Listen, I’ve got an inspired idea for a summer movie: an actress-led remake of “Ghostbusters.” Okay, I know, they tried that earlier this summer, and really, it was a great idea. But let’s be honest: It didn’t entirely work out. The negative fanboy buzz hurt it, and whatever you thought of the finished product, it wasn’t as funny as the original. It could have been better. So what I’m saying is, let’s do it better. By the summer of 2018, the “Ghostbusters” remake will be an ancient memory. That will make it the perfect timing for the relaunched version, which can be rowdier and raunchier and wilder, maybe skewering a little younger and hipper, with a touch of that “Suicide Squad” edge. I see Amy Schumer in the Bill Murray role, and we could team her up with Nicole Byer and — why not? — Margot Robbie. But look, in case that doesn’t work out (or even if it does), I’ve got a follow-up plan. There can be another remake — this one with men again. Which will, by 2021, be an unbeatable box-office hook. Can you get me Kevin Hart’s agent…
Here’s another idea: Let’s reboot “Spider-Man.” No, I know we did that already with Andrew Garfield (was it me, or did he not seem…into it?), and I know that the Tom Holland reboot is coming up, which they’re saying is going to be good for three movies. But I’m talking big picture: Let’s assume that the Holland version connects. What are we going to do after that? Here’s an idea: Let’s do a reboot of the reboot of the reboot. In the title role, I can imagine…actually, I don’t know who I could imagine. He’s probably too young right now. Maybe we should try a movie called “Spider-Man’s Boyhood” and follow the same actor, year after year, starting from the age of five. Get Richard Linklater to direct. I know, he’s never done a comic-book movie before, but look, it’s time. Tell him we’ll shoot it in Austin. Here’s the thing: I don’t know who’s going to play the next Spider-Man, but really, who cares? It’s friggin’ Spider-Man! It’ll be some good-looking kid actor. Maybe even a girl! Come to think of it, that’s it!! Can you get me Chloë Grace Moretz’s agent…
An exaggeration? Maybe so, but let’s admit it: The way things are going, neither of those two scenarios seems nearly as far-fetched as it might have a few years back. Reboot mania is in the air. The doors are wide open. The properties are sitting there. The creative minds, and the accountants, are getting to work. Who said that Hollywood has run out of ideas? There’s a whole galaxy of movies out there, a lot of them recent, just waiting to be remade!
In truth, the relentless recycling of pop culture has gone on for a very long time. It seemed like it reached peak fever any number of years ago, with the vogue for turning old sitcoms into new movies (“Bewitched,” “Sgt. Bilko,” “The Beverly Hillbillies”). Hollywood, of course, has been remaking movies ever since there were movies. If you’re looking for the moment when a certain Remake Fever 3.0 took hold of studio executives in a way it hadn’t before, it was probably sometime in the last two decades, when we began to witness the strip-mining of movie nostalgia, with the remakes of films like “The Karate Kid,” “Arthur,” “Clash of the Titans,” “Fame,” “Total Recall,” “Poltergeist,” and “The Hitcher.” That few of those remakes were any good was obvious the day they came out, but to gripe about the remaking of old movies is, by now, an old story.
Here, though, is why I think we’re in a brand new world.
The rebooting of reboots is a relatively novel concept. It began as a form of correction, and unless I’m mistaken, the first time it happened was when the decision was made to reboot the “Planet of the Apes” series in the wake of Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. No one cared much for Burton’s stolid, dutiful, all-too-un-Burton-like version (though it was an undeniable success, grossing $180 million). So when the idea came along to do an entirely different sort of reboot, featuring Andy Serkis in a motion-capture performance and CGI apes who looked like real simian beasts, there was suddenly an aura of cred surrounding it, a feeling of let’s-get-it-right-this-time. The same logic applied to the remake of the remake of “Godzilla.” The 1998 Roland Emmerich version was universally reviled, so the 2014 version was a chance to do what Emmerich did not: recapture some of the tacky/awesome analog poetic grandeur of the original “Godzilla” films. And it did. Thanks to movies like this, remakes of remakes could start to seem like relative creative triumphs rather than decadent testaments to the dearth of new ideas.
That said, when the decision was made to reboot the “Spider-Man” series, it was a watershed moment. The first of the Tobey Maguire films came out in 2002; the first Andrew Garfield movie came out in 2012, 10 years later. This wasn’t about rehashing our nostalgia for the guilty pleasures of the ’80s. And despite the lousiness of Maguire’s “Spider-Man 3,” it wasn’t about “getting right” something that had been messed up before. The Maguire series was dandy; I’m not alone in thinking that “Spider-Man 2” is one of the five finest comic-book movies ever made. (Next to a film like “Suicide Squad,” it looks like Tolstoy.) The reboot was, in any creative sense, pointless, even when one considers that it was part of a relaunched Marvel universe. Yet in 2012, audiences flocked to see “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and that was a demonstration that a reboot — even when the first series was all too recent, not to mention superior — could now be a perfectly legitimate form of entertainment.
