It was a bad night at the Oscars for reboots this year. In an era of endless reiterations of well-known, well-trodden franchises, this year’s awards got swept by original IP.
But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop getting reboots anytime soon. Existing IP comes with a fan base, which means producers have a guaranteed return on their investments; the lousiest reboot will still draw a certain percentage of die-hard fans of the original, even if they’re just there to hate-watch. It makes more financial sense to remake something for the nth time than it does to take a chance on the next Everything Everywhere All at Once — so it’s safe to say that as media consumers, we’re locked into the eternal return.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Originality is a modern artistic value; as one college professor drummed into me, for most of human history people were happy to hear stories about familiar heroes doing familiar things. “You don’t play games with narrative when your audience is drunk and armed,” my professor explained as we translated another verse of Beowulf.
Today, of course, things are a little different. The media critic Henry Jenkins famously defined fanfic as “the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk”; reboots are still owned by corporations, but they work in some of the same ways fanfic does, by creating a tension between what we know of the original text and what we’re experiencing in the new one.
So what qualifies as a reboot? I’ll use the term in the broadest possible sense to include sequels, prequels, crossovers, remakes — basically anything that reintroduces an older IP, anything that plays with pre-established characters and narratives. A bad reboot is easy: As in the climactic battle in Ready Player One, all you have to do is haul out a recognizable image or 10. Look, it’s the Iron Giant! I loved that guy, and here he is again!
Of course, in Ready Player One, the Iron Giant kills people — completely betraying the message of the original, beloved text about choosing nonviolence. That might be interesting if it was intentional, but RP1 isn’t making an observation about the necessity of violence, it just thinks the Iron Giant looks cool when it’s killing 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, or builds on it, or extends to subjects the source text wasn’t able to reach. It achieves what the Russian formalists called остранение — defamiliarization — allowing us to 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, defining “reboot” in the loosest terms possible) to see why the good ones are satisfying and the bad ones are… well, there’s always fanfic.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Strictly speaking, The Force Awakens isn’t a reboot, just a sequel. But it revived what had been a moribund film franchise, and it did so in ways that both critiqued and enlarged the original trilogy.
If you were an adult when TFA came out, you probably grew up with the certainty of watching the first three Star Wars movies at least once a year — at Thanksgiving, when they were reliably broadcast on basic cable. Star Wars was a whole generation’s refuge from whatever drama was going down with the adults in our lives — their divorces, anger issues, and alcoholism could all be tuned out in front of the television set in the back room, where we could imagine Leia and Han were our real parents.
That’s why I loved J.J. Abrams’ revelation that Han and Leia were — of course — terrible parents. This was a film about mental illness in families, and about how the people we rely on most can fail us even when they love us. It was about navigating a world formed by choices made before we were born.
In Rey and Finn, of course, the film also made a place in Lucas’ world for more of us who had wished we could see ourselves there. But the best thing about the film was how it problematized the original text’s heroes and heroism. Critics dinged the film for being too much of a beat-for-beat retread of the original, but to me, that was a feature, not a bug. Rey, Finn, and Kylo were all trapped in the narrative Han, Luke, and Leia made, and there was nothing for any of them to do but struggle to free themselves as best they could from that heritage.
Those of us raised by boomers could relate.
Watchmen — Snyder vs. Lindeloff
2009’s film version of the genre-cracking comic book Watchmen was an exercise in filming the unfilmable. Alan Moore’s baggy monster of an epic graphic novel is full of supplemental matter, terrible visual puns, multiple character viewpoints, tonal shifts, and plot twists so absurd as to derail everything that came before — but it works, somehow.
Zack Snyder’s adaptation is slavishly faithful in most details, often using the original as a shot-for-shot storyboard. His changes are minor; mostly 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, meanwhile, was a revelation. Like the very best fanfic, it took the original and — without changing any of the details of Moore’s work — transformed it. The original comic has plenty to say about gender, class, sexuality, and violence, but does little to address race, which wasn’t really part of the experience of either Moore or Gibbons. The television series takes this lacuna and makes it the focus.
Lindeloff put Black writers like Cord Jefferson in the writers room and empowered them to tell a story that showed us a completely new view of old characters — honoring the tone of Moore’s work while radically expanding its scope beyond what the original artists were capable of.
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, once again fighting a losing war in Afghanistan — just like in the 1800s. Was Moffat ready to comment on the cultural changes sustained in the 100 years between his version and the source material? Might this reboot have something to say about what transpired in between — namely, the 20th century?
Alas, no. Despite excellent performances by its leads, Sherlock’s writing never lived up to that promise. I should have been tipped off by the fact that this iteration of Holmes still played the violin. In 1890, that was a contemporary instrument, not a high-art snob affectation. In 2010, Holmes should have had an electric guitar.
This version of Holmes was haughty, amoral, and misogynist, odd deviations from Doyle’s character. I initially hoped these were meaningful artistic choices. But by the second episode, when the show indulged itself in eye-wateringly 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 went out of their way to be anti-racist.
It would have been fascinating to see Sherlock’s increased misanthropy and cynicism, compared to his turn-of-the-century predecessor, as the result of his having been subjected to a modern pathologization of Holmesian personality traits. But it seems more likely that it was just Moffat’s misreading of the original text.
The X-Files Revival
The “revival” of The X-Files was similarly dismal and for similar reasons. The distance between the 1990s of the show’s original run and 2016, the year of Trump, Brexit, anti-vaxxers, and QAnon, should have been rich material for a show that made paranoia and conspiracy theories its bread and butter. The X-Files should have been asking what to make of a world in which too many people want to believe.
Both Sherlock and The X-Files also took weirdly retrograde attitudes toward the sexual relationships of their leads. Despite no longer being hidebound by Victorian mores, Sherlock and John’s romance remained resolutely subtextual. Chris Carter managed to re-subtextualize Mulder and Scully’s sexual relationship for most of the revival.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
Leave it to She-Ra, a children’s show, to break the curve. Initially created as a girl-friendly counterpart to He-Man — a 1980s half-hour toy commercial aimed at boys — She-Ra originally drew a budding genderqueer audience of girls who already loved boy-coded media and boys who were willing to love girl-coded media.
Nate Stevenson is the only trans creator in this article (afaik), and the only one who actually came out of fanfic culture: he got his start drawing Lord of the Rings and Avengers fan comics on Tumblr, along with his own original comics. So it’s not surprising that as a showrunner he was able to unfold and expand the queerness hidden in his source text. (Just in case viewers didn’t get the point, Stevenson apparently posted a missing scene between the show’s two leads to the internet’s central fanfic repository, Archive of Our Own.)
His She-Ra feels less like a reimagining of the original cartoon than a full realization of themes that were 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 with something to say — reboots can be more powerful than original material. Like fanfic, they have a shortcut to our brains by using images we’ve seen before and emotions we’ve felt before as a launch pad for helping us see our experiences, our media, and our world anew.