Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fixing the Highlander Series: What the Reboot Would Need

I am not a fan of remakes, reboots or unnecessary pre/sequels. 

Did "Poseidon" need to be remade? Did Godzilla need another reboot from America? Did "Nightmare on Elm Street" or "Friday the 13th"? Did we need an "Inspector Gadget 2" or "Ghost Rider 2"? 

Emphatically, no.

When films go down this left-hand path, they go one of two ways. Usually. They are good. Or they suck. For example, the Time Machine remake was not bad, but it ruined the Morlocks. The original Morlocks were so terrifying with their shining eyes and just creepy lurching, while the new ones were mostly Muppets. The Star Trek reboot/remake...the less said about it, the better, in my opinion. With sequels, was "Red 2" an improvement over the first? Not really. Iron Man was kind of unnecessary.

And speaking of unnecessary sequels, no movie comes to mind more quickly (except "Hot Tub Time Machine 2" or "Night at the Museum 2") than the Highlander series, though at the time I enjoyed those sequels immensely. Highlander has, despite it's high points, been spread rather thin and quite cheapened in many ways. But, there hasn't been much new Highlander stuff in the last ten minutes or so, so the rumor mill has suggested a reboot is in the works.

The first time I saw "Highlander" (quotes omitted hereafter) had been probably after seeing Highlander 2 and 3, as well as some of the TV show. So by the time I got around to seeing the original, the young me found the original hadn't aged that well. Second and third viewings kind of gave me the same feeling when I rewatched all the Highlanders to prepare for "Endgame" back in the early 2000's. So let's face it, the effects in Highlander are rough in spots. However. I recently rewatched the original with more mature eyes, less dazzled by eyecandy than they used to be, and actually... I came to realize that the first Highlander is a cinematic masterpiece. It should be the "only one." Why Russel Mulcahy isn't still a big name director these days with Highlander and "The Shadow" under his belt, I really can't say. Both are excellent movies.

After watching the original again I figured I'd give the TV series another whirl. Probably after watching a youtube video about the top ten villains of Highlander. I had always wanted to watch it anyways. But for some strange reason, I didn't even make it through season 1, even though I know it gets better in later seasons, at least at times. 

What was wrong?

A point in the aforementioned video (or a different one?) made is that some of the villains in the TV show were just pale, and actually kind of farcical versions of the Kurgan. And I realized the video, or wherever I'd heard it, was right. I recalled also the villain in Highlander 3 and realized that was sort of true there as well. The villain in Highlander 4 had other problems.

That's when I read the rumor Highlander was being rebooted and I started to think that there could be a way to reboot highlander, but to do it right. Because if Highlander is remade and rebooted, it should not be just to make money, even though it probably will be. It should be done having learned the lessons of what came before. 

And so here it is. My first ever list article, which I probably should have pitched to


Let's just get this one out of the way. The first key to the success of any Highlander reboot is to not give us any more Macleods.

Why, you may ask? 

Because there's already so many. Anytime someone does a Highlander anything, the main character is almost always a Macleod. We've got Conner, the original. Then Duncan, Quentin, and Colin, AT LEAST. Who knows how many I missed.

This can also extend to not having anyone even from that same Highlander village, like Jacob Kell from "Endgame." The fact that there were three immortals from the same village and two were made immortal at around the same time stretches credulity. Eschewing the highlands of Scotland, while invalidating the name of "Highlander" would at least bring something new to the table.

Now before you grab the pitchforks and light the torches, consider why such "blasphemy" could come from any fan of Highlander. Which I am because I ordered the two Jim Byrnes CDs and a Watcher ring from the Highlander catalog when I was in high school.

Think about this for a second. No Macleod will ever be more badass or as much of a dreamboat as Conner, though I'd grandfather Duncan in as an exception to this rule. The badassery of Conner is cemented by the fact that he WON THE PRIZE. He also appeared in every theatrically released movie. Between him and six seasons of Duncan Macleod, that's already been plenty of stories involving the Macleod boys taking heads.

Isn't that enough?

Rebooting with a Macleod at the helm would just further cheapen what came before. By moving on from the Macleods, whoever is manning (or, I guess, womanning) a Highlander reboot can show they're bringing something new and exciting. 

Let's move on.

2 - Pay Your Dues

Despite what I just said, it's important to respect the original Source (haha) material. What I mean by this is give cameos to Christopher Lambert, Jim Byrnes, Adrian Paul, and Clancy Brown (he needs to be in more stuff) as a nod to the fans of the originals.

Key word here is cameo.

Don't make them immortals, but give them an important role, but make it brief or secondary.  If you make them major characters, make them just normal guys and don't let them ham it up. Pass the torch. But don't go crazy.

My personal suggestion as to what role they would play is coming right up.

3- Don't Toss the Head out with the Quickening

That poor play on an idiom not withstanding, this is a critical point to address. 

