More than any media franchise save maybe Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, Ghost in the Shell has an incredibly deep and well-conceptualized setting. According to Masamune Shirow's original vision and the exceptional animated films and television series that grew out of it, at some point in the next couple of decades we find the time to have not one but two additional world wars, Japan rises to superpower status while America balkanizes into at least two separate states, technology is invented to enable the human brain to both be transplanted into fully synthetic bodies as well as directly connected to totally realistic virtual environments, we claim all the purported benefits of nanorobotics (as well as at least one "miraculous" benefit that doesn't make a lick of scientific sense), and artificial intelligences capable of rising to self-awareness accidentally show up along the way. Fully cyberized yet still nonchalantly sexy Major Motoko Kusanagi and her subordinates in the counter-cyberterrorism / crime prevention unit Public Security Section 9 are the iconic protagonists who navigate the webs of wires and intrigue that hang over this future, and the interplay of their forceful personalities is definitely an attraction of the franchise.
Unlike most dramas, however, their characterizations tend to serve less as the main attraction, and more as another compelling means to ferry the audience around observing the fascinating world they inhabit. Stand Alone Complex in particular frequently employed a "monster of the week" format, only the monsters in Shirow's world are concepts, disruptive technologies and moral quandaries humanity has never (yet) had to face; this approach proves considerably more disquieting than a succession of stuntmen in rubber costumes. It is, in a word, brilliant, a franchise that believably actualizes a laundry list of transhumanist and technofuturist predictions, then goes the extra billion miles into the messy business of exploring whether or not any of that makes humanity better off as a whole. It has a sizable and justified fandom in the larger cyberpunk subculture (a real trick considering the protagonists are sympathetically presented as serving an essentially cyberfascist system), and the howls of anguish and despair can still be heard ringing through the Internet over the prospective casting of Scarlett Johansson as the Major.
Make no mistake, Scarlett Johansson has some serious acting chops (though considering the Major's extensive use of skin-tight thermo-optical camouflage, it's transparently obvious Johansson's other assets were the primary impetus for this casting decision). She could credibly portray Major Kusanagi's prickly attitude, hyperhuman fearlessness, and moments of wounded introspection, there's just one little problem: The Major, like the rest of Section 9 and arguably the soul of the franchise itself, is Japanese. Throughout all of Ghost in the Shell, we rarely see outside of Japan – following the events of World War III, Japan adopts a putative isolationist stance on its way to becoming a primary world power, and even in the few instances where we peek beyond Japan's massively reshaped coastline, many of the themes are still uniquely Japanese, exploring elements of Shintoism, rigid social stratification, and the lingering psychic trauma of (now many) nuclear explosions on the characters' home soil. For all her charm and talent, what the child of a Dane and an Ashkenazi Jew cannot credibly portray is ethnically Japanese ancestry.
This decision is tragically predictable, of course – Hollywood's cargo-cult mentality dictates that allowing a woman a powerful lead role is already risky, and if that woman isn't also a sex symbol, a regular at the top of celebrity power lists, and white, millions of dollars stand to be lost. Setting aside how wrongheaded this may be for a variety of reasons, what is worrisome to a fan of the franchise is that Johansson's casting suggests we're going to get a movie that has a bunch more Caucasians pretending they're Asian, the deeper implication being that every aspect of the film will become obtusely Western in a way that ignores all the deeply Japanese underpinnings of the franchise. Perhaps worse still, the obverse decision may be made, William Wheeler will be forced to rewrite Major Kusanagi as an American living in an America that stands in for the Japan of every other portrayal of Ghost in the Shell, and at that point so much backstory will have to be reconned it will effectively be a totally parallel canon. Either way this is profoundly stupid, because it is sure to enrage fans of the existing canon (those people DreamWorks is supposedly courting instead of simply stealing all the good tropes and starting up a new franchise for free), and the retort that there simply aren't any A-list Asian actresses to fill the role only underlines how galling the lack of diversity is in Hollywood.
