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Next year’s RoboCop marks the return of the everyday tale of one cyborg and his simple desire to bring justice to his hometown. But just because the world has been robbed of a RoboCop movie since 1993’s RoboCop 3 — aka The One Nobody Really Remembers Was Even Made (Even Peter Weller skipped it.) — that doesn’t mean that Murphy has been taking it easy for the last 20 years. Welcome to the magical world of the RoboCop Expanded Universe.
The first RoboCop spin-offs actually predate even 1990’s RoboCop 2, which, in case you’ve forgotten, was based on a script by Frank Miller and directed by The Empire Strikes Back‘s Irvin Kershner and still managed to be underwhelming. In 1988, just a year after the original movie, Marvel Productions premiered RoboCop: The Animated Series, a syndicated half-hour show that only lasted 12 episodes before cancellation.
To call this unexpected is being polite. Sure, RoboCop has a certain kid-friendly quality to it in theory, but the original movie had to be submitted to the MPAA 12 times before it got any rating that wasn’t an X. Was there really the belief of a significant crossover audience between that movie and the Saturday morning cartoon crowd?
Two years later, and just in time for RoboCop 2, Marvel published a RoboCop comic, written by Judge Dredd writer Alan Grant — a smart choice, considering that Dredd was one of the inspirations for the original movie. That comic lasted two years, ending when the license passed to Dark Horse Comics, which launched its RoboCop line with what remains one of the best RoboCop stories to date: RoboCop vs. Terminator (a series written, again, by Frank Miller. Clearly, he was a fan).
By the end of 1993, it seemed as if RoboCop was headed to the scrapheap — RoboCop 3 had been a flop, and Dark Horse was winding down its line of RoboCop comics. The following year brought new hope for the franchise with RoboCop: The Series, a live-action version of the character made by Canadian studio Skyvision Entertainment.
Was this show good? Two changes introduced to the mythos by the series should tell you all you need to know. Firstly, because the series was aimed at kids, RoboCop started introducing nonlethal alternatives to ending conflict. Secondly, a young sidekick called “Gadget” was also introduced, because — oh God, you can’t explain this away; it was just a terrible, terrible idea. Suffice it to say, RoboCop: The Series only lasted 22 episodes.
From there, it was back to animation. RoboCop: Alpha Commando premiered in 1998, bringing Murphy back after five years offline — let’s consider that “meta-commentary” instead of “Really creepy to think about someone just switching RoboCop off for five years and forgetting about him” — to fight the terrorist organization D.A.R.C. (“Directorate for Anarchy, Revenge and Chaos,” of course).
This was a lighter RoboCop than we’d seen before; one who happily used roller skates when necessary, and — of course — would rather shoot to stun rather than kill. Again, this show lasted just one season before disappearing.
In 2001, Canadian television had clearly recovered from RoboCop: The Series enough to feel comfortable taking another swing at the concept. The result was RoboCop: Prime Directives, a four-part miniseries made up of TV movies set a decade after the original movie and ignoring pretty much everything that had come since. The series also attempted — not entirely successfully — to go back to the dark satire of the original movie, but it was somewhat undone by budget and execution. This, it seemed, was the end of RoboCop’s onscreen adventures.
However, it wasn’t the end of RoboCop as a whole; the character spent the last decade bouncing around comic book publishers. In 2003, Avatar Press launched a series of RoboCop releases that included an adaptation of Frank Miller’s original script for the second movie, and six years later, Dynamite Entertainment released its own short-lived RoboCop series, again written by a Judge Dredd alum (Rob Williams). This year, Boom Studios — best known for publishing the source material for this summer’s 2 Guns movie — took up the license just in time to catch the wave of anticipation for next year’s movie reboot.
Throughout the numerous, strange, somewhat unsuccessful afterlives of RoboCop, the ghost of the original movie has loomed large — something that inspired every subsequent incarnation and yet was often abandoned in favor of many more generic offerings. Will next year’s big-screen revival finally find some way to handle the legacy of the first Alex Murphy and the strange world he lived in, or will it just join the list of all the pretenders to the throne?
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