The recent promotional material for the upcoming live-action Sonic the Hedgehog movie was about as well received as the average Sonic game. Most didn’t care for Sonic’s design and the cocky feel of the leaked poster. The whole affair just felt so strange and weird.
However, that’s exactly what the Sonic franchise is now, a very weird amalgamation of various themes and concepts. It’s almost incomparable to the game that started it all. While the series isn’t doing as well as it did in its heyday, most multi-platform Sonic games still sell in the ballpark of a million copies thanks to their embrace of Sonic’s weird identity. The Sonic Boom cartoon also saw widespread critical praise for doing the same.
The themes that used to define the Sonic series are long gone and now a piece of Sonic media can be on just about anything. Its fandom has far more control over public perception of the franchise than any other multimedia series. Recent Sonic projects thrived by embracing that the brand is now a vehicle to tell any kind of story. The vaguely defined characters can fit in any number of roles without issue. There have been so many different takes on the characters that any interpretation of them is as valid as any other.
If the live-action movie wants to be successful, it needs to channel the energy of the Sonic fandom, which made the franchise their own and transformed Sonic into what it is today.
Today, Sonic’s basically a blank slate. All you need to create a legitimate piece of Sonic media is the speedy blue hedgehog himself. This wasn’t always the case, though. Back when the original game, Sonic the Hedgehog, premiered in 1991, the titular character and brand had some pretty overt themes.
The game pits Sonic against Robotnik’s evil industrialized empire as the hedgehog works to return the world to its natural state. Sonic travels through increasingly mechanical environments and fights to free innocent forest critters from their enslavement as power sources for Robotnik’s robots. The game doesn’t portray nature as a paradise — the Green Hill Zone is riddled with hazardous spikes. However, it does thoroughly position it as superior to an artificial and industrial environment.
Ancillary pieces of media also played a role in determining who Sonic was as a character and what the games represented. Western commercials for the character reeked of early ‘90s youth rebellion. Thanks to Sega’s marketing efforts, Sonic became a cool character in a radical, preteen angst-filled game that stuffy adults didn’t want you to play. Oh, and of course these games were superior to Nintendo’s “kiddie” titles, because Sega said so.
This is what Sonic and his games were initially, a corporately manufactured counterculture. The embodiment of cool and edgy in the early ‘90s. This version of Sonic would see tremendous success, as rebellious characters were extremely popular at this time. The Simpsons aired its third season in 1991, and the unruly Bart Simpson was already a breakout character. Similarly, 1993’s The Animaniacs would become a smash hit by centering on a group of children who mocked any authority figure they came across.
Sonic’s artificial framing as a cool, rebellious character would make the brand a household name, but its rapid rise would also soon turn Sonic and his games into empty husks.
Sonic the Blank Slate
The Sonic franchise started off strong. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) sold a total of 31 million copies, Sonic 2 (1992) sold about nine million copies, and Sonic 3 (1994) sold around four million copies. Sonic was also the first video game character to appear in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, with the Sonic balloon premiering in 1993. Clearly, Sega had a hit on their hands, and they wanted to milk it for all it was worth.
The ‘90s would see a total of three different Sonic cartoons, with actor Jaleel White voicing each iteration of the blue hedgehog. Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog (1993) follows the general events of the first game and has Sonic advise young viewers on issues like substance abuse and gun safety. Sonic the Hedgehog (1993-1994) depicts Sonic as a freedom fighter battling against Dr. Robotnik’s evil empire. In Sonic Underground (1999), Sonic and his siblings fulfill an alien prophecy and use the power of music to reclaim their birthright as the rulers of planet Mobius.
Further complicating things, the Japanese-produced Sonic the Hedgehog OVA (1996) developed a separate continuity from any other piece of Sonic media. It takes place on a post-apocalyptic planet Earth, where Sonic has to defeat Hyper Metal Sonic and stop Eggman from marrying the President’s daughter. Then there’s the Sonic the Hedgehog Archie comic, which premiered in 1993 as a tie-in to the cartoon of the same name. The comic would quickly develop its own continuity and lore, though. Its tone would also vary wildly between story arcs. One set of chapters sees the characters trying to transform the Kingdom of Acorn, while another storyline has them battling Scourge the Hedgehog and other evil doppelgangers. The comic would end its run in 2016 after releasing a staggering 290 issues.
