Last week, Netflix announced that it was collaborating with Legendary Entertainment to produce a live-action Mobile Suit Gundam film. The Director of Kong: Skull Island, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is attached to direct with award winning comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan writing the screenplay. Legendary and Sunrise had announced that they were exploring the potential for such a project back in 2018, so this project has been on the cards for a while now. Gundam is a massive franchise, since the original anime series started in 1979 there have been dozens of anime series, films and countless toys and Gunpla sold. Not to mention the plethora of imitations following in its wake. It has a long and rich history to draw inspiration from, but there are a few potential pitfalls too.
Gundam is a lot of things to a lot of people. Which series served as your introduction to the franchise can have a huge impact on your perception of the others. Some people are fans of everything, some only care for their preferred timeline, others have only seen some series here or there – I’m the latter. I definitely count myself as a fan of Gundam but I don’t claim to have seen everything there is on offer. Gundam has remained relevant and interesting over the decades by reinventing itself, that’s why there are so many disparate timelines.
From the Universal Century, to the Cosmic Era, to After Colony. Each one takes the same, or similar, themes and central elements and mixes them up in a new way; one that reflects the changing of the real world as technology and society has advanced. You’ll see a masked pilot with a hidden identity, a princess caught between opposing sides and, of course, a new design of the titular Gundam Mobile Suit. The Universal Century is by far the biggest timeline and has the most screen time dedicated to it, however you shouldn’t write off how beloved some of the others are in their own right. Each one has its own unique flavour and story to tell; like building with a tub of lego, you can use the same pieces to achieve radically different results.
Sunrise, Legendary & Netflix have the opportunity here to create a billion dollar blockbuster franchise. I know that sounds like an exaggeration or like I’m setting the bar way too high but that is the potential of Gundam as a live-action franchise. It’s a world renowned and instantly recognisable brand with a clear and distinct visual and audio design that’s continued to be successful for decades and will continue to be for decades more. They’ve made a huge success of anime, manga and the Gunpla models which they sell in their millions, this is simply adding another string to their very successful bow. If it can work for Transformers, it can work for Gundam.
Transformers actually serves as a really convenient example, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the successes and failures of the Transformers film franchise. Following the template of the Michael Bay films would be quite easy, you’ve got big bipedal robots, a pre-established conflict and some human perspective characters. Then add a big explosives budget and some laser effects; it would be quite the spectacle. That would work for a one off, or even for a few films as it did for Bay’s Transformers, but it is not a recipe for long term success. Bumblebee, however, is.
Grab your Mobile suits! Jordan Vogt-Roberts has been set to direct and produce Legendary’s first-ever live-action feature film version of Sunrise’s GUNDAM for Netflix.
— Netflix Geeked (@NetflixGeeked) April 12, 2021
“But, Adam.” I hear you say, “Bumblebee made the least amount of money, how can that be the recipe for success?” it is a fair question, and the answer is fairly simple to me. It made the least money because it followed after the five Michael Bay films. It is the best one by miles and yet I almost didn’t watch it at all because I was so worn out by then. I’m sure that’s not an uncommon feeling. It was written off before it got a chance to give a fair account of itself. That’s why it didn’t make as much money as previous films had managed.
I believe Bumblebee is a better source of inspiration for a number of reasons; It has a much tighter and focused scope for its action and plot. There’s an interesting and sympathetic human story connecting it all together. It’s internally coherent and draws on the source material well without overcomplicating things. Where Bay’s films are a never ending stream of explosions, MacGuffins, world-ending Cybertron contraptions that just happen to have been on earth all along and completely ignoring established continuity. Travis Knight’s Bumblebee is a much more interesting story. There’s time for emotion, for character development and it still puts together some good action sequences too.
Michael Bay got a few key things right in his films that shouldn’t be overlooked. Yes, there is a lot of fatigue built up from their overly long and relentlessly explosive nature that will forever haunt them in my mind. It must be said though that Michael Bay did a fantastic job of bringing those characters to life in a live-action setting that looked incredible, especially in the first few films. The designs of Optimus Prime, Bumblebee etc. looked believable, were intricately detailed and were a marvel of technology at the time. Gundam has a distinct look and feel that marks it out, translating that onto the silver screen is doable but will take great care and attention to detail to get right. Mobile Suits are instantly recognisable in sight and sound, nailing that will be a key ingredient of succeeding in the eyes of fans.
Mobile Suit Gundam has bucket loads of potential for a live-action cinematic franchise that could last for years. That means keeping the powder dry and not blowing it all on the first film by trying to pack way too much plot into it. In fact, I’d argue that you only need to look at the original anime series for the perfect inspiration. Telling the story of a single battle over an isolated base of some description with the wider war and world as a backdrop is the perfect foundation upon which to build the live-action franchise. It would be foolish to try and pack an entire series’ arc into a single film. It’s a trap a lot of big budget films seem to have fallen into in recent years, everything from Batman v Superman, to a Bay Transformers movie, many of them are too long and contain at least one superfluous plot thread that they just don’t need yet insist on dedicating a significant amount of time to. So keeping the film tightly focused and maintaining a manageable runtime with a well paced story would serve them well here.
Whether it is on earth or in space, this scenario contains plenty of options for creating a fascinating dynamic and contrast between the two sides. Developing the characters’ relationships as they struggle desperately to survive and win each battle as it comes. With one side trying to hold together their crumbling defences while the other tries to marshal dwindling resources into their increasingly reckless and desperate attacks. Exploring the human cost of intense and traumatic fighting where lives are lost. Tension building as ammunition runs low, weaponry breaks and the people still standing lose control. These are things the anime series often does very well. It is a powerful and potent examination of warfare, the political machinations that enable it and the struggle of those caught in it while trying to survive.
Legendary’s recent track record suggests they have the chops to pull this off and make a success of it. Now with the support of Netflix and Sunrise, I really hope they can.