Previously, I spoke about the Perpetual Reboot Theory I’m forwarding as a counterpoint to the seemingly-popular theory of the “Perpetual Second Act” for comic book characters. In fact, my soundly-argued and robust counter-theory sprang out of a similar debate, also (inevitably) with my pal Craig as we were preparing to record an episode of Words With Nerds.
We were debating whether Wonder Woman’s one weakness remains “being bound by a man.” Setting aside all the “feminist” sensibilities that offends, and the character’s original fetish inspiration, I contended that in these modern times such a thing no longer applied. Wonder Woman has changed through the years, and this aspect of her is undoubtedly lost to the mists of time and previous iterations.
In what appears to be a corollary of the “Perpetual Second Act” theory, Craig contended that what was once true for a comic book character is always true, until it is specifically contradicted.
This thought, while intriguing and creepily Orwellian in some sense, is something with which I cannot agree. After realizing I was making no headway with my point in person, I decided to give voice here in my own public forum. I pay for the URL, I may as well use it.
Everything Changes, Everything’s the Same
As they are quietly reinvented for each decade, comic book characters regularly slough off or retain as much of their personal story as the new creative team wishes. They are, in other words, in a state of perpetual reboot.
As they are reimagined, powers are gained and lost. Aspects of their origins are updated to play better for newer audiences. As audience sensibilities change, so too does much of the accompanying effluvia of a character.
While certain baselines have to remain for the new character to retain identifiability, the new creative team is free to ignore or include whatever they wish from each previous era. Batman’s parents are shot dead during a mugging, but the event from which they were returning can be modified so long as the key element remains. Someone in the future may well decide they’re coming back from a circus, though I’m sure that would anger someone and become its own historical curio as circuses are now out of fashion.
As a side note, what holds true for a comic book character isn’t necessarily going to carry over to their movie doppelgänger, and vice versa. That’s rather obvious, though the two media certainly do inform each other.
Returning to the sticking point that spurred all of this, Wonder Woman’s “only weakness,” as it was revealed decades ago, was being bound by a man. Again, this makes sense in terms of the character’s apparent origin as an S&M fetish character, but I don’t think anyone honestly would argue that it remains her weakness in the modern day.
A wonderful discussion among nerds on Stack Exchange illustrates my point. While Wonder Woman did have the weakness if her bracelets were bound by a man, reference to it has dissipated through time. As with every question about a character, it depends on the time period/iteration.
Let’s use another long-running character as an example. Superman has seen his fair share of weird powers born from the necessity to meet publishing deadlines through the years. A great rundown of the weirdest is here.
I’m sure no one really considers Superman’s powers even to have included generating miniature versions of himself out of his hands. Not just that he doesn’t have the power to do so anymore, but that it didn’t happen in current “continuity.” Yet, going with the idea that an idea is forever in place until specifically contradicted, he did. He must have, so long as you discount the idea that the Superman of the 1950s is not precisely the same Superman as exists in the 2010s.
Bat Shark Repellent
To demonstrate my point, I asked my esteemed Words With Nerds cohost a question regarding Batman.
The question was whether Bat Shark Repellent exists outside the continuity for the 1966 movie, and attendant television series of that era.
Setting aside the fact that there is a reference to it in Lego Batman, which is a sendup of the entire history of the franchise, I don’t think any fan would seriously maintain that such a thing is in Batman’s arsenal. Frank Miller’s Year One and Dark Knight Returns, key reinventions of the character that informed many later versions, certainly don’t use it. I’m pretty sure that Alan Moore would cook and eat your family if you suggested it had a place in The Killing Joke.
Moving to film for the sake of normal people, Christopher Nolan’s Batman works don’t seem like the sort to keep it in stock; given we see the origin rebooted to fit the modern era, we certainly see neither its creation nor its application. Bat Shark Repellent doesn’t exist for Tim Burton’s envisioning of the character. It doesn’t even exist for Joel Schumacher’s, though one could argue it would seem to belong there.
The retort to this could easily be that movies are “different from comics.” But they are different only in terms of the medium used to reboot the character. It’s not really different than when a new team takes over Wonder Woman.
I’m sure some creator has also included nods to such a thing, and I’m not going to bother debating the fun they certainly have with meta nods to character history. Those meta nods are in fun, a wink at the audience through the fourth wall, though I’m sure some consider them validation when necessary.
To Be Perfectly Clear
The problem, then, has become fans themselves. That’s a theme that I’ve come back to repeatedly over time, usually throwing stones at my fellow Star Wars fans.
Possessed by an obsession with “continuity” and “connectedness,” fans have become rigid interpreters of back story and what is inviolate about it. They will accept change, but it must be on their specific and rigorous terms only. Again, you will find similar Star Wars and Star Trek fans demanding their place as the arbiter of something is specifically contradicted, they hold it as sacrosanct and inviolable.
To be sure, I’m speaking broadly of one set of fans. I have to believe that there are plenty of others who have recognized that this is all supposed to be fun, and if an iteration of the character from the 1960s reflected those times, it’s OK to ignore it now.
But more importantly, there is the question of who among the fans is the more authoritative voice for what may be disregarded. Sales obviously play a role, but perhaps a Ruling Fan Council should be brought into play. If a majority of that Council likes an element that hasn’t been mentioned in a while, the publishers are duty-bound to bring it back.
Perhaps certain demographics can be given more weight. Perhaps to have a vote you must prove you’re one of the best and most knowledgeable fans of all in a trivia contest. Then, at least, all that esteem you’re due for knowing minor trivia about a character’s history pays off.
Honestly, I’d love it if the worthless things I remember about Star Wars could get me a seat at that table. Because then Hoojibs are back and my #Hoojibs4Life campaign wasn’t for nothing.
The Concluding Untenability
It’s plainly untenable to contend that once a story or character element exists, it remains in effect until specifically contradicted. This gets muddied further when current creative teams acknowledge or use elements of previous iterations. A default position could become that those “consistencies” don’t exist until the creative team decides to bring it into their own continuity.
However, as stated above, that doesn’t equate to a blanket claim that every character element is destroyed with each reinvention. After all, despite the changing times, Captain America is still the poster child for Performance Enhancing Drugs.
In fact, it is further tempting to avoid the argument as a whole and think of it as Schrodinger’s Comic, where an element both does and does not exist until the current creative team decides to acknowledge or discard it. But that gets us back to the problematic idea that an item is inviolate until negative acknowledgement, which is again an untenable position.
Perhaps what you insist on retaining for a character reveals more about how you want to see them than the current state of the property about which you’re talking. I’m no psychiatrist, so I wouldn’t know.
I just know that I should, after all, be class president.