Let's forget all that for a moment, though, because there happens to be a way DreamWorks could turn Scarlett Johansson's involvement into a complete win, accidentally pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and maybe even chart an innovative course for new films grown from the stock of mature franchises: Create some new damned characters already! Midi-chlorians and a certain Gungan sidekick notwithstanding, one of the most annoying things about the Star Wars universe is how it insists we study the minutia of the lives of Luke and Anakin Skywalker, despite the fact that at any given moment we in the audience know something far more interesting is happening elsewhere in the universe. Rebels will be the first moving picture form of the franchise that doesn't revolve entirely around the Skywalkers, and for better or worse, it signals that Disney understands what Lucas never could: The value of Star Wars isn't tied up in a whiny Jedi and his morally confused father, it lies entirely in the depth of the universe they inhabit. (Aside to Bob Iger: Legitimately great job so far, Bob, but J.K. Rowling understood that a franchise should age and darken with its audience, and I desperately want to see what Quentin Tarantino would do with an R-rated Boba Fett movie. Make it happen!)
The point here is that we, the fandom of Ghost in the Shell, love Motoko Kusanagi, but we know her already, we've seen the movies and watched the shows and eaten the breakfast cereal, and we know there's no way you are going to improve on them by rehashing their contents without all that "kids'-stuff animation". If you go trying to portray her as totally-Japanese-trust-us Johansson, if you massively rework the fundamental backstory of the franchise to make her an American to justify an analytics-driven casting decision, or even if you lampshade her appearance with some line about Western standards of beauty influencing bio-industrial design, we're suddenly going to love her a lot less, and you way less than that for causing all this nonsense.
If, however, you recognize that the true strength of Ghost in the Shell is its exploration of technology on the horizon and how it might all interact with human nature, you can do something that works wonderfully in the video game industry and occasionally in television: Write a totally new story that treats the existing canon as canon and go off exploring what Ghost in the Shell's tumultuous times have done to America. You can thereby cast your A-listers, drag in the general moviegoing public who don't care at all who Motoko Kusanagi is, give everyone another eyeful of cool explosions and a cat-suited Scarlett Johansson, and the long-time fans will be thrilled you've given them more canon to obsess over instead of violating what they already liked about all this. The only tricky part will be writing it, and if the fandom decrees that the end result totally sucks, you have the added bonus of not committing nearly the same degree of sacrilege.
(Aside to the producers: We don't have the first clue who this Wheeler guy is and that hurts our feelings on top of making us nervous, and by the way, there are probably a dozen prominent writers in Hollywood who have been directly influenced by the franchise. Also, Snow White and the Huntsmen was a technically competent but otherwise bad film, and it makes us even more nervous that the only other noteworthy thing Rupert Sanders appears to have done with his life is very publicly cheat on his wife. Just sayin', you can maybe do better.)
Luckily, all that depth of setting without ever seeing too far beyond future Japan's borders means there is huge freedom to conceptualize the American side of the Ghost in the Shell universe, and if you do it well you can play both sides of it against itself to the tune of a bunch more movies. Consider:
- You can get away with a lot of sly social commentary in near-future sci-fi. Distain for the word aside, a Ghost in the Shell film has the potential to be one of the edgiest ever made. The world is still reeling from two world wars in as many decades, but the canonical details are very thin. All we know for certain is that the USA broke into two or three separate states in WIII, China was involved, and somewhere along the way Japan ate some nukes. This signals an American civil war at the heart of all this upheaval. Even if you don't want to explore this as the primary plotline of the film, it's going to weigh heavily on any American characters, and could be a cutting way to comment on our cripplingly partisan present day.
- Similarly, following this war, many other nations also collapsed into anarchy; sectarian conflict, revolutionary movements, refugees, and cyberterrorism are still the order of the day. Sound familiar? Advances in weapons technology somehow managed to keep up with all the software and cyberbrain stuff, too. Questioning the morality of using autonomous war machines has always been a component of the franchise, and with a delicate hand this could finally be the film that makes mainstream America realize our current drone warfare doctrine is headed down a dark path.
- The primary philosophical component underpinning Ghost in the Shell is the mind-body dichotomy (so ingrained as to be the titular "ghost" and the "shell"), and the fandom will be deeply disappointed by a movie that is not a philosophical think-piece punctuated by amazing effects and gun fights. It worked for The Matrix, right? Any guesses where the Wachowskis got a lot of their material from? The deep spookiness of Ghost in the Shell has always stemmed from the idea that if you did have your brain cyberized, i.e., transplanted into a protective, self-contained life support vessel that could be functionally reattached to a host body, you get some fun side effects like believable virtual reality, a conscious connection to electronic objects in our increasingly wired world, and functional immortality, but you also open yourself to the possibility of things like having a hacker look through your biological eyes and remotely seize control of your muscles. If you can take your brain out of your body and put it in a body that isn't even human, a literal machine, what the hell are you, exactly? Ghost in the Shell never purports to have a proper answer to that question, but merely by it and its characters asking the question, it manages to rise above the vast majority of so-called "art". Don't punt on this one and say it's already been explored by the franchise, because it can't be explored enough, ever, particularly in big-budget films.
