Frank Miller’s RoboCop: A Retrospective Review

I have to give it a hand to the Avatar people for pushing for Frank Miller’s original RoboCop 2 script to be adapted onto the comics’ page. The story of RoboCop 2 is always fascinating, almost to the point that the creative history behind it is more interesting than the actual final product a la The Emperor’s New Groove, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.  (Although the final product is excellent)

Back in 1987, Ed Neumier and Michael Miner had a crazy idea for a story about a cyborg super-cop, that was entitled RoboCop. Most studios and directors scoffed at the script but foreign film director Paul Verhoeven wanted to direct it (after first throwing the script in the trash can, Verhoeven’s wife encouraged him to continue reading). Verhoeven crafted an amazing film about resurrection, the dangers of corporate America, the influence of the media and much more. The film was a surprise hit and the studio quickly sensed a potential franchise. But the process of drafting a screenplay proved to be difficult as a writers strike began in 1988. The studio had to look to other pools to find a suitable writer for RoboCop 2. The studios recognized the influence superhero comics had on RoboCop and turned to comic scribe Frank Miller.

Miller had become a legend in the comics industry having turned the third-tier Marvel character Daredevil into a high-selling book. But what likely warranted the studios attention was his smash-hit The Dark Knight Returns. It was a best-seller that had unprecedented national news coverage and prominent interviews for Frank Mille,r a comic book cartoonist. The Dark Knight Returns success caught the interest of Hollywood executives to contact Miller about writing RoboCop 2. Miller was eager to try to revolutionize Hollywood as he had done with comics and eagerly agreed.  Miller a fan of RoboCop had grand vision for a sequel to the original film. Miller even had hopes of directing RoboCop 2, but the realities of being a scriptwriter quickly became apparent. Miller had committees analyze and note everything about his first draft. The studio demanded a toned down film from the “unfilmable” first draft. Miller gave watered down draft after draft until finally the actual screenplay used in the film was by a second writer. Miller was disappointed by the result, but came to the set of RoboCop 2 every day to learn the tricks of Hollywood. The actual production of RoboCop 2 would become so chaotic with the original director being fired and replaced by The Empire Strikes Back director Irivn Kershner. The stars of the film Peter Weller and Nancy Allen both have mixed to negative feelings about the film. Weller himself has expressed a preference to Frank Miller’s original concept for the film than the final product.

Thankfully, an editor of Avatar was able to come upon an original RoboCop 2 draft.  Steven Grant, an acquaintance of Miller, was asked to adapt for the page Miller’s vision. Together with talented artist Juan Jose Ryp, the two were able to craft the original vision for RoboCop 2 entitled Frank Miller’s RoboCop. The nine-issue miniseries reads best in trade format, and thanks to Boom!, the storyline is available to the masses at a reasonable price.

The actual reaction to Miller’s intended vision of RoboCop 2 is as polarizing as most of Miller’s work post-1986.  Looking at the book the first thing that I saw was a side of Miller that is less widely embraced. Miller can switch between grounded (Batman: Year One, Daredevil: Born Again, That Yellow Bastard) and operatic (300, The Dark Knight Returns, Martha Washington Saves the World), but occasionally he dives heavily into the satirical (Elektra: Assassin, Hell and Back, The Big Fat Kill, All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder). Frank Miller’s RoboCop is a brutally cutting satire of the time period that Miller was living in.

Taking the cues from the original film, the story is even more on the nose in its raging anger against corporate America and any form of authority. In the often overlooked Elektra: Assassin Miller had every form of authority mocked while at the same time having an unprecedented amount of gratuitous violence and self-aware clichéd characters. SHIELD was used as a synonym for the CIA and their dark dealings during the Cold War, the main antagonist was an insane ultimate-liberal who served Satan, while the incumbent president was a thinly-veiled Reagan parody who constantly threatened to push “the button”. This bombastic and intentionally over-the-top social satire was gleefully applied by Miller to his original vision of RoboCop 2. There are a plethora of explosions, body parts blown to bits, and lots of fan service while at the same time a sharp social satire of the 1980s.

The world of RoboCop had its pulse on all the fears of the 1980s, corporate takeover, the rise of crime, the Cold War, and more. In Miller’s eyes, perhaps the greatest threat to our culture though is political correctness. Miller saw political correctness as an intentional attempt to sanitize our society and mask fascism with tolerance. With the façade of progressive social ideology comes a new fascism that demands conformity to the standards that the rich impose on the 99%. Their ambassador is the beautiful pop psychiatrist Dr. Amanda Love. The preposterous name alone is a giveaway of her duplicitous nature. Although wanting to supposedly curb violence, behind closed doors she reveals a great desire to impose conformity. Firstly,she declares that the ideal candidate for OCP’s “RoboCop 2” project is not an independent cop, but a sociopath who will be able to obey the orders that OCP provides. This notion of conformity and control is applied not only to the literal cyborg “RoboCop 2” but also in the replacement police force, former assassins that are true “robots” and simply do as commanded.

These agents of homogeneity prove to be a fascinating foil to Alex Murphy, the original RoboCop. Miller begins the story by having RoboCop be Detroit’s greatest defender against the wicked. Murphy is identified as being a special being because only he has endured being a cyborg. (Any other attempts have lead to the cyborgs committing suicide.) Murphy’s connection to his humanity and drive to protect the people begins to become bothersome to OCP as he refuses to enforce unjust laws against the people of Detroit. Dr. Love’s extended torture of Murphy is perhaps the most visceral depiction of an attempt to de-humanize. Even as Murphy is nothing but a limbless torso he still refuses to accept OCP’s attempt to control him. Dr. Love’s incredulously mocks this attachment to humanity with the famous line, “Take away the plastic and the wires and you’re just a few chunks on the coroner’s table. You’re not even a corpse.” The torture sequences are reminiscent to 1984, which depicted the main protagonist Winston being reduced by O’Brien into a docile, submissive member of the state.  These scenes help demonstrate Miller’s growing fears of corporate America trying to strip-away all that makes us individuals until we become nothing but a tool of the corrupt establishment.

Miller does not let the story be downright pessimistic though. In fact, the book is genuinely funny at times with many enjoyable gag moments and biting satire about pollution, news media and advertising. The action is very thrilling and while there are some somewhat confusing plot elements in the middle of the storyline Miller adds enough gravitas to the finale that one can be left very satisfied with this vision of a follow-up to RoboCop. As with The Dark Knight Returns, and much of Miller’s work, Miller suggests that the power lies within the people and that change against the corrupt society can indeed happen. By the end, RoboCop and all of Detroit have ruined OCP. Though OCP is not dead, the people have triumphed and RoboCop proved that he is indeed still human while his enemies were the true robots.

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James Kelly has been obsessed with comics and superheroes since he saw Batman: The Animated Series on TV. His father also got him hooked on Star Wars when he took him to the 1997 re-release of the magnificent Saga. Kelly graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in English Literature, and a concentration in Fiction Writing. He hopes to be able to one day produce his many comics and other writing projects to mass audiences.

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