Hollywood Goes Looking for Discount Superheroes and Finds the 1980s

Photograph by Mary Evans/Ronald Grant via Everett Collection

When Mark Twain observed that “all ideas are second-hand,” he likely wasn’t considering a remake of Power Rangers. But he might as well have been.

Hollywood studios, eager to replicate the success of Disney’s Marvel movies are reinvigorating a crowd of kids’ television franchises from the 1980s and 1990s. They aren’t as timeless or as powerful as Batman and Captain America, but they are remembered by many and probably cost far less to license.

The hope inside the studios is that Cold War-era cartoons can unearth a franchise the way Paramount rebooted Transformers, according to Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “These executives are sitting around in meetings, looking at a list of things from the 1980s—toys, TV shows, and books—and they’re wondering, ‘What might resonate today?’” Dergarabedian said.

Apparently, there’s no shortage of possibilities. Here’s what’s in the works:

In August, Viacom’s Paramount Pictures will blanket theaters with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, resurrecting characters from a 1980s comic book and TV series. Lions Gate acknowledged in early May that it is moving ahead with a movie version of Power Rangers, a live-action TV series from the 1990s in which young people morph into colorful space warriors. Sony, meanwhile, is said to be working on a new iteration of Masters of the Universe, the 1980s cartoon headlined by a buff He-Man riding around on a massive tiger.

Deeper in the pipeline, Relativity Media has optioned the rights to Voltron, which had everything the children of 1984 wanted in a cartoon—astronaut soldiers and lion-shaped robots that occasionally linked up to form a giant humanoid. There are even vague reports that Warner Brothers may be considering an investment in Thundercats (think Cats: The Musical with less singing and more swords).

The arbitrage to be had moving TV and comic book characters to Hollywood has always been sizable. Creatively, such entertainment vehicles are fairly complete and already proven—albeit often in a different medium. And once a film refresh is made, the franchise lends itself to a string of sequels and a pile of licensing revenue from toys, trinkets, and other products. Harry Potter even has an exhibition of props that tours the world as if it were a collection of fine art or Egyptian mummies.

The new crop of characters from the 1980s and 1990s have something going for them that the Marvel archive doesn’t: millions of viewers who still remember the original. The average 30something guy probably isn’t familiar with the origins of Ant-Man, a Marvel character slated for a 2015 feature, but might still have a Voltron toy or a couple of Ninja Turtles boxed up in his parents’ attic.

The sweet spot for a cultural refresh, according to Dergarabedian, is 20 to 30 years. That’s the window in which Hollywood can appeal to parents aged between 30 and 50. At the moment, that cycle is working its way through the mid-1980s and early-1990s. “It’s all about branded entertainment meets nostalgia,” he said.

Not only will former fan-boys and girls want to see the new films, but they’ll take their kids—the lucrative, generational multiplier that has made Pixar films such as The Incredibles and Wall-E such powerful vehicles. And, of course, they’ll buy them the action figures, too.

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