Sep 25, 2020
Can we stop using the word "reboot"?
Looking at this year’s slate of movie reboots (including Death Wish, Tomb Raider, Venom, Robin Hood: Origins, and Mary Poppins Returns) made me come to a realization: Someday, Disney is going to reboot Star Wars and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Come on, you know it’s going to happen. Maybe not tomorrow, but it will it come. Mark my words.
Now that I’ve knocked you right into the existential void, can we talk for a second?
One of the internet’s most popular pastimes is complaining about the complete lack of originality in pop culture, while at the same time celebrating it. Despite a great deal of lamentations, people line up and take in film after film that’s either a remake, a reboot, or a re-imagining.
Of course, it’s always been the case that popular media eventually gets brought back to life in one way or another. This is why we have countless adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. If something resonates with audiences, a member of a later generation will want to try to bring it back. As much as I’ve complained about such things in the past, I understand that it’s a natural part of life. The telling and retelling of stories is as old as civilization itself. Remakes and re-imaginings are part of the storytelling tradition.
Reboots, on the other hand…
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This isn’t to say that I’m opposed to the idea of a reboot of a franchise. It’s the term “reboot” itself. I think it’s time to retire it.
“Reboot” has been one of the most frequently used words by those of us who talk about movies these days, and I’m beginning to think we need to throw this word out of the conversation because it’s beginning to lose all meaning. It’s slowly becoming a catch-all term to describe any and all attempts to restart a franchise. I think it needs to stop.
Some background: The term “reboot” comes from computing, and it happens when you turn your computer off and then on again. Rebooting is the process of the computer restarting itself. A soft reboot is when you exit all your programs, and command the computer to restart. A hard reboot is when you hold your finger down on the power button because your MacBook is a piece of shit (sorry, things got personal there for a second). So it at least makes some sense in regards to movie franchises, right? It’s synonymous with starting over, so what’s the problem? Well, there are multiple problems, really.
As far as I can determine, the term “reboot” being used to described a movie first happened in regards to Batman Begins. It’s easy for many to forget, but I’m old enough to remember when the idea of a film like Batman Begins was novel. The notion that you would make a movie within a decade of the last movie featuring the same main character, that intentionally had nothing to do with the movie that came before, and using that as a selling point, was fairly unheard of. It had technically been done before, but usually with mythological characters like Hercules, or literary characters like Sherlock Holmes or the Three Musketeers. James Bond had recast its leading man before, but it wasn’t quite the same; there was always some weird need to believe the Bond we saw in Goldeneye was the same Bond we saw in Goldfinger.
Batman Begins came out in 2004, seven years after the much maligned Batman & Robin. The Batman series had previously even pulled a James Bond in recasting its lead while insisting that it was the same storyline. But Batman Begins was an attempt to start fresh. When it was first announced that it would focus on a younger Bruce Wayne, it was presumed it would be a prequel. Then Warner Brothers clarified that it would actually be wiping the slate clean and starting over. This wasn’t controversial, but then shortly after, Daniel Craig got cast as James Bond and it was announced that Casino Royale would also be a reboot, essentially acknowledging that a Bond in the 21st century that was the same Bond from Dr. No would be in his eighties, and that just required too much suspension of disbelief.
In the end, it helped that these new takes on the characters were well received. So now we live in the world where reboots have become commonplace. Hell, there was a new Batman on movie screens not four years after the conclusion of the Dark Knight trilogy. This is why I’ve said it’s only a matter of time before Disney hits the reset button on Star Wars and the MCU. Carrie Fisher has passed on, and Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill are clearly too old for this shit. So you can either pass the torch, Star Trek: The Next Generation-style, or you can just start over.
And I must reiterate that it’s not the hitting of the reset button that I object to; It’s that they call them “reboots”, because they think we’re stupid.
As I said before, it’s nothing new. One of my favorite movie series, the Godzilla series, has been restarted several times. The franchise might be the first case of an intentional reboot in a sci-fi property. In the 1984 film Return of Godzilla, Toho decided to make a direct sequel to the classic original film, ignoring the 14 previous films, allowing them to recapture the glory and darkness of the original and giving them a new canvas on which to tell stories.
There’s something to be said for this approach, but that’s a column for another day. But I think that one of my biggest problems with the term “reboot” in general is the fact that it needs to be used at all. I can’t help but feel this is yet another example of the suits in Hollywood thinking that audiences are dumb, and yet, I get it. Sometimes stories are told in different ways, and different versions can stand apart. I understand that the TV show Gotham and Batman V. Superman are not in the same continuity. I know the Holmes in Sherlock and the Holmes in Elementary are two different interpretations of the character. Hell, I have mad respect for Warner Brothers and DC, because they’ve kept their TV universes and their movie universes separate, and they’ve never acted like that’s anything special. They have a good thing going with the Arrowverse, so why mess that up by tying it into Man of Steel? Nice.
It’s the presumption that gets me. Hell, 2016’s Shin Godzilla was a remake of the original Godzilla, and my head didn’t explode. I can handle the idea that a new installment has nothing to do with the last one. I don’t need a special buzzword to point out that fact. Hell, I’m still pissed that Star Trek felt the need to pull the whole “alternate timeline” thing in 2009. Why not just remake the property and be done with it? We the audience can handle it.
Which brings me to the part that really pisses me off: The only difference between a “remake” and a “reboot” is that a reboot is presumed to have follow-ups.
It comes back to the corporate mentality of Hollywood, and the hive mind of fandom. As I said before, the idea of hitting the reset button doesn’t bother me. Batman Begins and Casino Royale were great movies. And every generation will want to retell the stories that came before, putting their own spin on the material. The hallmark of an iconic story or character is that it stays with us. Sometimes in the form of sequels.
To bring back the computing stuff from earlier, to reboot means literally “to restart”, and therein lies the rub. I don’t mind new versions of the stuff I love. Sometimes, the new version can be better than what came before. But it has to be good first.
This goes back to my earlier article which asked “Isn’t every movie a standalone movie?” Batman Begins came out in 2004, back when studios had to see if the first movie did well before they planned their twenty-movie cinematic universe follow-up. There are some great movies that came out in the ’90s, like The Rocketeer, that never got sequels because they just didn’t do well enough to justify a follow-up. Whenever a studio announces it’s “rebooting” one of its properties, I know they already have two more movies planned after the so-called reboot. It’s like the studios presume that if they make another version of anything, they can milk it for a decade before hitting the button again.
Again, I’m not objecting to wiping the slate clean. I’ve just been bothered by the term reboot for awhile, and it took me a while to figure out why. It’s become a pointless buzzword that gets tossed around, and no one really seems to think about what it means. Wikipedia says that “reboot” means to discard all continuity that came before and start fresh. But that could cover a lot of ground. That means every film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V is a reboot. Every movie adapting a story from the Bible could be called a reboot. Sure, every new version of Sherlock Holmes is a reboot, in that it restarts everything, but don’t we already get that? And also, can’t we return to the era of waiting to see if the new version has merit before multiple sequels are greenlighted?
In a world of pointless minutiae surrounding pop culture, from trailer reaction videos, to speculation on social media, to terribly misleading thumbnails for YouTube videos, to trailers for the freaking trailers, can we all agree to toss the term “reboot” on the ash heap of history? It means nothing, tells us nothing that we don’t already know, and frankly, I’m getting tired of keeping track of which release is a reboot, a soft reboot, a prequel, a sidequel, or whatever. I’d rather just sit and watch the movie.
But then again, that means I won’t know if the movie is part of the [insert major property here] Expanded Universe… and you know what? I’m perfectly fine with that.