Reboot the system – Hollywood’s love of starting over.

Posted on May 26, 2011


Following the recent release of Thor, I thought I’d take a look at the Hollywood phenomenon of the superhero film and the seemingly increasing desire to reboot comic book franchises.

For Hollywood, a successful franchise is a licence to print money. Making films is always a gamble and requires a huge upfront stake. The money involved in producing, distributing and marketing a film is staggering, so it’s no wonder studio execs are scared to green light anything new, original, or untested. It makes much more financial sense to look to a genre that they know has been profitable before and to stick to that. Even more profitable is to have a whole plethora of sequels that they can spin off the back of them.

This is why there have been such a glut of superhero movies over the last couple of decades. With the comic book adaptation, you have a built-in audience, a hardcore of fans who have grown up reading the comics, and now, with real jobs and real disposable income, they are able to watch the movie, buy the box set and invest in all the associated merchandising of the movies. The studios don’t need to invent character dynamics or arcs, they don’t need to create plotlines; those nice people at Marvel and DC have already done all this for them.

Forget Kryptonite, it only took 4 years to kill Brandon's Superman.

These films don’t just attract the comic book geeks; they also attract the usual summer blockbuster crowd, too. Those who couldn’t care less about the caped crusaders, who are after the visceral thrills of fight scenes, shoot outs, car chases and explosions, can have all of that in their latest comic book adaptation. Whilst the boys enjoy the carnage, the girls can reflect on the inner conflict of the hero and their fragile emotional relationships, whilst at the same time admiring a good-looking muscular guy in spandex. Kids can go with their parents, who will laugh at some subtly included adult humour, but sigh as they inevitably shell out for the action figures. In short, the superhero movie is a multi-demographic winner, allowing the studios to cover as much of their global roulette table as possible and get the best return on their sizable investment.

A reboot after 5 years? Incredible.

All this sounds rather peachy for the studios, except that having it so easy often breeds contempt for their audience and for the source material. In other words, sometimes they put nipples on the bat suit. What happens then? Well, mostly they just ignore it, pretend it never happened, and simply reboot the franchise. This will usually require a new cast including some hot, upcoming talent, and inevitably a director who will, in the lead up, explain how they see this as a much darker film that will go back to basics and explore the roots of the character in much greater depth. Reboots can be fantastic, don’t get us wrong, and every now and then you get a Batman Begins. However, this is little comfort to those that shelled out their money and two hours of their life on Batman & Robin. It’s like being taken out to dinner at 21, but only after five dates at McDonald’s where you picked up the cheque.

Some franchises need to be rebooted.

It doesn’t stop there, though. There are the reboots of the reboot. Superman Returns was made just five years ago and was supposed to be the reboot of the franchise, giving us a new Superman in the form of Brandon Routh and a new Lois with Kate Bosworth. However, poor returns mean that next year we’ll be getting Superman: Man of Steel, with Henry “almost Bond” Cavill donning the cape. Why not just stick to the earlier cast and make a better sequel? This isn’t the first time either. Remember Ang Lee’s Hulk? Well, just five years after that, The Incredible Hulk was relaesed, again an apparent reboot of the reboot. The last Spiderman film was in 2007, but the franchise will be rebooted in 2012 with an entirely new cast and The Fantastic Four are lined up for the same treatment.

Lemme guess. A darker, more realistic look at the character?

Then you have the spin-offs. Now this is real franchise building. First, there was the X-Men film series, then X-Men Origins: Wolverine – which was clearly intended to be the first in a spin-off franchise, as well as also somehow being a reboot – and soon X-Men: First Class will hit the screens. First Class (I imagine there is no intended irony in the title) then is a prequel to a spin-off of a reboot.

All this is as of nothing when compared to The Avengers. This is going to be the mother of all comic book franchises and will include The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger amongst its titles, with more to follow. The Avengers franchise was first set up in 2008 with a post credits cameo from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D, at the end of Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony stark pulled a similar trick by featuring at the end of The Incredible Hulk. Since then we’ve had Iron Man 2, which essentially worked as a big advert for The Avengers, with nods to Captain America: The First Avenger, and set up Thor with its post credit sequence.

The Avengers series is possibly the biggest cross-over/spin-off franchise that has ever been attempted in Hollywood’s history and, they’re certainly making sure that we know all about it. Whilst for a number of comic book fans this is a dream come true, for many other moviegoers this feels a little bit more like being force-fed those Big Macs with that date at 21 seemingly a false promise.

Who knows where it will end? This franchise might grow exponentially, like a culture growing in a Petri dish. Thor will have its sequel, and that will spawn yet more. The Iron Man films will go on. Captain America: The First Avenger will have a sequel and, according to producer Gale Anne Hurd, more Hulk movies will be headed our way, too. Cross-over characters, like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, might feasibly get a spin-off from this spin-off. Soon, the only films in cinemas might be from The Avengers franchise.

I exaggerate, of course, but, honestly, how many more origin movies can we take? How many more reboots of franchises? The studio’s mentality seems to be that people are stupid and will watch anything. If they do make a turkey, then they’ll just reboot it later, as they plan to do with Daredevil and Ghost Rider. Well, why not just make a good film in the first place? Here’s a hint: Don’t cast Ben Affleck or Nicolas Cage.

Of course, the reboot/franchise/spin-off phenomenon is not limited to comic book movies alone, but it is conspicuously evident in that genre. The truth is, the current situation is only a result of supply and demand. Moviegoers are still demanding comic book films, but just of a higher caliber. Now there is that demand, studios are simply supplying them, conveniently forgetting about their past mistakes. One thing seems certain: It’s a trend that’s not stopping any time soon. So, super villains, you’d best remember that you cannot defeat a superhero. After all, superheroes don’t die: They just get rebooted.