Opinion: Solving an adaptation like this is tricky, but we’ve got some ideas on how to do it.
Here’s what we know: John Cena is in negotiations to star in a movie adaptation of Duke Nukem. The project currently sits at Paramount and Platinum Dunes, a mid-size studio known for franchise horror and the most recent live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films. With no director or writer attached, it’s unclear whether Duke Nukem will even go ahead. But if it does, it faces sizeable creative hurdles.
For one thing, Duke Nukem isn’t exactly current. The franchise’s tortured last outing, 2011’s Duke Nukem Forever, suffered from an overwhelming negative response. Even the series’ high point, Duke Nukem 3D, is mostly remembered for its gameplay and level design – hardly useful for cinematic adaptation. The games’ narratives center around bog-standard alien invasions, and somehow their central character is even less substantial.
A parody of Hollywood action heroes, Duke Nukem is all “cool” posturing, cursed with an outright unpleasant personality. He interacts with the world mostly by shooting or kicking it, and speaks in stultifyingly puerile one-liners. The guy’s a misogynistic, self-absorbed a$$hole, and worse, the games treat that as wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Even discounting Duke’s essential crassness, his character is built on unoriginality. When he’s not spouting withering puns or beginners’ curse words, he’s quoting dialogue from other, better material – a reliance on reference that’s ingrained into the franchise, rendering any film version a pop-culture Ouroboros.
It’s easy to imagine how bad a Duke Nukem movie could be. A “faithful” adaptation – like the explosively R-rated CG film the games’ voice actor Jon St. John self-servingly suggests – would likely be a minefield of poor storytelling, unlikeable characters, and simplistic idiocy that would alienate, bore, or anger all but the most die-hard, stuck-in-the-’90s fans. So assuming you’re making a Duke Nukem movie, how do you go about it? Adapting between mediums by definition requires changes to the material – and difficult adaptations call for unconventional approaches. Let’s look at some possibilities.
The LEGO Batman Approach
The most likely route for a Duke Nukem adaptation is to make an affectionate parody of the absurd and outlandish action movies that inspired the games. It’d be an easy transition; after all, that’s what the games are meant to be.
Such an adaptation would present Duke Nukem as a self-aware bada$$, lampooning action cliches from both cinema and games. The “risqué” elements would be toned down, while Duke’s political incorrectness and self-obsession would be undermined for satire. And it would reflect the games’ density via frames packed with background gags and movie references. Like The LEGO Batman Movie, this would be a safe, funny approach to take.
The Jack Slater Approach
Less likely is a riff on the infamous 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger bomb Last Action Hero. That movie dragged a fictional Schwarzenegger screen persona into the real world, forcing him to confront real people and real physics. That character, Jack Slater, offers a clear blueprint for Duke Nukem, which is unsurprising given Duke’s roots in action movies.
This movie, then, would operate like an inversion of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. There’s humor to be mined from a video game character dropped into the real world – as multiple YouTube comedy channels demonstrate – and Cena’s goofy-stoic screen presence suits such a fish-out-of-water story. Put aside Last Action Hero’s (underwhelming) box office and focus on its premise: It’s perfect for Duke Nukem.
The Jack Sparrow Approach
Along similar lines, Duke might actually work better as a supporting character. Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jack Sparrow was a terrible leading man, as the latter sequels demonstrated, but he played against Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley like a charm. Sparrow worked best swanning about wreaking havoc while others drove the story; so too with Duke Nukem.
An audience-surrogate character would work wonders against Duke, rolling their eyes at his puns or calling him out on his more regressive behaviors. Done right, it could be a classic straight-man/funny-man duo. Given that Nukem will almost certainly be at least part comedy, it’s a strong option.
The Starship Troopers Approach
One of the riskiest approaches to adapting Duke Nukem could also produce the best film. Much like Paul Verhoeven satirizing Robert Heinlein’s militarism in his adaptation of Starship Troopers, a Duke Nukem movie could actively tear into the character’s macho excesses. A smart, incisive takedown of toxic masculinity would play well in today’s world. But what would it look like?
Pushed to its limit, such a film would present Duke as the awful creature he is. He’d be a sexist monster in the same way Starship Troopers’ commanders are space Nazis, playing a villain in his own story. It’d be bold, though it’d backfire when real-life a$$holes inevitably adopted Duke as an unironic hero. It would require such fine tonal control that it’s probably a bad idea – unless Platinum Dunes literally hired Verhoeven to direct.
The B.J. Blazkowicz Approach
Another risky option: Play against expectations and give Duke serious emotional depth. The Wolfenstein series recently gifted its own protagonist pathos and heart, and Duke’s ripe for such a reinvention. A clear route would be to present his crudity as a crutch, a knee-jerk emotional Band-Aid for past trauma. All that bluster has to be a coverup for something.
Gamers will likely scoff at such an approach – Duke Nukem, with feelings? – but the same was also once deemed impossible for B.J. Blazkowicz. MachineGames demonstrated that depth doesn’t have to come at the expense of “the crazy”; the secret lies in depicting the characters truthfully regardless of their situation’s ridiculousness. That worked for Wolfenstein, and it could absolutely work for Duke Nukem.
(Though while we’re discussing Wolfenstein, perhaps it’s worth considering just cancelling the Duke Nukem movie and casting Cena as B.J. Blazkowicz. He’d be perfect.)
The Captain Planet Approach
Or how about this: Consider the Captain Planet villain Duke Nukem (no relation), and cast Cena in a Captain Planet film about the dangers of radiation. That’s ’90s nostalgia everyone can get behind!
Not all of these ideas would necessarily make a good movie. It’s all in the execution. But it’s key to realize it’s possible to retain the over-the-top parodic spirit of Duke Nukem while adding narrative value and avoiding less-savory pitfalls.
Platinum Dunes’ record is spotty, but the Purge series at least demonstrates a clear understanding of violent satire. What will be most interesting is whether or not any eventual film indulges in the same cliches the games claim to make fun of. For now, we can dream that it will not…