Hollywood's nuts on reboots, it seems. Spiderman'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.
Marrying both worlds is the musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, based on the comics and the 2002 Sam Raimi movie Spiderman, 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?
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 wrote 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.
It'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 that 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 costumed 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 Spiderman 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 Spiderman 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 high school chemistry teacher. So the Ultimate Spiderman 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 Spiderman 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, who actually came later in the comics. Webb went with the original love interest, Gwen Stacy. Raimi took the original story point of Spiderman starting out as a wrestler, looking to earn money. Webb's Spiderman simply takes inspiration from seeing a poster of Mexican wrestlers' masks. Raimi's Spiderman 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, but 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 even 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.