Friday, 11 May 2012

DRU v. DAVE: To Reboot or Not to Reboot?

In a recent interview, Marvel Studios' president Kevin Feige announced his intention to recast and continue the Iron Man series when Robert Downey Jr. decides that he's had enough. In Feige's words: "I think Bond is a good example. Let's put it this way: I hope Downey makes a lot of movies for us as Stark. If and when he doesn't, and I'm still here making these movies, we don't take him to Afganistan and have him wounded again. I think we James Bond it." In other words, he would continue the series from where they left off with Downey, rather than starting anew with the new actor. Is this a good idea? Dru and Dave disagree. Read the full debate after the jump!

DRU: I, for one, foresee a lot of problems with this model. One is that it's going to be hard to top Robert Downey Jr. (or whoever makes whatever role his or her own in general). In this day and age, sequels have to top the previous instalments in every way (critically, financially, and in terms of spectacle), or they're considered failures. I think it's almost inevitable that a lesser actor will follow the first, otherwise they would have gotten that second person first. (I guess the Hulk case somewhat disproves this, as Mark Ruffalo, Edward Norton and Eric Bana are all A-listers at least in terms of talent if not box office draw; nevertheless, I think that following in Downey's footsteps is a lot more intimidating than following in Bana's or Norton's.) A change in actor, unless they somehow can replace Downey with Tom Cruise or somebody of that stature (get on it, Feige!), is going to be less of a box office draw and I think it's going to put people off. Second is the problem of age. Are they going to keep the characters aging with each instalment (necessitating that they hire somebody roughly Downey's age when he bows out of the series)? I doubt it. They're going to go younger, probably, out of necessity if nothing else. This is probably good business as it extends the life of the franchise beyond that of a single actor, but it doesn't do much for storytelling or consistency. And it's not like they're going to recast all of the actors at once - Downey is probably going to retire from the Marvel Universe before Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth does (because the latter two signed more involved contracts, I think -- probably six- or nine-picture deals). So Iron Man is just going to suddenly be 10 years closer in age to Thor one day. That'll be great.

Here's my solution. When Downey bows out of Iron Man, stop making Iron Man movies. At least for a while. Say, ten years. Marvel has enough characters in their stable that they can easily sustain their film business on other characters. Just keep a rotation going. And when you rotate Tony Stark back in, you can decide what approach to take, whether that be a total (back to the origin story) reboot, a soft/ambiguous sequel, or a direct sequel, picking up where the last one left off. If they're still operating on the same continuity as this first cycle (i.e. they haven't rebooted any of the characters at all), then I think recasting without rebooting is the best approach. But if reboots are on the table, I think going back to the origin is almost always a smart move, because it allows you to update the character and tweak it as necessary (to the new actor, to the new director's vision, etc.) without being bogged down in continuity.

Columbia/Sony doesn't have the luxury of taking this time off with Spider-Man. And they're doing the smart thing by doing back to the origin, in my view. It'd be better if there were ten years of no Spidey movies in between Raimi's trilogy and Webb's, but they'd lose the rights to the character if they did that. They're taking a risk, but I think it'd going to pay off (creatively, if not financially). I guess we'll see in July.

What do you think, David?

DAVID: We’ll go point by point here:

Certainly, it will be a challenge to replace Downey. Of course, they said the same thing of Sean Connery in 1967, then again in 1971, and both times, they were wrong. As much as On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the Bond film they try to claim is a failure, the box office shows otherwise, and Roger Moore was successful enough to go on and do seven films. In the Jack Ryan series of films, the character was recast three times in four films, and all four were hits. Or if we want to look at comic book cinema, recasting Batman from Michael Keaton to Val Kilmer did nothing to hurt the box office, and arguably was a possible factor in improving it.

As for the idea that the box office of a sequel must do better than each previous instalment in order to not be considered a failure, it is only partially true. Take the sequel to Downey's other big franchise sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which performed slightly less well than the first, and is still proceeding with another instalment. But not buying it? OK then, how about X-Men: First Class, an origin/quasi-reboot film which A) replaces the entire cast of the original films save two cameos, B) counts as its biggest three stars the actor from Wanted, which was sold on Angelina Jolie’s star power, that bloody great actor from Inglourious Basterds, and the star of the original Footloose, C) is directed by a man who had only modest box office success to that point, D) shows total disregard for striving for any sort of continuity with the prior films, and E) had box office that was nowhere near the B.O. of any of the previous films. And yet we are still getting a sequel to that film, with the same creative team.

Heck, even Warner Brothers by their own admission kept their BO expectations for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in check, so clearly, most studios adjust their expectations when major changes, such as a switch in the lead role, occurs. So should Downey ever leave the Marvel films, I doubt that such a major change won’t factor into their box office projections. Heck, I am even willing to bet Sony is keeping their expectations in check with regards to "the Scottish film."

You bemoan the fact that Marvel will likely cast a younger actor when they replace Downey. This is the nature of serial storytelling in the film medium: real world practicalities get in the way. Actors will bow out, new filmmakers will come in, some continuity will get fuzzy. To which I say: fine. While there has been recasting of roles of which I am not fond, I am not against recasting in principle, and in fact it can be quite exciting. I’ve ridden out four Batmen since I was a kid, three of which are all intended to have been the same man with the same experiences in a city that is never consistent from film to film. And not once has that ever bothered me. Batman and Robin isn’t garbage because it lacks continuity with the prior films: it's garbage because it is a bad film. If they had started making wholesale changes to established events for the heck of it, it might have bothered me, but the changes in the look of Batman’s universe and its presentation never bothered me simply because they were changes. I know that filmmakers change, I know that their vision of things will change from what has come before. That excites me rather than annoys me, and I am willing to go along with it as long as it is good.

