Building A Better Reboot: Five Films That Taught Us How It’s Done

Screen Shot 2012 09 21 at 12.39.22 PM 463x360 Building A Better Reboot: Five Films That Taught Us How It’s Done

Dredd 3D, Hollywood’s latest franchise reboot, arrives in theatres today riding a wave of generally positive hype. It is the latest in a line of films that attempt to resurrect a failed or tired property from the industry’s past, correcting in this case the mistakes of 1995’s Sylvester Stallone bomb Judge Dredd. That film was so immensely flawed and inconsiderate towards the spirit of the original comics that there is little need to question the creative impetus behind a reboot. Someone got it wrong the first time, and someone has now attempted to do it right.

Reboots are rarely that simple, of course. As the practice becomes increasingly commonplace in Hollywood – best exemplified by Sony’s decision to hit the rest button on Spider-Man after one creatively underwhelming sequel – it is important to look to the past, towards the exemplary reboots that defined the methodology behind successfully restarting a dormant franchise. There are plenty of simple yet powerful lessons one can learn from the best reboots, lessons that, if taken to heart, can provide an effective roadmap to creative – and, in many cases, commercial – success.

Today, we examine five of Hollywood’s best recent reboots and the most important lessons they taught us. These titles are not ranked, as the goal here is to demonstrate how each film best exemplifies one component of the ‘ideal’ reboot. These are the films that taught us how it’s done, and we begin with what is undoubtedly the most significant reboot of the era…

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Batman Begins

Lesson: Focus. Have a clear, confident, and unique interpretation of the property.

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Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is arguably the greatest of all cinematic reboots, and certainly the most influential. It established many reboot practices, such as resetting continuity, returning more faithfully to the source material, and moving in a darker, ‘realistic’ direction.

While the film’s impact on both reboots and Hollywood as a whole cannot be overstated, the single greatest lesson Batman Begins taught us is that for a reboot – or any cinematic adaptation, for that matter – to truly succeed, the filmmaker must have a clear, confident, and focused interpretation of the property, one that respects the original material while offering audiences a fresh and insightful understanding.

This is where Batman Begins succeeds most spectacularly. While it is obvious throughout that Nolan has a deep and abiding knowledge of the greater Batman mythos, he constantly forces us to see the character in a new and different light. His Bruce Wayne exists in the real world, our world, where dressing up like a bat to fight crime is not taken for granted. Other writers, like Frank Miller or Dennis O’Neal, have explored the psychology behind Batman’s origin, but never to this degree. Nolan wants to understand the trauma that defines and compels Bruce Wayne on a fundamentally pathological level, and he is meticulous in illustrating every step of Wayne’s transformation.

The result is an undeniably focused film, one centered around concepts of fear – a universal emotion that connects cops, criminals, and superheroes alike – and symbolic power. Bruce’s efforts are portrayed not as simple heroism, but as a profoundly broken man’s quest to grasp a modicum of control in a world spinning into darkness. While the film’s sequels, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, generally garnered more acclaim, each finds its thematic and narrative roots in the foundation Batman Begins provides, a foundation that is confident, concentrated, and insightful at each and every turn.

This is the first and greatest rule to building a better reboot. The previous live-action Batman series withered and died precisely because no one involved had any clear vision for the franchise. Batman Begins succeeded on every possible level because Nolan and his collaborators knew exactly what they wanted to do with Batman, and they had the talent to realize every inch of their unique interpretation. They offered audiences something unlike anything that had ever been seen, and legitimized the idea of the reboot in the process.

This is a trait shared by all creatively successful reboots. It is a trait the next filmmaker who tackles Batman will certainly have to embrace, for simply repeating what Nolan did will not suffice. Whoever comes next will have to reinterpret Batman themselves, just as all who take charge on reboots must have a unique vision for their respective property.

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The Incredible Hulk

Lesson: Improve. Fix what went wrong the first time around.

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Most reboots are created because something went wrong the first time around, whether it be an old franchise running out of steam or a new property that arrived on creative life-support. This is the story of Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, an attempt to successfully re-launch the Hulk franchise after Ang Lee’s critically and commercially disastrous 2003 film.

Lee’s Hulk was a disappointment on all fronts. I greatly respect the film’s dramatic ambition, and do not bemoan Lee for trying to explore the psychology of the character, but nearly every tonal and narrative choice felt like a major miscalculation. The film is oppressively dark, bleak and brutal and anguished without a hint of enjoyment, basing its story around topics of domestic abuse, repression, and mental illness. The pacing is languid, waiting a full hour to actually arrive at the Hulk’s origin, and somehow only slowing down and becoming even drearier from there. It is a tough film to sit through, one that fails to function as entertainment, drama, or an effective combination of the two.

Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a good one, and what impresses me most about it is the practically systematic way Leterrier goes about improving upon every misstep of the original. Bruce Banner’s tragic origin is related visually through the opening credits; he has a Hulk transformation in one of the very first scenes; there is a steady flow of impressive action sequences throughout the film without sacrificing character development; psychology is still a part of the film, but Bruce’s trauma no longer overwhelms things; and most importantly, the tone and pace consistently feel in line with how the Hulk should best be depicted.

The Incredible Hulk is not a major dramatic triumph – Leterrier’s vision for the character is not nearly as insightful as Nolan’s was for Batman, for instance – but it is at least confident and consistent in its understanding of the Hulk, a sharp contrast to Lee’s muddled philosophy in the first feature. There are no major issues Leterrier does not address in his reboot, taking every criticism leveled at Lee’s film to heart when crafting the new film. He even redesigns the CGI Hulk from the ground up, making him look much more menacing and convincing.

The result is a satisfying and fulfilling film, especially to fans of the character. The Incredible Hulk has grown a bit of an adverse reputation in the years since its release, after Norton was recast for Avengers and it became clear the Hulk was not a standalone priority for Marvel, but that does not change the fact that this is a good and solid foundation for the character. It delivers on the same fronts all the Marvel Studios films do, offering excellent action, thoughtful character work, and strong performances from an expertly assembled cast.

The film’s greatest contribution in the evolution of the reboot, meanwhile, is its ability to assess the failings of its predecessor and strike out in new and improved directions. Whether or not one loves the finished product, it is clear Leterrier took what fans and critics had to say about Lee’s film to heart, a lesson all attempting to reboot a stagnant property should learn from.

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Casino Royale

Lesson: Innovate. Don’t be afraid to shake up the formula and deliver something new.

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By the time Pierce Brosnan’s tenure with James Bond had come to an end in 2002’s Die Another Day, it was clear the franchise had run out of steam. There had been twenty Bond films across five different actors, and each, for the most part, attempted to conform to a rigid, outdated formula that was long past its prime.

If the 007 series was to remain relevant, it would have to reinvent itself, and that’s exactly what Martin Campbell, Daniel Craig, and the rest of an immensely talented cast and crew did with 2006’s Casino Royale. Instead of delivering the same tired, formulaic Bond flick audiences had seen twenty times before, they blew the lid off the franchise, completely resetting continuity, abandoning series staples like Q and Moneypenny, embracing modern technology, and delivering a story with real physical and emotional stakes.

It is difficult to remember, six years later, just how bold Casino Royale felt at the time. There was real controversy from stodgier James Bond fans resistant to change, especially where Craig was concerned. This was not the cool, suave, womanizing Bond of previous entries, but a vulnerable, damaged, ruthless killer, vastly more dangerous than the polished, laid-back spy of old.

This change in Bond’s character actually reflects a return to Ian Fleming’s source material, which had largely been ignored over the past four decades. Fleming’s Bond is Craig’s Bond – rough, brutal, and efficient – and Casino Royale is, by and large, a highly literal adaptation of Fleming’s first book. The film adds a much more detailed first act and expands upon the ending, but otherwise, this is Fleming’s Bond through and through.

To the world of film, though, this was innovative and invigorating. Casino Royale was not just a new kind of Bond film, but a new kind of action film, one that beautifully wove character, set pieces, and intelligent espionage into one extremely satisfying package. It was unafraid to make Bond dynamic, to give him a love interest – Eva Green’s fascinating Vesper Lynd – who truly mattered, or to actually consider the toll a life of violence takes on the human soul.

Casino Royale is a spectacular film, my personal favorite reboot of all time. Like Batman Begins, it succeeded partially on its firm and fresh interpretation of the property, but more importantly, it wowed audiences on strength of innovation. After twenty films, it offered Bond fans something truly new, a groundbreaking and surprising spy epic that restored Bond to the action icon throne. All reboots should learn from the film’s accomplishments. Leaving the comfort zone may be dangerous, but the creative rewards are vast.

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Star Trek

Lesson: Surprise. Don’t be bound by continuity or preconceived notions.

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If it was difficult for the 007 producers to innovate James Bond after twenty formulaic films, imagine the insane task J.J. Abrams and company had in front of them when deciding to reboot Star Trek. The franchise had collectively produced five television series across thirty separate TV seasons and 726 episodes, in addition to ten feature films and a vast amount of literature. And all of it, for the most part, had attempted to exist within one unified continuity, a continuity so dense and complicated that telling new stories had become a significant challenge.

