Within the past week, an episode of television aired that was so clever, so satisfying, so well-written, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It was a little bit meta. It had a helluva third act twist. It respected its fans. And best of all, it had something to say — a thoughtful point of view about our culture.
I’m referring, of course, to Friday’s episode of DuckTales. Why, what did YOU think I was talking about?
It’s no secret that I, personally, am a huge fan of Disney’s DuckTales reboot. I write about it kind of A LOT. And I’m coming back to it again because the most recent episode, titled “The Duck Knight Returns!”, isn’t just the smartest episodes of the series to date — it also serves as an unexpected counterexample to the Game of Thrones finale and all the hubbub that surrounded it.
I’m sure it’s only a coincidence that this episode premiered two days before GoT took its final bow, and there’s no way Francisco Angones, Matt Youngberg, and the team behind DuckTales could have predicted that their thoughtful examination of toxic fandom would launch the same week that GoT fans were petitioning for HBO to remake Season 8 only, like, better or whatever. But intentional or not, DuckTales just proved everything GoT was trying to say about the power of good stories — and they did it within an ACTUAL GOOD STORY.
Darkwing Duck has already been established within the rebooted DuckTales universe as a classic show that Launchpad is obsessed with (a neat way of addressing the old question of how his character could feature in both the original Darkwing Duck AND DuckTales, despite them taking place in two different fictional bird-themed cities — while also closing that plot hole entirely). But the thing about nostalgic old shows is that, you know, they’re always being rebooted! Enter artsy director Alistair Boorswan (voiced by Edgar Wright!), who is taking that old slapstick hero and making a “grim, complex masterpiece” out of him, inspired heavily by Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies (and Martha Wayne’s iconic pearl necklace):
You see, it’s a psychological thriller about how we’re all the heroes and villains of our own stories. And the fact that it’s being made at all is news to Jim Starling, the actor who originally played Darkwing Duck in the old show (voiced here by Jim Cummings, who actually was the actor who played the original Darkwing Duck). When he finds out his part has been recast, he sets out to steal the spotlight from his replacement — who happens to be the president of his fan club. And Launchpad can’t decide who to help: his childhood idol, or the super-fan who loves “the terror that flaps in the night” as much as he does.
The episode lays bare the variety of expectations that can pull a reboot in different directions. The studio heads who just want something uncomplicated and profitable (Scrooge). The kids, who don’t care about the source material and just want something cool, with like aliens or musical numbers (Dewey). Alistair may have an exciting and unconventional idea for the reboot — but he’s more concerned with his vision than the things that made the original concept work. And the fans? What this episode acknowledges is that people get so passionate about these properties because they gave them confidence, or hope, or changed their lives in some fundamental way. They meant something. And that passion is not a bad thing! Launchpad is just stoked that someone is throwing a lot of money at something he loves. The new actor wants to do his part to ensure that the movie doesn’t do wrong by his favorite character, and get his shot at making a difference in another child’s life the way Darkwing Duck changed his life. The problem, of course, is Jim Starling — representing that sliver of fandom that doesn’t just love a property, but feels ownership over it. And naturally, he’s the one that comes in and ruins the film in a disastrous, set-destroying climax that ensures no one gets to enjoy an updated Darkwing Duck at all.
And as for the twist? After Starling saves Launchpad’s life by sacrificing his own, the new actor is inspired to take up the mantle and be an inspiration himself. And that actor is named Drake Mallard — the name of Darkwing Duck’s civilian persona from the original series. Yup, this is all an origin story for Darkwing to become an actual hero in the world of DuckTales. And it’s also an origin story for his greatest villain, as it’s revealed that Jim Starling escaped his seeming demise through the sewers… where he’s now dressed as Negaduck!
This episode did more than simply address the challenges of rebooting a beloved property — it was a masterclass in doing it successfully. DuckTales has married its deep admiration for the source material with a willingness to build upon it in surprising yet faithful ways. It’s made by fans, for fans — but without excluding anyone who just wants to enjoy the show in front of them as-is. And the episode was also a message about fandom, and the way reboots or adaptations don’t ruin the thing you love. Your feelings are your own. The meaning you derived from the material doesn’t have to change. Fandom should bring us together, not tear us apart. And if you disagree with how something is being handled, that’s fine too! But that doesn’t mean you need to destroy it for everyone else — because this version may be just as important to them as the other version was to you.
Of course, execution still matters. The way that Negaduck twist was foreshadowed by all Alistair’s vision of making Darkwing a hero AND a villain? That’s the stuff that makes a good story so satisfying. You don’t have to guess exactly what’s going to happen in advance as long as you can recognize the groundwork that led to the moment once it arrives (coughcough REALLY BRAN STARK? cough).
Header Image Source: Disney