The Highlander series, like many others, suffers from a few different ailments. Chiefly, making-it-up-as-you go-itis and the related gotta-keep-making-bucks-itosis. 

Like with everything else, these two things lead to stupid plot elements/holes, deus ex machina, retcons and of particular concern to Highlander, continuity errors. It also leads to stuff like making immortals into aliens from the planet Zeist.

That being said, there was stuff that worked in the series and movies, even without any real continuity in the films. Stuff like the Queen music. Keep the stuff that did work, get rid of what didn't. And don't make up some new stupid thing just to be "innovative."

The biggest thing that I would keep would be the Watchers. Holy crap, the idea of the Watchers is a really cool one. A secret society that keeps tabs on the immortals for whatever purposes, probably to make sure some bad egg doesn't win The Prize. It's also a great way to have an "everyman" to show us how this crazy stuff fits with the real world.

A couple other things to keep would be, I guess, the idea that new immortals like Richie are still being found, though that could be done away with. An interesting story point would be identifying when the last immortal was "born" and what significance that would have. Perhaps the last immortal was born in 1000AD. Maybe 1990. How many immortals are there and are they all accounted for?

Something else to keep would be keep having bigger quickenings for more powerful immortals. So too with having immortals possess actual powers, like in Highlander 3. 

Things like that.

Which brings me to...

4 - Let the Immortals Have Powers and/or Let Immortals Actually get More Powerful with Quickenings

This could go either way. Whichever way it goes, make sure it isn't stupid. 

In Highlander, it's revealed to the audience that when an immortal beheads another immortal they go through the quickening and gain the powers and memories of that immortal. In the TV series, sometimes a dark quickening happens and the immortal turns evil. Vice versa happens sometimes to evil immortals. Highlander 3, the illusion power is transferred with the quickening, a sad fact overlooked in Highlander Endgame.

Aside from those examples though, in actual practice, the quickening mostly meaningless. I propose the concept of gaining the powers be kept and be made meaningful. 

This could be as simple as making it obvious that an immortal now has the memories of someone he just defeated. Or perhaps the victorious immortal picked up some new sword techniques from a recent quickening. Perhaps he or she gets a slight increase in physical strength for each immortal another immortal beats. So if Kurgan had had like 400 quickenings and Conner had only had say, 300, Kurgan should have that much more physical strength. Upon beating Kurgan, Conner should then gain all of his strength, or a generous portion of it. Have it increase proportionally I guess. Either way, make it something that's noticeable and lasting.

You could take it a little further though, but this is where things would get stranger and potentially stupid. I almost would rather not go this route, but if it could be done right, then go ahead. 

You could give immortals some low level of super power. Something like pyrokinesis, telepathy, telekinesis, illusions, etc. At that point though, it would be little different than the Jedi of Star Wars. Then again, nothing would be cooler than a lightsaber duel ending with a quickening. Maybe these kinds of powers can come after an immortal has grown stronger from multiple quickenings.

Whatever the case, don't over do it. We don't need more special effects CGI cartoons.

5 - Make it Epic

What I suggest for any Highlander reboot is pure insanity. The best platform for such, would probably be like a 13 episode season for 3-5 seasons, "Game of Thrones-esque" epic and long reaching Netflix series. Have the show focus on however many immortals you have as main characters, their long lives and of course, he point where they lose their heads. Supply a flow chart if you need it.

Alternately, you could easily do this as a shared universe movie series, but in my opinion, this only worked well once with the build up to and release of "Avengers." Every post Avengers stand alone and even "Avengers 2" really were not as solid to me, and so doing Highlander like this would not be ideal. Though if you did do it, each immortal you have as a character gets maybe 1-2 movies standalone, their origin, some drama. Then after a few films of solo adventures, have a big free for all movie with those characters who had solo movies and have it kick off the "Gathering." Then a phase 2 that raises the stakes and culminates in a last movie that has the Game end. And maybe one last stand alone of what it means to win the Prize. Quite large in scope, and ultimately not as in depth as the Netflix series.

What the current Highlander stuff lacks is this level of epicness. You have one excellent film, a bunch of mediocre and cookie cutter sequels, and a TV show with hit and miss moments. There is little real continuity between them, and there's little build up or pay off between any of them. You can literally pick up any movie and it makes little difference. With the TV show, you hardly need to see the movies, because Conner winning the Prize twice had no impact on Duncan's world.

In starting completely over, you can take your time and do it right. Work up a huge plot, start to finish. You can then introduce themes and elements, build on those and see them to completion. You could literally make a television/Netflix masterpiece of intrigue, betrayal and action.

When dealing with immortals, a single two hour film really isn't much to work with, which is why the move to a series and creation of sequels, made sense. Even if these could have been done better in some ways.
In starting over, don't just do another movie. Consider with the flashbacks and interplay between immortals, this really needs to be a drawn out series of some size, but a limited series with an (pardon the pun) and endgame in mind. We need to see the early stages of the Game, the middle portion, the final battles for the Prize, and probably we need to see what happens once the prize has been won. You can develop all of that in a series.

