By Tom Anderson
Welcome to the first in an indeterminate series of articles in which I’ll be discussing the challenges and problems of, and alternatives to, the continuity reboot as a storytelling and franchise-management concept. In this first article, I will be devoting space to attempting to define just what a reboot is.
The term ‘reboot’ has become increasingly popular over the past couple of decades, and as such (like ‘prequel’ and ‘sequel’, see my previous rants, I mean articles) it has also become vastly overused and employed inappropriately. However, it is also quite difficult to strictly define the parameters that would constitute a reboot under the definition I would argue for, as we’ll see; there are too many blurry borders and grey areas. I’ll be discussing this in more detail in a planned future article on alternative approaches to reboots.
The website TVTropes defines a Continuity Reboot accordingly:
A Continuity Reboot is the partial or complete duplicative reset of a continuity from any and all previous works in a series. You could say it's the creation of an Alternate Universe that shares virtually little to no canonicity with the preceding works in a franchise. It's not a Reset Button or Snap Back: while those revert the continuity to a previous state, a Continuity Reboot starts over, providing the authors with a new clean slate to work on. In one form, as far as later works are concerned everything before it is in Canon Discontinuity (to which it sometimes overlaps).
I think this is a good definition, with the exception that I take slight issue with the ‘creation of an Alternate Universe’ description. While this might be how very meta fans view it, this is rarely explicitly the case, and I’d argue that a ‘true’ reboot doesn’t work like that; it, implicitly or explicitly, is seen as wholly replacing the earlier continuity. Especially for a medium like film or television, average consumer is (probably) not familiar with the idea of there being multiple versions of a character and the continuity they live in. Furthermore, the whole point of reboots is to simplify continuity or eliminate past events that have written things into a corner, so trying to portray multiple continuities in existence to a general audience would be a nightmare. (The excellent animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, which I’ll be looking at in more detail later, is a rare and bold exception at trying to achieve this).
We can relate this to Alternate History. Whereas we in the AH field are used to the idea that ‘something goes differently and a different timeline emerges, which could then theoretically cross over with our timeline’, most reboots are still fundamentally rooted in the old time travel logic that if you step on a butterfly in the age of the dinosaurs, your future ceases to exist: it is overwritten, not merely duplicated as a variant. There is only one true continuity, and a reboot replaces what has come before with a clean slate. It is this perception that can make reboots exceptionally controversial, as they are naturally often seen as a slap in the face to loyal fans in the hope of attracting new ones unfamiliar with the past events and complexity of a franchise.
Where things become slightly tricky to define is when there are already multiple media incarnations of a franchise, and how they interact with each other. American superhero comic books are the main point of origin for these kind of agonised debates about continuity and canon, to the point that (from my perspective as largely an outsider) it feels as though DC Comics in particular spend more time trying to sort their continuity out through supernatural events than actually telling stories about heroes defeating villains.
I think the reason why US comics became such a locus of this debate is that they represent an example of episodic serial storytelling, each story building on the last and referencing past events, yet at the same time are a medium where it has always been notoriously difficult for the average consumer to actually access those past stories that are being referenced. It is not as if old comics are routinely published and kept on bookstore shelves for new readers to buy in the same way previous books in a series are; compilations do exist, but are a relatively new thing and generally overpriced.
Another reason why US superhero comics are associated with continuity reboots is that they also tended to pioneer the idea of accessing alternate dimensions as a storytelling conceit. The heroes written about in the 1960s eventually became portrayed as not merely reimaginings of those from the 1930s and 40s, but actually different characters in a parallel universe (for DC at least) whom they could then encounter via ‘crisis crossovers’. Indeed, some of these from 1960s Justice League comics betray the idea that the writers are more interested in this concept than in superheroes themselves, such as a villain who creates three versions of Earth with different pathways of evolution so the heroes can battle dinosaurs and so on for no real reason. In the 1960s it was still fairly common for writers to reuse past concepts and assume that their readers had grown up, and a new generation were now reading the comics so they could just keep repeating things. However, this changed over time, and by the 1980s, unwieldy continuity colossi had been formed.
It is very difficult to have lasting dramatic events in a story if they also change the setting to the point that it alienates readers familiar with it, not when you are telling a serial that is theoretically meant to continue forever. Comic writers often resorted to the rather unimaginative shocker of main character deaths, which then wearyingly so often got undone because the fans who had grown up with that character then got creative control and wanted to bring them back – which just lessened the impact of the original event. When my English teacher first told me about comics history in 2001, it was a time when the aphorism was in force that “Only three characters in comics stay dead – Captain America’s sidekick Bucky, Batman’s second Robin Jason Todd, and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben.” Since that time, two of the three have come back to life! It can make comics feel like Groundhog Day, where events have no long-term consequences. There’s probably a story in that told from the Joker’s POV where his insanity is him just realising that all the deaths he inflicts will at some point be undone, on reflection; maybe it’s already been written.
