In the modern age of the geek, everything old is new again. Of course, this has almost always been the case for all things nerdy. We're all talking about Star Wars or Batman v Superman: Don of Justice (just go with it), both of which are new entries into larger franchises that will provide new takes on old characters from the collective nerd childhood.
The Force Awakens is taking a back-to-basics approach to cinema's most beloved saga. As much as that new teaser shows off new characters and locations, it plays intentionally with our love of what made the franchise work the first time around, perhaps with an added touch of JJ Abrams here and there. And yes it ends on Han Solo and Chewie, the two greatest characters from the original films (shut up), but we all have to be fully aware that however beholden to classic Star Wars Disney, Lucasfilm and Abrams are, these characters are going to be their takes on things. As storytellers, the current team is going to aim for a sweet spot between what they loved about the characters (established canon) and what they love about characters in general (a touch of themselves).
I have issues with Zack Snyder's take on Superman. I literally cried (I mean 'literally literally', not 'figuratively literally') during the fight with Zod in Man of Steel. That's a pretty intense reaction to have to a summer blockbuster, but that movie jarred so incredibly with the way I imagine Superman to be that I couldn't help myself. All the speeches about him being a guiding light for us couldn't help counter the effect of seeing a Superman in action who was so caught up in conflict that he didn't stop to help anyone.
The leaked Batman v Superman teaser does nothing to assuage my feelings about Snyder's take on the mythos. At the same time, I've got my emotions in check this time, because I realize that however much I disagree with his angle that is also all it is. It's his take on Superman.
Rather than wallow in sorrow though (I bleed, Batman. I bleed.) I let this thought process carry me off on a tangent as I started to think about my favorite takes on established characters.
What do I mean by a 'take'?
Well, like I said above, while they may strive to have every established character behave in a way that fits reasonably alongside all their previous portrayals, no creative person that's really trying to tell meaningful stories with an established character can help but work a little of themselves into their work, finding nuances in each and every character that help inform the way those characters respond to the events of the stories around them.
JJ Abrams' Han Solo may look and sound like the Han Solo we all know and love (it helps that he's a real person played by the same actor, sure) but there will likely be touches of Abrams and his collaborators in the way the character chooses to respond to things. They might take Luke in a direction that feels reasonable based on what we know about that character, but that new direction may also not sit well with George Lucas, who would have had his own ideas about what kind of person Luke would grow up to be, or any of the many writers of the former Extended Universe canon, who would (and did) take those characters off in directions that they probably felt made the most sense at the time based on how they felt about the characters.
This is obviously something that comes up in comics in particular, and since that's my favorite medium, that's also the medium I most wanted to focus on in this piece. Feel free to throw out your own suggestions from Star Wars to Star Trek to whatever else in the comments, because I'd be keen to hear about the many directions various writers have taken other characters in over the years.
Here's my list, in no particular order...
1) Dan Slott's Peter Parker/Spider-Man
It's no secret that Dan Slott has wanted to write Spider-Man for pretty much as long as he's worked at Marvel Comics. Over the course of his career he's managed to work the character into a few of the stories he's written over the years before he ever landed the gig as Amazing Spider-Man writer. Most notably, Spidey showed up early on in Slott's run on She-Hulk and you could tell Slott had a ton of fun writing him.
The next time I can remember Slott writing Spider-Man in a role that felt front and center, despite it not being in a Spider-Man comic, was in Avengers: The Initiative, where a young hero in training is tasked to hunt down Spidey because he's violating the superhero registration act (this was just after Civil War). There Spidey was still funny, sure, but Slott made his 'take' on the character a lot clearer than he had in She-Hulk. More than just a string of gags and guilt, Peter Parker is the greatest hero in the Marvel Universe, someone who postures as an inexperienced kid because it allows him to deal more comfortably with all the pain he's faced.
More importantly, Slott positioned Spider-Man as a talented hero, one whose years of experience fighting crime from his teens through his twenties has made him so effective at his job that he flips through some fights with a well-earned confidence that many don't register until it's too late.
Peak Take: Superior Spider-Man #31 - The Superior Spider-Man
Dan Slott's run on Spider-Man is still ongoing but for me, he could've closed things off alright at the end of Superior Spider-Man. In the finale, New York City is overrun with Goblins, the Green Goblin has seized the city for himself and he's figured out that Otto Octavius has possessed Spider-Man. To cap things off, the Goblin kidnaps Otto/Peter's girlfriend Anna Maria and rigs her to rooftop bombs, preparing to blow her and the building she's tied to sky high. What Osborn doesn't know is that Otto vacated Peter's body an issue ago, admitting that Peter was the true hero and that he is the Superior Spider-Man. When Spidey shows up to dismantle his plans, the Goblin believes he's dealing with Octavius, which leads to this exchange.
Green Goblin: "Saving that little lady is your last remaining achievement as Spider-Man. When it all goes boom, you'll have nothing left!"
In just two lines, Slott establishes everything you need to know about Spider-Man. He's funny, sure, but he's also confident in his abilities. The rest of this scene lays that out perfectly. Big props go to series artist Giuseppe Camuncoli as well for absolutely nailing this exchange. When those big bug eyes on his mask narrow, you can practically feel the confidence through the page. Spider-Man is back.
2) Mark Waid's Daredevil
After the conclusion of the first volume of his run, I took a (mostly financially motivated) break from Mark Waid's Daredevil. With the Netflix series on the horizon a week or so back, I decided it was time to catch up and man oh man, is his take good.
