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Hollywood Reboots Embrace The Retcon And Why That May Be The Best Option For Movie Audiences

Hollywood Reboots Embrace The Retcon And Why That May Be The Best Option For Movie Audiences

You know when you hear a single word over and over again, and it begins to sound weird and then loses all meaning? If that’s not roughly where we are with the odd collection of consonants and vowels that spells R-E-B-O-O-T [“reboot,” ree-boot, /ˌriːˈbuːt/], we must be pretty close. When this week “Terminator Genisys” (our review is here) will attempt to restart James Cameron‘s beloved franchise; when last week some bright-eyed chap called Tom Holland was cast as your new new new Spider-Man; when this very month “Jurassic World” had people debating, among other things, the minutiae of “sequel” vs. “reboot” while Universal sidled off to the bank with the contents of everyone’s wallets; it feels like a word that is being tossed around to the point of white noise. And when it does register, it usually elicits a grimace —it’s the latest band-aid over the gaping wound that is the creative moribundity of the Hollywood model. No matter what you call it —a reimagining, a revisit, a revamp, a reboot, even, in the case of the mooted next “Halloween” movie, a “recalibration” (God help us all)— Hollywood demands there must be a way to wring a bit more juice from pre-existing properties.

And it’s understandable that no one wants to leave an IP dormant, or a brand idling; it’s like leaving money on the table. The reality of our current movie industry business model is that any successful franchise must continue ad infinitum; we’ve reached the age of serialized stories because the business demands that an iconic character like Indiana Jones must live on far longer than even the near-indestructible Harrison Ford can. A moneyspinner like “Star Wars” was only ever going to stay dormant for so long; its upcoming resurrection was inevitable.

But as sequels mount up —the consequence of having to persist—and often poorly received ones damage brand equity, filmmakers and studios alike find themselves painted into narrative corners with no way out. As stars age past their blockbuster sell-by date (Sigourney Weaver, Sylvester Stallone, Ford), they have to dream up new ways to keep that revenue stream flowing…. er, obviously we mean “to keep these seminal stories fresh and moving forward.”

So, taking a page from comic books —where rampant cannibalization of narrative and story has made continuity at best a sketchy concept— and combining it with the new trend towards rebooting, Hollywood is beginning to embrace the retcon, specifically what we’re calling the “midstream retcon.” It essentially is a hybrid form of rebooting: restarting an accepted narrative over, but conveniently discarding any poorly received storylines and niggling narrative dead-ends, while also crucially retaining those elements that work and those that scored biggest with audiences.

Thus Hollywood is examining many of its brands, the better to graft a retconned installment into the middle of an accepted canon. and to start from the most fertile ground. We’re seeing it everywhere now: “Jurassic World” essentially picks up twenty years after “Jurassic Park,” and conveniently fails to refer to the subpar “The Lost World” or “Jurassic Park III.” George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” begins somewhere within the events of “The Road Warrior” but veers off to imagine a new Mad Max story that basically abandons the continuity of “Beyond Thunderdome.” Neill Blomkamp will attempt the same with his upcoming “Alien” movie, which will take place after the events of Ridley Scott and James Cameron‘s films —the most successful, the most adored… hell, the best versions— and will begin to write a new history ignoring the subpar “Alien 3” and “Alien: Resurrection” installments.

Sometimes, in order to make the transition easier on audiences, filmmakers will may even use accepted continuity as a launching pad —utilizing the old, familiar actors and characters you love— as a means to pave new narratives. Both “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” and this week’s “Terminator Genisys” employ time travel to create alternate timelines, as did 2009’s “Star Trek” in which a wormhole to opened up to a whole new wealth of narrative possibilities unrestricted by established canon. This approach, in addition to being a narrative Get Out Of Jail Free card, is a balm to soothe potentially irate fans: “Don’t worry, what you love still exists, it’s just in an alternate universe.”

The midstream retcon reboot may be a relatively new development, building on the slightly longer-established culture of the reboot, but the impulse to revamp stretches back to long before we called it anything in particular. To take a classic example which is itself the subject of a current reboot (with Alexander Skarsgard in the title role), the “Tarzan” movies of the 1940s underwent not just leading-man changes but a fundamental shift in characterization in the mid 1950s, away from “me Tarzan, you Jane” to a character much closer to the aristocrat of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ novel. In all but name, this was a reboot.

