What's With All the Reboots?

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Hollywood's nuts on reboots, it seems. Spider-Man's just been rebooted. Superman's about to do it. Star Trek. The Muppets. James Bond. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. Christopher Nolan has announced he won't be making anymore Batman movies, and Warner already has plans to reboot that franchise with Nolan in the producer's chair


What's the deal? 


First and foremost: money. No denying that. There's revenue to be made, and it's easier to sell a known entity. Hollywood producers have known that since the 80s, the decade of sequel, sequel, sequel. Broadway producers know this too - look at the how many plays and musicals have been adapted from movies, or the music of established rock acts, from Abba to Green Day to Queen to the Four Seasons


spiderman musicalMarrying both worlds is the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, based on the comics and the 2002 Sam Raimi movie Spider-Man, with songs by Bono and the Edge. It's received mountains of bad press (from well before it opened), director Julie Taymor quit, a major cast member left while it was in previews, and more than one stunt performer got injured, but the thing still packs in audiences, month after month, at high ticket prices. What's the appeal? Spectacle? Most certainly a part of it. But you could create an equal amount of spectacle with an original character or story (The Book of Mormon, for instance), and not have to pay Stan Lee any royalties. Why a familiar character? Why a story the audience already knows? 


Because it's easier to sell a known entity. 


But why is it easier to sell a known entity? Why do we want to be retold stories we already know?


As my good friend and fellow Beams contributor Corin Raymond observes in his one man show Bookworm: "I've never seen a kid who didn't want to hear their favourite story again." 


We've all been that kid. Individually, and culturally. 


Western theatre history is considered to begin in Greece, fifth century BCE. The ancient Greek poets Greek Theatre at Ephesuswrote play after play, presented in big, open-air amphitheatres, some of which still exist (with startlingly good acoustics). People gathered once a year to see these performances, and a major award was given for the best play. And from the extant scripts, it seems the exclusive subject was myths. Stories of the Greek gods and goddesses and heroes other mythological characters. All of which the audience already knew. But this is Sophocles' take on Oedipus. This is Aeschylus's take on Agamemnon. Here's how Euripides rewrites the story of Medea. The audience knew exactly what was coming. But the voice of a particular poet gave it to them in a new way. And people wanted to hear their favourite stories again and again. 


We still do. 


Ares, Greek God, Marvel Comic characterIt's quite pertinent that these reboots happen so often with superheroes - colourful beings with supernatural abilities, who've practically stepped out of ancient mythology altogether (some heroes are in fact Greek or Norse gods). There's no reboot in the works for The Godfather trilogy. But there there's a Fantastic Four reboot in development, and one for Daredevil. As I argue elsewhere, a big part of the appeal of superhero stories is that they can evoke the part of each of us that's still a kid, that still believes we could fly, or acquire superpowers of some kind. It's a thrill to spend an hour or two in that space. And superhero movies have increasingly been playing to broader audiences. That feeling isn't just for the guys who live in comic stores.  


Reboots serve a function - a very important one, both financially and artistically: accessibility. Widening a narrowed audience. The Star Trek movies were wildly popular initially - top ten box office hits, until Star Trek V: the Final Frontier in 1989. It wasn't that good. And Star Trek: The Next Generation was airing on cable. Not too long after that there was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Then there were movies with the Next Generation cast. The world of Star Trek became bigger and bigger, and consequently, smaller. There was so much to keep track of (Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise, decades of comics and novels) that the audience grew more specialized. Unjustly or not, the association grew that Star Trek was the property of the obsessive and socially retarded, like the fans William Shatner tells to get a life in that Saturday Night Live sketch, or this kid, from the documentary Trekkies.


Then, after a handful of Star Trek-less years, JJ Abrams directed Star Trek, the title itself implying a basic take on the mythology, and brilliantly rebooted the entire fictional world with a neat time-travel-creating-an-alternate-past plot device. So now you don't need to know what the Cardassians think of the Ferengi, or what Captain Janeway's favourite kind of pie is. You don't need to know anything about ricardo montalban as khanthat universe - it's all back at square one, and with Abrams' genius for turning schlock into art, the movie's gripping, and complex and accessible to everyone. It contained enough nods to the conventions of the series (Bones says "Dammit man, I'm a doctor, not a physicist" and Scotty says "I'm giving her all she's got, Captain!") to satisfy the fans and let them know this is done by someone who respects what came before, but not one plot point hinges on anything from any previous Star Trek story. And now anything can happen in sequels. And we can all look forward to Kirk et al meeting the updated versions of every baddie he's faced in the past, but there's no need to have a Kahn with Ricardo Montalban's accent or prosthetic pecs.