In fact, allow me to toss something at you Dru. You love X-Men: First Class. You have said in the past you don’t count it as a reboot. Given this, are you bothered by the fact that in no way does it make any sense that this film is a prequel to Singer’s films? And we are not talking small continuity errors: I mean great big whopping ones, from Xavier and Magneto’s ages to the total changes in the relationships between characters. Yet the film does draw upon the world established by Singer, it does take from what has come before. So do these elements bother you, or are you willing to ride out the random changes because at the end of the day, the film is pretty darn good? Moreover, who is too say Vaughn's film would have been as good without Singer's work?

You claim that reboots are almost always "a smart move" which allows filmmakers to come in and make the material their own, to which I once again ask: why is an origin story required to do these things? The existence of Blade did nothing to hamper Guillermo Del Toro from making Blade II his own, and Del Toro by his own admission believes he needed another filmmaker to come in and light the way before crafting his version of the character. The shift from Tim Burton and Keaton to Joel Schumacher and Kilmer did nothing to alienate audiences in 1995, or prevent them from making the Batman film they wanted, whether we like it or not. Likewise, I don’t remember John McTiernan’s Jack Ryan film preventing Philip Noyce from making his Ryan films his own. Never mind that time and again, most filmmakers have noted that they are happy to have the first film out of the way because they don't have to set up the world before they get to play with it.

Moreover, if we are going to get into the box office numbers game here, then let us look at the box office track records of series reboots. Again, take a look at the Jack Ryan series and at the box office of The Sum of All Fears. As I noted, it was a hit, and yet it is still the second lowest grossing in the series. What’s more, likely the only reason it isn't the lowest is because Patriot Games, the lowest box office of the series, is the only one to carry an R rating, restricting the audience which would see it. If we indeed count X-Men: First Class as a quasi-reboot (which I do), once again, we see a massive downward trend in the box office. Marvel’s Incredible Hulk reboot barely made any more than the Ang Lee film, while the box office of the Punisher reboot is completely laughable. And if we look at the success rate of the horror film reboots in terms of their launching ongoing franchises, their lack of success speaks volumes.

Sure, Batman Begins and Casino Royale did remarkable box office, but so far, it seems that reboots appear to be a way of pretty much killing a series, financially if not critically.

DRU: I'll answer your question about X-Men: First Class first. I think it's a marvellous film, and no, I don't consider it a full reboot, but I would agree with quasi-reboot. I think its status as a reboot needs to be somewhat qualified or softened, and the prefix "quasi-" does the trick to my satisfaction. The reason why it needs that qualification is, as your surmise, because of the inconsistencies with the Singer/Ratner series, and no, these inconsistencies don't bother me. The reason that they don't is probably because First Class is a better film than, say, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, so I'm all-too-willing to forget about it while watching Vaughn's revamp. Do I think the movie would be improved by excluding the winking references (i.e. the cameos) to the original trilogy? Yes, definitely. Not because they remind the viewer of the other films (and make the discrepancies between them more apparent, though they do that too) but because they don't really serve any narrative function.

But I'm curious that you bring First Class up as a successful film (though not necessarily in terms of box office), because it is an origin story, and it is a quasi-reboot of the franchise. You don't like those! Surely you would have preferred them to continue on with the established continuity and just have another adventure with those characters rather than reach for the reset button? (I doubt we would have gotten as strong a film had they gone this route, but that's pure conjecture on my part.)

What we're really talking about here are two different approaches to franchise continuation. One, we agree, is called a reboot. The other I'll call a "sequel" in quotation marks, because it follows what came before but with significant changes to/inconsistencies with the previous entries in the franchise: it's a sequel, but not really. It seems to me that the fundamental difference between these two approaches is that a proper reboot self-consciously declares itself to be different than what comes before; it defines its diegetic universe clearly, and delineates the differences between this one and that one. A "sequel" has these differences, but it asks you to accept and reconcile them with the previous entries on your own. A "sequel" is, in essence, the same thing as a quasi-reboot but without being up front about it: changes are made, but no explanation is offered as to why. In other words, it's sloppy storytelling and bad world building.

I agree, though, that following the "sequel" model doesn't necessarily make for a bad film (e.g. Batman Forever is bad because of Tommy Lee Jones' performance, not because he's simply not Billy Dee Williams), but it does lead inexorably to diminishing returns. The franchise becomes like a sitcom, where each entry follows a formula beginning and ending with the status quo. Nothing ever changes, because you need to get pump another one out in two years. I know you'll accuse me of pessimism and reductivism here, so let me offer an example that you'll have to agree with. The James Bond franchise is the example par excellance of the "sequel" model, and that fact that Feige invokes it is not reassuring to me whatsoever. The Bond films are all (with few exceptions) discrete, self-contained adventures. The character doesn't grow from film to film, and if he's found love by film's end he will surely have lost and forgotten it by the beginning of the next instalment. James Bond is a static character. I'm not interested in him, and I don't care about him. One's investment in Bond is almost entirely based on how charismatic you find the actor playing him; this is why people love the Connery films and despise the Moore films (On Her Majesty's Secret Service is probably the exception to this rule, but as I postulated above, its events have a negligible impact on subsequent films in the series.) I personally only started caring about the character when they rebooted the franchise with more of a mind to give Bond an arc that would develop over several films. If they start ignoring the events of previous films and treating the franchise as a series of one-off adventures again, I'm probably going to check out.

This is not to say that audiences will check out with me. As you pointed out, rebooting a franchise doesn't necessarily always pay off financially, and "sequels" aren't necessarily punished at the box office for their sloppiness. Telling one story over several films is always a risky endeavour, but it can be incredibly satisfying when it works. (A favourite example of mine is the Planet of the Apes series, which certainly suffered from diminishing box office returns with each subsequent film even while it arguably reached it creative zenith with entry #4; it was also recently "quasi-rebooted" in the same manner as First Class.)

