Why Not Everything Is a Reboot (Except Everything Kind of Is)

In his 1996 book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, Al Franken pauses a story to explain why, contrary to the impending observations and celebrations, the first day of the new millennium would not be January 1, 2000, but January 1, 2001. “The first year of the new century was the year one, not the year zero, so the first year of the new millennium will be 2001, not 2000. I’ve been trying to explain this to people for years, but no one will listen.” He imagines himself in Times Square on New Years Eve, 1999, raining on everyone’s parade, “A thankless job, but someone will have to do it.” It’s a relatable passage, not just because Franken was right (though he was), but because it captures the frustration of feeling like you’re the only person talking sense in the face of an erroneous cultural assumption. The way Franken felt in 1996 about the starting date of the 21st century is how I feel now whenever people label things reboots that clearly, clearly, are not.

I’m not usually one for referencing and quoting from Wikipedia, but we’re in the realm of pop culture rather than dictionary definition, so that’ll have to do. To wit: “In serial fiction, to reboot means to discard all continuity in an established series to recreate its characters, timeline, and backstory from the beginning.” This lines up pretty squarely with the definition as I understood it back when the phrase first started getting bandied about in relation to franchise cinema — by my memory, around 2008, when Universal decided to pretend like Hulk didn’t happen and gave us The Incredible Hulk. And in the years that followed, “rebooting” became part of the blockbuster franchise playbook; the cynical among us started to think it was just how they did business, rushing out subpar blockbusters with less regard to quality than making their locked-in summer premiere dates, knowing that they could always just wipe the Etch-A-Sketch clean with a reboot.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Terminator: Gen

But over the past few years, “reboot” has weirdly become the catch-all terminology for any TV show or movie based on something else (which, as you may have noticed, is a whole lot of them): remakes, sequels, adaptations, returns. A few examples, just from the past few weeks:

Look, I realize some of this is just semantics, your correspondent getting all bent outta shape about the overuse of a particular, buzzy term. And it’s a legit term — there are some actual reboots out in the coming months (Fantastic Four, Mad Max: Fury Road, Poltergeist) and years (the second reboot of Spider-Man — sure hope this time we get to see how Uncle Ben dying affects our hero!). But it’s worth asking why this has become the default verbiage, when sequel or adaptation or remake or even “origin story” would do. Why have we become so reboot-crazy?

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in "Jurassic World"

The answer to that question lies somewhere in this excellent piece by Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich, who runs the numbers (“It has been 22 years since the last good Jurassic Park movie, 24 years since the last good Terminator movie, 34 years since the last good Mad Max movie, and never ever ever ever since the last good Fantastic Four movie”) before concluding, “If you are turning 21 this year, then you can celebrate your first night of legal drinking by going to the movie theater and watching a new sequel in a franchise that has not been good since before you were alive.”

So when Franich writes about “retcon optimism,” he’s talking about reboot culture, in which our enthusiasm for franchises that have long since passed their expiration date is fed by constant assurances that no, don’t worry, they’re starting over, they’ll get it right this time. It’s a tacit understanding between those who make movies (and TV, and video games, and so on) and those who consume them that as long as they keep going back to the basics, we’ll keep ponying up our hard-earned dollars, viewership, and loyalty. The new Star Wars movie isn’t a reboot, but it might as well be; its trailers, with their reassuring practical effects and Skywalker voice-overs and Han Solo money shots, take us by the hand and assure us that the prequels are just a bad dream that we’ll pretend didn’t happen. This summer’s new installment in the comically mismanaged Terminator franchise may or may not be a reboot by definition, but it sure as hell is in spirit; its trailer literally includes the tagline “The rules have been reset.” And Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow is telling anyone who’ll listen that his film is a “direct sequel” to the original, beloved Jurassic Park, while the rather less beloved second and third films “aren’t being written out of continuity so much as placed to the side.”

It’s an odd turn of phrase, but that’s really what reboots are all about: taking the terrible missteps and placing them to the side, so the brand can be re-exploited without consequence. There’s no use fighting it; that’s what pop culture is today, until, I assume, we all get tired of its nonsense and it gets a reboot.