The Veronica Mars movie owes its existence to the cult-like following of the CW TV series. Fans ponied up millions via a Kickstarter campaign to help creator Rob Thomas bring his neo-noir crime fighting blonde to the big screen. Over 90,000 people donated $5.7 million to bring the movie to life, a record-setting amount for the crowd funding website, and nearly three times the amount Thomas hoped to raise for his movie.
I imagine that put Thomas in a tricky position. Fans clearly wanted more Veronica Mars, but what kind of Veronica Mars did they want? Do you create movie that tries to recapture what fans loved about the original, or do you try to move things forward, to do something new with the character? The risk of the former is making a film that feels like a regurgitation; the risk of the later is that innovation may risk of alienating or angering the very fans whose dollar contributions made the movie happen. Although it is lauded as a democratic, egalitarian sources of creating funding, crowd sourcing, it turns out, puts an artist in a precarious position. What is it like to create while being held accountable to the faceless masses and the fear of the backlash from legions fans?
As one might expect, Thomas opts for a compromise, and the result is a movie that feels hesitant and holstered. It has been seven years since the show went off the air, which means Thomas has to figure out how to get Mars back to her hometown and high school. That problem is resolved, naturally, by a ten year high school reunion. Since graduation, Mars (Kristen Bell) has given up the private dicking for high-powered New York lawyering. She isn’t even planning on attending her high school reunion until a plot scenario nearly identical to the one that kick-started the series – a murdered girlfriend – sends Mars back to fictional Neptune, CA to help out an old friend.
The friend is Logan (Jason Dohring), of course, who has lost his second girlfriend to murder, and now must rely on Mars to clear his good name. The investigation leads the heroine back into Neptune’s corrupt underworld and her high school’s bitchy cliques. Along the way she forfeits a high-paying job in New York, shirks her father’s urging to get out of her home town while she can, loses her current boyfriend, and begins to fall – once again – for Logan. This is fanboy fate, a fictional (and, frankly, horrifying) world in which we all are just dying to hook up with our old squeezes at our high school reunions.
To Thomas’ credit, he is still able to construct a mystery plot flush with red herrings and forgotten clues. Veronica Mars is a more than capable caper, and its twists and turns keep you guessing while Thomas sneaks a few legitimate jump-out-of-your-seat shockers. But for someone, like me, who never watched the original series, there is a distinct sense that you have shown up to a reunion for a school you never attended. Characters pop in- and out-of the film like cameos; lines of dialogue resonate like inside jokes. I took a super fan with me to the screening of the movie, and afterwards she regaled me with everything I likely missed. When Logan calls his relationship with Mars “epic,” it’s meant to be ironic (and not unpalatably sappy and sincere, as I took it) because it references an entire storyline that has something to do with a drunken prom night speech. When Mars sits at the table in the high school’s al fresco dining area with an old friend who is now a teacher at the school, it’s a quote of a shot the TV show used a thousand times, situating the restless, inquisitive Mars within the confines of an adolescent context she has already outgrown.
I expect knowing these insider clues will make the film more satisfying for fans. But even for non-fans, it doesn’t take long to warm to Mars’ character — her unflappable appetite for sleuthing and her quick-witted, sardonic asides. It also doesn’t take a super fan to recognize that there’s something lost when a character with these particular qualities is removed from her original context. When she used to sit at that cafeteria table, Mars was a particular kind of high school heroine. She was admired because she personified how so many people feel in high school: both a part of the scene and apart from it. Mars was a teenager who was intellectually and sexually confident, a master of herself and her environment. She was capable and in control at a time when the rest of us were victims of the percolation of hormones and the rapid acceleration of growth, change, and maturation. We could hardly solve the mystery of our own bad complexion, let alone fake voices to nab police files from cute police deputies. All grown up, Mars loses that distinctiveness, and with it some of the vicarious appeal of the character.