You ask why reboots need be synonymous with origin stories, even when that narrative territory has already been covered. (Your example, curiously, is the Batman franchise, which didn't cover the character's origin in 1989, and suffered for it in my opinion, until it was rebooted by Nolan in 2005. I don't think the first Blade movie offered much of an origin either.) We'll surely cover this issue more fully in a future DRU v. DAVE (it's the thing we argue about the most), so I'll be brief here. My answer, in short, is that they don't, but I think it's a good idea and a sure-fire way to avoid the sloppiness and ambiguity that results from the "sequel" approach that you advocate. If "the Scottish film" were to simply be just another web-slinging adventure while also discarding all of the continuity established in the Sam Raimi trilogy, it might be a good movie, but to what end? Where is this narrative trajectory headed other than stagnation? Starting at the beginning of a story is a good way of ensuring that there is a satisfying end. Otherwise, we're starting the story at Act 2 and never letting it progress to Act 3. You'll surely protest at this characterization, perhaps arguing that origins needn't be synonymous with the first act of the story. But in the superhero genre, they just are.

I re-watched The Incredible Hulk last night, and it proves my point. The first three minutes summarize an origin film that we didn't get to see and then get "straight to the adventure," as you'd have it. The reason why this film is weaker than the other Marvel Universe films is precisely because of this choice. It's because we don't have an entire film to get invested in Bruce and Betty's relationship that their chemistry falls flat in this film, despite OK performances from Norton and Liv Tyler. It's because we don't have an entire film to see General Ross's drive to capture the Hulk that he seems so one-dimensional, despite an OK performance by William Hurt. Audiences probably wouldn't have wanted to see an origin film so similar to Lee's Hulk with only five years between them, so I understand the choice, but Incredible Hulk suffers for it. Relying on the audience's knowledge of the superhero origin story may be serviceable on a narrative comprehension level, but it does nothing for emotional investment. As I've said on the podcast, I like these films for the characters, not for the action; I want more than just to be able to follow the story: I want to care.

I'll conclude by getting back to the instigating point. Recasting Downey with a younger man isn't the death knell for the Iron Man franchise, but I honestly can't see it going particularly well. It's not the same as replacing Keaton with Kilmer, or Kilmer with Clooney. It'd be more like replacing Christian Bale in Nolan's series; we saw the character from the beginning of his arc, and we've watched him grow, with the actor, over several films that have taken place in a consistent diegetic world. When you aren't maintaining a consistent storyline from film to film, sequel to sequel, it doesn't make much of a difference when the lead actor changes (as in the Bond series). But imagine they recast Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III with somebody fifteen years younger than Al Pacino. Imagine they recast Harry Potter in, say, Order of the Phoenix with somebody five years younger than Daniel Radcliffe. Saying that these actors are disposable, interchangeable, and replaceable is to say that these franchises aren't worth taking seriously as narratives.

DAVE: To address one point right off that bat, the inclusion of box office numbers is not intended to suggest box office equates to quality. If it did, the top ten highest grossing films of all time would look vastly different than it currently does. However, given the nature of film and filmmaking, projects like superhero films require large budgets, and in turn require large returns. My point with regards to referencing box office is to point out that when it comes to reboots and origin stories, we see a degree of audience fatigue we don't typically see with a straight up continuation. And if the audience doesn't show up, we are not going to get another film which furthers the characters any.

And here is the thing about reboots which go right back to the origin: while you seem to believe that it helps viewer identification, to me it only hurts it. Since I was a kid, I have been through no less than three tellings of Superman's origin, not including the Christopher Reeve films from before I was born, or the several different comic book versions released in the last ten years. At this point, Superman's origin is a chore to sit through, because I know the story beats from scene to scene. Same with Spider-Man's origin. And if I'm bored by the story being told, if it is indeed a chore, then I am not developing any emotional investment in the characters. All I am doing is sitting in a theatre watching a riff on a story I know, just so I can see a slight difference in the details of how such and such an event happened, all in the hope that we might get another film where the new crew is able to get on with the story and do something interesting.

Furthermore Dru, while you believe that reboots "avoid the sloppiness and ambiguity that results from the 'sequel' approach," I say reboots cause more confusion than a straight up sequel with a new cast/cast change is. Back when Batman Begins came out, I had God-only-knows how many conversations trying to explain to people that Batman Begins is not a prequel to Tim Burton's Batman. These were people who had seen both films by the way, and count as the general audience which these films need to grab in order to be considered successes. To them, these films were all part of the same overall series, and the knowledge that the narratives of these films were not related did nothing to impact their enjoyment of either film. I remember leaving the theatre after Punisher War Zone where a group of people were wondering why the heck the Frank's family were buried in New York when they were killed in Tampa "in the last film." If reboots are supposed to avoid confusion, they have done a terrible job so far.

And frankly, to build on this point, this notion of having to reboot back to the origin is, to be a bit blunt, rather insulting to the audience and their intelligence. First up, to reboot is to ask an audience to disregard the attachment they have already built up towards the films and characters, which pretty much means that they are asking audiences not to invest emotionally in the film because nothing matters. If every time they change casts, everything prior gets tossed out the window, why on Earth should anyone bother to invest in anything? What is the point of Harry Osbourne sacrificing himself if he pops back up alive and well with none of those experiences five years later? Why should I invest in Batman's personal journey when in less than seven years time he's just going to go back to watching his parents die and training to be Batman all over again? Short answer: I shouldn't.

We are talking about here are pop culture icons: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, etc. With this generation of film fans, the people paying to see these films, we know who Spider-Man is; we know who Superman is. We are not going into these films blind, unaware of what we are paying to see. We are paying to see Batman, a character whose stories have long since gone on passed his origin. If the origins truly were "the" story of a character, then that would be all fans and audiences are interested in. Except time and again, that has not proven the case.

