Comic Fodder

The Spider-Man Movie Franchise Needs A Reboot?

The Spider-Man movie franchise has fallen victim to the reboot groupthink, throwing off all the planning of the existing creative team. They are out, and an entirely new idea is in. The new idea is to start all over, and redo the beginning. That's right, Hollywood's biggest new innovation is to turn their biggest hits into remakes right off the bat. That should be enough of a red alert signal in your head, but just in case you need some more convincing, allow me to give you a little background on how we got to this sad state, and toss around the implications for the Spidey movies at the end. (If you're already a movie junkie and know all there is to know about the Hollywood treatment of the capes, feel free to skip over the next five paragraphs.)

There's a new concept in town, and it has been uniquely associated with comic book movies so far. It's called the "reboot." The history goes back to Batman and Robin, the fourth installment in a series that started in 1989 with some gothic settings by Tim Burton, some scene-stealing by Jack Nicholson, and box office returns of some $250 million. The series ended in the fourth movie, which featured bat-nipples by director Joel Schumacher, and strange dialogue that tried to recast Batman and Robin more like brothers than their normal father-son type of relationship. Plus, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mister Freeze, just to throw the kitchen sink in, and some other casting choices that were rather worthless (cough-Silverstone-cough). The depressing movie made a miserable $107 million, not even making back its production costs, and signaling the end of the Bat-franchise for eight years.

Veteran writer David S. Goyer and acclaimed director Christopher Nolan brought the caped crusader back to the big screen with Batman Begins (2005), starring Christian Bale as the first actor in quite a while who could pass as both nonchalant billionaire Bruce Wayne and a believable hard-punching vigilante. The movie wasn't perfect, with an overemphasis on keeping things dark, to the point that it was not light enough to make out what was going on in every frame, plus the too-close-in fight sequences that made for choppy fight scenes that did not flow together very well. However, the overall execution was so much better than the Schumacher disaster, fans rejoiced, and with a box office tally of $205 million, the franchise was born anew. Reboot successful!

The Batman story has been a happy one, with unexpected success in its follow-on sequel, The Dark Knight (2008). At approximately $533 million, it became the second-highest grossing movie of all time for the domestic American box office, only recently bumped to third by the 3-D blockbuster Avatar (not adjusting for inflation: in a never-ending debate, Gone with the Wind is still in first place there by generally accepted rankings). Credit goes to the cast, the writer, and the director, but mostly to another scene-stealing Joker, played brilliantly by the late Heath Ledger, in a performance that made many people go back to see the film two or three times, and landed him a posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor. But in the intervening time, between the first Batman reboot and its sequel, the concept of a reboot quickly became industry shorthand reference for superhero movies, and the term is now starting to leak over into other genres, sometimes getting mixed up with the older term, "remake."

For the superhero genre, the next example became the Incredible Hulk. After the success of X-Men and Spider-Man, Marvel had a minor stumbling block when the Hulk failed to produce a similar masterpiece at the box office. The first Hulk movie made about $132 million in 2003, and any idea of a sequel was shelved. Director Ang Lee's epic saga had great comic book-like transitions(*), but it was also too long, plodding, and took an hour before the audience actually got to see the Hulk. The successful restart of the 2005 Batman Begins was seen as a good sign for the upcoming new Hulk movie, which debuted in 2008. In a sign that success is defined by how you choose to interpret things, the Hulk reboot was declared a success... even though it only made a couple more million than the first movie. Perhaps the failure of the first one dampened initial enthusiasm about the second attempt, and dampened box office attendance. However, the key was that the movie was generally received better, and this new direction was better suited for continuing the franchise with sequels.

Things became a little ridiculous when the next reboot flopped. DC had spent tens of millions of dollars and many, many years, and they had finally scooped Bryan Singer away from the X-Men franchise to do a Superman reboot. It debuted in 2006, and made more money than any previous Superman movie at $200 million. However, when the Spider-Man and X-Men movies were doing in the neighborhood of $250-$300 million, this particular attempt fell dramatically short of expectations. Between the re-run plot that hewed too closely to the 1978 version, plus some weird stuff like Supes peeping on Lois with his X-ray vision, and his murderous super-bastard, Superman Returns cost more to make than it made on the big screen, and DC's premiere character failed to ignite the same excitement that other superhero movies had. The comparatively lower box office returns stalled any idea of an immediate sequel, and lawsuit issues with the estate of Superman's creators put another nail in the coffin. Now, DC is talking about a reboot for their reboot. Not sure if it will be called "Superman Returns Returns," or just "He's Back Again."

