Reboots, Remakes, Revivals and Franchises Explained
By: Sarah Munson
October 8th, 2022
This article is part of our Summer 2022 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
In 2021, the top three box office hits—”Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Venom: Let There be Carnage”—are expansions or adaptations of familiar titles. This practice of revisiting existing characters and stories comes from a combination of nostalgia, monetary gain, stability and fanservice. While some critics argue that viewers’ desire to improve and expand these fan-favorites justifies the plethora of reboots, remakes, revivals and franchises, many worry it represents a fear of creativity in Hollywood.
This isn’t exactly a new trend. Film imitation traces back to the beginning of cinema. In an article for Film School Rejects, Emily Kubincanek said that silent films such as “The Great Train Robbery” or “L’Arroseur arrosé” experienced copycats within a year following their releases—this coming before the introduction of effective copyright laws in 1912. Developments in film technology in the late 1920s jeopardized the structure of silent films as actors discovered their voices were unfit for the silver screen, and screenwriters lost the straightforward dialogue of title cards. Thus, reusing stories provided some stability amidst the chaos.
However, while this format worked for films, TV has struggled to replicate this success. In an article for The Atlantic, writer Kevin Fallon said that television struggles with successful reboots because a complete season of episodes is too demanding of a commitment for viewers’ initial nostalgia and excitement.
The earliest example of this comes from 1970 when “Make Room for Granddaddy” attempted to revive its 11 season predecessor, “Make Room for Daddy.” The timeslot was ideal, but the actual timing, just five years after the original, was unrealistic in terms of cultivating loyal nostalgia.
Disney, the most notable producer of reimaginings, originally struggled to find success with it. For example, the company had lower than expected ratings after the releases of the live-action versions of “101 Dalmations” and “The Jungle Book.” But in 2010, Johnny Depp, known for the profitable “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, changed the tide after he was cast in the remake of “Alice in Wonderland,” which earned over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. This motivated Disney to continue releasing live-action remakes every few years.
However, as the 51% Rotten Tomatoes score for “Alice in Wonderland” foreshadowed, these releases often coincide with disappointed critics. Underwhelmed reactions aren’t limited to Disney’s live-action adaptations. A 2019 study of Rotten Tomatoes data revealed that remakes and reboots typically perform worse than originals. Not only did original movies have a higher average score of about 81%, few (about 10%) were outdone by their remakes, and originals dominate with prestigious honors and awards.
In an article for Comicbook.com, journalist Cameron Bomolo said, “In 90 years of Best Picture, only three remakes —1935’s The Mutiny on the Bounty, 1959’s Ben-Hur and 2006’s The Departed — have won the award, meaning just 3.2 percent of Best Picture winners are second tries at past films.”
Best Picture may snub these unoriginal films, but the general public, desiring easy entertainment, tends to offer more flexibility than cutthroat film critics. Fans continue attending theaters and streaming television shows because they can acknowledge the perks of these reboots, revivals and remakes.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, media consumption evolved into a necessary distraction from current events. The pomp and circumstance of new releases can juxtapose reality’s mundane, stay-at-home routine. However, according to The New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes’s observations, “about 49 percent of prepandemic moviegoers are no longer buying tickets.” This gradual decline magnified the need for hyped reboot installments that could revive the appeal of attending theaters again. Such was the case in late 2021 when vacant theaters lured in 1.1 million guests on the opening night of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” with rumors of returning actors from the previous Spider-Man franchises..
As viewers debate the value of attending theaters again, they’re spending money and time on streaming platforms. Streaming platforms provide the comfort of binge-watching an older show that existed pre-pandemic. In a BBC article titled “Is rewatching old TV good for the soul?”, journalist David Renshaw says old favorites like “The Office” and “Friends” will eventually go the way of “I Love Lucy” and “no longer chime with modern audiences.” So, as a means of combating irrelevance, producers are pursuing reboots, which simultaneously update content and preserve nostalgia.
Paramount+ used this strategy of catering to aged fans when it released a revival of “iCarly” in June 2021. However, the so-called grown-up version of “iCarly” yielded mixed opinions.
“Even though sometimes it did not feel like something Freddie or Carly would say, I realized that they are 26 at the start of the reboot, so they surely matured and think differently compared to their younger selves,” said Govinda, a student at Michigan State University.
Another student, Micah, felt the potential character development was overshadowed by disingenuous casting.
“Everything is so forced,” Micah said. “They went from no color to Sam’s replacement being black and Freddie having a black stepdaughter.”