Not to mention, by encouraging origin-based reboots, all we are encouraging is the lowest form of recycling that Hollywood is capable of, because all they tell is the same old story over and over. Worse, in an effort to get around those accusations of "creative laziness," filmmakers are likely going to start changing material for the hell of it, not because it makes a better film. Let's not forget how close we were to a Superman film in which Krypton doesn't explode. And if superheroes are indeed modern myth, then what the heck is the point if we change the myth to the point where it is not recognizable?

(I have far, FAR more to say on the origin issue, but we'll get to that another time...)

When you get right down to it, these characters are bigger than any one actor or filmmaker. The legacy each of these characters have doesn't just disappear for me when I enter the theatre. If the performance is good enough, then I don't need to see Uncle Ben die for the 700th time: I only need to see the pain of that event register on the face of the actor currently playing the role. The fact that is was George Lazenby's Bond who saw his wife gunned down doesn't make the moment when Timothy Dalton's Bond remembers his wife's death any less painful, or detract from how the event plays into Bond's actions in Licence to Kill. In fact, as much as I love the Bond reboot, the fact that we now follow a Bond without that event having happened in his life is sad. We may have thankfully lost the invisible car from canon, but we also lost so much more.

DRU: Firstly, I think you're mischaracterizing the role of the origin in these film series as I want it. I don't want the story to end with the end of the origin story, I just want the story to begin before the character is taken on his/her superheroic identity; that way we get to see a complete arc (the end of the origin is equated with the end of Act I in a three-act story). Secondly, 
I will admit that my insistence on origin stories is a personal preference that is likely related to the way that I view all media. For instance, I refuse to start any television or movie series from anywhere other than the absolute beginning, and once I've started a series I am very likely to see it through to its conclusion, which, ideally, should feature some kind of closure. (This is why I watched all ten seasons of Smallville--it certainly wasn't out of enjoyment.) I want my stories to have a beginning, middle, and end, and I want to be there for the whole thing. I don't even like watching sitcoms in syndication unless I've already seen every episode, lest I accidentally watch something out of order. This is anal, and I understand (well, not really) that other people are fine with consuming just bits of stories, or can consume them out of order. I just won't do it myself. An ex of mine used to read the endings of books first, and it would drive me crazy.

Anyway, I'm willing to let bygones be bygones on the origin issue for the time being. Chacun son gout, as the French say. But there are elements of your argument that just don't stand to reason for me, and you unknowingly contradict yourself in a way that undermines your whole case. You bring up two examples in your attempt to disprove my claim that reboots minimize the narrative ambiguity produced by "sequels." I'll start with your second example, because I believe it proves my point rather than yours! Punisher War Zone is a reboot, yes, but it is not an origin story. It gets "right to the adventure," as you'd have it, without going over the already-trodden origin territory. As a result, the changes to the origin confuse the audience, who are (understandably) misreading the film as a sequel to 2004's The Punisher. The implication here is that an origin story would have helped audience comprehension. Your previous example, Batman Begins, dispels this notion. You claim that the film was misinterpreted by a portion of the viewing audience as a prequel to Burton's Batman. (Who are these people? I can't recall meeting any that continued to think this once they'd seen the film.) What you're implicitly arguing with this example is that audiences are too stupid to understand the separate continuities created by reboots, even when you give them an origin story, and even when the style and tone of the films are drastically different.

This would fine if you didn't then claim that my position is "insulting to the audience and their intelligence." You just said that general audiences aren't able to understand the difference between a reboot and a sequel! I, on the other hand, don't think that we need to dumb these films down by being vague with continuity (i.e. "Oh, you think that Christian Bale and Michael Keaton are playing the same Bruce Wayne? OK, that's fine, you can think that. Doesn't matter."). If audiences are going to assume that the films are connected anyway, they might as well take advantage of that fact! My position is that these stories should be complex and specific, that they can have arcs that play out over multiple films, and that their themes and characters can and should evolve all the while. What I'm arguing against is reducing the characters back to a status quo at the beginning of each film, preventing them from growing and learning from their experiences. I don't want completely self-contained stories; I want the characters to have a history that gets richer with each instalment. The Bond model might provide for adequate adventure stories, but I want more than that.

I agree with you that these characters are bigger than any one actor. Someone could conceivably come in and replace Downey as Iron Man. My concern is that, when that time comes, the character will be stripped of his complexity and his history. If you're going to provide a radical reinterpretation of the character that gets rid of much that has already been established, you're essentially rebooting the franchise already. And if you're going to reboot, I just think that it should be done as clearly as possible. Perhaps some viewers won't recognize that the different cast, crew, style and storyline signifies a break with the established continuity. But do you really think that anybody that sees "the Scottish film" is going to try to reconcile its narrative with that of Raimi's Spider-Man? They'll understand that what they're seeing is a different version of a similar story.

Before I pass it back to you (and I think we should start approaching a conclusion), there's one more point I have to rebut. I wasn't going to even dignify it with a response, but you're so plainly being disingenuous for the sake of advancing your argument that I have to call you out. You claim that reboots prevent audiences from engaging with the characters because they foster a sense that "nothing matters." I've seen your reactions to The Dark Knight Rises trailer, so I know that Nolan's trilogy has engaged you. Moreover, the fact that it reboots the character after the Burton/Schumacher films hasn't rendered those films impotent either; I know that you still enjoy them. The Dark Knight didn't replace Batman for you, didn't render it obsolete like a first-generation iPod. When you go see The Dark Knight Rises in July, you're not going to be thinking "I wish I could enjoy this movie, but alas! I suspect that Warner Brothers will continue to make Batman movies after this, so the events depicted herein are all moot!" You're going to get so swept up in the film that you're not going to be thinking about anything else. If the film is good, it doesn't matter if it's the first take on the character or the millionth. As you yourself said, "these characters are bigger than any one actor or filmmaker."