And that brings us to another opportunity reboots offer - they can update the stuff that doesn't fit anymore. Tim Burton's Batman eschewed Adam West's hand sewn tights in favour of armour that deflected blades and Christopher Nolan updated it to look like it could actually allow someone wearing it to move. He also took Robin out of the story pretty much altogether (no need for the very impractically brightly superman's new costumecostumed teenager tainting the dark tale Nolan wanted to tell). Superman's costume in the upcoming Man of Steel does not, thank the lord, feature bright red underwear on the outside of blue tights. Similarly, DC updated Superman's costume in their company wide reboot The New 52, giving him traditional Kryptonian armour in one book, and jeans and a t-shirt in one that's set five years previous. Marvel did a similar thing with many of their characters' costumes in their rebooted Ultimate Universe. The Ultimate Spider-Man is still costumed in red and blue tights, but Peter Parker was bitten by a genetically altered spider, not a radioactive one (a change they kept for the Sam Raimi movie, and a better reflection of the changing times, radioactivity and nuclear energy reflecting the fears and aspirations of the 60s, genetic engineering doing so for the 2000s). In the original comics he became Spider-Man as a teenager, but was an adult by the time I was reading the comics, and got married before long. In more recent years he's become a the fifteen year old peter parkerhigh school chemistry teacher. So the Ultimate Spider-Man is fifteen again, and he's got a teenager's physique and social problems, emphasizing his lack of experience and resources as a superhero. He gets a job at the Daily Bugle, not as a photographer (and really, what major newspaper would hire a fifteen year old photographer?) but as a web designer. You get a good pun in there, as well as a more plausible area of expertise for a nerdy teen. It's a better story choice. And I have every expectation that the next Spider-Man movie will follow the Ultimate Comics' lead and offer a more satisfying origin and costume for the Green Goblin than the talking metal mask in Sam Raimi's movie.


Lastly, reboots can make different choices than their predecessors. They can explore different aspects of the mythology. Sam Raimi had Spidey's webs generate organically from his body - Marc Webb's reboot sticks to the original story, and has mechanically gifted Peter building his own web shooting devices and wearing them on his wrists. Raimi's movie had Mary Jane Watson as the love interest, spidey and gwen stacywho actually came later in the comics. Webb went with the original love interest, Gwen Stacy. Raimi took the original story point of Spider-Man starting out as a wrestler, looking to earn money. Webb's Spider-Man simply takes inspiration from seeing a poster of Mexican wrestlers' masks. Raimi's Spider-Man gained his sense of responsibility as in the original comics: he failed to stop a thief who robbed the wrestling's box office and who went on to kill Parker's Uncle Ben. Webb has Parker storm out after an argument with his Uncle Ben. On getting denied two pennies from the "leave a penny, take a penny" tray at a convenience store, Parker lets a thief get away, who then shoots a pursuant Uncle Ben, who'd only been out because he was trying to reconcile with Peter in the first place. The responsibility is still Peter's, but the action is more compact and immediate - and better, in my opinion. And most significantly, Uncle Ben never says the iconic to the point of cliche line: "With great power comes great responsibility." Webb said the phrase remains as a subtext in the film, but to have used it would have drained the film of its naturalistic tendencies. Besides, the audience is already thinking those words, so there's no need to say them. Allude to them. Let the audience know you know they're there.


As easy as it is to be cynical about the commercial motivations for reboots, I prefer them to endless sequels. A reboot comes with an injunction: do something different. Give the public what they know, batman and robin, the awful moviebut change it. Not so much that they don't recognize it, but enough that you still surprise them. And if possible, illuminate an aspect of the character (or characters) that had been ignored. The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises have been such mega box office hits, it's easy to forget that Batman Begins took a while to gain the respected place it now holds in the worlds action movies and comic book movies. Many people, myself included, were cynical about the franchise after 1997's dreadful, campy Batman and Robin, with George Clooney, Chris O'Donnell, Alicia Silverstone, Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and more cartoony, colourful costumes and sets and forced jokes than anyone wanted. The big screen Batman seemed dead, and everyone was glad. 