In 1986 DC did the most famous continuity reboot of all – Crisis on Infinite Earths. This was a major event that was meant to simplify the continuity and restart things for a new generation of fans. It was arguably successful; my first proper exposure to US superhero comics was a Cartoon Aid collection of comics from across the world (it was also my introduction to bande dessinée such as Tintin) and included the Superman story “The Story of the Century”. This was effectively a partial origin story in which Superman first meets Lois Lane and gets his job at the Daily Planet as Clark Kent. I enjoyed it as a kid, but was very confused how this was clearly a modern comic when I knew Superman had been going since the 1930s. This is what the continuity reboot was meant to achieve; being able to retell stories, shifted to a modern setting (Superman fights punk thugs with ghetto blasters), maybe adjusting some values to be more up to date, and crucially, appealing to a new audience like me as a kid.
However, it did come at a cost. The brains behind DC decided that Superman’s status as “The Last Son of Krypton” had been diluted massively over the years, with many other Kryptonians appearing such as various villains and the inhabitants of the Lost City of Kandor. (One could perhaps make an analogy to the number of Jedi in Star Wars who survived the Great Purge / Order 66). DC decided to eliminate all this from continuity – but that also meant Superman’s cousin and distaff counterpart, Supergirl a.k.a. Kara Zor-El. Rather than simply erase her from the new history they were creating, they used in-universe events in the Crisis to have her sacrifice her life to achieve something glorious and lasting – if you have to do this kind of thing, that’s the way to do it. But, of course, sooner or later there were people who had grown up as fans of the character and had to bring her back. The same would be true of many, many things the Crisis had eliminated, and is the general problem with all continuity reboots. No matter what you choose to eliminate, somewhere there is a fan of it, and at some point in the future cracks will appear in your pristine concrete dyke of simplified, new fan-attracting continuity, and water will begin gushing through as those older fans get creative control and start adding it back in.
This is a true reboot: trying to replace an existing status quo with a new one. DC of course had it done from in-universe, as became a tradition (hence my complaint that this takes up more space than actual storytelling in their comics). Elsewhere, it is done out-of-universe, simply unceremoniously eliminating the lore and background with a finger snap and drawing out a new clean blank slate from scratch. But people will use the term ‘reboot’ for cases that don’t really fit this. For example, one hears ‘reboot’ thrown around for things such as Sherlock. That’s not a reboot because it doesn’t eliminate all the decades’ worth of far superior adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes canon (thankfully), it’s just another interpretation of them in a different setting with different actors. Simultaneously there were the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films and America’s Elementary and others. Hamlet doesn’t get rebooted every time a new production of the play starts with new actors, even though they are retelling the story from the start.
The term remake is often used in films and nowadays also in video games, as companies have found they can appeal to older fans with money by making new versions of classics they grew up with, with superior graphics, and charging them sixty quid for it. Entirely by coincidence for choice of examples, Nintendo’s Link’s Awakening (originally on the Game Boy and Game Boy Colour) recently saw a release for the Switch, with modern graphics and some colour-blindness accessibility features, but otherwise pretty much entirely unchanged from the original. Which is what people want, of course; they do not want a game to feel different to their childhood memories. It’s actually quite remarkable how long it took companies to understand this, with previous remakes often pointlessly adding in things that were nigh-universally hated (such as Nintendo adding obnoxious voice clips to the Game Boy Advance versions of their classic Super Mario games). Unfortunately, video games don’t always use the word ‘remake’ consistently, either; for example, Sony’s Final Fantasy 7 Remake takes the beloved and already-long original RPG and decompresses it into a longer episodic story, with new content and gameplay style on top of the graphical upgrades. I’d argue this more qualifies as a reimagining, and like many reimaginings (I’m told, not having played it) it falls victim to being a bit too wink-wink to longtime fans, such as emphasising the role of the eventually plot-twist villain earlier than in the original game.
