As We Approach Sequel Saturation, What Does It Take to Make a Worthwhile Revival?

As the summer, season of the blockbuster, winds down, the franchise — and the sequel, and the reboot, and all other forms of the nostalgia manipulation that’s been in turbo drive for the past several years — no longer seems so unstoppable. At the box office, we’ve seen tepid performances from some sequels and the straight-up implosion of Fantastic Fournumbers that have been analyzed at length by this site and others. And now the signs of trouble in paradise have migrated to the small screen, with NBC’s announcements that the new Coach, perhaps the most baffling entrant in the revival onslaught, is (mercifully?) no more.

Obviously, the bubble is nowhere near burst; if it were, Marvel executives and their almost-five-year-plan would be in boiling hot water. Star Wars: The Force Awakens seems poised to be the dual triumph of tie-in marketing and fanboy culture it’s intended to be, franchises remain the quickest route to an A-list paycheck, Jurassic World blew the lid off the summer movie season, and Netflix’s Full House revival proceeds apace. And while franchises have never been as reliable critically as they have been financially, some are still outright embraced: Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road were recently celebrated even as Fantastic Four was mercilessly panned. The general public isn’t totally burnt out on established material; it’s just no longer the guaranteed goldmine some might have believed it to be circa the first Avengers.

So now is an ideal time to consider what, exactly, makes for a good follow-up. Is it even possible at this point to announce one without inducing universal eye rolls and/or preemptive exhaustion? And if it is, what separates a worthwhile adaptation, reworking, or revisiting from a cynical ploy to co-opt an existing user base of eyeballs rather than building an audience of one’s own?

The answer to the first question is a resounding “of course”; witness the collective freak-out over the mere possibility of a Deadwood movie, even as Heroes Reborn looms on the horizon. Or the breathless anticipation that surrounds the upcoming resurrections of Twin Peaks and The X-Files, even as no one outside Longmire‘s older-skewing core demo really understands why Netflix chose to save it. Or the genuine curiosity towards Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, even as the idea of a Transformers Cinematic Universe seems a bridge too far.

Even as we discuss Rebootmania (The Contentpocalypse? Franchisegeddon? There’s really no good name for it) as a monolith, an unspoken hierarchy has slowly emerged. The exact basis for that hierarchy, however, is more complicated to discern.

The affiliation of a project’s original players is an obvious plus. Hence the near-riot when it seemed like David Lynch might not be part of Showtime’s Twin Peaks miniseries after all, or the exasperation that greeted the news of a Han Solo origin story. So much of Han Solo’s appeal is also Harrison Ford’s — the entire trailer revolved around his reveal, for Christ’s sake — and virtually all of Twin Peaks’ idiosyncrasies, equal parts sweetly sincere and downright creepy, are rendered in Lynch’s signature tone. But while retaining writers, directors, and casts between incarnations seems like the best way to both retain a project’s soul and capitalize on nostalgia, it’s a guarantee of neither quality nor interest: Jeff Franklin, Bob Saget, and John Stamos are all attached to Fuller House, and getting Craig T. Nelson back on the air was seemingly the entire point of Coach. 

Perhaps a better metric, then, is the sense that the original has left something unfinished. It’s a rubric that explains the near-endless capacity for renewal, or at least expansion, in genres like science fiction and fantasy that often leave room for building worlds, if not stories (though in the best cases, both). Hence Star Wars, the setting for countless comics and books as well as the movies, and Mad Max, where George Miller uses the desert as a blank slate to devise new language, societies, and means for chasing down fugitives in preposterously elaborate moving vehicles. Then there’s Fantastic Beasts, which offers the novelty of not just expanding Harry Potter‘s world, but also the involvement of J.K. Rowling herself, for whom Fantastic Beasts will be her first screenplay.

It’s also an idea that applies especially well to television, where dynamics that have since radically changed once mandated that series end before they’d reached their full potential. No series was deemed “ahead of its time” more than Twin Peaks — except maybe Arrested Development, or The X-Files, or Deadwood. All those shows, aside from Deadwood, existed before the pay cable and streaming service prestige economy that relies on distinction over broad-based appeal, making those networks and sites a logical home for even cult hits from a different medium entirely, like Wet Hot American Summer. 

Television is thus full of ideal candidates for revival, though by no means does it have an exclusive hold on them. (Nor do all television shows fit the bill — was the world really crying out for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?) It does, however, point to what’s missing from yet another superhero origin story, and the needs such a story is all but guaranteed to leave unfulfilled. Reboots and sequels are seemingly at odds with novelty and specificity, but that may be precisely what they need to succeed.