Or one could say Hollywood is finally catching up to the benefits of the long-running James Bond franchise, which has changed in mood as fashions and attitudes have shifted over the decades, most noticeably—and now most ideally for studios— with the choice of leading man in each new incarnation. While part of the series’ charm is how coy it is about admitting that each reinvention is an all-out reboot, certainly the most recent installments, from “Casino Royale” to “Skyfall,” have an approach to series chronology which dallies with some references to past films, but which makes the co-existence of most of the events of the other Bond movies at the very least difficult to account for. And even before that, the switch from winky unreconstructed Moore Bond to dour Dalton Bond and then to overslick, uber-suave Brosnan Bond were much less natural progressions than calculated attempts to shake up the Etch-a-sketch each time. But Hollywood being Hollywood, it wasn’t until the term was applied to a film that just so happened to be a major critical and commercial success that both the practice and the term became a trend; one that has subsequently mushroomed into an all-out pandemic.

The Dawn of the Rise of the Planet of the Reboot happened in 2005, because 2005 was the year of “Batman Begins.” A comprehensively retooled cinematic take on the Batman mythology, which had previously yielded the record-breaking Tim Burton movies followed by the heart-breaking Joel Schumacher installments, Christopher Nolan‘s vision of Batman felt irresistibly new: a realist, psychologically-motivated reading of a set of characters and storylines that had been rescued from pastichey inanity to actual relevance to a relatable world. It felt modern. It felt like it answered a previously unserved audience’s hunger to have a big-budget blockbuster also amount to a grown-up film that earned, rather than expected, a suspension of disbelief.

And as the franchise developed into a game changer, each new installment further legitimized the initial decision to totally rework previously well-mined territory. In many ways, the Nolan’s series remains the best utilization of the “reboot” concept in its purest form, although we suppose sticklers for the rules should generally insist it’s a “reimagining,” as it’s based on material that existed outside the original movie franchise. Whatever about that, “Batman Begins” was termed a reboot, and it was big news, a franchise-spawning, thoroughgoing success, so suddenly Hollywood was all about reboots.

But in other ways, “reboot” was a term whose time had come. It provided a much sexier way of talking about the age-old Hollywood habit of recycling and repackaging existing ideas and properties at a time when even the most tone-deaf of studio execs had to be aware of the “why is everything a sequel or a remake?” complaints. “Reboot,” by contrast, has a built-in dynamism that suggests not only the incorporation of new and shiny creative elements into comfortingly familiar properties, but also that the film will have enough internal momentum to carry it through into future sequels and spin-offs. Strangely, perhaps in part due to how thoroughly the comic-book shared universe model has come to dominate the summer tentpole market in recent years, the serialization potential of “new” blockbusters is something that seems to be as much desired by audiences as by studios these days.

The popularization of the concept at the time meant that Hollywood suddenly had a license to approach stale franchises and appropriate only those elements that were successful, discarding the rest like so many faulty Ripley clones. We could even credit 2006’s “Superman Returns” (and thus Bryan Singer, who has attempted this model twice now) as an early example of this riff on the reboot trend, as it opportunistically pretends the third and fourth entries in the Christopher Reeve Superman canon do not exist.

At its best, this a la carte option is presumably very attractive to name-brand directors, who find they can jump into a blockbuster hotseat but are still afforded a degree of creative leeway and the opportunity to put some sort of stamp on the material. But there are significant downsides to the phenomenon as well, and not just “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” For one thing, the pace of the reboot cycle is accelerating, in some cases to near-comical levels, like a washing machine on a high spin.

As a rough rule of thumb, the majority of these loosely-defined reboots have occurred at least a decade after the last installment of the last series came out —witness “Superman Returns,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Jurassic World,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Godzillaand the upcoming “Ghostbusters.” Whether or not these films acknowledge the continuity of the prior movies is not the point: audiences have been given a chance to miss them. The byproduct of absence is nostalgia, which makes soil that much more fertile before resowing.

But that gap is growing ever smaller: this year’s “Fantastic Four” comes eight years after “Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer“; Andrew Garfield‘s iteration of “The Amazing Spider-Man” came five years after Tobey Maguire last slung a web in “Spider-Man 3.” And that’s not even getting into “Transformers: Age of Extinction” which came three years after the last horrible, clangy “Transformers” movie, but was also billed as a “soft reboot.” Oh, and the reboot of “The Smurfs” franchise that we’re all dying to see? “Get Smurfy” arrives in 2017, just four years after the indelible classic “The Smurfs 2.”