‘Remake’ in film terms has also become blurred around the edges. The 1960 Rat Pack heist classic Ocean’s 11 was remade in 2001 with Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon and others. Unlike the original being a one-off film, however, it spawned a franchise with its own internal continuity and shifting protagonists, showing how difficult it is to compare the storytelling styles of then and now. Even The Italian Job (1969 vs 2003), whose latter version didn’t spawn a franchise, shows how problematic the term ‘remake’ is; the 2003 version has almost nothing in common with the original except that it features Mini cars – in a brilliant example of what I call the American Sakoku of the 90s and early 2000s, it’s not even set in Italy after the opening sequence! At best that is a reimagining, at worst it’s an in-name-only cash-in. The film itself is still enjoyable, but it’s a good example of simply slapping a familiar name on an unrelated heist film to drag in some more punters.
This has become an increasing problem over the past decade or so, as the internet, on-demand streaming and so on has diluted and fragmented the audience. I could (and probably will) write about this at length, but to cut a long story short, when 23 million people were watching a programme on one of three or four TV channels, it was relatively easy for a brand-new show concept to become popular and successful. Nowadays, we are so overwhelmed with media from all quarters that it is difficult to stand out, and the easiest way to do so is simply to grab the rights to the name of an already-recognisable ‘franchise’ and apply it to your work, no matter how unrelated.
For example, when I was growing up in the 1990s, there was a debate over whether James Bond was still relevant, whether the films still had sufficient popularity, whether he was ‘a sexist dinosaur and relic of the Cold War’ (as GoldenEye puts it, reflecting the real-world debate). Should the Bond franchise be allowed to die off and give way to newer action and spy franchises more suited for the 1990s? Well, nowadays that question seems to border on insanity; the idea that anyone would ever give up a name that has global recognition, when any such new idea would have to fight its way through an ocean of chaos and distraction to reach an audience, is absurd. Instead of abandoning the James Bond name in favour of a new spy franchise built around a female protagonist, we now debate whether the next James Bond should be played by a woman – because the only way anyone would watch it is if it had a recognisable name attached to it.
That’s a hypothetical, but there’s arguably a real example of it with Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider games. She was conceived as a sort of female Indiana Jones stand-in, though developed into her own character. That was possible back in 1996, but if the game was conceived today, I can almost guarantee that its creators would be told to get the rights to Indiana Jones and say it’s about his daughter, or it’s a reimagined setting where the character is a woman. Nobody would buy it otherwise. It feels like every franchise or work of fiction conceived before about the year 2000 has a ‘greater reality’ that media creators (or rather their publishers and producers) covet and want to apply to their own works, and nothing created after that has the same cachet.
Indeed, we can see this effect with the Tomb Raider franchise itself. Ironically, as Lara Croft had been a female Indiana Jones, the creators of the Uncharted franchise conceived Nathan Drake as a male Lara Croft, and elements from the Uncharted series were then borrowed back into later Tomb Raider games. The creators of the latter struggled with the fact that the audience knew the basic concept of the character but not past lore, so ended up with repeated continuity reboots whilst keeping the character name. They also practised the annoying habit of just using the same game (and film) title with no qualifiers, leading to the dreaded rise of ‘Open Brackets, 2009, Close Brackets’ (as Chuck Sonnenburg puts it) at the end of film titles on IMDB – in fact I have even seen them left on when films are new at the cinema and advertised there!
Tomb Raider, Open Brackets, 2013, Close Brackets was a reboot game written in part by Rhianna Pratchett (Terry’s daughter) and which reimagines the character from the start. It is similar enough that we can excuse this and not say they should have just written a new character and setting, but then the film adaptation of the game (Tomb Raider, Open Brackets, 2018, Close Brackets, starring Alicia Vikander) decides to mess about with it further. Fans of the game found the film controversial because it eliminated or minimised some fan favourite characters. Personally, while I thought the film was decent for a video game adaptation, my main annoyance was that Lara Croft is portrayed as a dropout bike courier. Her being an aristocratic daughter of privilege and graduate of University College London is such an integral part of her character (and retained by the reboot continuity Pratchett and her colleagues wrote for the 2013 game) that this gives it the whiff of in-name-only, even though in other respects it generally sticks quite close to the game. It carries the same sense of ‘right, we have the name everyone will recognise, now we can do whatever’.
A reboot is always going to have an uphill battle. It will always, always alienate existing fans. The gamble by its creators is that this will more than be outweighed by drawing in new fans who had previously been alienated by a complex and inaccessible continuity. Instead, they can paint a blank slate with name recognition on which they can do whatever the heck they want, doubtless telling a fun story that everyone will enjoy. In the next article in this sequence, I’ll be asking the question that can so often be asked in response to that logic:
But what if your reboot sucks?
To be continued…
Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.