Thanks to these various continuities, by the end of the ‘90s, being a Sonic fan meant a lot of different things. Maybe you had only ever read the comic, or perhaps you loved Sonic Underground but hated the first two cartoons. Even if the games acted as a unifying point, that would soon change too.
To keep the franchise relevant as the gaming industry and the idea of counterculture changed, Sega chased whatever trend they could. Sonic Adventure (1998) capitalized on the hardware capabilities of the Sega Saturn and became the first 3D Sonic game. It came hot off the heels of other popular franchises making the jump to 3D, like 1997’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid, which premiered just a few months before Sonic Adventure. Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) tried to appeal to the now young adults who played Sonic games as kids in the ‘90s by making the game edgier and adding firearms as a core mechanic. Sonic Unleashed (2008) was the most combat-focused game in the series to date. Moving beyond the Spin Dash, it allowed players to use a variety of attacks to defeat bosses and enemies. Of course, this came after 2007’s massively successful Super Mario Galaxy, which also gave Mario more methods to defeat enemies than ever before.
By this point, the Sonic brand was spread thin. Existing across so many diverging and dissimilar pieces of media caused the brand to lose its identity. Nothing like this has happened to any other enduring video game franchise. Mainline Super Mario games have always involved saving a princess or a magical kingdom from tyranny. But a piece of Sonic media can be about anything. Fans quickly realized this and decided if the franchise could be anything, then they’d make it their own.
How the Fandom Made Sonic Their Own
Each member of Sonic’s sizeable fandom has their own idea of what makes Sonic, well, Sonic. By comparison, just about every member of the Pokemon fandom joined the community because of their love for the video games, the long-running anime, and/or the card game. The Sonic fandom is different. Some were introduced to Sonic as a 3D game, others only got into the franchise because of one of the cartoons, and others still are only looking to talk about the comic they’ve read for most of their life.
The community decided to lean into the fact that the majority of its members had their own wholly unique experiences with Sonic, entry points that have almost no overlap with those of other members. They used the space to explore and express their individual identities.
Take the ‘Tails From Sonic ISN’T Gay’ Facebook group, for instance. It began as a homophobic group where the moderators and those who agreed with them started flame wars with people who read the character Tails as gay. That is, until the moderator discovered that their brother is gay. The group then became a place for the moderator to chronicle confronting their own homophobia as they worked to become a more open-minded person. Sonic helped them with this transition as well. By raising Chaos in Sonic Adventure 2, the moderator realized they loved them all equally, no matter what kind of Chao they grew into.
There are countless stories like this one in the Sonic fandom, where how people express themselves using Sonic changes over time. The massive amount of Sonic fan fiction created by fans features original and established characters going on unique adventures or dealing with real-world issues. “Rising Star,” for example, explores themes of loneliness and friendship, and “Fracture Point” tackles anxiety. Fans have the freedom to reflect their varying interests and circumstances through Sonic while keeping the franchise as a core part of their identity. The only thing connecting these stories is the attitude that fans will continue to make the content that Sega can’t or won’t give them.
Most fan communities come together to celebrate a piece of media, and whatever fan fiction its members create usually digs into the lore of a franchise. Like how the extensive Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest fanfic expands on the events of Super Smash Bros. Brawl: The Subspace Emissary (2008) by fleshing out characters based on their previous appearances and having them visit worlds from other games. The Sonic fandom, though, focuses more heavily on self-expression. They use the franchise’s characters to write the stories they want to tell.
Sonic is now this self-indulgent thing, where people bond over appreciating their various interpretations of the characters. The franchise is nothing more than a vehicle for fans to promote their ideas. So, forget about sticking to the franchise’s lore or making sure each character’s personality is consistent with previous appearances. Today, for a Sonic project to be well-received, it needs to successfully express the values of its creator.
