On the heels of Martin Scorsese’s comments that Marvel movies are “not cinema” and closer to “theme parks,” fans and filmmakers both agreed and decried his statements.
In response, Joss Whedon, director of the first two Avengers films, paraphrased the Hulk by stating “there’s a reason I’m always angry,” while James Gunn, writer- director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, expressed that he was a fan of Scorsese and defended his films against detractors.
Is there merit to Scorsese’s words? Moviegoers in 2019 complained that there are no new and original movies coming out. Though that is an exaggeration, there were a number of remakes, reboots, and sequels that hit the screens both large and small in the past year, with more to come in 2020.
Disney alone has remade classics such as Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King. In addition to remakes, the “House of Mouse” released sequels such as Avengers spinoff Captain Marvel, Avengers Endgame, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Maleficent: Mistress of All Evil, Frozen 2, and Star Wars Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker.
Those titles are only the big screen premieres. Across their various channels and with the launch of the Disney+ streaming service, 2019 brought either a new angle to or an expansion of existing franchises such as Kim Possible, Descendants 3, The Lady and the Tramp, High School Musical: the Musical: the Series, The Mandalorian, and The Little Mermaid Live!, to name a few.
Disney kickstarted their current live action remake trend in 2010, with the release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Though its critical reception was lukewarm, the film went on to gross $1,025,467,110 according to Box Office Mojo. The success of this film prompted Disney to invite its screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, who had written the original Beauty & the Beast, to write a remake of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the film’s villain, Maleficent.
Though Maleficent was not a critical darling, it made over $750,000,000 on a $180,000,000 budget. These successes paved the way for Disney to release their first two critically acclaimed remakes: Cinderella and The Jungle Book. Both of these films added different elements to the story; the former added two subplots involving Prince Charming’s backstory and a new villain, and the latter reincorporated elements of the source material.
With the exceptions of sequels Christopher Robin and Mary Poppins Returns, subsequent remakes have done little to distinguish their plotlines from the original stories. In Beauty & the Beast, we learn what happened to Belle’s mother. In Aladdin, Jasmine is given agency of her own by wanting to succeed her father as sultan, and the original ending of the animated film is restored.
Otherwise, these changes do not alter the way the movies resolve their conflicts. The Beast and Gaston still fight on the top of a castle. Jafar still takes over Agrabah and is defeated by Aladdin’s trickery.
So why continue to make films that differ mostly in aesthetics? In a nutshell, they are profitable. Every movie listed in the previous two paragraphs made back at least double its budget. Beyond the financial possibilities, these stories already have a built-in fanbase.
“Reboots are usually only good when they are from a movie or series that had a huge following such as Star Trek or Batman. Stand-alone movies doing a reboot never seem to work out,” says Chrysta Morris, a media and entertainment major at Kennesaw State University.
“Disney live action and horror movies are the exception to this; those are two genres that have a lot of following. As long as filmmakers are strategic about what they reboot, the trend will last a long time because people love to see their favorite movies in a new light, and it’s easy to remake the same story line with a few tweaks.”
Morris’s words ring true about the success of horror reboots. Though they are not all successful, see Vince Vaughn in Psycho, horror remakes have a guaranteed margin of failure. Good or bad, this genre has one steady fanbase: teenagers.
When looking for a way to spend a Friday night, teens ask mom and dad to drop them at the theater for a few hours. They’ll tell their parents that they’re going to see something like DreamWorks Animation’s Abominable then send their oldest-looking friend to buy tickets for It Chapter Two.
In 2019, these teens were likely to walk into a reboot — some without knowing it. While many original horror movies were released, the big screen has shown remakes of Child’s Play and Hellboy, and not one, but three Stephen King offerings, Pet Sematary, Doctor Sleep, and the aforementioned It Chapter Two.
In previous years, we’ve seen remakes of Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street among others, so the “horror remake” trend is hardly as new as the “Disney live action” trend.
Like with their child-friendly counterparts, there are no signs of the genre slowing down, with a remake of The Grudge due this month and proposed remakes of The Crow, The Fly, Firestarter, Candyman, and Saw. Additionally, movie goers mustn’t forget sequels: Halloween Kills, A Quiet Place 2, and The Conjuring 3 are on their way.
Sequels, reboots, remakes, and in Watchmen’s case, remixes, are not a new concept, however. Though Disney’s high on remakes started in 2010, their first two remakes, The Jungle Book and 101 Dalmatians, came about in 1994 and 1996.
While fans of The Addams Family complained about the differences between their beloved 90’s films starring the late great Raul Julia and the animated reboot, many failed to remember that those comedies were a remake of both the 1973 animated series and the 1964 live action series, which in turn were adapted from a 1938 comic series by Charles Addams.
That is to say, reinvention and reuse of ideas is not a new thing, nor is it exclusive to film. In video games, most any game you pick up is part of a series: Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, Pokémon, Call of Duty, Halo, Assassin’s Creed, The Sims, Batman Arkham, Injustice, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts; the list continues. On the stage, are you going to see a musical written by your next door neighbor? Most likely not. You’ll watch Romeo and Juliet or A Christmas Carol or Hamilton or Driving Miss Daisy.
In his book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, writer Christopher Booker clarifies why stories appeal to audiences and why they are often similar. He boils storytelling down to the essential categories: 1) Overcoming the Monster, 2) Rags to Riches, 3) The Quest, 4) Voyage and Return, 5) Rebirth, 6) Comedy, and 7) Tragedy. He goes on to elaborate that most of these are in some way modeled on the concept of the hero’s journey, with Tragedy being the most different, in that our hero is “doomed to fail.”
While the trend of rebooting every franchise to have graced our screens is in full swing, it is hardly a new phenomenon, and when it ends, a new repetition of ideas will likely take its place. Taking Booker’s words into account, every piece of entertainment we consume is, in some way, a reboot.
The key advice for filmmakers putting their own stamp on things is best said by the protagonist of the Scream franchise, Sidney Prescott: “the first rule of remakes, don’t fuck with the original.”