January 12, 2010
By | 7 Comments

Yesterday, Sony Pictures announced its decision to scrap plans for Spider-Man 4 and instead develop a new, recast film that returns Peter Parker to his high school origins.  Clearly, Sony hopes to capture the same success enjoyed by films like Batman Begins, Casino Royale, and Star Trek that discarded existing storytelling continuities in order to revert to more accessible, flexible origin stories.  Only 8 years into the Spider-Man film franchise, however, Sony’s move seems a little hasty.  Why reboot Spider-Man?

Spider-Man 3 arguably demonstrated director Sam Raimi’s inability to freshen his take on Spider-Man; amid rehashes of Peter’s conflict with Harry, rocky relationship with Mary Jane, and guilt over the death of Uncle Ben, the elements that were actually new  felt wildly out of place (song and dance number, anyone?).  Hollywood reboots, however, aren’t necessarily responses to declines in quality.  Sure, Batman & Robin, Die Another Day, and Star Trek: Nemesis were all pretty horrific films, but it’s naive to suggest that studio developers embraced change out of some sudden commitment to good filmmaking.  Neither, however, would it be accurate to say reboots necessarily follow in the wake of economic failure.  With the exception of Nemesis, the films that predated the aforementioned reboots, including Spider-Man 3, were all money makers.

What this Spider-Man 4 debacle demonstrates instead is that the reboot can be just as much about intervening in an unruly development process asreigning in unruly, unmanageable story continuities.  To extend the “ALT+CTRL+DEL” metaphor of the reboot perhaps a bit too cutely, the alternate versions and narrative deletions underscoring this kind of franchise management are often about maintaining control over the property.  Reboots not only reorganize storytelling resources, but also the hierarchies and labor structures making use of them.  With Sony, Raimi, and star Tobey Maguire all interested in but at potential odds over the ongoing development of the franchise, a reboot is Sony’s most viable means of seizing back the creative reigns.  Sure, Sony could make a Spider-Man 4 without Raimi or Maguire, but they’ll be in a better position to fill that creative labor void by offering new talent a clean slate in which to work.  In the similar case of Universal’s The Incredible Hulk, a reboot that followed only five years after 2003’s Hulk, director Louis LaTerrier claims in the DVD special features that he only pursued the project once promised freedom to break from the first film and redevelop the property.  So while Sony might seem hasty in similarly abandoning Raimi’s existing foundation for Spider-Man, it is likely a prerequisite for reorganizing creative labor.

Moreover, as Variety points out, Sony does not have the luxury of time.  It must proceed ahead, lest its licensed right to the character revert back to owner Marvel Studios, for whom Spider-Man would prove an invaluable resource in its current attempts to  build a shared Marvel Universe across its self-produced Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America films.  Sony clearly isn’t sure how to make a Spider-Man 4, and it doesn’t have time to keep trying to figure it out with Raimi.  It does, however, know how to make a Spider-Man 1, and a reboot therefore offers the best chance of holding on to and successfully leveraging the property as a tenant without losing it to Marvel the landlord.

So while we might first think of reboots in terms of their rather extreme impact on ongoing narrative series, that effect may only be a secondary consequence of the labor and licensing relationships that Hollywood studios, property owners, and for-hire creators need to negotiate in development.


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7 Responses to “ THWIP!+CTRL+DEL ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on January 12, 2010 at 6:54 PM

    I wonder, Derek, how you see the reboot in film franchising perhaps working differently than reboots in comics, which can be quite common? Are these different beasts? Might this be bringing the textuality of film comicbook heroes closer to that of print comicbook heroes?

  2. Derek Johnson on January 12, 2010 at 7:10 PM

    You’re right: comics too rely upon the reboot to sustain production of an ongoing property, so there’s certainly a similarity there. This IS a very comic book way of sustaining serialized film production. There are some differences, however, between the ways Spider-Man, for example, has been rebooted in comics, and the reboot being proposed here. In the case of Ultimate Spider-Man, Marvel created a parallel continuity to be produced concurrently alongside the original. So that reboot did not magically wipe away any of the challenges they faced with the original production. Or, in the case of Spider-Man’s recent “Brand New Day” storyline (or other comic book events like DC’s Infinite Crisis), the act of rebooting/retconning WAS a part of the story. Whereas Sony just wants to make a clean break. In this light, the recent Star Trek film is maybe a little closer to comic book textuality than the Spider-Man films, in the sense that it wants to reboot WHILE preserving the old stuff.

    • Jonathan Gray on January 12, 2010 at 8:07 PM

      So, maybe NBC just needs to reboot The Jay Leno Show in high school too, with someone younger and actually funny playing Leno? 😉

    • Kyra Glass on January 13, 2010 at 5:07 PM

      If Sony really wants to make a clean break that strikes me as naive, as these other franchises have shown you can’t just erase a franchise’s textual baggage.

  3. Kyra Glass on January 13, 2010 at 5:06 PM

    I’m very curious to see whether or not this is effective. Batman and Star Trek were both able to pre-boot, to restart the franchise story slightly earlier then the previous iteration told it. This let them retell the story in their own version of the universe without feeling too derivative too close to a previous film’s release. Spiderman seems unlikely to be able to do this, Peter Parker before being bit by that radioactive spider just isn’t very interesting. As a result this new Spiderman will be in direct competition with the relatively recent McGuire Spiderman and likely will be forced into telling at least some of the same story. How this reboot works or fails to work may speak volumes about how quickly reboots can be employed for future franchises. Great post!

  4. Avi Santo on January 13, 2010 at 5:14 PM

    My curiosity is about how all this plays out with fans of the franchise invested in its current continuity. Following discussion threads on Newsarama, it seems that many are none too happy with this decision. Though I agree that this is an attempt to reassert control over the franchise on Sony’s part, desperately as you point out, since they have a limited window to continue exploiting their licensing agreement with Marvel, the ramifications of rebooting a continuity/ replacing a creative team that is beloved by by its fan base is risky. Of course, Spiderman fans balked at the A New Day reboot, but still bought the comic book. If this proves to be another Clone Saga debacle though, can Sony just go back to pretending like the reboot never happened (look, that Jonas Brother we cast as the new Peter Parker, he was really produced in a test tube; Tobey Maguire’s been held captive all this time by The Jackal)? Probably not.

  5. Myles McNutt on January 16, 2010 at 10:56 AM

    What’s most interesting to me here is how fractured the audience for this film is going to be. These audiences will include (but are not limited to):

    a) the fans who are upset with the decision but who will want to see it anyway to see how “bad” it is
    b) the fans who hated Spider-Man 3 and want to see the series return to its former glory
    c) the fans who love Spider-Man but hated all of the movies (because of Tobey McGuire, because of Raimi’s horror influences, or many other justifications) and want to see the story done right
    d) the general moviegoers who know who Spider-Man is and will go see it with no idea it’s a “reboot” (the marketing, after all, is unlikely to seem discontinuous).
    e) the coming-of-age teenage moviegoers who may have balked at mid-mythology Spider-Man but will totally eat up a High School-set origin story (I’m waiting for the “Spiders are the new Vampires” tagline)

    If the movie actually manages to be good, I think Raimi’s Spider-Man legacy was tarnished enough by the third film that lament over the Spider-Man 4 that could have been will be limited. However, I think that if the film fails, or if the film is seen as going off the rails as early as director selection and casting, then the project will become much maligned and start to alienate further audiences that, for now, are probably still likely to see the film.