The industry’s relentless hunt for profits has produced a kitschy reboot-loop that fits the historical moment. As the future seems to elude us, nostalgia reigns supreme.
There’s an unavoidable irony in writing about Hollywood’s reboot culture, that culture of recycling and reshaping old blockbuster films or franchises in the present day. William Procter pinpoints Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005 as a foundational moment, a film which launched ‘a zeitgeist of franchise regenerations that strive to emulate its accomplishments.’ Anna Leszkiewicz offered a similar analysis in 2016 for The New Statesman: ‘Anyone who has been to the movies in the last few years can tell you that Hollywood is going through a nostalgia obsession: from Ghostbusters to Gilmore Girls to G.I. Joe.’ And over the last year, many commentators have noted the rising incidence of reboots, from Space Jam to Godzilla. The irony, then, is this: analyses and commentaries of reboot culture are continually appropriated, spruced up, and themselves, rebooted. They are as timeless as the culture of reboot films they seek to diagnose. Whenever we hear someone declare that ‘Hollywood is dead’ – or any version thereof – we should err on the side of caution. We’ve heard it a million times.
Nevertheless, I think reboot culture is worth thinking about, especially in its present guise. Whenever I’ve gone to the cinema in recent (non-lockdown) times, I’ve been struck by the overload of reboots and remakes and long-awaited sequels painting the walls, like some collage of historical set pieces. Three current examples spring to mind: Spider-Man: No Way Home, Scream, and The Matrix Resurrections. These films are not nostalgic for a particular historical period (say, the eighties, in J. J. Abrams’ Super 8). More importantly, they are not self-contained films with traditional narrative conventions (i.e., ‘realist’ reboots like Batman Begins). Rather, they are films whose focus – whose very claim to existence – is nostalgia for their own constructed, cinematic past. They plagiarise themselves in a disorientating process of pastiche.
This recycling of material from past instalments occurs almost at will. Old characters reappear like deities on screen – Peter Parker (x2), Green Goblin, Doc Ock (and others!); Dewey Riley, Gale Weathers, Sidney Prescott; Neo, Trinity, Morpheus (recast), and Agent Smith (also, sadly, recast). The excitement here is an entirely metafictional one: ‘Look, I’m back!’ Narrative realism is undermined by the desire to feature as many old characters as possible. In No Way Home, for example, Doctor Strange’s failed spell leads to an improbable collision of Spider-Man universes and characters – Marvel Studios have much to thank him for. But maybe that’s a moot point: as fan service, it succeeds wonderfully.
Past dialogue isn’t left alone, either. Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina both deliver old lines, now remodelled as catchphrases. Agent Smith regurgitates an old bit of dialogue in Resurrections, noting he ‘always loved that line’. More glaringly indulgent is the repurposing of scenes: Andrew Garfield’s Peter gains a kind of meta-redemption by saving MJ (after failing to save Gwen in The Amazing Spider-Man 2). No Way Home, to its credit, doesn’t go to the extremes of Scream, which both mirrors and splices scenes from the original: the opening Ghostface call scene is an obvious example, or the pantomime-style ‘look behind you!’ moment which, on this occasion, entails ‘Mindy’ shouting the same words as Randy (from the first Scream) on her TV.
Resurrections is even guiltier: Neo wakes up in a pod in the ‘real’ world; he fights Morpheus in a training simulation; he returns to Zion. Written like this, it’s almost indistinguishable from the original. As nostalgia it works; as narrative, it feels empty, kind of like a marketing ploy. I can’t sum it up any better than Bugs – one of the tokenistic new characters – as she watches what is essentially a re-run of the original Matrix introduction, Trinity (reprised by Carrie-Anne Moss) fleeing from Agents: ‘it’s so déjà vu, and yet it’s obviously all wrong’.
The kitschy, playful quality of these films is absurdly consistent. They draw attention to their own artificiality and implausibility with ironic humour. Sometimes, the joke is simply stating the obvious, as when Tobey Maguire’s Peter gets stabbed and he comments wryly, ‘Yeah I’m good, I’ve been stabbed before.’ Such irony intentionally undermines the verisimilitude of the world on screen. Resurrections actually features the words, ‘reboots sell.’ Worse, Scream features a monologued attack on Hollywood ‘requels’ – a mix of sequel and reboot we are told, which requires, among other things, revitalised characters from past films – even as it conforms to this Hollywood logic itself. Self-referentiality was original in 1996 and was the hallmark of the original Scream. Here, it’s conceited and obtuse.
