Fandoms are tricky. They are technically waiting to rip your throat off if things don’t quite pan out the way it had been imagined through their collective musings and understandings. And when I say tricky, well, you need look no further than our own Ben Affleck and his casting as Batman. Poor guy!
Having said that, there have been miraculously more incidents of satisfied fandoms than disgruntled ones, which is why, in many cases, the respective screen-endeavours have often been rediscovered and re-packaged (or rebooted to you and me). But every ‘fresh new start’ carries with it the burden of the past, the glory, the expectations and the horror of failure to repeat the previous success. In the case of successful franchises, the entire filming crew, right from the screenplay to the music to the costume, and everything else in between – must be party to the high stakes, but to the general audience, the actors playing the roles are the most visible aspect of the enterprise. While the list of successful and the not-so-successful franchises is quite long, these are the five that I love and which, somehow, have stood the test of time and the patience of the fans…
In contemporary cinema, James Bond has to be the oldest and most successful franchise ever. The suave British secret service agent has been portrayed by a staggering six actors since Dr. No, each with varying degrees of effectiveness. The Scott Sean Connery led the way, amidst reluctant approval from the Bond creator Ian Fleming himself. The author was, mercifully, wrong and the Bond franchise took off for good. Connery was followed very briefly by George Lazenby before the reigns were handed over to Roger Moore, who stands out in the same class as Connery, in terms of portraying equal part smoothness and ruthlessness. While Sean Connery’s Bond charmed the living daylights out of the viewers, Roger Moore’s rendition was more easy-going, tongue-in-cheek, with liberal use of unimaginable gadgets. A brief spell by Timothy Dalton – who portrayed a darker, marginally more realistic (as realistic as you can afford, that is) Bond – preceded a lengthy six-year legal wrangle involving the production of Bond movies, before the baton was passed on to the Irish Pierce Brosnan. Times had changed since Dr. No and though our generation’s first memory of Bond remains Pierce Brosnan and his perfect perm, it was obviously time to refresh the very concept of a spy-agent. Enter Daniel Craig, who faced similar Affleck-esque attacks before debuting as James Bond from the character’s first assignment in Casino Royale. Craig has been a massive hit since then, even though the over-artistic Quantum of Solace did not do him justice, but going by the last flick Skyfall, Daniel Craig’s brooding, vengeful, cufflink-straightening Bond, may be the third best ever.
Jack Ryan is another such ageless star, perpetually young at heart and action, immensely knowledgeable about all things diplomatic and armed with the conscience of a saint. Inaugurated on the screen by Alec Baldwin, all versions of Jack Ryan portrayed by Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have been nearly identical in their outlook and demeanour. Ford has had the longest and possibly the finest go at the character, though Baldwin must be credited with the task of laying the ground. Baldwin was an excellent Ryan – basically an academic, thrust into some undesirable situation where he has to knock and shoot and be shot at. Affleck made an adorable impact too as Jack Ryan, a tad younger, a tad more fun and naive. And the latest Chris Pine brings in as much heart to the character as its previous versions. Though not as successful as the Bond series, hopefully there would be still be more Jack Ryan adventures to follow.
One of the most celebrated fictional heroes of all times is undoubtedly, Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective and his exploits provide for the best screenplay available, with choice alterations in keeping with the times. The man and the plot are both worth looking out for, so that leaves a very narrow leeway to tinker with. The earliest recollection of a Holmes that the movie-going audience truly fell in love with was the one played by Basil Rathbone in the 1930s. Besides the uncanny similarity in terms of the physical appearance as described in the original books, Rathbone embodied the cool, logical and incredibly sharp demeanour of the Victorian detective in the most remarkable way. In 1970, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes gave a very different and irreverent view of Sherlock Holmes, and the immensely talented Robert Stephens did adequate justice to the character (if there is any such thing as adequate justice); let’s say that he brought forth the dry wit of the tall, wiry, British gent who, with his faithful companion Dr. Watson went about solving seemingly impossible incidents of crime. Closer home to our time, we had the inimitable Robert Downey Jr. play the detective. His take was by far the farthest from what Doyle might have envisioned, but that didn’t stop Downey from making a riot of the part. While Rathbone looked like an incarnation of Doyle’s imagination, Downey’s Holmes was more Downey than Holmes, but then, I doubt if anybody is complaining.
Another character who thrives through various actors is the incredibly clumsy Inspector Jacques Clouseau. It would be utterly unfair to compare Peter Seller’s Clouseau to that of Alan Arkin, or Steve Martin (sometimes I wonder if an older Jim Carrey would do better), but the character with its eccentric quirks and immense ego was best portrayed by Sellers, who never overdid his part, whether it was stating something blatantly obvious, or stating that in a pseudo-deductive voice, or worse, stating that using a faux French accent that even the French themselves found hard to follow. Alan Arkin was also mildly amusing, though Steve Martin was apt to overdo his bit, and for those beginning with the Pink Panther Series, Martin’s Clouseau possibly could not provide much to laugh about.
The richest mine of reboots in modern cinema is of course, that of the superheroes. Instances abound in characters played well, badly and superbly. Of all superheroes, none has matured as splendidly as Batman, who has had more takers in Hollywood than all his peers in both the DC and the Marvel universe. Though there had been previous feeble attempts at making a full scale movie on the Dark Knight, it wasn’t before 1989 that Michael Keaton donned the cape in seriousness and looked admirably suave in Tim Burton’s Batman and later in Batman Returns (1992). The gruff voice and the perpetually clenched jaws went well with the slightly over-shiny armour, splashed with a slight excess of yellow. Tim Burton’s trademark treatment and Keaton’s stony performance was, and continues to be, of the better breed of superhero-themed movies. Batman was understandably a hit and set the ball rolling for future renditions. Keaton was succeeded by Val Kilmer, who, through possibly no fault of his, was more like a punk Batman in his teens. For one, he smiled and emoted a bit too much, and that as we know, Batman is quite averse to. Quite frankly, Batman Forever was a more happy-go-lucky take on a character who has a dark and painful past, present and future. But the worst was yet to come. Talk about wasted talent. Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin had an almost impeccable cast, and the George Clooney as Dark Knight himself. The circumstances of the plot and the overly flashy costumes, coupled with the cheesy lines practically ruined what was left of the franchise after Batman & Robin. If only Clooney had been given the right stage to mix his eponymous portrayal in Michael Clayton and his character of Thomas Devoe in The Peacemaker, I believe the result would have been significantly more palatable. However, after this apparent low, the fandom was awarded with the brilliant working partnership of Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale. Nolan and Bale’s Batman is closer to Burton and Keaton’s Batman, if I may dare to say. Christian Bale checks all the boxes in his portrayal as Batman, and thanks to the brilliant screenplays and genuine and psychopathic villains, Batman comes truly alive as the dark, brooding man with a burden too heavy to carry any more. It is upto you now, Mr. Affleck, to keep the ball rolling!