1996’s Duke Nukem 3D is an incredible game. It’s hilarious, violent, profane, anti-authoritarian and, in hindsight, reasonably problematic. High points include using shrink rays to reduce baddies to Borrower-size and crushing them beneath your boot, while low points include Duke’s automatic growls of “Shake it, baby” whenever he encounters a pixelated stripper. While the graphics don’t really hold up today, the first-person shooter gameplay is fantastic, the one-liners are great, and it’s a lot of fun to mash cheat codes into (DNCORNHOLIO for eternal life, woop woop).
2011’s Duke Nukem Forever, however, is one of the worst games ever made. It took close to twenty years to make and is rubbish.
For a long time, it was a kind of running joke how Forever would simply never come out, technology always moving on by the time the game was finished, forcing the developers to start from scratch. But then, when they finally managed to complete a game, it was full dog-egg. It was a massive shame - the world would have been better off imagining this wonderful, always-imminent game, this hilarious fantasy, than dealing with the embarrassing damp squib of the eventual release.
Where 3D entertainingly pushed the envelope, this was just childishly offensive. Where 3D was brilliantly over-the-top, Forever was just, well, stupid. And misogynistic. And there was a bit where you had to pick up actual human shit, which should have been funny but wasn’t.
It couldn’t kill interest in the character though, and there has been talk for ages of a big-screen outing for the Duke. It looks, now, like they might have cast the best person possible, renowned thespian Mr. John Cena.
A Duke Nukem movie with John Cena has real potential to be amazing - the character is really cinematic, inspired by Hollywood icons like Clint Eastwood and lifting a lot of one-liners wholesale from classic films like They Live and Army Of Darkness. Cena obviously has the physique to do the character justice, and his filmography is an even split between straight action (The Marine, 12 Rounds, Legendary) and self-parodying comedy (Trainwreck, Sisters, Daddy’s Home), so it’s bang-on perfect casting. And he’s an interesting guy, a human bicep with a real sensitive side.
It could go so wrong though, as Duke Nukem Forever showed. It’s a tone issue, and a timing one, and a taste one. In the ‘90s an over-the-top caricature of machismo was a lot more palatable than it is now. Producer Andrew Form told CinemaBlend:
“You know, having a misogynistic guy in today’s world - how do you make that fun and lovable? And at the same time he’s got to be an incredible badass. So those are the things that we’re struggling with, and we’re going to try and come out with what I hope is a really fun ride. That’s the goal, is for it to be a really fun ride.”
What also wouldn’t work is completely redeeming the character and losing everything interesting and funny about him. That ridiculousness is pretty much Duke Nukem’s USP, and a more sensitive version (Woke Nukem?) would run the risk of alienating fans while also not attracting anyone who wasn’t already a fan of the character - a surefire way to make sure nobody is happy at all. The producers are using a pretty successful “problematic asshole who we somehow don’t hate” movie as a tonal touchstone though - Deadpool.
Form says: “It’s going to be about tone. That’s about tone. How do you nail that tone in the way that Deadpool nailed the tone? I think we have to do that and if we don’t get the tone right then we’re not going to make the movie.”
We’re cautiously optimistic about the outcome of this, and Cena’s commitment to onscreen nudity could mean the film can keep its edge without being misogynistic. “I’m very new to storytelling, and the lens,” Cena told the Press Association recently. “But I just think there is nothing that sets you up better than just letting your guard down and being as naked as the day you were born.”
This honestly could and should be amazing. As Duke himself says, piece of cake.
(Side note: There was a baddie in Captain Planet and the Planeteers that was also called Duke Nukem. He appeared ten times and was voiced by Dean Stockwell of Blue Velvet and Battlestar Galactica fame.)
He is nothing to do with this. They just have the same name. Nobody knows why. But, interestingly, Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company was once looking seriously into making a modern-day Captain Planet film, and DiCaprio and Cena have both starred in films with Tilda Swinton - The Beach and Trainwreck - so, like, it all comes together, sort of.)
(Pic: WWE/3D Realms)