By Tom Anderson
In this third article on the subject of reboots and allied forms of fiction, I’ll be discussing a phenomenon which is not solely limited to them – it can also appear in prequels, for example – but whose issues are often the most readily apparent in the realm of reboots. I am talking about the case of ‘ending with the beginning’.
This tendency is mostly associated with film and other ‘one-off’, self-contained pieces of media, rather than continuing series. Essentially, we’re all familiar with the idea of a film that ends with Our Heroes riding off into the sunset for potential future adventures, and ones which end with a seemingly definitive closure, such as a key character’s death or our protagonist settling down. (It seems to be Sod’s Law that it’s usually the latter, not the former, that seem to get the sequels!) Ending with the beginning, however, is basically a case of riding off into the sunset for your adventures to start, having spent the entire film just showing how our protagonists meet and form their team (for instance) which is now going to go and have some off-screen adventures. For a prequel explicitly set in the same continuity as its prototype, this is arguably fine; our enjoyment stems from seeing our heroes’ backstory explored, and then we can just go back to the original media to see their actual adventures.
However, if it’s a continuity reboot (or an adaptation from another form media), this can easily leave us feel unsatisfied. You suckered us into this film with a recognisable title, and then we never actually get to the part where Our Heroes are doing the recognisable things we liked their previous incarnation for. That’s left as some vague aspiration, maybe a sequel hook – which feels inherently dishonest, as though all of this was a con to get the punters’ money so you can convince the execs to make the film they thought they were going to see in the first place. Occasionally there’s some kind of vague justification for this, like if the intellectual property is something older that Common Knowledge said people today wouldn’t watch, and you need to ease them into it. But often it just feels gratuitous.
For example, the 2010 reboot film of The A-Team was criticised by many (including some of the original’s cast) for lacking the original’s sense of morality, in part because we never really get to see the team helping people, just how they form up. This might have been OK if it was meant to be a prequel in the same continuity, but it explicitly updates the action to the present day. So we are meant to watch a film of The A-Team which amounts to a decompressed version of the opening narration at the start of each episode, but we never actually get to see anyone ‘hire the A-Team’. Of course, this kind of criticism is somewhat subjective. One of my favourite films of the 2010s was the reboot of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. which, as you’ll already be able to guess if you read my previous article “Box Office Bombshells”, bombed at the box office. On paper, this film suffers from the same issues as The A-Team; it’s all about the U.N.C.L.E. team being formed, not what they do once they have been. There are a few issues with this, such as us not getting more than a glimpse of Hugh Grant’s character’s role in the whole thing. However, in my opinion the film still works because the story of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kurakin being enemies who become grudging friends and allies is worth telling in itself. Similarly, John Carter (another bomb of the decade), though flawed, works in my view because the story of how he becomes “John Carter of Mars” at the end is also worth watching.
2006’s Casino Royale qualifies as a bit of a soft, indecisive reboot as I’ve previously opined (dialogue implying this is a new agent called Bond, not a successor to a name passed down, yet keeping Judi Dench as M). This is another example of buildup to ‘ending with the beginning’; we do not get the iconic Bond theme or “Bond. James Bond” until Bond confronts and defeats Mr White at the end of the film. While I find this one to be overrated (largely because of an overly padded first hour), if one takes the casino, torture and Vesper scenes (i.e. the parts actually based on the novel) and couple it to this ending, in my view this qualifies as an example that doesn’t insult the viewer. Yes we went to see a Bond film and only really saw him truly become Bond at the end, but there is a sense of satisfaction rather than being cheated. It helped that Casino Royale was pitched as a reinvention after a rut, rather than being the first time Bond returned to our screens after a long gap, as is often the case with many reboots. On the other hand, such proximity in time can also backfire, as in the case of Sony infamously rebooting the Spider-Man film franchise twice inside of a decade. That sort of scenario can feel like we are being forced to tediously sit through an origin story we all know just to get to something new – which would, ironically, be used as a tongue-in-cheek running joke in the excellent Into the Spider-verse.