So what did Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman decide to do? They chose to send Spock and some bitter Romulans back in time to blow the whole damn thing up.

And it. Was. Genius. 

One cannot describe in words the giddy joy of watching Abrams’ Star Trek for the first time. It felt unbelievable to watch this insane, audacious story play out, to see the Star Trek universe we know and love changed into something fresh, original, and utterly unpredictable. The core plot device – Nero travels back in time and begins meddling with history – is such a simple idea, yet its ramifications are complex and multifaceted, allowing Abrams to achieve something that Star Trek had not grasped in years: The element of surprise.

With the wonderful young cast Abrams assembled playing each part to perfection, it felt profoundly disorientating to see recognizable versions of Kirk, Scott, McCoy, and the other classic characters thrust into a situation where we could not be sure, even for a second, of their fate. With continuity swept away in a massive black hole, these characters were dynamic again, their story relevant and engrossing once more. Abrams captured much of what makes Star Trek special – the optimistic vision of the future, mankind’s symbiotic relationship with technology, strategy-based warfare, etc. – but he also expanded the boundaries of the franchise by leaps and bounds. This was Star Trek, but different. And it was absolutely invigorating.

No reboot has ever created an atmosphere of stimulating unpredictability quite as well as Star Trek, but all of them would do well to learn by the film’s example. The main reason for a reboot is to offer the audience a fresh take on something that has grown mundane, and to do so by turning the ordinary into the height of excitement seems like the best-case scenario. Don’t be afraid of angering fans, either. For the most part, Star Trek was warmly embraced by even hardcore Trek nerds, and it expanded the franchise’s audience far past the typical fan-base. The film proved that when crafting a reboot, surprise can be the most valuable tool.

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Lesson: Explore. Find new stories to tell and embrace modern technology to push the boundaries.

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In the year 2011, long after the franchise had passed its prime and Tim Burton had pissed on its grave, nobody was clamoring for a new Planet of the Apes film. Nobody. It was dead, and desperate hopes for name recognition were Fox’s only reasons for re-launching the property.

But director Rupert Wyatt did not, presumably, see things that way. He instead saw a franchise with vast amount of untapped potential, and chose to explore the broader Apes universe in a way only modern effects would allow. This would be a grounded origin story, set in our world and playing by (mostly) scientific rules, meaning the Apes would not be speaking, walking humans in make-up, but actual chimpanzees.

Sort of. It would be impossible, of course, to get actual Apes to ‘perform’ the nuanced acting required for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, so Wyatt cast motion-capture guru Andy Serkis as protagonist Ceaser, and hired the brilliant artists at Weta Digital to bring him and the other chimpanzees to life. The result was a completely unexpected treat that explored the Apes world in bold new ways: A film about an ape, told from the point-of-view of an ape, without anthropomorphizing him until the very, very end.

It is a fascinating, beautifully realized story, one that succeeds on strength of creative ingenuity and craftsmanship. It proves that, in addition to exploring outside a franchise’s comfort zone, a reboot should embrace how filmmaking has involved since the property’s inception. Though the Apes series had attempted an origin story before, the plot of Rise could never be told with 1960s or 70s effects. It had to be made today, when Weta could animate utterly authentic Apes. Wyatt’s embrace of technology is paramount to telling this intriguing new story, and even sparked a large, industry-wide conversation about whether or not motion-capture performances count as ‘real’ acting (they should, of course).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the most recent film on this list, and it marks an intriguing direction for subsequent reboots to take. Using modern technology to foster creative exploration of seemingly familiar territory may be the key to revitalizing several of Hollywood’s most bankable properties. Combined with the other lessons recounted here, there are clear and promising paths that Hollywood can take to ensure their reboots are more than empty cash grabs. For at its best, the reboot can be a truly exciting proposition.

What reboots are your favorites? What are other ‘lessons’ you think Hollywood should take to heart when re-launching franchises? Sound off in the comments!

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  • William Usher

    Call me crazy but I actually enjoyed Ang Lee’s Hulk as time goes on. It seems to hold its own as it ages. I also liked that Lee’s vision of the Hulk gave him much more of a heroic undertaking and a rise to heroism as opposed to the more sloppy but action-packed reboot.

    The science in Lee’s Hulk also gave the movie a bit more grounding and something for viewers to hold on to in relating to the character as opposed to simply rooting for the Hulk simply because he was the Hulk.

