Brien treatment, check out If 'Twilight' Was About Dragons (And Contained More Fisting) and My Brief Time as a Student at Hogwarts.