How To Make a Good Reboot — and Why the Bad Ones Are So Terrible
It was a bad night at the Oscars for reboots this year. In an era of endless iterations of well-known, defunct franchises, this year’s awards have been swept by original IP.
But that doesn’t mean we won’t be getting reboots any time soon. Existing intellectual property is backed by a following, meaning producers have a guaranteed return on their investment; The worst reboot will still attract a certain percentage of die-hard fans of the original, even if they’re just there to watch hate. It makes more financial sense to redo something for the umpteenth time than to take a risk next time All everywhere at once — so it’s safe to say that we, as media consumers, are bound to eternal recurrence.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Originality is a modern artistic value; As one college professor drummed into my head, most people in human history were happy to hear stories about well-known heroes doing familiar things. “You don’t play narrative games when your audience is drunk and armed,” my professor explained as we translated another verse from Beowulf.
Of course it’s different today. Media critic Henry Jenkins famously defined fanfic as “the culture that repairs the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations rather than by the people”; Reboots are still owned by corporations, but they work in much the same way as fan fiction does, creating tension between what we know about the original text and what we experience in the new one.
So what counts as a reboot? I’ll use the term broadly to include sequels, prequels, crossovers, remakes – basically anything that reintroduces an older IP, anything that plays with pre-made characters and narrative. A bad restart is easy: like in the climate battle in Ready Player One All you have to do is pull out a recognizable image or ten. Look, it’s the Iron Giant! I loved this guy and here he is again!
Inside of course Ready Player One The Iron Giant kills people – and completely betrays the message of the original, beloved text about choosing nonviolence. That could be interesting if it was intentional, though RP1 makes no observation of the need for force, it is only the Iron Giant’s thought looks good when it kills people.
This may be the platonic ideal of a terrible use of a text.
A good reboot, on the other hand, is one that has something coherent to say about the original. It critiques the original, builds on it, or expands on topics that the source text couldn’t reach. It achieves what the Russian formalists call остранение – alienation – and lets us see something familiar from a new angle as if for the first time.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the best (and worst) reboots in recent memory (again, define “reboot” as loosely as possible) to see why the good ones are satisfactory and the bad ones are… well, it there’s always fan fiction.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Strictly speaking, The Force Awakens is not a reboot, just a sequel. But it resurrected what had been a dying film franchise in a way that both critiqued and expanded on the original trilogy.
When you were grown up TFA came out, you probably grew up knowing you saw the first three war of stars Movies at least once a year – on Thanksgiving, when they were reliably broadcast on basic cable. war of stars was an entire generation’s sanctuary from the drama that happened to the adults in our lives — their divorces, anger issues, and alcoholism could all be hidden in front of the back room TV, where we could imagine that Leia and Han were our real parents .
That’s why I loved JJ Abrams’ revelation that Han and Leia – of course – abominable Parents. This was a film about mental illness in families and how the people we rely on most can fail us even when they love us. It was about navigating a world shaped by choices made before we were born.
Of course, in Rey and Finn, the film also created a place in Lucas’ world for more of us who wished we could see each other there. But the best thing about the film was how it problematized the heroes and heroism of the original text. Critics slammed the film for being too much of a beat-for-beat overhaul of the original, but to me that was a feature, not a bug. Rey, Finn, and Kylo were all caught up in the narrative of Han, Luke, and Leia, and there was nothing for any of them to do but shed that legacy as best they could.
Those of us who grew up on boomers might relate to this.
Guardian — Snyder vs. Lindeloff
The 2009 film adaptation of the cross-genre comic Guardian was an exercise in filming the unfilmable. Alan Moore’s baggy monster of an epic graphic novel is full of supplemental content, horrifying visual puns, multiple character viewpoints, tonal shifts, and plot twists so absurd they derail everything that’s come before it — but it kind of works.