    • Applerod

      I agree and really don’t think Ang Lee’s version was the huge embarrassing disastrous failure that everyone else apparently does. I guess the “problem” is that it didn’t give the audience “Hulk SMASH!!” in the first 10 minutes, instead substituting more of a meditative, artful approach to the character. I quite enjoyed the film — particularly the editing style. It had its shortcomings (sap; Nick Nolte clearly on blow; etc..), but the so-called “reboot” needs a reboot because quality-wise I consider it marginally inferior to its predecessor.

    • Joeleo

      I did like some aspects of the first Hulk movie, it had some good effects and I will give Lee credit for trying to give it a comic book feel with the split panels and whatnot, but I thought the casting was abysmal. In other movies I like Nolte, Bana (was great in Star Trek for example) and Connelly but thought they all failed in this movie. And I think Lee was probably never a comic book fan, and it showed. I do have the dvd and watch it occasionally but The Incredible Hulk got closer to the source material and did things right

      • William Usher

        Well, getting close to source material doesn’t always equate to a better movie, maybe for fanboys (not meant in a derogatory way) but for average movie goers a more accessible film is usually a better film and Ang Lee’s Hulk was more accessible from a story and character development standpoint.

        Let’s take Punisher: Warzone for example, that was closer to the source material but man was that a horrible, horrible movie. The plot was silly, the characterization was awful, the action was goofy (swinging upside down on the chandelier? Really?) and the gore was over-excessive in a campy, B-movie way. While Thomas Jane’s Punisher wasn’t as close to the source material it was a better overall movie in terms of story, character development and continuity, which is why it ages better than Punisher: Warzone.

        I do agree about the casting for Ang Lee’s Hulk and that they could have done a better job (except for Connelly, but I’d pretty much watch anything she’s in).

  • jsmith0552

    I agree with every film on in this article with the exception of the Abram’s Star Trek film. That film looked for all the world like a person who was given a character sheet and then pasted them onto a generic Hollywood action Sci-Fi film. I expect a little more from Star Trek than a summer pop corn action flick. People still reference Wrath of Khan because it was well written and multi-layered while Abram’s Star Trek is pretty much forgotten after four years.

  • Jeremy Lebens

    Fantastic write up. I especially enjoyed the Stark Trek and Apes pages, because those were the most surprising or ones that I thought for sure were going to suck or be lesser than previously established properties.

  • james

    “Abrams captured much of what makes Star Trek special – the optimistic vision of the future, mankind’s symbiotic relationship with technology, strategy-based warfare, etc.”

    I’m sorry, but what Trek did you watch? There was nothing optimistic about it, no sense of exploration into the unknown, it was a Star Wars movie coated with Trek characters. The only thing it had in respect to the original was the cheesy mainstream lines that non-trek fans merely assumed was in it.

    • Angie Barrows

      I agree.

      “… the Star Trek universe we know and love changed into something
      fresh, original, and utterly unpredictable. … it felt profoundly disorientating to see recognizable versions of Kirk, Scott, McCoy, and the other classic characters thrust into a situation where we could not be sure, even for a second, of their fate. With continuity swept away in a massive black hole, these characters were dynamic again, their story relevant and engrossing once more.”

      How is it the Trek universe with the characters we know and love if everything is changed or original and you don’t know what to expect because everyone and everything is “utterly unpredictable?” Keeping a few recognizable elements but changing all of the rest isn’t enough familiarity for me to call it the Star Trek I know and love.

      “They chose to … blow the whole damn thing up.”


  • Zachariah Dearing

    Why isn’t Amazing Spiderman on the list?

    • …..

      Because it was an unnecesary movie, that doesnt have any reason to exist.. other than Sony keeping the rigths, and the casting is off, all the things it did rigth were done better by the Original Spiderman

  • lunasgathering

    I agree with the comment that motion capture should be counted as ‘real’ acting. Andy Serkis should easily have an Oscar for some of the amazing performances he’s turned in through motion capture. Gollum and the Ape are proof enough of that.

  • ace13

    Casino Royale was Boring.

  • Che Thornhill

    Batman Begins and its sequels created possibly the best reboot ever! I love Christopher Nolan to death but why try to detract from Frank Miller? As I watched the Nolan version for the first time I immediately thought of Year One because simply put, Batman Begins would not have existed in its form without that Graphic Novel. A reboot should compare a film to a film because what makes a good book does not make a good movie. The elements of a great graphic novel will never be the same as the elements of a great movie so why compare them? There are different requirements for entertainment in different mediums but one fact remains: No Frank Miller Batman = No Chris Nolan Batman.

  • walter

    yey why is superman such a dude these days, think he need some Vit b’s