How Sonic Thrives as Self-Expression
The most noteworthy Sonic projects as of late have been some of the most inspired in the franchise’s history. 2017’s Sonic Mania was developed by PaGoda West Games and Headcannon with Christian “Taxman” Whitehead serving as the director and lead developer of the project. Whitehead spearheading Sonic Mania is notable. Prior to this project, he was primarily known for creating Sonic fan games and ROM hacks, as well as ports of Sonic 1, 2, and CD for mobile devices.
A retro Sonic game made by old school fans, Sonic Mania is the best 2D Sonic game made in the past decade. Whitehead’s deep appreciation for the original games, and retro titles in general, really comes through in the game’s design. Sonic Mania pays homage to the first three mainline games and features updated level designs from each of them. It also contains nods and references to other games from the early ‘90s, like when Sonic has to beat Eggman in a game of Puyo Puyo at the end of the Chemical Plant Zone level. It’s obvious that a great deal of care and personality went into the game, something that both longtime Sonic fans and general audiences can appreciate.
Similarly, the Sonic Boom cartoon received an immense amount of critical praise for concisely expressing the creative team’s vision. The cartoon was a dramatic departure from any other piece of Sonic media. But people love it for its meta humor, lampooning of popular cartoon tropes, and acknowledgment of the Sonic series’ own tumultuous history. For instance, the cartoon frequently uses the fictional video game series Tomatopotamus to criticize Sonic video games. The characters even complain about the fictional series’ 3D games, an obvious dig at the heavily panned Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) game.
The creatives behind Sonic Boom clearly wanted to make a cartoon that didn’t take itself too seriously and poked fun at Sonic’s unusual history. It knew what it was — a means to promote the Sonic Boom video games. So the creators focused on having fun with the characters and open-ended setting. Just like with Sonic Mania, the success of Sonic Boom shows that Sonic media projects can thrive if the creators of a project are passionate and aren’t bound to the past.
Sonic Forces (2017) is what happens when creators don’t have a clear idea in mind. A critical and commercial flop, the game was nothing more than Sega’s attempt to appeal to fans’ tastes. Sonic Forces has players take control of a uniquely designed original character and face off against past villains from the Sonic franchise. Unfortunately, most players didn’t care for this uninspired attempt at fan-service. It doesn’t reinterpret any of Sonic’s characters or express the creators’ personal vision of the franchise. Instead, it simply digs into the series’ lore and has players interact with generic versions of the franchise’s many characters. This created a disconnect between players and the creators, who didn’t appear to have a personal connection to the series (i.e., basically posers).
With self-expression fueling Sonic, there’s no limit to what the brand can be. Genuine expression is what appeals to fans, much more than any specific gameplay mechanics or thematic features. They want creators who are, in fact, fans themselves. That means the stranger and more specific a project is, the better.
The Need for a Passion Project
If you think the leaked Sonic the Hedgehog movie posters are strange, or not what you think Sonic should be, then that’s a good thing. No individual Sonic project can please everyone. The brand simply contains too many continuities and entry points. But what a new project can do is act as a way to express the creator’s relationship with the series.
To resonate with fans, the live-action movie will need to be deeply personal to writers Van Robichaux and Evan Susser. Sonic today is defined by its passionate fanbase and how their dissatisfaction with the brand led them to create a wealth of original content using Sonic characters and settings. In a sense, Sonic still represents the counterculture. But now it’s about fans creating the stories and experiences they want from the characters they love, instead of tolerating the official pieces of Sonic media that Sega tries to spoon-feed them. At its core, the Sonic the Hedgehog needs to be a fan film.
If the leaked plot of the movie does prove to be true, we could be in for something great, and original. According to the leaked script summary, the government and Robotnik will try to capture Sonic, and small-town cop Tom will work to help our hero return to his homeworld. The theme of an oppressive organization, like Sega or the more oppressive parts of the fandom, trying to control and define Sonic while he struggles to maintain his independence is exactly the kind of meta-commentary we need. Perhaps the movie will serve as an allegory for how Sonic fandom members create and protect their own interpretation and experiences with the brand and character.
The fandom would love a passion project of this scale magnitude. If they can simultaneously let go of the past and embrace its idiosyncrasies, then we might get a good film, maybe even a great one. But we’ll have to wait until November 8 to find out for sure.