It’s been a while since I last gave my thoughts on Hollywood’s franchise-building techniques; almost exactly six months, in fact. Back then I talked about when it’s acceptable for Hollywood to remake a film. This time I thought I’d take a broader approach and look at when it’s appropriate for Hollywood to reboot an entire franchise.
Now, technically, even a single film can be viewed as a franchise. But for the purposes of this discussion, I’m looking at those situations where there is either more than one film in the franchise (e.g., Rocky), or where there’s one film but a pre-existing character and story from other media (e.g., The Phantom). (I’ll note that those examples were chosen specifically because I am unaware of any reboots in the making for either… and in the case of Rocky, I hope there never will be. But more on that later.) I’ll also note that I’m not really counting cases like Robin Hood and King Arthur, where there are dozens of films on the same characters, but they aren’t really connected as such.
Rebooting a franchise has a certain logic to it. It’s a known money-maker, or at least is strongly hoped to be. But for one reason or another simply continuing the series as it stands is untenable. So, assuming Hollywood wants to reboot a franchise, what are the things to consider?
Hard or Soft?
The first question is just how hard of a reboot to make. A reboot can be either hard or soft. A soft reboot is one that tries to continue on from the previous films, but makes changes as needed. It may or may not directly acknowledge the previous films, but it doesn’t directly contradict them (or if it does, it’s in a minor way.) Actors will often change, as will the director and other crew, but the story won’t be retelling of the previous story; it will be something new, like a sequel, but without a heavy reliance on the previous films. This is the approach taken with The Incredible Hulk after Ang Lee’s Hulk; it’s also the approach The Avengers took with the Hulk’s story after The Incredible Hulk. All three films have a mutual lack of direct contradiction and acknowledgement. This approach is best taken when there is only one or two existing films to deal with, and when those films are acknowledged as flawed, but not in such a way that it’s totally unusable. The studio is essentially saying “We can’t move forward with this, but we can move forward from this.” It’s a way of using the good points of the film without having to take the bad; of using whatever good will the previous film generated to say “yes, we have something of an idea here” while acknowledging the problems of the existing franchise.
The opposite approach is the hard reboot. In this case, everything (aside from essential core characteristics) from the previous films is gone. In this case the studio is saying “Everything that came before no longer counts.” This is the approach that Batman Begins took; the entire 1989-1997 Batman film franchise was swept away for the new film. All of those stories officially never happened in Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman. It’s also the same approach used for the 1989 film Batman, which disregarded the Adam West TV series and movie. Most reboots are hard reboots. As for the best time to do it, most of the following points will apply most strongly to hard reboots, but the one specific thing is that it is to be done when the studio is absolutely certain that they have to start over from scratch. It’s not impossible to go back in a franchise and ignore a hard reboot — The Legend of Conan will be a “many years after” sequel to Arnold’s Conan the Barbarian and ignoring the Momoa reboot — but it’s very rare and not easily done.
There is a third approach, one seldom taken, and that is the rollback. Less extreme than a hard reboot, but changing more than a soft reboot. In this situation the film acknowledges some of the previous movies, but not all of them. The ones it acknowledges are usually handled in a similar fashion to a soft reboot; it doesn’t necessarily directly reference them, but the events in the film are such that they strongly suggest the previous events happened. This is the approach famously taken by Superman Returns; the film acknowledges Superman and at least part of Superman II, but not the third and fourth films. Superman came to Earth already, faced off against Lex Luthor and got him arrested, fought some Kryptonians, and had an affair with Lois Lane. But it’s unclear whether he revealed his identity to Lois Lane or erased her memory, and he didn’t stick around on Earth to face an evil version of himself, nor did he fight Nuclear Man. In theory, this approach lets the studio cherry pick what aspects of the franchise to use. So when should this approach be used? Almost never. While theoretically it has all the advantages of both a hard and soft reboot, it also has all the disadvantages — it requires the audience to know some things going in while at the same time, it has to re-establish certain facts on its own. What’s worse, it requires the audience to know just which parts of the franchise are still considered part of the continuity. It may be possible to do this well, but it’s a chancy proposition at best.
Of course, the question of what type of reboot is intrinsically secondary to the question of when to reboot. Fans are fickle, but studios need them. It’s best to reboot only when necessary and/or when the fans will accept it. The biggest reason, and the one that has been the cause of the most notable reboots, is toxic continuity. This is when the stories and trappings of the film franchise have simply painted the filmmakers into a corner where it’s no longer desirable to continue in that direction. Maybe it’s too convoluted and it’s time to simplify. Maybe it’s too self-referential. Maybe it’s simply run out of space to grow. And maybe it’s just plain stupid. Usually, it’s just plain stupid. Once again, Batman Begins provides a great example; there was consideration for a while of creating a fifth film in the 90s-era franchise, Batman Triumphant, but eventually it was decided that audiences simply didn’t react well enough to Batman and Robin to continue on in that direction. It was time for a change.