“iCarly” demonstrates that reboots will need more than callbacks to resonate with their matured audience, especially when they want their characters to remain frozen in a simpler, pandemic-free time.
Escaping into nostalgia also includes taking the opposite approach and having older titles address the pandemic. In the earlier stage, casts of “High School Musical” and “The Goonies” gathered over Zoom to reminisce. NBC went further and posted a special reunion episode of “Parks and Recreation.” The fictional Leslie Knope returned to humorously conduct a virtual meeting with her fellow characters, who fans could now imagine were enduring the same struggles within that universe.
Reboots, remakes and revivals can also use fans’ speculations and discourse as an advantage. Unlike original ideas that lack an established audience, reboots authorize fanbases to directly work on and expand their franchises.
In his thesis on “The Functionality of Reboots,” California State University – San Bernardino graduate student Dustin L. Shepherd discussed this topic in reference to Star Wars’ “The Force Awakens.”
“This film has so many allusions to the original trilogy that it is clearly made by fans, for fans,” he said. “There is even a documentary on the Blu-ray that chronicles how everyone involved in this film was a huge fan of the original trilogy.”
Addressing fans can be as simple as throwing some references to internet memes into the script. The publicized “Spider-Man: No Way Home” screenplay includes the direction, “All three point at each other: Him? Memes!” This note was about the Spider-Man pointing meme that typically poked fun at the brand’s three live-action actors. In a separate instance, the aforementioned “iCarly” revival recreated the scene where Miranda Cosgrove smirks at a computer while holding a soda can in “Drake & Josh.”
While some reboots share plenty of pre-production details, waiting for new information from the hesitant or delayed creator of a TV series, book or movie is frustrating. For example, any anime can’t continue their storylines until the author of the sourced manga responds with new material. Captain Kirk’s middle name was just an unexplained T. until Gene Roddenberry, creator of “Star Trek,” finally approved the name Tiberius in 1974. Reboots evade the need for input from their creators, so fans may decide what is canon, a term for official additions to a story.
Giving fans control of canonization also potentially improves plot holes. The 1978 film “Halloween” showed Laurie Strode, a teenage babysitter, as the spontaneous target of killer Michael Myers, but sequels and the 2007 reboot claimed she was his sister. A Comicbook.com interview with John Carpenter, director of the original movie, revealed he had always resented the sibling dynamic, which he only added to lengthen “Halloween 2.” However, when the 2018 reboot series removed the connection between Laurie and Michael, their rivalry lost believability.
“Since [Michael] has no real pattern to his killing,” CBR journalist Nicholas Brooks said, “it makes more sense to try and find the family member that got away 40 years after his escape.”
In spite of these benefits, unoriginal films still spark controversy.
Many of those against reboots, remakes and revivals describe them as exploitation instead of exploration Exploitation refers to Hollywood’s production of content they can use to manipulate devoted fanbases. In an IMD.org article, professor of strategy Knut Haanaes and research associate Michael Sorell wrote, “Hollywood’s love for following a pure exploitation strategy can be seen in its sky-high and rising budgets. The industry is spending more and more money on sequels and now they even have higher budgets (product and marketing) than the original films from which they’re spawned.”
While the industry may heavily advertise reboots, their push for expensive marketing can actually deter fans.
“Normally, a dead giveaway if a reboot is just a cash grab is if the trailer fails,” said Noah Luikart, a student at Michigan State University. “When a trailer on YouTube has mass dislikes and mean comments, there’s a really high chance the studio rushed it and made the reboot just to make money.” This public outcry from fans shows when they recognize the blatant exploitation of their nostalgia and emotional investment.
Another issue with reboots is that many fans feel as though production companies slap a progressive band-aid over familiar stories that previously lacked diverse or inclusive storylines. Elizabeth Banks, director of the 2019 “Charlie’s Angels” movie, was chastised after she claimed in an interview with the Herald Sun that her film’s failure would “reinforce a stereotype in Hollywood that men don’t go see women do action movies.” In return, many moviegoers argued women and men were equally uninterested in watching a movie that looked like a disingenuous cash-grab on an old franchise. They related it to the 2016 all-female “Ghostbusters,” which many felt relied on feminism as a marketing strategy that didn’t compensate for an outdated concept.
These progressive makeovers signify the reluctance to approve new characters. In the Wired article “TV Reboots Are Having a Great Awokening. It Sucks,” staff writer Emma Grey Ellis explained that some of the reboots’ female showrunners and/or showrunners of color “have explicitly stated that doing a remake of an existing show is the only way to get their stories greenlit.” In addition to disrupting their narratives, recasting a well-established character for no purpose other than appeasing younger audiences ignores the option of creating one with a fully-developed identity.