Since the existing material has built up the mythology so inconsistently, any reboot needs to take those elements that worked, fine tune them and implement them with perfection into a huge epic.
And to help with this...

6 - Give us Complex Characters

In other words, make this for grownups. So many movies of late have been going for the CGI eyecandy with mind blowing fight scenes. So much so that I personally am weary of new movies because they don't give have anything at stake when the fight scenes come up. I was utterly bored by "Age of Ultron" and found Whedon's attempts at humor tiresome.
To continue with Avengers as an example, this is why the build up to avengers, it clicked for me. We had the characters being introduced and developed, at least to a point, so that by the time "Avengers" rolled in, I could care about the fight, because I cared about the characters. That's also why phase 2 of Avengers didn't work for me. It was just more repetitive action with the same characters and little actual development. Iron man 3 was the exception, but went too far with the character side (in an uninteresting way). Phase 2 lacked the balance of Phase 1, and it did not raise the stakes really. The Phase 2 movies were just the cinematic equivalents of filler episodes or "monster of the week."
So to avoid this, Highlander needs to do is give us characters who are complicated and the action needs to be an outgrowth of who the characters are. Highlander 1 gave us good balance of character and action. It built in intensity. It also gave us a decent spectrum of characters. You have a couple of nice guys like Ramirez and Macleod, then a scumbag like Kurgan. The TV series gave us a few Kurganesque clones, but actually ended up creating a good number of hateable bad guys, including this guy, the Morris Day of immortals, and Lord Byron. Some of the villains weren't completely bad eggs like Kurgan, but they were at odds with Macleod's worldview, and lost their head for it.
Like Duncan said in season 1, immortals run the spectrum from assbite to hero (I'm paraphrasing), same as regular folk.
Any reboot needs to give us villains that we can invest in, and perhaps even root for. They need to be human, they can't just be "mustache twirlers." Like how sometimes you can actually root for Magneto in X-Men, because he's not too far off from the truth. He has a mostly noble goal in mind, survival for those like him, but his methods of attaining that put him at odds with Professor X. This is the sort of dynamic the Highlander reboot needs. In the early days of the immortal's lives, this can be as simple as two immortals from enemy nations fighting on that premise. But as time passes, perhaps they find other things to remain at odd. Perhaps they overcome those and become friends.

Applying this further to the Netflix miniseries route, give us immortals who are just regular guys finding out they can't die, and go from there. Go in wild different directions from, show us how each immortal grows with his age. Do some snap and become evil? Do some work for good, only to have that good motive turn sour? What happens when two decent immortals disagree on what's good? How does the quest for the Prize over the centuries affect this interplay between the immortals' view of good, evil and fighting each other? What turns someone into a sleazeball like Kurgan?
These and many more are questions that can be explored in a rebooted Highlander series. You can have a main cast of like 7-10 immortals, plus some tertiary head fodder ones that last between a few episodes and a few seasons. The fun part is to explore how these people change over the centuries with their loves and losses. Tragedies and triumphs. What do they do with their gift, what happens when the One wins the Prize?
Another note in making these characters complex, explore some spiritual issues. Methos said in "Highlander the Source" that he'd met Jesus! What would it be like to explore an immortal who was a true Christian (not just the TV-fied Catholicism lite) who'd met Jesus. I mean, don't make Jesus an immortal, but let's explore the spiritual implications of "what the heck is an immortal?" Do the same for other faiths too, sure. How does that shape the worldview of a particular immortal? Does it at all? What happens if an immortal abandons his faith? How does this immortality affect a Buddhist, a Muslim or pagan? Do they change their faith as they grow? Holy ground is a key element in Highlander, why? Conner had some Catholic overtones, and perhaps that shaped him and kept him from becoming like Kurgan. It's a key thing to explore.
Just make sure that any such exploration is mature and well researched.

So, Let's Do It! 

While in all likelihood, any such reboot of Highlander will be a superficial, blatant cash grab with limited perspective, Highlander is one series that could truly benefit from a hard reboot that takes its time and develops an epic and long ranging story. Take the time to develop the mythology, give us complex characters who are shades of gray, who have beliefs, virtues and failings. Invest in the characters and grow them over the series. Surprise us and make us cry for those characters when they lose their head. That's why we don't need Macleod, we need to be surprised with who lives and dies in the Game. Let's see immortals living, loving, being and dying.
This is really the right way to do a reboot, just rip the Band-Aid off, nuke the site from orbit, start clean. But when you do it, raise the stakes, don't just retread the same scenes we've already seen. Macleod already won the Prize then he didn't, then he lost his head to the other Macleod. The TV and movies didn't mesh well, but the TV series did some cool stuff and so did the movies. The original Highlander TV/movie canon had high points, it was inconsistent, this reboot is a chance to do things right. Highlander deserves better continuity, higher stakes and even higher payoff in the end.

What do you think?

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