But news of the most extreme example came when the Sony email hack revealed plans for the first major reboot of a film that was itself young enough to be termed a reboot (and a hasty one at that): the new new ‘Spider-Man.’ 2017’s as-yet-untitled iteration will arrive less than three years after the critically maligned “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”  Part of the appeal of rebooting in the first place is to make older properties relevant and thereby bring them to the attention of a new generation, but timing means this movie can’t bill itself as “not your father’s ‘Spider-Man'”; it’s even pushing it with “not your elder brother’s ‘Spider-Man’.” “Not-your-fraternal-twin-born-16-minutes-before-you-were’s ‘Spider-Man'” perhaps?

In the saga of Sony’s repeated returns to the ”Spider-Man’ well, there is the kernel of everything we should worry about when it comes to reboot culture. Chiefly, if studios can continue to see a hefty return on hastily rehashed properties (even off a crazy budget of $255m, the frankly poor “The Amazing Spider-Man” made upwards of $750m worldwide), then there’s no reason for them to see these movies, creatively speaking, as anything other than disposable wheel-spinning products (which they already do, of course, but more so). Without the fear that the audience might reject a slapdash take on a beloved character (and speaking of, “Amazing Spider-Man 2” took over $700m worldwide) acting as a bulwark, there’s nothing to stop a system whereby each new film simply becomes so much research fodder for the next, and if it doesn’t fly quite as high as hoped, hey, we can always just reboot! $250m movies as the equivalent of a limited-time-only McFiesta burger.

But a couple of things should prevent us from subscribing to the end-of-days “reboots are the devil” scenario. Firstly, while ‘Spider-Man’ and the case of the quick turnaround is alarming on the surface, it is an anomaly. As for the ‘Transformers’ “reboot”: did anyone even notice that was what it was supposed to be? Does anyone go to a ‘Transformers’ film for story? And the other too-quick reshuffles are distinctly B-list properties like “The Smurfs” and “Hitman: Agent 47” which is a reboot of 2007’s “Hitman” that at worst may distress all five fans of the original. Secondly, “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel are eminently improvable, and if you were to give us the choice right now between watching mopey emo Andrew Garfield waste his talents in another go-round in a couple of years, or some fresh newcomer issue a new John Hughes-influenced take, we’d go for the latter (assuming “no ‘Spider-Man’ movie at all” was not offered as an option —and sadly, the deboot has yet to catch on).

But mostly, the reason that it feels like there is room to be cautiously optimistic about the practice of rebooting is for what it has replaced. If the word itself is becoming stretched and degraded, it still retains some important elements of differentiation from “remake” and/or “sequel,” and it at least promises some new creative element has been added to the mix. Whether that’s a complete tonal revamp as in “Batman Begins,” or a less dramatic tweak that simply frees up new story possibilities, even those reboots we all don’t love have generally been more interesting than a remake or a straight-up sequel would likely have been. Even this week’s “Terminator Genisys” which by all accounts is a very poor attempt at a wholesale reworking of the franchise mythology, has to be a more valuable film than a flat remake of “Terminator” or “Terminator 2” would have been. And in a movie culture where no once-successful franchise will lie inactive for long, it feels increasingly like those are our options: reboot, sequel/prequel or remake.

As the shift toward the midstream retcon reboot, with its further possibilities for recycling and reformatting proves, the Age of Reboot is far from over. So if we’re not going to beat it, what are the reasons to join it? It feels like the chief reason to embrace reboot culture (it’s a relative hug, sure) is clear: it’s because the alternative is sadly not a summer full of first-run original programming in which big-name directors attempt ambitious dream projects. The alternative is more straight-on remakes and straight-ahead sequels in which slavish adherence to a pre-established formula scares off the more adventurous filmmaker, and our summers at the multiplex become even more homogenized than the current Marvel-heavy programming necessitates. There is very little truly new under the May-August blockbuster season sun, and so, short of a full power-down-restart of our current reality, which bounces us into a parallel universe in which originality is prized above a safe return on investment, the closest we’re going to get is something old, rebooted.

–Jessica Kiang & Rodrigo Perez

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