Slavishly faithful to the original in most details, Zack Snyder’s adaptation often uses the original as a shot-by-shot storyboard. Its changes are minor; Most often they involve removing Laurie Juspeczyk’s swearing and smoking habits, adding (!) extra gore, and smoothing out the weirdest elements of the original’s climax. It’s remarkable that the film exists at all, and it’s lovingly made, but it doesn’t do much to reevaluate its source text.
Damon Lindeloff’s television series, on the other hand, was a revelation. Like the very best fan fiction, it took the original and—without changing any detail of Moore’s work—transformed it. The original comic has much to say about gender, class, sexuality and violence, but little about race, which neither Moore nor Gibbons really experienced. The TV series takes this gap and puts it in the spotlight.
Lindeloff placed black writers like Cord Jefferson in the writers’ room and empowered them to tell a story that gave us a whole new perspective on old characters – honoring the tone of Moore’s work while radically expanding its scope beyond what the original ones meant artists were able to.
There have been so many versions of A. Conan Doyle’s detective, but Steven Moffat’s modernized reboot was one of the most promising. The opening sequence of the first episode implied that the series might have something to say beyond simply recycling a classic. Here we were in 2010, again fighting a losing war in Afghanistan – just like in the 19th century. Was Moffat willing to comment on the cultural changes that have taken place in the 100 years between his version and the source material? Could this reboot say something about what happened in between – namely the 20th century?
Unfortunately, no. Despite excellent performances by his leads, sherlock‘s writing never kept that promise. I should have been tipped off by the fact that this iteration of Holmes was still playing the violin. In 1890 this was a contemporary instrument, not a highly artistic snob attitude. In 2010, Holmes is said to have had an electric guitar.
This version of Holmes was haughty, amoral, and misogynistic, odd departures from Doyle’s character. I initially hoped these were sensible artistic choices. But by the second episode, as the show plunged into breathtakingly racist and orientalist tropes, it became clear that the show just wasn’t that deep. Doyle’s stories were a product of their time, but they made every effort to be anti racist.
It would have been fascinating to see Sherlock’s increasing misanthropy and cynicism compared to his turn-of-the-century predecessor as a result of his being subjected to a modern pathologization of Holmes personality traits. But it seems more likely that it was just Moffat’s misinterpretation of the original text.
The X files revival
The “revival” of X-Files was similarly grim and for similar reasons. The gap between the 1990s of the show’s original run and 2016, the year of Trump, Brexit, anti-vaccination and QAnon, should have been rich material for a show that made paranoia and conspiracy theories its bread and butter. X-Files should have asked what to think of a world in which too many people want to believe.
Both sherlock And X-Files also took oddly regressive attitudes toward their lead actors’ sexual relationships. Although Sherlock and John were no longer bound by Victorian mores, Sherlock and John’s romance remained decidedly subtextual. Chris Carter did it Reference-subtextualize Mulder and Scully’s sexual relationship for most of the revival.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
leave it she-ra, a kids show to break the curve. Initially created as a girl-friendly counterpart to it He-Man — a half-hour toy commercial from the 1980s aimed at boys – She-Ra originally attracted an emerging genderqueer audience of girls who already loved boy-encoded media and boys who were ready to love girl-encoded media.
Nate Stevenson is the only trans creator in this article (afaik) and the only one who actually came from fanfic culture: he started drawing Lord of the Rings and Avengers fan comics on Tumblr, along with his own original Comics. So it’s not surprising that as showrunner he was able to unfold and expand the queerness hidden in his source text. (Just in case viewers didn’t get it, Stevenson apparently posted a missing scene between the show’s two leads to the internet’s central fanfic repository, the Archive of Our Own.)
Be She-Ra feels less like a reinterpretation of the original cartoon and more a full implementation of themes that have been there all along. This version of the show couldn’t have existed in the 1980s, but it wouldn’t be as meaningful without our memory of the original either.
Handled correctly – that is, by someone who has something to say – reboots can be more powerful than original material. Like fan fiction, they have a shortcut to our brains, using images we’ve seen before and emotions we’ve felt before as a launch pad to help us see our experiences, our media, and our world in new ways.