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Friday, 29 June 2012

Spiderman Returns: In Defence of Reboots


The Amazing Spiderman is out on Tuesday, and while it continues to receive mainly good reviews, currently scoring 79 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, a central problem that many have had leading up to its release is its similarity to Sam Raimi's 2002 take on the origin of Spidey. Reboots have become a regular fixture of blockbuster season, with Mark Webb's new Spiderman next month, followed quickly by Christopher's Nolan's concluding chapter of his Batman reboot (which is sure to be rebooted itself within the next few years), before a new version of Total Recall is released in August. 2009 saw a re-worked version of Star Trek, which with some time-travelling trickery managed to tick the boxes of sequel, prequel and reboot, ensuring big bucks at the box office. Next year we'll get to watch Zack Snyder butcher Superman in The Man of Steel, Supes' second reboot in six years after Bryan Singer's underrated Superman Returns, and there are rumours of a Green Lantern reboot following last year's disappointing effort. 

With Zack Snyder at the helm,
can the new Superman possibly be any good?
As The Amazing Spiderman  demonstrates, reboots are often greeted with wearied groans and accusations of creative laziness and inertia. In many instances, this is true: do we really need another Spidey origin tale so soon after Raimi's version? Why do we need to see Superman fight Zod after he already beat him in 1980's superb Superman II? However, I argue that many reboots are full of new ideas, or at least improve upon old ones. Possibly the best example of this is the film that in many ways is responsible for the term reboot: Batman Begins. Batman Begins is a reboot rather than a remake, in the sense that it tells Batman's origin story without replicating the plot in Tim Burton's 1989 version. Of course, those films share unavoidable story beats, like the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents, and recurrent themes like fear, obsession and trauma. But their stylistic approaches and overall narratives are wildly different. The same can be said about JJ Abram's Star Trek reboot, which is successful for the singular reason that it distances itself so greatly from the rest of the franchise. Abram's approach really did mean that this was not your father's Trek. Rather than stifling creativity, Abram's and Nolan's films were two of the most original and exciting blockbusters of the last ten years, precisely because they were reboots. Moreover, who would complain at the 2008 reboot of The Incredible Hulk? Flawed, yes, but a vast improvement on Ang Lee's tedious 2003 attempt at bringing the Hulk to the big screen. In this instance, the reboot serves as a pseudo-sequel, clearly set in a different continuity, but continuing and expanding upon Bruce Banner's story, rather than simply repeating it. 

Without a reboot, this horrifying spectacle would have been the last Batman film.
What I find particularly interesting about the main objections to reboots is that they are the same as those levelled at remakes, which despite their similarities, are very different beasts. By definition, a remake attempts to tell the same story over again, either with minor or major modifications. In contrast, reboots often (though not always) try to tell new stories using characters and scenarios that already exist in the popular consciousness. Comic books have been at this sort of thing for decades, so it's no surprise that it's comic book adaptations that are the franchises being rebooted seemingly ad infinitum. I think a lot of the disapprobation levelled at reboots stems from a confusion over reboots and remakes: there continue to be plenty of rushed, badly thought out remakes that are for some reason labelled as reboots. Last year's Conan the Barbarian is one example, as is the above mentioned Total Recall. Neither of these are really reboots because they are essentially telling the same stories as their originals. Clearly, rebooted franchises are just as susceptible to poor writing, generic direction and stunt casting as any other type of blockbuster, but if reboots are poor it's not because they're reboots: it's because they're crap, just like loads of other crap films that weren't reboots. With tripe like Battleship or Transformers: Dark of the Moon clogging up multiplex screens, it can often feel as if creativity in Hollywood has ground to a halt, but this is not the result or fault of the modern reboot. In fact, reboots frequently offer opportunities to inject vitality into otherwise moribund franchises: we only need to look as far as Star Trek, not to mention the brilliant Bond reboot, Casino Royale, to see the staggeringly positive effects they can have on film series. If we abandon reboots, we have to abandon Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Star Trek, the best bond since Sean Connery, and while we're at it, the best parts of The Avengers. At their best, reboots do what remakes can't by offering new stories and perspectives on familiar concepts. In one respect, reboots conceptually function as an ideal cinema, by making the familiar unfamiliar. Of course, reboots don't necessarily always attain that level of originality, but to level accusations of creative narcolepsy at a film simply because it's a reboot misses the creative potential of reboots altogether. When Spiderman opens on Tuesday, if it fails (and fail it might), it won't be because it's a reboot. If anything, it's got that in its favour.

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