The past decade has demonstrated that no matter how much the general public gripes about Hollywood being a wasteland for new ideas—an accusation that’s popular despite the fact that it isn’t exactly true—reboots are here to stay whether we like them or not. Studios have little to no reason to ever stop rebooting classic stories about heroes and villains that have already become enshrined in the pop culture canon.
The reason we all have such passionate opinions about reboots is that for every critical and financial flop like Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four or Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, there are extremely-ok movies like Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island that made impressive amounts of money and kicked off new eras for their studios’ respective franchises.
When you look back at the past decade of reboots, you can see that for the most part, they aren’t exactly “good” movies—not in the sense that even the most successful of them brought very much interesting energy to their stories. One of the reasons that sounds like it might not be true is because of the way that we often conflate reboots and remakes with one another, despite the fact that they’re two different kinds of movies.
A remake is exactly what it sounds like: a recreation of an older film that more or less cleaves to the narrative beats of the source material. A reboot, on the other hand, is a hard reset of a series of contained stories set within the same universe (a franchise), and the movie is explicitly separate from the original franchise’s continuity.
Unlike remakes, reboots have the unenviable task of having to take stories that most of us are already familiar enough with and bringing something new to the property that justifies its existence. Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian, like Joe Carnahan’s A-Team, failed to make much of an impact in large part because even though both of those properties have established fanbases, neither of their stories managed to capture audiences’ imaginations or made them feel as if the movies were doing the source material justice.
But over the past decade, there have been instances—like the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man era—where even franchises that were “successfully” rebooted only really led to a quick recycling of the same old tale before the studio decided to do the whole shebang over again simply because it could. With cases like Spider-Man, the reasoning behind the repeated attempts at breathing new life in the property is clear: People love Peter Parker. For a while, they were willing to flock to theatres to watch Uncle Ben die yet again.
The CGI lustre of Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise quickly faded and rusted as each subsequent film increasingly became a parody of the one that preceded it. And yet, because each movie made so much money, the studio had no reason to stop making them until it ended up almost stumbling into another proper critical hit with Bumblebee in 2018. There’s no indication that the next phase of Transformers films will be able to replicate Bumblebee’s success, but from the studio’s perspective, that’s almost not important because so long as these projects end up turning a coin, they’ve done what they’re ultimately meant to do.
While the past few years of big-screen reboots have generally lacked in narratively fresh, conceptually new substance, they’ve made up for it with the information they’ve provided the public about where the studios’ priorities lie. Reboots masquerading as sequels are nothing new, but the way that studios have become more open about quickly trying to goose renewed interest in familiar properties feels somewhat brazen—specifically in the way that the studios don’t seem interested in playing coy about what they’re doing.
The moment that Warner Bros. and Legendary realised that it would be possible to use Kong: Skull Island to kick off a new generation of MonsterVerse films including Toho’s classic kaiju, the studios wasted no time in building up the hype for a new kind of modern movie franchise—the kind of Dark Universe Universal tried and failed to get the ball rolling on.
As much as we like to think that the quality of storytelling and the strength of a creative team are and should be the engine powering a project’s development, that really only accounts for so much when it comes to these kinds of old-but-new stories. With reboots, the larger momentum a studio is able to maintain around IP—regardless of what stage of production a movie’s in—is just as important. If a studio can capitalise on the public’s nostalgia for the likes of Lara Croft and Chucky, and generate enough buzz around retellings of their origins, it stands to reason that those movies are shoo-ins to make bank. But movies like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters proved that that formula doesn’t always work and in certain instances, a fandom’s built-in hostility to even the slightest change to their beloved classics can be a box office death sentence.
But even when these multi-million dollar endeavours crash and burn, the industry keeps chugging along and the public’s attention shifts because on some level, we all understand that these reboots aren’t going anywhere. So long as studios have access to vast sums of capital to pour into gambles on established IP that they own, they’d be foolish not to. They’re not all going to be hits, but they’re not all going to be misses either. They’ll be part of the pop culture landscape we live in, and the only thing that’ll really influence their continued popularity and proliferation is whether we all decide to actually see them.
The reboots will continue until morale improves, but given the general state of the world at large, there’s no telling if or when our collective spirits will rise again. So, if we’re all really committed to this idea of breaking free of the reboot cycle—especially if we want it to happen within the next decade—all that’s really left to do is to simply stop flocking to the theatres to pay for the things, and to let Hollywood know that we’re hungry for change.