At the time, I thought it was an anomaly. And for a while, it was; even with the recasting of Superman and Batman, the phenomenon was limited to the comic-book sphere. But now, with the Tom Holland reboot of the reboot of “Spider-Man,” and with the announced reboot of “Charlie’s Angels,” which was in itself, of course, a TV-to-movie remake (the first Cameron Diaz/Drew Barrymore/Lucy Liu film came out in 2000), there’s a feeling of the floodgates opening. Let’s assume that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” cleans up at the box office, and that the new “Charlie’s Angels” film connects as well, proving beyond a doubt that our collective pop-culture nostalgia — or maybe one should say amnesia — can fully kick in after 10 to 15 years. What on earth should stop anyone from rebooting…anything? It’s true that certain roles, like that of Jason Bourne or Indiana Jones, may be so identified with certain actors that they won’t work with anyone else. But those select franchises are probably few and far between. Here are a few simultaneous trends that have interlocked to bring us the reboot-of-the-reboot culture we’re now just at the dawn of:
Hollywood has started to flirt, more than ever, with remaking classic films. It’s far from a coincidence that nearly all of the big remakes of the last 20 years have been redux versions of movies no one thought of as art in the first place. If you remake “Fame” or “Clash of the Titans” and fail to recapture that certain special cheeseball je ne sais quoi of the original, few moviegoers are going to cry into their popcorn. There’s a good reason why no one is planning to remake “The Godfather” or “Gone With the Wind” or “Taxi Driver”: It would seem like blasphemy. But a decade from now, maybe it won’t. In recent years, a handful of films that are thought of as classics have been given the remake treatment, like Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” (the 2011 remake was a trivial sacrilege of blandness) or “The Manchurian Candidate” (Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version didn’t quite work, but it was an ingenious attempt by a serious artist to reconfigure the original). And now, several more prestige remakes are coming in under the wire. There are plans for a remake of Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” — which, more than “Straw Dogs,” is a legendary New Hollywood touchstone of alienation and violence, the kind of movie you don’t mess with. And though Ron Howard’s man-meets-mermaid romantic comedy “Splash!” is not on that sacred aesthetic level, it is, in its way, an iconic film. The remake is set to star Channing Tatum as a merman — which, one has to admit, is sort of a nifty idea. Which leads to the next trend that could feed this trend…
Gender-flipped remakes have the potential to be outrageously popular. Sure, the “Ghostbusters” remake was far from a home run, creatively or commercially. But the notion of refashioning what had been famous roles for actors into roles for actresses (or vice versa) has an irresistible appeal that speaks to our era. It’s a serious yet playful way of pulling the rug out from under the patriarchy. It allows us to re-imagine movie history in a way that literally expands our sense of the roles that men and women play. At its worst, it seems like a cute gimmick; at its best, it feels eye-opening and progressive. (The Channing Tatum “Splash!” seems like it might be both.) The real point, however, is that it has the potential to be happening in a major way.
The decline of movie stardom. Our era is filled with gifted young actors who don’t necessarily fulfill the age-old definition of movie stardom: someone whose name on the marquee can open a movie. (Granted, we don’t have marquees anymore, but you get the point.) Take, for example, Andrew Garfield: He’s a fantastic actor, and his “Spider-Man” films were solid hits, but does that mean that Andrew Garfield is now a bone fide his-name-equals-money movie star, like Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts? Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe somewhere in between. This feeds into a system where reboots can all the more easily be rebooted, because the actors inhabiting the roles, even when they’re very good, do not tend to become iconic the way that Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne or Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones are.
Reboots of reboots redefine what we want and expect from a movie. In general, I’m not very high on the concept, but here’s what’s at least potentially fun about it. The more we see reboots of reboots, the more that a franchise becomes like a famous play — something any number of actors and actresses can have a go at. Maybe one won’t connect and one will. The obvious prototype for all of this is probably the James Bond series. But it’s at least possible that years from now, we’ll grow every bit as accustomed to seeing different performers in the same role as we do seeing different people become president.
Or maybe we won’t. Is the rebooting of movie culture the new normal? That will be decided over the next few years, as moviegoers vote in the way they always have, by turning certain films into hits and others not. The rap on rebooting, at least from critics like myself, is that it replaces the essential act of imagination with something else: nostalgia, sameness, the comfort of what we know. The hunger for what’s familiar can be powerful; in fact, that’s one of the definitions of addiction — craving the same thing, over and over. But it will now ultimately be up to audiences, not studio executives, to decide whether something not-so-old made new again is really, truly new.