Imagine if they the Batman was taken out from his comics and replaced with someone who isn’t Batman. Sure, Francis there will say that’s happened multiple times and he’s right. Yet every single time we’ve always returned to read further adventures as Bruce Wayne as Batman. The status quo returns. Same with Peter Parker, who has been replaced by other Spider-Men for some time. Like by Ben Reilly, who happens to have the best iteration of the classical Spider-Man suit. Superman has died and has come back to life. In any given new entry to the Transformers with Optimus Prime, you can expect him to die. Hell, for Transformers to have the same basic cast with some changes to setting and characterisation, yet all the roles and core characters are the same. People make connections with characters and their stories and wish to continue follow their stories. It’s not just something to consume, it’s almost like following how an old friend is doing.
Comics have made introduction of new characters a finely tuned craft. You first have the original comic for character A that’s successful, in which you introduce character B. Character B makes an impact enough and gets spun out to his own comic book, now expanding both the world of the comic and the lineup. Valiant Comics in the 1990’s was well versed in this and managed to build an organic and cohesive world. Malibu Comics’ Ultraforce book, their version of The Avengers or Justice League, was planned year beforehand and every team member’s storyline would meld into the Ultraforce story. Best thing is, it was planned well enough that it’s only apparent in hindsight and the stories themselves weren’t hampered by this plan. To this day I find it sad that Ultraverse comics and characters are dead. Marvel bought Malibu Comics just to get their advanced colouring techniques in 1994, and after the comics were cancelled around a year later, none of the concepts or characters have made appearances, sitting in Marvel’s vault gathering dust. Still, new characters get introduced constantly, but not many stick around enough to get their own books. Some times it is the executive decision to drive in a new book based on a new character with no real connections established previously, though that doesn’t always go as hoped.
The same base concept applies to any entertainment media, be it books, movies or TV-shows. Take the show Cheers as an example. People loved and cared for these characters, and despite Frasier not being a main character initially, he proved popular enough to be spun out to his own namesake series for eleven seasons. James Bond movies have tried to spin some of the characters into their own movies, but there hasn’t been any luck in that for multiple reasons. Budget always being one of them. James Bond has seen more success with James Bond Jr. in book and in animated form, though that’s somewhat arguable as it seems majority of the current mainstream audience only knows Bond from the movies.
Nevertheless, the method of creating supplementary characters and expanding the world has proven to be both lucrative and consumer friendly. You can do whatever you want with a new character and his setting all the while keeping the originator intact. You can even make the same choice as Marvel did with the Ultimate Spider-Man ans introduce a new version of the classic character. What seems to be the opposite action of this is replacing old characters with completely new ones through whatever methods the writers employ. Sometimes its totally replacing these characters, sometimes its rewriting them to the extent that what made these characters themselves in the first place is no longer there.
There are of course examples when a total shift in a series works. Star Trek: The Next Generation is an example of this, despite it not appearing so at first. The discussion which series is better and which had the better cast is as old as the show itself, many considering it a worthwhile addition but never reaching the same cultural status as the original. After all, it’s the original cast people were attached to, not this new cast with a French bald guy as the captain. I would argue that time has proven that the TNG cast and their stories were worthwhile addition to Star Trek, which opened further possibilities to expand the franchise in much larger ways. While Voyager, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise are largely debated within their fandoms, the overall consumer doesn’t deem them as worthwhile. Star Trek hasn’t managed to capture the audience in the same manner since TNG went off the air. The rebooted Star Trek universe hasn’t reached the same level despite reusing old characters, but in these movies the characters were largely unrecognisable from their old selves and more like caricatures of themselves. It’s an example of using recognisable names and settings without taking advantage of them or telling further stories about these characters. They might as well be blank slates, something completely new.
Star Wars has of course always struggled with the old and new cast. The Golden Era of Star Wars comics was when Marvel originally licensed the comics, exploring all the adventures Luke, Leia and Han were having. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye largely falls into this category. Dark Horse began to expand the universe with new settings, cast and characters with little to no connection to the original cast, but nevertheless didn’t conflict with those characters. Even further, stories like the Shadows of the Empire were treated as if they were movie events without the movie. Nevertheless, new stories based on the universe were met with as much critical acclaim as stories based on the original cast of character. Whether or not Disney intentionally let down fan expectations is somewhat an open question. While it’s not uncommon to drastically change characters, it can backfire immensely if it’s not organic change and is completely untold. Disney Star Wars has the habbit of not expanding on events or reasons. Instead additional one-liners trying to function as exposition has been put in, which shows more how lacklustre the overall planning process and writing has been. Return of the Jedi left things off in a hopeful, bright manner, which was effectively killed by repeating A New Hope. Luke’s bright future was killed off by him becoming a murderous hermit, Han’s position as the husband of an heir of a dead planet was nulled and all the roles these characters had were removed in order to promote new characters. To lacking success, as Disney Star Wars has taken a profit plummet ever since their released their first entry. Incidentally, Mandalorian has been received in a better manner, mostly because it has expanded already familiar universe without infringing on the established characters, something the movies are at fault to a large degree.
Some writers will laugh at the audience for connecting with fiction. To some it’s a passionless job, something they do for money like any other office worker. Some creators do create a similar connection, while others simply come in to do whatever. Nowadays it’s not exactly a rarity for a recognised and already established brand to have a writer who want to do their own thing without any regards what’s already come. While we can argue over how much a writer needs to be slave to the past writing, what they can’t ignore is the customer expectations and wants. If they end up butchering the characters, the setting and overall overturn what the audience has come to love in a work, well, they can only take the heat. The continuity of these characters stories, even if they’re new stories with little connection, is the living flesh of the audience’s attention and love. Cut that away, and all you have is meat that can be consumed once, and all you’re left is bones and guts.
What are you going to do with a brand that is unrecognisable from what made it popular in the first place? Replace it with something completely new is the answer sometimes. Other times, the best method is just to reverse course and turn back.