Theoretically this can also apply when a series has simply run its course, but it’s difficult to think of a situation where a series has concluded and was good throughout and it would be acceptable to reboot it. I mean, maybe in 40 years we’ll all be ready for a new take on Harry Potter, but frankly, I doubt it.
Missing Crew Members
Sometimes the creative personnel involved in a film franchise stop being available. Maybe they get fired or quit, or simply can’t be paid enough to come back. Sometimes they are too busy with another film, or in rehab, or dead. Regardless, there are times when a studio wants to continue making films in a franchise but the actors, director, producer, or any combination thereof simply aren’t going to be a part of it any longer.
Let’s keep picking on Batman for a while. After Batman Returns, Tim Burton wanted to go on to other projects, and Warner Brothers wanted to go in a somewhat different direction for the next Batman film. It was a logical time for a soft reboot, so they brought in Joel Schumacher and told him what they wanted out of Batman Forever. I’m not saying that anything else about the film was the right decision, but it was the right time to make changes.
Another factor in the timing of a reboot is, well, time. The longer a franchise has lain dormant, with no films being made, the more receptive audiences are likely to be to a reboot. Superman Returns came after a 19 year period of dormancy. Batman (the 1989 version) came after a 33 year period of dormancy as far as the films were concerned. The Amazing Spider-Man came after a dormant period of… five years. The series had verged slightly into toxic continuity with the third film (though not irreparably in my opinion), and more importantly, the stars and director had stated they weren’t very interested in coming back. But Sony’s contract with Marvel only leaves them a small window of opportunity to keep making films or the rights revert — which, since Marvel Comics is now owned by Disney and is making their own films, means that Sony would never get the rights back again if they lost them. So despite it being only a short time after the most recent film — not even a length that would be unusual for a sequel — they decided to reboot the franchise. Now, by all accounts, it worked; the film was reasonably well liked by critics, and sold well enough at the box office to move forward with a sequel with the same cast and crew. But there was a lot of discussion at the time about whether it was too soon for a reboot, and some criticism of the story for rehashing elements that were too familiar from the previous origin story. I’m not knocking the film; I’ve yet to see it, in fact. But it’s worth considering that if it had been longer between reboots, some of that criticism would have been reduced.
Another issue factoring into the audience reaction is just how much love they have for the previously-existing version of the franchise and characters, and how open they are to changes. There’s a degree of variability in this, and a lot of it seems to do with what the original source of the character is. In the case of folklore and classic literature, it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. As noted above, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and the Three Musketeers have been revisited many times, and while fans will pick certain films as their favorites, there’s seldom a sense of objection to a new version simply because it’s a new version; if there’s an objection, it’s because the film has failed on its own merits. With comic book superheroes, it seems to be OK to reboot the franchises periodically, but only if the stories go in new directions and only if the old franchise is truly done. One can bet that if Marvel came out and said “Yeah, we’re just going to scrap The Avengers and start over” right now there would be some serious howling, but if they were to announce a new Daredevil they might receive cheers. Modern literature seems to come under the heading, not of “done once and done for good”, but of “done well once and done for good.” If an adaptation stinks, it’s OK to try again after a few years, but once the definitive version has been put down, that’s it. There’s no need for a Lord of the Rings reboot and nobody wants to see a revamped Godfather.
The biggest minefield here for Hollywood to navigate is their own original properties. No matter how bad the last film may have been, no matter how long the franchise has lain dormant, if Hollywood had several films based on an original property, then Hollywood worked hard at making those characters iconic. And if it was successful enough that Hollywood thinks they can bring it back, then they were successful at making the audiences love it. Which means that an attempt at a reboot is automatically messing with something the audience loves… a risky proposition at best. This is why there are mixed feelings online about the upcoming RoboCop reboot. Sure, it won’t affect the existing films, the fans will always have those… but it’s always hard to excise the memory of a bad movie, and the fans fear that a reboot could be bad — if not for everybody, at least in the eyes of the existing fans. There’s something to be said for remaking a franchise for a new generation, but when the old generation is still hanging around, there’s going to be some influence from that court on the box office returns as well. Sometimes, with care, replacing an iconic take on a character can be successful (arguably the James Bond series features multiple soft reboots on this order). Other times, it can’t; nobody is going to want to see someone besides Sylvester Stallone play Rocky, for example.
And finally, one critical thing to consider when doing a reboot is the importance of novelty. The newly relaunched franchise has to have something to distinguish it from the old version, something new for the audience to enjoy. Quite frankly, this new thing is often where Hollywood screws up and makes the relaunched franchise worse than the old one… but while it’s a risk that must be accounted for and approached carefully, it’s a risk that must be taken. Because if there’s nothing new to the relaunch, why bother with it at all? A direct rehash of the existing franchise will just cause the audience to go back to the old movies. Have a new style, tell new stories, do something new to justify the reboot. Just be sure that it’s still close enough to still be recognizably the same franchise. It’s a tightrope act. But if pulled off successfully, it’s an act that the audience will appreciate.