In among the slew of sequels and prequels and endless spinoffs of already exhausted franchises, this year also promises its fair share of the latest fashionable money-spinner: the reboot.
Already we’ve had the latest Jack Ryan (the first since 2002, and the fourth incarnation of the character), there’s been a new Robocop, there’s a new Godzilla on the horizon and a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Added to the mix are the reports that Universal is developing a new Battlestar Galactica, taking the already rebooted TV series into a new medium.
Ultimately, a reboot is designed to reignite interest, acclaim and revenue in a product – a film, a franchise, a character – by instigating a do-over. A reboot signals several things: audiences have forgotten about the pre-existing incarnations, or they waned on the pre-existing incarnations, the producers are unhappy with the direction the series took, or the socio-cultural climate of the time brings an unexpected relevance to the character or the story that warrants exploiting.
It’s hard to not be cynical about reboots, they are easily seen as just elaborate ways of wringing more money out of the same material.
This week is the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the follow up to the 2012 reboot of the character and the franchise. It’s hard not to be ambivalent about this, and early reviews seem to suggest that this rebooted series of the old series suffers from redundancy and irrelevance. It’s a logical feeling, given that Sam Raimi’s three Spider-Man films were released between 2002 and 2007, which gives the overall franchise five films in twelve years, and two more due in the next three years.
Why reboot the character so soon? Given that so much of The Amazing Spider-Manfelt like a retread of Raimi’s films, with slight tweaks to details and characters, Marc Webb’s newer film felt like an echo of Raimi’s. It tried to function as its own interpretation of the character, seemingly looking at more of the youth of the character (yet casting an actor well into adulthood), it still managed to work its way through the same character beats, the same arc of growth and realisation that Peter Parker traversed in the originals.
This is the problem with this reboot. It’s far too close to the original – only five years between Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man – and the audience for the separate incarnations haven’t really changed too much. There hasn’t been an expanse of time to forget, or long for a newer version, and Webb’s Spider-Man has smacked of milking a character (and an audience) for the sake of it. Given that Raimi’s films came before the boom of Christopher Nolan’s Batman and Marvel’s Avengers juggernaut, it does appear that Sony are trying to cash in on a newly-enabled audience for comic book films.
Nolan’s efforts at least show how reboots can function, with his three Batman films a complete revision over Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s earlier films. And while there is only eight years between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins, Nolan was rebooting a franchise off the back of largely forgettable and embarrassing films, and the last critically acceptable film – Batman Returns – was made back in 1992, an entire generation away.
In the case of this year’s Godzilla, the producers are openly acknowledging that the 1998 version was not a success, and are attempting to erase that from memory. A reset, rather than a reboot. This approach is also evident in the X-Men series, that lost its way after X-Men and X2 with two poorly received continuations – X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It is interesting to note how little the following films – X-Men: First Class and The Wolverine – have entirely glossed over the middle two, discarding any efforts those films made to canonically affect the series.
So a reboot essentially resets the audiences, and acknowledges that there is a reason to start over. This is why certain reboots work, and others seem unnecessary. While Raimi’s films weren’t perfect, they were still successful, and the audience for Spider-Man would be right to question why they had to start over again so soon. It would have been better to continue the series, with a different actor, rather than get caught up in telling yet another origin story.
So when is a reboot not a reboot? Robocop is basically a remake. The original film tapped into the wellspring of paranoia about genetic engineering, the advance of robotics and the fear of the police state that dominated 80s pop culture. By transplanting that story into the 21st century, the audience is expected to then understand that there is a relevance, applicability and universality to this character and this story that transcends eras. And while that might be true of Robocop the character, to call this a reboot is disingenuous. However, to call it a remake would be creating an anticipation in the audience that there is nothing new here, just an update. It has become unfashionable to call remakes what they are, whereas a reboot is the promise of something more.
A reimagining seems to just be the extension of a reboot. In the case of Battlestar Galactica and the recent Star Trek films, the promise to the audience isn’t just to restart a series and do it differently, it’s also to ask the audience to be open-minded enough to challenge initial preconceptions about the form of the series, and the characters within it. Or, to give the producers enough leeway to cherry-pick the originals for whatever useful elements they can find while they transplant them into a wholly different story. Either way, reimagine. The entire James Bond franchise has operated along these lines for decades.
I can understand the limiting nature of labelling a remake for what it is, and therefore the idea of a reboot as a label and marketing tool is beneficial and understandable. But I do think perhaps we need to question why we’re treated to ongoing reboots year after year, and whether they’re entirely justified for each series, or if we’re treading too closely into reboots just becoming cynical exercises of cashing in.