Moments such as these remind me of the late Mark Fisher’s analysis of WALL-E, a film about the despoiling of the earth by huge corporations: ‘the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.’ These films ratchet this logic up a level: we chuckle when characters note the absurdity of the premise because we were thinking it all along. Pre-empting their criticism as shallow and derivative, these reboots can exist in a kind of ironic, ‘enlightened’ state. Of course, that shouldn’t let them off the hook, but we leave the cinema not needing to articulate their flaws – they’ve already done it themselves.
This might all sound very serious and fatalistic, but I enjoy these films; as spectacle, they are difficult to beat. The last thing I want to do here is imply that enjoyment of Spider-Man is something morally reprehensible. To quote Simon Reynolds in his book Retromania, ‘I’m also an avid participant in the retro culture’ myself. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that rebooted films can, in some cases, transcend their derivative origins. Take Denis Villeneuve’s latest projects, Blade Runner 2049 and Dune – two reboots, two excellent films in their own right. But a certain pretentiousness is at risk here, a modernist division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. It’s tempting to consign reboot films to the latter category, but it’s not their relative quality that’s at stake here (although it must be said that No Way Home is a far better film than Resurrections). Instead, it’s the culture that breeds these films that should concern us.
What we are witnessing here is an intensification of prior trends. Nostalgia films are nothing new, as noted earlier. Frederic Jameson as far back as 1983 identified Star Wars as a nostalgia film, ‘a pastiche’ of the early-twentieth-century ‘Buck Rogers type’ serial, replete with ‘alien villains, true American heroes, heroines in distress’, and so on. Reboots have been around for ages, too. But now they are endemic: in 2019, the top ten grossing U.S films all belonged to this reboot culture in some capacity.
It’s difficult to pin down all this. Does Hollywood choose to impose these films upon us, the ignorant masses, profitable as they are? Matt Zoller Seitz, for example, laments this ‘MCU-ing of cinema’, in which the intertextuality, the spectacle, the dopamine-rush of an Avengers: Endgame provides the template for all Hollywood films. Cinematic universes sprout everywhere, based on old franchises. Nostalgia proliferates. Or perhaps this is harsh, and we might sympathise with Hollywood after the devastation wrought by the pandemic; reboots, at least, might help cinemas survive. Or maybe the present manifestation of this reboot culture – with its ironic commentary on its own artificiality – points to a growing consumer exhaustion with it all, in which case it may well be on its last legs.
There may even be a more existential threat here: the death of cinematic creativity, rendered impossible by institutional economic realities. Here, we might bring in Jameson and his writings on postmodernism, a late-twentieth-century cultural mode which manifested itself in all the ways described in this article, through pastiche, irony and nostalgia (Star Wars is an example). Inexorably implicated in late-stage capitalism, so the argument goes, art loses its power to innovate and turns to ‘its necessary failure . . . the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past.’ Familiar? Postmodernism is often said to be ‘dead’ in the twenty-first century, but as a cultural style, undoubtedly, its legacy lives on.
I don’t know the answers, but whatever the cause of reboot culture in its current manifestation, we should be concerned by its effects: a feeling of stasis, of inhibited momentum, of finality. The man who submits to nostalgia for a past life has no concept of futurity. New experiences elude him. This is in equal parts comforting and stultifying. In a post-pandemic world – with its talks of a ‘new normal’ – the desire to return to the past can be overwhelming. Reboot culture fulfils this desire as we are at our most vulnerable – it suspends turmoil, transporting us back to the end of history when deadly viruses were inconceivable. This is a good thing, in part, but it also undermines the capacity for cinema to articulate a future beyond the past; it exposes an inability – or refusal – to confront the world as it is now.
A final note for thought: culture is an important vehicle through which to articulate utopian dreams, alternatives to the existing order of things. Reboot culture thus goes hand-in-hand with a more concerning development: reboot politics, or as Simon Reynolds puts it, ‘political retromania’ – the attachment of the politics of the Left to its own dead past. Keir Starmer reboots Blair, Jeremy Corbyn reboots the 1970s. Others evoke a long-dead politics, celebrating post-war social democracy or the revolutionary ‘Harsh Leninist Superego’, as Fisher puts it in his Acid Communism. Nostalgia pervades oppositional politics, creating a sort of impasse where the status quo remains unchallenged. It’s worth thinking about in tandem with reboot films precisely because of this duality, a shared pathological entrapment in the past. Cinema, in its present guise, only helps to buttress this lack of political imagination, which leads me to a disconcerting, if predictable, conclusion: perhaps ‘Hollywood is dead’ after all. But maybe this is all very hypocritical and I should heed my own warning – that this is just a reboot, too.