While tokenism disguised as progress is one problem of these unoriginal films and TV series, white-washing characters happens too. The act of white-washing a character, or removing the qualities that make them representative of a marginalized community, erases the slim representation these communities already experience and becomes a glaring distraction in a remake or reboot. The 2010 live-action adaptation of the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” cartoon scored a minuscule 5% on Rotten Tomatoes, with one of its critiques being the predominantly white cast and POC villains. What started as an expansive story centered on Asian themes declined into a mocked adaptation perpetuating white heroism.
Besides risking white-washing, redoing foreign films for Western audiences loses cultural nuances. One example is the 1956 Americanized version of the creature feature “Godzilla.” According to the MeTv article “How Raymond Burr ended up battling Godzilla,” the original Japanese “Godzilla” played on Americans’ fear of nuclear disasters and specifically atom bombs, which created the Godzilla monster, and it included an arranged marriage. The American revision erased these themes and changed Godzilla into a prehistoric creature, and its sudden peaceful ending negated the Japanese warning about the possible aftermath of nuclear testing.
While the fear of creativity can dismantle foreign media, it can also deter entire genres from production. Examples of this are the original creature features that rarely enter theaters in fear of competing with established intellectual property. The few that are produced often end up as B movies on the Sci-Fi channel.
Jeffrey Bowie Jr., a journalist for TVovermind.com, explained that obscure genres need an affordable budget and star-studded cast, as seen in “A Quiet Place,” to comfortably screen alongside comic-book-based movies. Otherwise, their niche audiences won’t be enough to turn a profit. This lack of attention punishes films’ desire to be creative by turning originality into wasted effort.
Though creativity seems unrewarding, the appeal of quick entertainment via a subscription service is weakening. Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” reboot was canceled after a messy combination of adapting animation, understanding foreign media and satisfying a demanding fanbase. Megan O’ Keefe, a journalist for Decider.com, argued that “Cowboy Bebop” also followed the pattern of Netflix originals outperforming overdone stories. She listed successful originals like “Squid Game” and “Stranger Things” and compared them to the aftermath of the platform’s takes on intellectual property, which included shows “being erased or retconned from MCU canon.”
If the film and television industries want to bank on the safety net of familiarity and nostalgia, there are alternatives to investing in reboots, remakes and revivals. In the article “Re-Release Old Movies Instead of Reboots and Remakes” for 3rdWorldGeeks.Com, writer Victor de la Cruz realized after rewatching the original 1987 “Robocop” that the movie had mostly held up by today’s standards, albeit some of the satire and special effects. Feeling that this further emphasized the unnecessary $100 million budget of the 2014 remake, he proposed the film industry remaster the audio and picture of old films and send them to theaters. This suggestion proved worthwhile in 2013 when the rereleased Jurassic Park made $18.6 million dollars over the weekend.
There’s also the tactic that “Stranger Things” benefited from—using nostalgic themes and references as inspiration. According to Ben Child, a journalist for The Guardian, the Duffer brothers decided to write the series “after they lost out on the chance to oversee the forthcoming big screen remake of Steven King’s ‘It.'” While the “It” remake earned praise and $701.8 million dollars, “Stranger Things” has lasted for four seasons on Netflix with the highest-paid actor pocketing an estimated $2.7 million after the third season. Unlike similar reboot shows, “Stranger Things” didn’t rely on initial excitement and familiarity, so the storyline continued to evolve and intrigue its audience.
Reboots, remakes, revivals and franchises don’t imply the looming end of Hollywood; they mirror a rut caused by the pandemic and other economic crises. Moviegoers and television watchers can learn from the remakes of the late 1920s that there is hope for another cinematic Golden Age. Even in this age where creativity is all about risk versus return, many original films and television series have managed to come out on top.
When molded effectively, nostalgia goes beyond perpetual recycling. Revisiting stories can bring joy and closure, and fans love to know their beloved characters are still out there, being themselves in their respective universes. That said, the relationship between audiences and the film and television industry needs to be flexible and communicative. If audiences want to see multidimensional characters and interesting concepts, they should feel acknowledged instead of finding their input squashed by the cheapness of familiarity.
Sarah Munson is a junior majoring in professional and public writing with a specific focus on technical writing. In her free time, she enjoys studying film, comedy and history, as well as drawing and designing.