DAVE: I will start with the issue you raise in your last point first regarding Nolan’s Batman films. You are right, Nolan’s films have not reduced the significance of Burton’s films to me, and I am swept up in what Nolan has been up to. But here is the thing: Schumacher had already killed the Batman series by the time Nolan arrived. I don’t mean mildly damaged the series, or that he made a disappointing film, I mean Schumacher arrived and burnt the metaphorical house to the ground in a way not even Die Another Day managed to do in the Bond franchise. Nolan had no choice to do anything other than reboot, or just ignore the last film or two, which starts creating a whole Highlander pick-and-choose-your-own-adventure situation that I think we can both agree is a bad choice.

When I talk of insulting the audiences’ intelligence (I will admit, a bad choice of words on my part) and that it is hard to care about something when nothing matters, I am talking about film series where there is still so much potential to carry forward with what has come before. To return to our long lost “pilot” episode on Spider-Man 3, we both agreed that while the film was disappointing, it didn’t do any damage to the series which could not be undone. Moreover, the ending of that film left so much potential for future films about Peter and his future. Was his relationship with Mary Jane salvageable? If so, were we finally going to see the two of them mature into a true, adult relationship? Start a family? If they did start a family, what tough choices did Peter face with regards to his responsibility to his family versus his responsibility to his young children? Strong, thoughtful material for future Spider-Man stories, whether or not Raimi and crew were to come back or not. As wise men once suggested, a “soft” reboot which carries on with an older Peter and May Jane starring John Krasinski and Amy Adams as our Spider-Man and Mary Jane could have worked. Clearly, it would be different, but it would build on what has come before, taking the character and themes in a new direction. And best of all, while continuing on from the prior three films, this new series would still be its own self-contained entity, telling the story of an adult Peter over three or so films.

Instead, we are getting Peter back in high school. If a success, we get to see him grow up. Again. No progress, no pushing past the time frame we just spent six years exploring. We are going to just get more of late teens/early twenty-something Peter, with slight variations in his relationships, because it is easier to cover the same old ground then do something new. And all that emotional investment the audience built up over the last three films, we are asked to discard for this blank slate. Why should I invest in this series’ continuity when in all likelihood it will end at a rather similar place as Raimi’s films, once again leaving all that potential material untapped when it gets rebooted again? How this is any better than your fear of having the films become episodic adventures that return to the status quo? What is the point in changing the status quo when you never follow up on it?

And here is the thing, Dru: while it would be nice for studios to take a good long break if a series seems naturally to be done, you and I both know that isn’t going to happen. We are getting "the Scottish film" not because it was a tale the studio or filmmakers were dying to tell, but because they want to hold onto the legal rights to make Spider-Man films. Warner Brothers is going to make another Batman film after The Dark Knight Rises because Batman is going to make them a ton of money. And while I am pumped as it gets for The Dark Knight Rises, I am also frustrated at the idea that in about five years time, we are likely going to be sitting in a theatre watching Bruce Wayne train to be Batman all over again. And if this origin-reboot pattern you advocate continues, about five years after that series ends, we’ll have Bruce training to be Batman yet again, assuming audiences haven’t already grown so sick of Batman’s origin that the follow up to Nolan’s film kills Batman for a good, long while.

When we get right down to it, we seem to want the same thing: storytelling that further develops and explores the characters we have come to love. Where we differ is in our fears and desired approach. You seem to fear these films becoming episodic adventures that don’t progress the characters, and see origin-based-reboots which are part one in a single, large, finite story as a way to avoid this issue. However, I know these origin reboots wipe away any and all story progression, and in telling and retelling origins, I can only see this approach as not only leading to creative stagnation, but reinforcing the notion that the superhero genre is only capable of telling a limited number of stories, that its characters are not capable of growth beyond a certain point. And that is a notion that I want to see dispelled.

Furthermore, while your attachment to a character seems to be rooted in following a continuous portrayal from one actor, and while that is a point with which I can sympathise, I don’t share that need. Again, while there are times I wish the same actor would stick around, I also find changes in actors to be fairly exciting, just like when new filmmakers come onto a series. The reason I love the Alien films is because of just how radically different each filmmaker approaches the same general material; one of the reasons I love Doctor Who is because of how each producer, writer, and actor has come onto the show and made it their own, while working from what has come before. Is it always cohesive? No, but it is vibrant and alive, and takes full advantage of the program’s history to forge its future without becoming overly dependent upon it.

As for the issue of audience confusion, I admit I did contradict myself. Slightly. With regards to the audience of Batman Begins, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that all audiences were incapable of telling that the film was not connected to the prior films, only that reboots can cause as much confusion as a soft reboot or continuation. However, with regards to Punisher War Zone, I would like to point out that the reason the audience was confused was because of the inclusion of specific visual material related to the origin. The audience already knew why Frank was the Punisher: they didn’t need to have flashbacks at all. None of those people leaving the theatre were crying out that they needed to see Ray Stevenson in an origin film, only that that an (irrelevant) detail in the film seemed a bit out of place.

DRU: Here's what it comes down to for me. A given franchise within the superhero genre, based on a model of indefinite entries in each franchise, will inevitably reach the "Schumacher point," if we can call it that, where the franchise is exhausted and the only option left is to reboot. To date, no superhero franchise has gotten beyond a third entry without reaching this point. A startling percentage of them get there on the first film! I think the Bond model, where we got almost twenty films before the reboot, is never going to happen in the superhero genre, and nor should it (and aren't at least half of those movies bad, even by Bond standards?). For me, these characters are like Hamlet--would I rather see a gifted filmmaker adapt the text of Shakespeare's play or invent a new story that takes the character places I've never seen him go? The former, every time. The story and the character go hand in hand; in fact, they're one and the same. I want Spider-Man to be a teenager; I want to see him before the spider bites him; I want to see his uncle die and the effect that has on him: I don't want these things to be "understood" before the start of the film, or "implied" by a look on the character's face or a line of dialogue. As much as I'd love to see the Krasinski/Adams Spider-Man 4 that ages the characters a bit past the Raimi films, which was admittedly my own idea (you're really forcing my hand to post that "lost" pilot episode!), I'm probably happier with a new trilogy that starts us off at square one.