The Daredevil of the show does a fantastic job of mostly capturing the tone of the very popular (and very good) Frank Miller Daredevil run, along with its tonal successors, particularly Brian Michael Bendis' long run on the book. Both of those takes continually push Matt Murdock to his breaking point, testing his resolve in a series of unrelenting crime stories that try to claim his sanity. Sometimes, particularly in the later half of Bendis' run, they even succeed.
When Waid took over the character, he famously remarked that Daredevil was the book that required a stiff shot of whiskey after every issue. He wasn't wrong. The only problem is, what had started as an interpretation by Miller was also evolving into pastiche in the hands of other writers. After the events of Shadowland, it was starting to feel like the writers were in a contest to see who could come up with the most painful way to batter poor Matt Murdock's soul, taking him further and further away from his persona as a charismatic, swashbuckling adventurer. Waid needed to find a way to bring back the fun elements of living in a superhero universe to the book, but he needed to do it in a way that didn't just reject all the hardships Matt had faced in the past.
His Daredevil run has been an amazing balancing act between the two sides of Matt Murdock's personality. By honing in on Matt's ability to overcome the great tragedies in his life (like being blinded at a young age), Waid was able to incorporate all the worst things that had happened to the character into his take, while having Matt himself transcend those difficulties.
Peak Take: Daredevil v4 #10 - Matt's Inner Demons
A few issues in the run have dealt explicitly with Matt's depression. The Original Sin tie-in story even deals with postpartum depression when Matt reconnects with his mother. As someone who deals with bouts of depression myself however, no issue hit home quite like volume 4 issue #10. In the story, Daredevil faces the Purple Man's four children, a group of kids manipulated into leaving or killing their mothers but who, when bound together, have mind control powers stronger than their dad's.
In #9, the kids use these powers to send Matt spiraling back into a deep depression. Artist Chris Samnee captures the sense of loneliness accompanying a depressive state perfectly, but with a little accidental help from the Purple Man and some of Matt's trademark resolve, he manages to get back up and start fighting. Matt's eventually able to save the kids from themselves. Things end on an upbeat note, with him assuring his girlfriend that he's fine, kissing her good night as he goes into his apartment alone. But once inside, Matt strips down, takes off his glasses and curls up to lay in bed. Alone.
It's not a triumphant moment or a heroic one. It's a man struggling hard against his inner demons, lying alone in his bed, possibly weeping into his pillow. It also says a lot about where the character is at mentally and emotionally, and how a great take on an established character doesn't have to negate all the stuff that's come before, even if that's expressly the intention of the new take.
3) Grant Morrison's Batman
This one's sort of hard to top. It's not often that comic writers sit down to write lengthy runs with one character, spanning multiple titles and reaching back through every inch of their history in search of a platonic ideal of that character. Grant Morrison's had interesting, character-defining runs on Animal Man, Doom Patrol, JLA and New X-Men, but pretty much nothing tops his 7-year-long run on Batman, an epic that included giving Batman a son, killing the lead, replacing him, trapping him in the past, turning him into a bomb, killing his son and having him deal with the existential trauma at the heart of his character's origin.
Having also been completely redefined in many readers' eyes thanks to a story or two by Frank Miller, Batman shares more than a little DNA with Daredevil. This has had the somewhat unfortunate long term impact of making many Bat-editors and writers lean very heavily on the darkest extremes of Miller's vision of the character, creating a hacky reincarnation of the writer-artist long before he did so himself. What many people miss about the old Miller Batman stories is that they are actually incredibly upbeat, telling the story of a man who will stand up against all odds to do the right thing in a world that is too easily corrupted because good people choose to be apathetic in the face of evil. Instead the post-Miller Batman era, for all its many successes over the years, also tended toward grim stories in which Batman behaved at least somewhat like a mopey teenager. Morrison couldn't help but change all that.
Even as a perennial purveyor of the transcendent positivity of superhero fiction, Morrison didn't immediately reset Batman into a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky adventurer. Instead it was the tone of the stories that shifted, incorporating every single take on Batman that had come before into the life of one amazing adventurer, grounding many of the more ridiculous (and ridiculously entertaining) Batman stories from the past in the post-Miller template of a man so serious that he can't be defeated by anyone.
Including this take almost feels like cheating because of how comprehensive it was, covering everything from Batman's origins in the pre-comics pulp eras to his legacy to the many ways he's been reinterpreted by other creators to the Freudian attachment to his parents that seems to drive him to act.
Peak Take: Final Crisis #5 - Batman vs The God Of All Evil
Darkseid: "Little man. Do you think you can outrun the Omega Sanction? The Death that is Life."
Batman: "Try me."
While not explicitly dealing with the thesis of his entire Batman run ("Batman was never alone."), the moment where the Dark Knight stares down Darkseid perfectly encapsulates the way that Morrison writes Batman. Whereas many writers prefer to focus on how tortured Batman is, Morrison's take from JLA all the way through Batman Incorporated volume 1 always stressed how effective Batman is at processing his trauma into fuel for his heroism. In many ways Batman choosing to use a gun against Darkseid is a failure for the character; a moment in which he gives in and breaks his one rule to succeed. That said, it's also the platonic ideal of his war on evil, pitting a man who uses fear as a weapon against the embodiment of fear itself, and having him succeed with a smirk and a "Gotcha."
Those are three of my picks but even I have dozens more. You may have picked up on something of a pattern above - to me, heroes transcend their negative experiences and emotions to help make the world a better place. But from Matt Fraction's Iron Man/Tony Stark to Sam Humphries' (sadly brief) take on Hank Pym, to Kieron Gillen's take on Cyclops (and his recent take on Darth Vader), I am a fan of writers (and artists) who put their stamp on a character.
If you're going to share a take you're a fan of below, throw in some images of your favorite moments.