- Speaking of virtual reality, thanks to a little thing called the Oculus Rift, the mainstream world is finally waking up to what VR is and why it's haunted the edges of pop culture for 30 years. By the time Ghost in the Shell is in theaters, the head-mounted display device Oculus is building with Facebook's help will be in consumers' hands, and regardless of how well it sells, the overlap between people who own an early VR device and GitS fans who are praying you don't screw this movie up is virtually a single filled circle instead of a Venn diagram. People will be watching this 3D movie on huge virtual screens inside their personal cinemas anyway, so bonus points if you create some additional VR content as part of the marketing campaign. Ghost in the Shell's characters aren't shown spending great lengths of time in virtual realities because there is generally something more exciting going on in the real world, but it's a major feature of the canon, a technology that has reshaped the world in its image. Iterate on the franchise's existing portrayals of VR just right, and this film could be to VR what Minority Report was to insufficiently-thought-out arm-wavy augmented reality.
- If you're really crafty, Scarlett and her troop of gun-toting cyborgs will build up to making some kind of play to shift the balance of global power back toward America, or at least attempt to commit some kind of necessary and noble act that anyone less fully-informed than the audience might call cyberterrorism. But guess who shows up to thwart their plans? None other than a definitely-Asian Major and her troop of gun-toting cyborgs! Fans will be delirious over this reveal, because one other consistent theme in the franchise is the omnipresent but unspoken question of who is actually the bad guy in any given situation. Even the over-the-top big bad of Second Gig is not so much Chaotic Evil as trying to set the world right according to his warped sense of morality – better than a huge majority of other episodic art, Ghost in the Shell repeatedly epitomizes all angles of the old axiom "everyone is the hero of his own story". Steering things into a downer ending of Section 9's brand of cyberfascism winning the fight and crushing the more typically cyberpunk goals of the American protagonists seems totally appropriate for the franchise, but remember – your body may die, but it's pretty easy for your cyberbrain to survive long enough to make it into the sequel!
Let's face it, reboots have worn out their welcome almost as thoroughly as reality television. We don't want a gritty present-day reboot of Lord of the Rings in which Frodo lives in Brooklyn as a down-on-his-luck private investigator and "the Ring" is a metaphor for his drinking problem (this is itself a metaphor, by the way), we'd much rather hear a completely untold story set in Middle Earth, because our favorite character isn't Frodo or Gandalf or Legolas, our favorite character is Middle Earth itself. (Want proof? Shadow of Mordor, a licensed video game set in the Lord of the Rings universe, is a smash success with critics and players alike, and might be on track to sell a million units. It managed this not by pandering to fans, shoehorning in existing characters and parroting familiar storylines, but rather by keeping cameos light and instead creating the main character and most of the rest of the (mortal) cast from whole cloth. Its only significant asset taken directly from Tolkien is the canvas that is Middle Earth.)
Armed with the knowledge that this is even possible, that filmmakers can take existing backstories and add to them rather than continually retelling the same core story for fear that they have nothing interesting to add, it's easy to see how this approach could creatively and financially revitalize a number of franchises with sufficiently rich settings. Granted, it takes writers and directors with real skill and talent who need to do the research if they aren't already rabid fans, but it mostly just takes producers and purse-string-holders with the courage to risk making something truly creative. You want a way to get people into theaters? Try showing them something that is simultaneously familiar and completely new, try treating the franchise bible with respect instead of throwing it in a fire and "shaking things up!" with a "gritty" reboot every time the term on the licensing rights ticks down, try making something new about something old.
Is there some hidden reason Hollywood can't expand certain sorts of properties instead of tearing them down and rebuilding them every few years, or is it the same old story of "this is working, so keep doing exactly this forever"? If it's the latter as we all suspect, if the cafeteria counter that is Hollywood keeps serving up the same rotating menu of all-too-familiar stories with slightly different spicing each week, sooner or later we're all going to decide we're just not that hungry.