At the end of the day, these are adaptations of existing works, and as such can be adapted in as many ways as the work can be interpreted. I'll go see as many adaptations of my favourite novels as they're willing to make, and I'd much rather see the story I love than the characters I love in a story that does nothing for me, or that elides the very things that drew me to the character in the first place.

You seem pretty convinced that stories beginning with an origin are doomed to stagnate. But they're just the starting point of an arc that has a resolution in mind from the beginning. By default, your model also has a starting point, whether it's an origin or not, but it doesn't have an end point by definition. As anybody who questions the logic of capitalism knows, infinite progress is not a sustainable model. Like the economy, it's always going to lead to collapse: Burton boom and Schumacher bust, every time. Furthermore, the model reduces the stakes to nil. You claim that reboots induce apathy in the audience, but what about your model? Knowing that these characters won't ever age or die makes it really hard to worry about them when they're in danger. By contrast, it's a very real possibility that Bruce Wayne will die in The Dark Knight Rises, given that we know it's the end of the trilogy and the story. Stakes, my friend!

I know I said we'd wrap it up here, but I can't resist asking you a question to test your dedication to avoiding reboots at all costs. For me, the ending of Spider-Man 3 is all the more poignant by the fact that it's the end of the story, and that it doesn't spell everything out for us. For all the film's problems, it ends beautifully. Personally, I'd rather have that as an end point than to see the characters continue. (I've felt this way about the last three or so season finales of Californication as well, but they keep ruining their wonderful endings by having more episodes!) Given your resistance to reboots, would you prefer to see a Batman 4 after The Dark Knight Rises, with an all new cast and crew but keeping rough continuity with the Nolan series, than a reboot? Even knowing that the hypothetical reboot has a million directions it could go in that would distinguish it from any Batman film we've seen before? And even though The Dark Knight Rises is likely to provide a satisfying ending to the Nolan-Batman story?

DAVE: Hold on here. At no point did I ever say “avoid reboots at all costs.” I would never take any option off the table in such a blanket manner. My issue is with reboots as a default setting, particularly when it is only due to the fact that the lead cast member has been lost. There are times when a reboots are required, and will most likely be needed for the Batman series post-Dark Knight Rises (though I have massive problems with doing it as an origin story, but we’ll save that argument for another time). Star Trek sure as heck needed it after the disastrous cinematic one-two punch of Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis, and I cannot argue with anyone looking to reboot Daredevil or Green Lantern.

Now, while I believe that superheroes are capable of being utilized in fascinating and complex storylines that can be as great as any other work of literature/film/television/etc., your Shakespeare comparison is bizarre and faulty for a whole variety of reasons. I will only stick to what is immediately relevant, however, which is the point that most of Shakespeare’s works are single, self-contained plays, which tell a single, cohesive story. You don’t get a follow up story because there are no more stories to tell; the story of Hamlet is, well, the story told in Hamlet. If you want to make a comparison between superhero narratives and Shakespeare, you are better off bringing up Watchmen, a single, cohesive work. Moreover, when one does a new adaptation of Shakespeare's work, they generally tend to follow the original writing of the author fairly closesly, and are not cobbling together a cinematic version from decades of comics created by a whole variety of different people.

Anyways, to get back to my main point, there is no “story of Spider-Man”, or “story of Batman,” no matter how much you might try and hard sell me on the idea, Dru. There are the many tales told about Spider-Man, which includes the death of Uncle Ben, and there are many tales told about Batman, which includes the death of his parents and his training to become the Dark Knight. But for Spider-Man, there is also the story of Gwen Stacy, the story of alien costume, of Peter’s marriage, and of his friendship with Harry Osborne. For Batman, there is the story of Dick Grayson, the death of Jason Todd, the story of Batman being broken and reborn, and so on and so forth. Each of these is a riveting tale, each with their own beginning, middle, and end, and each holds great impact on the characters and on how they grow. And while the monthly publishing schedule and changes in creative teams may lead to some continuity problems and a number of clunkers, it has also given us many brilliant and wonderful stories, stories which I would like to see put on screen.

In fact, allow me to run with an idea for a second. I think we are both in agreement that Batman will have to be rebooted following Nolan. Fair enough. So rather than go back to the origin and cover ground Nolan already covered (and was in part covered by Burton), how about a trilogy built around the idea of Batman as a father? Each film would cover Bruce’s relationship with each of the different Robins, his successes with Dick, his failures with Jason, and finally having to face being a father to his own flesh and blood in Damien. There is your beginning, middle and end, your reboot, without having to go back to the origin.

As for this idea of “knowing that these characters won't ever age or die makes it really hard to worry about them when they're in danger”, death is the LEAST interesting stake in drama, because of how cheap and common place it has become. The drama of The Dark Knight does not come from the threat of death, but because it hinges on moral and ethical questions: how far will people sink for survival before they cease being human? How far can one go to protect people and still be considered a hero? Likewise, the drama of the final few stories of the Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who does not come from the fear that the Doctor will die as has been prophesied, but from how the Doctor (badly) deals with this foreknowledge and the fear which comes with it. I fully expect Nolan to kill Bruce in the next film, and I am sure he’ll find a way to make it interesting. But it won’t be because the idea of Bruce dying is itself interesting, but rather because the context of the death and the thematic meaning it will hold. Bruce dying is, in and of itself, pointless because we all know Bruce Wayne won’t really be “dead”; he’ll just be back played by a new actor in five years’ time.

