The very fact that “Veronica Mars” exists at all is remarkable. The new film is a continuation of the UPN television series, also titled “Veronica Mars,” which aired from 2004 to 2007. Like many of the great but underseen shows of the last decade, it found a larger audience through DVDs and online streaming than it ever did on air. The fans of cult shows like this one always bemoan that they were canceled before their time and clamor for continuations for their beloved characters, but the intensity of those fans has rarely translated into financial success. When Universal Pictures released the feature film “Serenity” in 2005, a follow-up to Joss Whedon’s short-lived series “Firefly,” they hoped to capitalize on the passionate fandom and home-video success of that show. The film was a flop, and since then studios have been unwilling to bet on internet-fandom translating into box office success. The “Veronica Mars” film represents a new avenue for this type of project: Last year, series creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell took to Kickstarter, a crowd-funding service, to get a film made. Over the course of a month, over 90 thousand fans contributed $5.7 million, enough to move the project forward, and now the results are here.
For anyone unfamiliar with the show, “Veronica Mars” is about a high-school student turned private investigator, played by Bell. The premise may sound cutesy and Nancy Drew-esque, but this was a dark, complex show—a teen drama that frankly explored issues like sexual assault and abusive parents in a community harshly divided by income inequality. The first season in particular was excellent, and while its final year suffered from the shift to a college setting, as so many teen shows do, the series as a whole is absolutely worth returning to. The film picks up ten years after Veronica’s high-school graduation. Veronica has given up her PI lifestyle, and is on the verge of a successful career as a lawyer, when a murder in her hometown drags her back to her roots.
The film explains all of this backstory in a quick opening montage—one which does a very good job of explaining premise and character relationships without spoiling much for anyone inspired to check out the show for the first time—but the fact that it is even necessary illustrates what a unique case this movie is.
Since the film was primarily funded by fans—Warner Bros. picked up the cost of the advertising and paid for re-shoots, including that introductory montage—does it really have a responsibility to work as a stand-alone entity? And does serving those fans mean stuffing the film with cameos and inside jokes for die-hard fans, or trying to tell the same type of story that made the original show successful?
For the sake of clarity, and full disclosure, I should state that I am one of those fans who eagerly chipped in my own, hard-earned money to get this film made. I would have been fine if no continuation had ever existed, as I enjoyed the rather abrupt downer-ending that closed out the show’s third season, but I’m still in a position where I don’t quite know what someone who has never seen the show will think of the movie. My guess is that it will still be enjoyable, if a little hard to follow.
As for how the film attempts to serve its fans, a question I am more qualified to answer, it leans a little too much on traditional fan service. The movie is certainly jam-packed with cameos, with basically every notable character from the show popping up. At a certain point, the winks and nods start to become a little much, and the sheer number of characters present takes away time that could be spent with some of the show’s more important supporting characters. On the other hand, even the original show wasn’t especially good at devoting time to its supporting cast because it was always so singularly focused on Veronica’s experience, the one thing it did better than anything else. The film maintains that aspect of the show, as Veronica’s struggle to resist returning to old, potentially dangerous habits is given as much focus as the central mystery, and Bell’s performance is as good as it ever was.
Thankfully, the never-ending parade of familiar faces does not prevent the film from telling a satisfying mystery in the same vein as the original show. In fact, the only major misstep comes in its treatment of Logan, Veronica’s volatile on-again, off-again boyfriend. The Veronica-Logan relationship always had a lot in common with the angsty, fraught relationships common in today’s teen-focused pop culture, but the original show was always aware that such a relationship could be genuinely harmful to both participants. The film abandons that thread entirely and seemingly acquiesces to the subset of fans who obsess over that tragic relationship. Not only does this fact make the film’s romance subplot uninteresting, it also does a disservice to the complex portrait of Logan the original series painted.
“Veronica Mars” is by no means a perfect film, conflicted as it is between appeasing the fans responsible for its own existence and telling a stand-alone story, but it ends on a fascinatingly ambiguous note. The conclusion does provide a satisfying answer to the central mystery, but it also sets up a number of elements that suggest that a follow-up could be even better. The format in which that follow-up could appear is unclear. A novel taking place after the events of the film was released this week, titled “The Thousand Dollar Tan Line,” with another in the works, but if the movie is successful enough it could lead to a film sequel, or perhaps a limited series on Netflix. There’s no road-map to follow here—nothing quite like this movie has ever been done before. You can feel the excitement of possibility in the film’s ending, and hopefully those possibilities will be fulfilled.