Then Christopher Nolan made the character so completely dark and bad-ass, it's hard to imagine whoever winds up rebooting the franchise will have anywhere left to go - if they try to make Batman Batman and Robin comiceven more bad-ass, that is. But if they take an underexplored or underappreciated aspect of the character, they could very well make that work. Comic book scribe Grant Morrison achieved exactly this with his title Batman and Robin (a reboot of sorts, taking place in the period in which Bruce Wayne is believed dead, and Dick Grayson takes over as Batman, with Bruce's son Damian becoming Robin - a violent 10 year old psychopath raised by assassins, instead of a wisecracking teen in pantyhose), which he admits draws from two of the least popular sources of the Batman canon - the 60s TV show (where the silly costumed Robin was a lot angrier and more serious than in the comics) and the 50s sci-fi Batman comics (Morrison has Robin build a batmobile that can fly). He actually makes this exciting, readable, intelligent and intricate. 


This is exactly what can happen when the commercial motivation to reboot a character or a series coincides with the passion and imagination of a true artist who connects with the mythology. I'm happy to see the reemergence of this ancient trend. Deep-rooted human tendencies have a way of surfacing, whether we mean them to or not. And I'm very much interested in seeing how a variety of minds and imaginations reinterpret these perennial stories that took root in our collective imaginations, when, not so coincidentally, we stopped reading and telling the stories of the Old Testament and the Roman and Greek gods and heroes anywhere near as much. 


Editors: Chris Dierkes and Bergen Vermette

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  • Comment Link Jaybird Friday, 24 August 2012 01:20 posted by Jaybird

    Sadly, money has more to do with it than you point out. Sony's rights to make Spider-Man movies would have reverted back to Marvel... this has happened, for example, with Daredevil's rights (Fox officially loses them if they don't have a DD movie in production by October... and they won't).

    The same is true for X-Men:First Class.

    And it will be true the next time you see a superhero movie with an all new director and cast and you find yourself wondering "wait, didn't they just reboot this movie back in the teens?"

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Friday, 24 August 2012 05:57 posted by TJ Dawe

    No denying that money is the primary driver, for any Hollywood movie. Money might enable people with genuine talent and passion and vision to make art, but if the guys in suits didn't think it would make them money, forget it.

    But the very fact that these reboots make money is what's interesting to me. Is it just the novelty of seeing what a new creative team does? Maybe. But if that's the primary reason, it'll only last for so long, just like how audiences eventually got tired of so many sequels in the 80s, and movies about disasters in the 90s. This could easily be a trend that'll wear out its welcome.

    But what if it isn't? Time will tell. But if there's no money to made in rebooting franchises, it'll stop happening. If rebooting really does appeal to the kid in us, then I wouldn't be surprised if it kept bringing in the bucks and giving the guys in suits that many reasons to keep green lighting these things.

  • Comment Link Michael Milano Wednesday, 29 August 2012 20:32 posted by Michael Milano

    TJ, I would add the fact that reboots have to happen in order to keep the characters viable. If you look at 1989 Batman. Without the reboot, Batman would be what in his late 50's by now? No one wants to see an old Batman. A reboot allows the character to stay young. Same for Star Trek. Do you really want to see Captain Kirk traveling through the universe with a colostomy bag?

    Sure you can recast the role with a younger actor, but after while that degrades the character. Kind of like make a copy of a copy of a copy of a VHS tape. Plus you run the risk of pissing off loyal fans. The reboot allows for recasting without immediately alienating the audience and keeping the character young and fresh.

    So people can see their favorite characters for decades on screen.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 30 August 2012 04:33 posted by TJ Dawe

    Captain Kirk traveling through the universe with a colostomy bag - that sums it up perfectly. Actual living actors have a terrible habit of aging, despite their best intentions. Supposedly Adam West has made public statements upon the release, or even the announcement of any new Batman film being made, that he would like to play the role. He's in his eighties now. William Shatner was similarly incensed at not being included in the recent Star Trek reboot.

    In comics a character can remain the same age indefinitely, with the conceit being that the period covered by decades of monthly issues only spans a handful of years. A doddering old Batman on the screen, with Adam West's slow speech rhythms... well that's actually pretty comical to contemplate. I hope they give him a chance to do it. With Seth MacFarlane directing.

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