You seem to believe that continuity and history is somehow the enemy of creativity, when it is anything but. To again reference the revival of Doctor Who, the show has now had two different show runners, and each has been telling their own distinct story without having to ditch everything that has come before. Over five years, Russell T. Davis told his story of a soldier coping with his survivor’s guilt and anger, and paid it off in the end. Steven Moffat has spent the past two series telling the story of a man who’s become more of a myth or legend across the cosmos, from being the “imaginary friend” of a young girl to a mythic warrior feared on many worlds, and is having to deal with the consequences of that status while finding a way to bring himself “back to Earth” in a manner of speaking. You don’t need to see Davis’ Who to understand Moffat’s Who, nor does one need to see the classic series to understand and follow Davis’ version. Having seen them does add to the richness and texture of the stories, but the stories being told are already rich in and of themselves.

You say you’d take the familiar any day of the week. I say take me into the unknown. I say don’t play it safe, and be bold with your choices. We might get something terrible, but we might also get something wonderful. For all of its faults, I will always salute Superman Returns as a bold choice, whose flaws mainly stem from how it hedges its bets. I doubt I’ll be saying the same thing come the time of Man of Steel’s release, which is making the safe choice in going back over the same old ground. I want bold imagination which takes these characters forward, not endless nostalgia trips which progress nothing.

DRU: I think that we've arrived at some common ground--finally! You've convinced me that there is no "story of Spider-Man," for example, but I think we can agree that there is a "beginning of the story of Spider-Man." Once we get through that, I think there are any number of directions that the story can go in, including (but not limited to) those you mention. (Indeed, the fact that Spider-Man and "the Scottish film" both cover the transformation of Peter Parker into Spider-Man and yet have different sub-plots, love interests, and villains speaks to the diversity of approaches inherent in the origin material.) I'd love for the Webb series to be wildly successful, and for them to not have to return to the origin well for a good, long while. Let them explore these stories! Let the characters grow! But let them grow from ground zero. Give me a complete journey!

I really like your proposed Batman trilogy to follow Nolan's series. And I'll even give you this: a Batman origin is probably not necessary in this case, because it doesn't sound to me as though Bruce would be the main character. Sounds to me like Dick Grayson would be the one with the central arc, beginning the series as an orphaned child (origin) and ending it as the new Batman (conclusion). (Sidebar: can you imagine a Batman film where Bruce dies at the end of Act I, like Janet Leigh in Psycho? Amazing!) Dick is in the Michael Corleone role here, while Bruce is like Vito.

You can re-cast these characters when real-world considerations necessitate it, and we agree that it's best to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. (If you think I'm against that, let me remind you of something I said in my first post in this dialogue: "If [narrative continuity is being maintained], then I think recasting without rebooting is the best approach.") When it's not Andrew Garfield inside the Spidey costume anymore, going back to the origin isn't necessary, but please, for the love of dogs keep the story world consistent, interesting, and complex. Continue to draw on that history, to build on what has come before. Above all, keep telling thoughtful and entertaining stories with the characters that we love. I wish nothing less for all of these superhero franchises.

DAVE: I'm up for killing Bruce a third of the way into a Batman film. Sadly, I don't see Warner Brothers sharing our enthusiasm for the idea.

But yes, we have reached some common ground, finally. And with that, I believe it is time to sign off. But everyone, feel free to leave feedback below and let us know where you fall with regards to this topic!


  1. I'm inclined to agree with Dru on this. I think reboots are the way to go in this situation, particularly when it comes to the lead actor. Dru touches on this a bit, but continuity has become a little more important in superhero films (and franchises in general) than in the 80s and 90s. There’s no real reference (to my memory anyway) to Burton’s Batman films in Schumacher’s. The original Superman films only had a sense of continuity when it suited the needs of the story, and ignored it most of the time (particularly in 3 and 4).

    I liken the reboot of Spider-Man – and all retellings of origins – to cover versions of songs. (Not exactly the best analogy, since we tend to privilege the original because of primacy.) For example, we have the original version of “Summertime” from Porgey and Bess, but we can also hear various interpretations by the likes of Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, the Twilight Singers, and countless others. Just as we have Raimi’s take on Peter Parker, we now have Webb’s. And come to think of it, how many times have superhero origins been retold in our lifetime? All by various writers and artists, and all with their variations on a theme, and mostly are vastly different. Just look at Superman’s origin as told through Man of Steel, Birthright, and Secret Origins; Basically the only common elements are – to quote All Star Superman – Doomed planet, desperate scientist, last hope, kindly couple.

    It’s in the nature of comic books to revisit and revamp a character’s origin. You said it yourself Dave, there is no singular story of Spider-Man. So to disregard the merits of a retelling of the origin, by saying "we already have one" in effect, partitions off Raimi’s film is THE story of Spider-Man, putting a limit on creatively re-interpreting the character. Again, look at how Shakespeare has been interpreted over the last 400+ years.

  2. It seems pretty clear to me that "the untold story" of Peter's parents in the upcoming "Scottish film" (and its sequels) should be added to Dave's list of potential Spidey stories ripe for film adaptation. That he dismisses it so readily (presumably because of its incorporation into a new interpretation of the origin story) is, in my opinion, wrong-headed.

  3. I find it funny you quote All Star Superman James, as the whole point of Morrison's All Star Superman intro is to point out how A) well known the origin is, and B) how really those big beats are the only things that really matter at the end of the day. He doesn't waste any more time on the origin then necessary because Superman as a concept is understood: we don't need a full blown origin to make us care about the story he is telling. It just has to be damn well written.

