Robocop Recycled: Tired Heroes, Exhausted Justice

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Picture this: Detroit, despoiled and corrupted by failed manufacturing, is laid waste by bottom-line profiteering, its crime-ridden streets pleading for a hero of justice. Not hard to imagine. But it’s1987 with the Cold War still in swing, the Berlin Wall teetering but not toppling, and our now mighty technological societies coming into the flower of their youth. Here our imaginations meet a series of no-holds-barred sci-fi shoot-‘em-ups, none bloodier, or more bruising and brutal, than RoboCop

That original RoboCop, an R-rated epic, was definitive in postmodern cinema. Jesse Wente, the head of film for TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, says: “On face value, RoboCop is just pure entertainment: guns and explosions. But it’s also a deeply disturbing portrait of why we find movies like that so entertaining.” Director Paul Verhoeven was famous for inverting the Hollywood blockbuster trope; his movies work as “regular” movies, but also subvert the many ideas around them. His movies are carnival, circus, gladiatorial games, but underneath, overtop, is the disgusted damnation of Gladiator’s Maximus: “Are you not entertained?” 

We are attracted, but we are repulsed. We are made more aware of the deep dilemmas of the modern moral order, of the human condition as it clashes with the systems of our making. That’s great film.

So what happens when we strip our heroes out of place and time, slather them with CGI, and sand down the satire and script? In a film, RoboCop 2.0; in a movement, most of the major Hollywood superhero blockbusters. These reboots start to feel like an exercise that is badly, nostalgically, out of step with the times. But these recycled heroes and heroines also scratch an itch of malaise in the postmodern imagination: where are today’s felicitous acts of creativity, today’s audacious and unapologetic defenses of a – any – moral order? We have to resurrect Captain America because he could not be invented today. And that resurrection is not only incomplete, it’s awkward and almost monstrous. We have Frankensteined together the moral patchwork of a creative past that is dead. Only its corpses walk among us.

The inversion is inverted and we are left with spectacles of questionable depth, scripts that titillate and excite but leave us with little more than entertainment. That may be a tired complaint, but it’s one worth repeating when the brand of justice resurrected by our favorite cyborg-cop is more explosive catharsis then practiced cultural critique. Alissa Wilkinson put her finger on it in her outstanding review of Catching Fire: the commercialization of the Games declaws the seriousness of the “real” Hunger Games; it dangerously subverts the few moments of moral toughness in the books and movies. 

But what happened to Catching Fire by accident of commercialization is too often the rule of what’s happened to our time-lapsed blockbuster heroines by design. RoboCop is not the first, or the last, casualty in that war. Maybe RoboCop 2.0 is the aesthetic justice we deserve, but Detroit – and our postmodern politics – need more than shallow recycling. The hard work of culture making honors but doesn't recycle the past. Calvin Seerveld says we don't want new wine in old wineskins, but old wine in new wineskins for festive drinking. We need heroes fit for our time.

-  Robert Joustra is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.