‘Ending with the beginning’ is such a pervasive trope that it can even invade places where it’s really not suited. For example, the 2009 Star Trek film combines a reboot with a prequel-ish look at Kirk at the academy and gradually meeting all the people who will become his crew. We can debate how well or otherwise it explores this ‘prequel space’ and I’ll devote more words to that in the future, but the point is we’re seeing some backstory to our characters. But the writers felt the need to end the film with showing the crew now assembled and ready to start their familiar adventures – even though it makes no sense, because Kirk was only a cadet at the start of the film and now somehow he’s the captain and outranks Spock. In a franchise that includes “Spock’s Brain” and a faster than light drive powered by mushrooms and piloted by a giant alien water-bear, somehow this ending still manages to be the most face-palmingly unrealistic thing ever associated with the Star Trek name. Would it really have been that much trouble to imply a time skip?
One doesn’t even have to mess about with continuity-based fiction like prequels and reboots to find a similar phenomenon. A useful term TVTropes uses is the “Big Damn Movie”, which describes a case when a well-liked TV show (or similar), with a relatively modest and pedestrian slice of life setting perhaps, is translated to the big screen and suddenly has huge saving-the-world stakes. Or, if the original show already has high stakes fighting against powerful villains, then our usual well-liked fan villains are shunted aside in favour of a one-off movie villain who’s then defeated in ninety minutes, forgotten and never mentioned again. The Power Rangers film is an extreme example of this, also changing all our heroes’ powers and identities in the process. As always, the question that should be asked is: If this thing became popular because fans liked it, who exactly are you trying to appeal to by changing everything about it? The answer might well be some nebulous, hypothetical movie audience. Regardless, these types of films often have a similar ‘ending with the beginning’, or perhaps we might say ‘ending with a reset’, where we finally get to the thing that the fans came to the cinema in the first place to see.
Actually, the best example that springs to my mind is the obscure Tom & Jerry film adaptation from 1992. I vividly remember this being advertised in The Beano at the time, and bless the chaps at DC Thomson who thought to inform us that it featured our famous SILENT protagonists talking. I already knew as a kid that that was enough for it to be RUINED FOREVER and avoided it like the plague. This proved to be a good decision, as the film was widely disliked and bombed (I don’t like every film that bombs). Although Tom & Jerry was a rather old cartoon by the 90s, plenty of kids like me still liked it thanks to television repeats, and what we liked was this escalating drama of plotting and violence between the two, I repeat, SILENT protagonists. In many ways, it represents a revival or persistent form of the slapstick silent films of the 1920s, but in animated form. Anyway, the film decides to promptly throw this out and have a plot in which Tom and Jerry are forced out of their house, have to team up to survive, and then promptly start talking and wander through a series of bad Disney-ripoff musical numbers with a plot to save a girl from some baddies or something. Right at the end, they get their home back and revert to the status quo, and we finish on an image of Tom chasing Jerry like something from one of the cartoons we liked…which we got to see none of during this film.
Obviously that’s a bit of an extreme example, and one can imagine how an executive might insist that you can’t possibly extend a slapstick cartoon of a few minutes to film-length, but it leaves one with the same feeling of dissatisfaction – what were we here for, then? It’s like the ending of Sherlock, where we get a nice narration about how there’ll always be Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson at 221b Baker Street, solving crimes with deduction – you know, that thing we never got to see them actually do during their melodramatic, logic-free thriller of a series that strongly resembles the kind of Victorian fiction Conan Doyle wrote Holmes as a criticism of.
To return to the world of reboots: so, that is the big problem of Ending with the Beginning. Sometimes you can pull it off, if the hero’s journey is worth it. But unlike when we first saw (say) Star Wars, when we didn’t know what Luke Skywalker would go on to be, there can an impatience in seeing a journey when we’re waiting for the recognisable character to show up. Indeed, fan criticism of the Star Wars prequels not showing Darth Vader as Darth Vader till the end (though I think anything else would have been anticlimactic, personally) led to stuff like his gratuitous cameos in Rogue One.
In these last few articles, we’ve explored some of the recurring problems of the reboot and similar forms of fiction. With that in mind, then, a question should be asked: What are the alternatives to a reboot, and do they come with their own problems to consider? In the next article, I’ll be looking at some of these.
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.