    Furthermore, Morrison's approach to the origin in All Star is exactly what I have been calling for the entire time! When the audience is already familiar with the big beats, they can adapt to the more specific details of the world being created without having to go over the ground of the origin again. Look at how Morrison establishes Superman’s entire universe in that story with perfect economy, laying out the relationships, tone, etc. of his universe in a manner which is perfectly clear.

    And again, you point out how many times the origins of these characters have been retold, which again, is kind of my point. I am at the point of not caring about Superman's origin because it seems to be the only story anyone seems to be able to write these days. There is no point in doing serialized fiction if you just going to retell the same damned story over and over again. Even Grant Morrison's retelling has lost my interest. Beyond this, most superhero origins share the same beats: death of the mentor/father figure, the self-doubt, etc., which is why I find most of them fairly dull. It is back story that is more or less required so we can get onto what is interesting.

    Allow me to give an example: I’ll take Burton’s Batman over Nolan’s Batman Begins any day of the week, in large part because of how it handles the origin. While I respect Nolan’s choice to follow the character as he is built from the ground up, an approach which allowed Nolan to make The Dark Knight where we see and feel Bruce having to confront some difficult moral choices, Burton’s choice to keep the audience distanced from Wayne works so much better for me overall. In terms of psychology, Nolan’s approach makes everything far too clear and rational: there is clear cause and effect. In Burton’s universe, the death of Bruce’s parents has defined him, but the way in which it plays into his psychology is far more ambiguous. As an audience member, I get to spend far more time trying to piece together Bruce Wayne and who he is, based on what he does – and does not – do and say, and I love that. I love that Bruce’s memory of his parents’ death is impressionistic rather than realistic, that he himself doesn’t fully understand what he is doing, and that when you get right down to it, he is not fully knowable. It is the same reason I love characters like Will Graham (as played by William Peterson), Frank Black from Millennium, and Daniel Plainview: I may know about them, but I’ll never fully know them.

    This is not to say that I am entirely against reboots and origins: I am not. However, when you are telling Spider-Man’s origin’s onscreen again a mere ten years after the last time, there is a problem. You cannot ask me to believe for one second that with only three films about the character and 40+ years of comics to swipe from, the origin was the story screeming to be retold above all others. You want to reboot Spider-Man, fine: start with the death of Gwen Stacy, and flashback to the events of how Peter became Spider-Man in a manner which thematically ties into the main story. You get you’re origin elements while still telling a tale which has not been told, whose ramifications can easily be the driving force of an entire series of films.

    Now, as to Dru’s point about the story of Peter’s parents being worth telling, I am going to write up a whole separate opinion piece on that for this blog. Keep your eyes peeled!

  4. Oh David, I thought we had a moratorium on publicly discussing"the Scottish film!" You will be in direct violation if you post this opinion piece. I forbid it.

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  6. David, you have to also consider the intention of the story. The purpose of All Star Superman is not to re-tell Superman's origin. Clearly, Morrisson has no interest in it. I think a character's origin is completely necessary, particularly when it comes to moving a character forward. You need to know where the character has been to know where to take them. Burton's characterization of Batman (and Mann's of Will Graham, for that matter) work just fine in one-off features, but as serialized fiction wouldn't hold up. Just look at Barman Returns. Does Wayne "change" or "grow" as a character? Not really. He doesn't even seem to be affected by his failed relationship with a woman who knows his secret identity. (You call Burton's Batman "psychologically ambiguous," I call it "lazily scripted")

    While Superman may have multiple origins, none of them are - in effect - the same character. Mark Waid's Superman is a different person than John Byrne's, and I love that. I love that these characters can share so many similar things and can be so vastly different. If Burton's Batman were in The Dark Knight, Batman would've killed the Joker without giving a second thought. While, in essence, they're the same characters, they cannot occupy each others' worlds. Boom.

  7. "David, you have to also consider the intention of the story. The purpose of All Star Superman is not to re-tell Superman's origin. Clearly, Morrisson has no interest in it. I think a character's origin is completely necessary, particularly when it comes to moving a character forward."

    But again James, you are contradicting yourself: if indeed it is necessary to know a character's origin to move a character forward, then by your very belief, Morrison should have done the origin BEFORE All Star Superman in order to move his take on the character forward. To which I ask: did the absence of an origin in that story negatively impact your enjoyment of it and make it harder to care about what is going on?

    We've already went through Batman Returns before, but once again I disagree with your characterization of the film, as Burton's approach isn't so much to "grow" the character as it is to peel back the layers so that we see more of him. Burton accomplishes this by shifting the perspective of the film from the first one: in Batman, we are aligned with the perspective of the "everyday" character as she probes into the world of Batman, trying to understand him; in "Returns", our perspective shifts to that of the outsiders themselves. Batman is about Vicky trying to reach Bruce; Returns is about Bruce finding a connection with someone who shares his outsider status. Factor in the way in which the film explores the sexuality of the characters (a topic not even touched upon in "Batman") and yes, I think we find out more about Bruce in this film.

    But most importantly, while I certainly share your love of seeing different takes on these characters, I simply do not share your need for going back to the origin with each interpretation. At the end of the day, the defining event in Bruce Wayne’s life is the death of his parents: all version share that in common and always will (otherwise, it ain’t Batman). If he copes with this differently, that will come through in his actions in a well written film: seeing him train with either a bunch of ninjas or a magician does not really matter to me.

  8. Okay, I'm not going to carry this on too much longer, considering we've moved away from the 'should actors be replaced?' debate. I will say, as a contained story, All Star Superman is the exception (would I like to have had Morrisson's take on the origin? Absolutely).

    Yet, comic books and film are two very different forms of storytelling, and both function in vastly different ways. What works in one, may not work in the other. I'm saying that for film, I think it's necessary.