RoboCop vs. Inept Franchise Management
With the remake of RoboCop arriving in theaters this week, I've read plenty of complaints from both fans and film critics alike about whether the PG-13 remake of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 R-rated classic will be a less satisfying film. While I understand such concerns, I can’t be completely put off by the new version of Verhoeven's original film. I've paid attention to the RoboCop franchise since its beginning and noticed that it has been kicked in its figurative teeth many, many times during its history, so much so that an updated, big-budget remake is far from the worst thing that has happened to this beleaguered series. Read on for my retrospective of the RoboCop franchise's many low points.
The RoboCop franchise shares a history similar to the Planet of the Apes franchise: Both began as trenchant, adult-oriented satires and then devolved into low-budget, kid-friendly action-adventure romps. In the case of RoboCop, Verhoeven used the guise of a B-grade superhero movie to brutally poke fun at Reagan era politics and America’s culture of mass consumption-driven excess. Since then, the studio executives in charge decided to strip the franchise of its violently satirical sensibilities so it could continue as a merchandisable superhero series. The decline and eventual bankruptcy of Orion Pictures, the company that originally owned the RoboCop franchise, probably didn't help either.
The Movie Sequels: The franchise’s erosion began when the studio declined Verhoeven's involvement with the first sequel and instead approached noted comic book scribe Frank Miller for a RoboCop 2 script. Given Miller’s popularity among comic book and superhero fans, particularly from his Batman: The Dark Knight Returns miniseries in 1986, the folks at Orion Pictures were looking to engage his fan base as a way of securing the future of the RoboCop franchise. However, the script that Miller drafted was deemed "unfilmable" and heavily rewritten.
Even though Orion ordered the overhaul of his RoboCop 2 script, Miller was brought back to pen the script for RoboCop 3. He used the script for the second sequel to insert ideas that were rejected in his previous script, and he even based two characters on characters from his other stories that had nothing to do with RoboCop at all: the cyborg samurai Otomo was influenced by Ronin, and Bertha Washington was pulled from Give Me Liberty. None of this kept RoboCop 3 from flopping at the box office.
Regardless, Miller’s involvement in the RoboCop franchise wasn't a complete loss. He penned the classic RoboCop vs. Terminator crossover miniseries for Dark Horse back in 1992, a title that also spawned a few memorable video games.
Cartoons: Two animated series were made based on RoboCop: RoboCop: The Animated Series, which ran for 12 episodes in the fall of 1988, and RoboCop: Alpha Commando, which ran for 40 episodes from fall 1998 to early 1999.
The most amusing thing about the first cartoon is that is predates RoboCop 2 by almost two years, which means that the first follow-up to the violent, gory R-rated RoboCop was a cartoon aimed squarely at kids. The violence was toned down considerably (bullets were replaced by laser beams), presumably so that parents would have less to complain about when their kids watched the cartoon; nevertheless, I'm sure that those same parents had their hands full whenever their kids wanted to watch the original film on home video or go see the R-rated sequel in the theaters when it arrived in the summer of 1990.
If RoboCop: The Animated Series was a softer, gentler take on Verhoeven's movie, then RoboCop: Alpha Commando reimagined RoboCop as a distant cousin of Inspector Gadget with a ready arsenal of previously unseen tools such as a parachute and roller skates. That's right--a roller-skating RoboCop.
Going commando: A still from RoboCop: Alpha Commando.
Live-Action TV: Two live-action TV series were also produced as part of the RoboCop franchise: RoboCop: The Series, which ran for 22 episodes on syndication in 1994, and RoboCop: Prime Directives, which was a four-part miniseries that aired in January 2001.
Like the 1988 cartoon, the violence in RoboCop: The Series was significantly reduced so it would have a greater appeal to children; it even had a prepubescent genius character named Gadget who would help RoboCop fight crime in future Detroit. Even though the show's writers tried to be topical in a few of its episodes (including issues such as poverty and sexual harassment), such efforts didn’t change the fact that this series was essentially kid-friendly, low-budget camp.
The cast of RoboCop: The Series.
RoboCop: Prime Directives attempted to return the franchise to its roots in dark satire, but its tiny budget and amateurish production severely hampered its ambitions. Another problem was the casting of Page Fletcher as RoboCop: He didn't recreate the mechanical body language that Peter Weller perfected in the first two RoboCop movies, an essential part of RoboCop's character. (As one reviewer commented eloquently on IMDB, Fletcher "spends most of his time stumbling and bumbling about in the RoboSuit, fists eternally and inexplicably clenched, wildly swinging his arms to and fro in a bizarre echo of Rock'em Sock'em Robots, and walking as if there were a warm, freshly laid dump permanently ensconced in his RoboDrawers.") Fletcher also holds the dubious distinction of being the shortest RoboCop in the franchise’s history.
A pint-sized cyborg police officer fights crime in RoboCop: Prime Directives.
Toys: Of course, the driving factor behind most of the franchise was merchandising, so both of the cartoons and the live-action RoboCop: The Series had tie-in toy lines. (Prime Directives did not.) Like most superhero toy lines, each line had action figures of the main hero, his allies and his enemies, as well as vehicles for the figures.
Tie-in toys from RoboCop: The Series.
Of particular note is the first line, RoboCop and the Ultra Police, which coincided with RoboCop: The Animated Series. Even though the cartoon replaced bullets with lasers, the Ultra Police figures had a rapid repeat mechanism similar to cap gun toys (or “Robo-Caps” in this case) that allowed them to make loud sounds to simulate gunshots. One of the villain figures, "Toxic Waster", even included a toxic waste drum, although kids couldn’t use it to melt people into puddles of goo like they did in the original movie.
The official RoboCop Robo-Helmet and rapid repeat cap firing Ultra-Blaster set
(pale bald cap and cyborg neck piece sold separately).
In summary, if you're worried that the PG-13 remake of RoboCop is just a watered down version of the original, don't worry--the RoboCop franchise has already been watered down multiple times by cheaply animated cartoons, hokey TV shows, and unintentionally morbid toy lines. Go to the RoboCop Archive site for more information about the RoboCop franchise.