This week can’t be easy for the Top Gear team. After persistent rumours of a troubled production, the new show premiered on BBC Two and around the world and was met with an unbelievably vitriolic fan reaction. Many have already argued that the new show is a failure.
But wait… haven’t we heard this story before?
Back in March, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice went through a nearly identical baptism of fire. And when you think about it - the two are basically exactly the same. Seriously. Here’s why.
Jumping Through Hoops
What’s most noticeable about BvS and Top Gear - particularly the start of both - is just how much baggage these supposed reboots had to deal with.
In the case of BvS, this was establishing the new world: What was the tone? How old is Bruce Wayne? Do we need to see how Bruce Wayne became Batman again? Is this a Batman universe where Robin also exists? What does LexCorp actually do? And so on. We never actually found the answer to that last one.
And Top Gear was surprisingly similar. Within the first 10 minutes of the show, Evans was pumping bullets into all of the various elephants clogging up the room. For example, the “catering” joke made right at the start diffused some of the tension surrounding how he got the gig in the first place (even if we got the impression that if he had actually uttered the words “Jeremy Clarkson” he would have burst into flames).
Then there was the introduction of co-host Matt LeBlanc following rumours of on-set tension. Evans brought him out to huge cheers. And this was swiftly followed by a video package proving Chris Evans’ car credentials, as a response to the photos which emerged showing him being sick after a drive around the test track.
What was also interesting was that this reboot also used the opening as an opportunity to bat away two persistent criticisms that dogged the old show: xenophobia and an undercurrent of laddish sexism. Within moments of the cameras rolling, Evans was introducing the staff of his local Indian takeaway, for seemingly no real narrative reason. The real message here was clearly “This show is for everyone now”. And then during the film it introduced the show’s first female presenter, Sabine Schmitz, to subtly tell any neanderthals watching that, yes, women can like cars too.
For both BvS and Top Gear, going through these motions were crucial. Before they could start telling us a story, they needed to tick all of these boxes so that we, the audience, would know how to configure our own preconceptions, and be able to buy into what was about to happen to us.
Escaping a Predecessor's Shadow
As I’ve written before, rebooting a franchise is tricky because it involves walking a tightrope between either being reassuringly familiar or being different. This is particularly difficult if what came before was critically acclaimed and popular too.
BvS’ most immediate predecessor was 2013’s lacklustre Man of Steel, but by introducing Batman, the film was tempting audiences to think back to Bruce Wayne’s most recent big screen outing, in the Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
This makes it incredibly hard for the film makers to decide what to keep: Should Zack Snyder have aimed for the fantasy aesthetic we’ve seen in the comics, or cause direct comparisons by grounding the character in Nolan’s relative realism? The end result appears to be something of a muddled compromise -- as best demonstrated by the Batmobile in BvS staying as a military-style “Tumbler”.
For Top Gear, the shadow of the past is much more recent - but the dilemma is very similar. Is it better to keep the format exactly the same, inviting direct comparisons, or to mix it up and try to create something new? In the end the BBC appears to have played it safe by not changing things up too much.
Perhaps the biggest shake-up, other than the presenters and the addition of a few more colours to the show’s palette is that the test track now has an off-road section. Whether this will pay off remains to be seen. While it might be able to keep fans on board at first, will they look back in a few weeks' time and think “Hey, Jeremy used to do exactly this... but better”?
Creators Can't Afford to Fail
Another similarity between BvS and Top Gear is the striking degree to which their continued success is important to their parent organisations. Top Gear is the BBC’s most important property - worth around £50m annually to the corporation, as not only is it hugely successful in this country, but it is also massive around the world. If Top Gear stops making money for the BBC, then Clarkson’s sirloin steak was the most expensive meal the BBC never bought.
BvS is similarly important. It was the film that was supposed to establish for Warner Bros. an entire new DC Cinematic Shared Universe, analogous to what Disney has done with the Avengers films. Unfortunately for WB, it put all of its eggs in one basket. Rather than slowly build up to an Avengers-style crossover, the company threw everything at the wall with the one film. The negative response to BvS could poison not just any future Superman or Batman films, but the rest of the ‘universe’ too.
In fact, we’re already seeing rumours about executives getting nervous. The next film in the DC canon, Suicide Squad, has experienced extensive reshoots (usually not a great sign), and Zack Snyder is being kept on a tighter leash during the production of the forthcoming Justice League film. Whether it's already too late remains to be seen.
For Top Gear, don’t be too shocked if the first series is judged a dud, Chris Evans is given the boot and the BBC tries again.
Death by Fans and Media
Films in production don’t usually have blogs reporting every little thing that happens on set. But in the case of these two, the scrutiny was intense well before the productions were finished.
As two of the highest profile franchises in the world, there was never any way that the DC Universe or Top Gear were ever going to have been allowed to develop quietly. There was never going to be a chance to grow -- they’d have to be perfect from day one. When they were announced as their respective stars, both Chris Evans and Ben Affleck received huge criticism from people who were yet to see even a frame of footage.
And this all fuels a meta-narrative of sorts. Fan culture means that people don’t simply watch a film and forget about it, they go online and pick it apart, criticise it and (if filmmakers are lucky) celebrate it. Chances are that the most hardcore fans pretty much knew exactly what was going to happen before they went into the cinema - and in all likelihood knew what they were going to think too. And for the fans, it is much more satisfying to know that you were right all along than be pleasantly surprised. So in both cases, the existing Top Gear and BvS fanbases were almost predisposed to hate it.
What's Jesse Eisenberg Doing?
And finally, perhaps the weirdest connection between Top Gear and Batman V Superman is that, well, Jesse Eisenberg turns up in both. He played Lex Luthor in BvS and on Top Gear he played a man promoting a play he was starring in.
And weirder still, in both his motivations were unclear and he didn’t really seem to fit the production he was a part of. Good work, Jesse.