Forever Anew: Genre Film and the Curse of the Reboot

I love superheroes. Unabashedly, unreservedly, completely free of cynicism. Even as I recognize that they are corporate properties and merchandising cash cows, even as I am disappointed by both the comics and the films adapted from them, the concept of the superhero remains alluring to me.

I also love science fiction, which, if you think about it enough, is a superset of superheroes, anyway: man gains spectacular abilities after being bitten by radioactive spider? alien humanoid possesses incredible powers thanks to supercharging radiation of our yellow sun? Basically, I love genre fiction, with the glaring exception of dwarves-and-dragons fantasy. I read The Hobbit when I was nine, found the entire enterprise incredibly boring, and don't think I've given anything featuring elves a fair chance since. C'est la vie.

As a lover of genre fiction, I have watched an incredible amount of genre film, and as a film studies graduate I can't help but critically consider the entire environment surrounding their creation, recreation and eventual reception. In conversation with a co-worker about Man of Steel and the forthcoming Amazing Spider-man sequel, I phrased an idea that I now want to expound upon:

Hollywood is doing "reboots" wrong.

Let's get this out of the way: I have nothing against reboots. I sometimes hear criticisms that "Hollywood has run out of ideas" whenever yet another re-adaptation of a well-worn property is announced. This is nonsense. Retelling stories is what we do as a species. Nobody complains when yet another repertory theater company or middle school decides to put on Shakespeare; adaptations and retellings have been the norm since the very beginning of Hollywood, when stage plays were adapted for the screen.

The problem with genre film reboots, however, is the perceived need to explain origins. Who is this character? Where did he come from? How did she acquire her abilities? Why is their world so different than ours? These are substantial questions that require significant screen time to address, but the films are also saddled with needing to present some weighty conflict, a Hero's Journey, a satisfying resolution. It is putting all of this into a single film that causes genre reboots to fall flat, particularly toward their ends, and is most likely the reason Hollywood conceives of every reboot as a trilogy.

Consider: the first half of Man of Steel is almost universally appreciated; it is the second half, with the sudden conflict with Zod and the joyless fighting and killing and collateral damage that most react strongly and negatively to. Marvel's Avengers succeeded because it had done the tedious work of introducing the characters in a series of prequels that the audience was assumed to have seen; looking back on them, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were all films that dragged toward the end as a Weighty Conflict with Great Evil was wedged into the story, killing all the fun.

It's not limited to superheroes. Casino Royale's gambling scenes and conflict with Big Bad Le Chiffre repeatedly turned a thrillingly kinetic experience into molasses. Star Trek's future Romulan threat, Nero, was the weak point of the film. Fortunately, we were presented with many more interesting interludes to allow us get to know the characters.

Sometimes these origins have something poignant to say. I haven't had a chance to see the recent Robocop film, but I'm aware of scenes that explore the question of Murphy's humanity even simply based on how much man is left more than the original did. There is value in such.

The best reboots made the origins and conflict one and the same. Batman Begins had Ra's al Ghul teach Bruce Wayne the skills to turn him into Batman, then burn his house down and poison his city. Rise of the Planet of the Apes had Ceasar born and nurtured by humans, but their ultimate disregard of him as a mere pet fuelled his rebellion. In the original version of Robocop it was the same municipal corporate partner that invested in Murphy and saved his life that turned out to be the threat to the city, and the sort of institutional threat that is not excised with a well-placed bullet and a punchline, at that. I'm curious to what extent that is true in the retelling.

[Update: I have since seen the RoboCop remake and I find it a satisfying, though not entirely necessary, addition to the canon. It retains the original's fusion of creator and ultimate criminal, though some of the updates as nods to modern celebrity culture and cult-of-personality billionaire magnates don't entirely land.]

That is one approach to reboots that yields more even films that entertain through to their endings. I would now like to propose another: ignore the origins.

Particularly for relatively popular characters like Superman, Spider-man and Batman, the rough framework of their origins never really changes. Ok, so now the spider is genetically modified rather than radioactive; does it really make a difference? I would like to see a reboot which simply accepts the existence of the hero and proceeds to deliver a compelling, exciting adventure.

I recently caught up on Green Lantern: The Animated Series (Bruce Timm does 3D!) and Young Justice, and both series are notable for mostly ignoring the question of origins. The principal actors are introduced relatively fully formed, perhaps slightly different than we know them, but recognizable and thus ready to proceed to the meat of their narratives. Young Justice even introduces a brand new character, but immediately establishes his bonafides by proxy—his relationships to familiar heroes Aquaman, Robin, Speedy and Kid Flash.

The majority of top-tier superheroes and fantasy characters have been around for decades. We all know who they are, on some level. The established comic book industry practice of "continuity" and its periodic adjustment to keep properties fairly contemporary means that, save for a few salient points, origins really aren't that important.

Of course, this may all be fairly moot soon. The success of Marvel/Disney's Avengers franchise of related films means that every studio is now plotting decade-plus-long, multi-film epics. Having gotten the actual reboot out of the way in the first film, the (infinite) sequels are now free to build richly detailed worlds with large casts that combine to reveal a much more ambitious and (hopefully) resonant story.

This could either end up very good, or very, very bad.