Symptomatic of a compulsive streak in my nature, I’ve always been a tad obsessed with seeing the exact moment a digital display on a clock or cellphone clicks off a major milestone. For instance, I often feel a pang of frustration upon glancing down at a car’s odometer to see that it has advanced into a new hundred, thousand, ten thousand, or (heaven forbid) hundred thousand series without my noticing it. If you can recall the extra excitement exhibited ten years ago by New Year’s revelers as 1999 gave way to 2000 even though, technically, the millennium didn’t turn over until the following year, you may be able to empathize.
This probably explains why the cinematic “reboot” phenomenon of the 2000’s decade intrigued me more than it should. More extensive than simply changing lead characters, a reboot involves melting down the component parts of an established film franchise that has run its course and reforging them into a new, yet familiar vision. Successful or not, there’s something about the exercise itself that I gravitate toward. Of course, in addition to being obsessive, I’m also cynical. In my heart of hearts I realize that the decision to breath new life into an otherwise exhausted film series is made on commercial rather than artistic grounds. But that doesn’t mean reboots can’t be done well or aren’t worth the attempt.
1. Batman Begins (2005): This was arguably the movie that kicked off the 2000’s reboot craze. Jack Nicholson’s outing as “The Joker” aside, Tim Burton’s original Batman lost my interest after an hour. I don’t think time has been kind to it or its sequels. A guilty pleasure of mine, Batman Forever is the only one of the original series I can still sit all the way through (maybe it’s the irony of Tommy Lee Jones as “Two Face” playing a coin flipping villain before being pitted against one himself years later in No Country for Old Men). In Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan creates a grittier version of Gotham City that I could connect with as opposed to Burton’s more comic incarnation. And while the 1989 film keeps insisting through dialog that Michael Keaton’s Batman is supposed to have a screw loose, I never quite believe it as strongly as I do with Christian Bale.
2. Superman Returns (2006):The 1978 Superman bragged in an aggressive ad campaign that “you will believe a man can fly.” That alone would probably have ensured its success. But Christopher Reeve’s characterization of the Kryptonian is never overshadowed by state-of-the-art special effects, Gene Hackman or even Marlon Brando. Unfortunately, in the new version Brandon Routh doesn’t bring much to the table other than the ability to look good in a red cape and blue tights. Furthermore, the reboot doesn’t show Superman doing enough “super” things. The drama of “the man of steel” slowly coming in for a landing accompanied by triumphant music (which happens A LOT) wears thin very quickly. To make matters worse, Superman spends an inordinate amount of time in a coma. Nothing takes the wind out of a film’s sail faster than an elongated hospital sequence where the audience already knows what the outcome will be. Not much tension there. I mean, did anyone actually think Superman might die in the very first entry of the new series?
3. Casino Royale (2006): Since Sean Connery created 007’s screen persona in 1962’s Dr. No, the Bond franchise had gone through five changes in the lead role. While making a few tweaks here and there to account for the different actors playing Bond, the formula itself was pretty much left intact for each outing. However, as the 21st-century dawned, the template was badly in need of renovation. Alas, there was no chance that “Team Bond” would take a really dramatic gamble with the property like actually setting a 007 movie in the same time period as Ian Fleming’s novels (1950s and 60s). But with the help of Daniel Craig, who had to endure an initial deluge of cries from outraged Bond fans when first cast, Casino Royale pulls off its assigned mission magnificently. Dubbed somewhat incorrectly as “Bond Begins,” the film stays faithful to the 50-year-old novel while incorporating the audience’s collective knowledge about the cinematic Bond and introducing a few new twists of its own.
4. The Incredible Hulk (2008): This one is interesting only in that it represents a reboot of a series which never got off the ground in the first place. 2008’s The Incredible Hulk could be classified as more of a mulligan for 2003’s Hulk than an actual reboot. As the title suggests, the new outing seems to deny the existence of the previous attempt. To be fair, I’m not a fan of the Hulk in any format. Unlike Batman or Superman, the exact nature and limits to Hulk’s “power” never seems clear to me. I had at least hoped one of the films would have resolved how the doctor’s pants stretch during his metamorphosis. But seriously, I seldom ever connect enough with Banner to feel pulled into his dilemma. And, in the case of both films, the special effects scream CGI which further hinders my suspension of disbelief.
5. Star Trek (2009): While not my favorite of the five films on this list (that’s would be Casino Royale), this re-envisioning of Gene Roddenberry’s creation by J.J. Abrams is perhaps the most successful. It manages to thread the needle by using the trappings of the Trek universe to attract new and younger moviegoers without ticking off old “fanboys” like myself. I was especially taken by Zachary Quinto who, as the emotionless Mr. Spock, is responsible for the film’s most passionate moments. I dare say that this Trek outing surpasses its predecessors. By jettisoning the baggage from the previous Star Trek television and movie incarnations, the filmmakers gave themselves a blank slate upon which to start fresh and create a totally new, satisfying vehicle. That’s the point of a reboot after all; isn’t it?
Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.