So after the resurgence of the genre with X-Men and Spider-Man, we've had one successful reboot, one that technically was a tie but still made the studio happy, and another that was a disappointing failure. Honorary mention to the reboots still-in-progress for Fantastic Four and Daredevil. That brings us to the latest reboot candidate: Spider-Man. Whubbahuh?!?

At $336 million in box office gross, Spider-Man 3 was a success. It may have been the weakest one of the three, but it was good enough for Sony to announce a second trilogy. Most movie studios tend to sign their actors to a three-picture deal, with an option to use them for two sequels if the first movie does well. After that, most tentpoles would do onesy-twosies after that. The teams for Lethal Weapon, Indiana Jones, Shrek, and Pirates of the Caribbean have all been this way, with the main cast and crew coming back and agreeing to "do one more." That continues as long as the prominent people involved have enough steam and juice, but only one at a time. Sony came out and announced not just a fourth movie to do one more, but declared they would definitely be doing a 4, 5, and 6. So why is there talk of a reboot?

The roots go back to the third movie. Sam Raimi wanted the second villain to be the Vulture, but the suits and bean counters obsessed about the popularity of Venom, and insisted he be in the third movie instead. This may have been part of the reason the third movie was executed so poorly. Was Raimi's heart in it? Who knows. He may have settled down and taken the script he was given, and actually made the best effort he could. Most fans tend to agree that it did not live up to the same promise of the first two. With the announcement of more movies, Raimi and Tobey Maguire both signed back on to do the fourth movie. Raimi wanted to go back to his Vulture idea, but still encountered resistance from executives.

After multiple script treatments and continual disagreements, shooting did not start at the appropriately scheduled time, and Raimi (and everyone) had to admit that at this rate, they would not be able to make the official release date. The release date was set for May 6, 2011, but now the Thor movie has taken that slot. After all the creative differences, and Raimi's other projects that he wants to go work on, Sony decided they would let both Raimi and Maguire go, and start on the next generation. It turns out, their original plan had been for the fourth movie to be the Raimi/Maguire swan song, and then to reboot the franchise. With the current stalemate, Sony just decided to bump the reboot plan up by one, and have a new person play Peter Parker, picking up with Peter still in high school. No word yet on if the fourth movie will re-tell his origin, but I'm guessing it will.

The attempted restart philosophy betrays the inability for Hollywood executives to think long-term. After the first three movies, I can easily see finding a new actor for Peter Parker, and have no major qualms about bringing a different director in at some point. But the grist for Spidey stories did not need to go back to ground zero. There are a ton of villains for use for ten movies. The fourth could have had the Vulture (and hopefully the Lizard finally), and later movies could use Mysterio, Kraven the Hunter, Scorpion, etc. That's not even mentioning the other plot points for relationship problems, such as introducing Gwen Stacy and the Black Cat. Instead, there is yet another script, we may have to see another origin that every movie-goer already knows, and it may even veer off into Ultimate Spider-Man type plots, which will be less "super" and more "Dawson's Creek."

I can understand a Hollywood suit's problem with the idea of using the Vulture, but after the first two movies, there should have been some trust in Raimi and his vision. After the lesser box office and poorer fan reception of the third movie, there should have been a little more leeway given to Raimi to let him try things his way again. Instead, the great thinkers who insist they know better, the ones that are in part responsible for the lousy Venom story, are the ones choosing the "new" direction.

In a funny bit, the official press release actually tried to announce this as a "new beginning:"

"We're very excited about the creative possibilities that come from returning to Peter's roots and we look forward to working once again with Marvel Studios, Avi Arad and Laura Ziskin on this new beginning," said Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Beg pardon, but if you're going to take a $400 million movie and show it to us again only ten years later, after multiple delays and script treatments and millions of dollars, there is nothing new here. As a matter of fact, it is beginning to sound suspiciously like Superman Returns, only on a shorter time scale.

So there you have it: Unimaginative studio executives have taken their latest cash-cow genre of superhero movies and mashed it up with their propensity towards doing remakes, only condensed. Now, after you have a hit movie, you will start from scratch in ten years, bring in new people for everything... and start telling the same story over again. Because the people in charge can't help but think we want to keep eating the same hamburger every day instead of trying something new.

Show of hands, how many will still go see it anyway? Yeah, that's what I was afraid of...

Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.
* Original version of article mentioned an award for the movie. It was actually the 1978 Hulk TV show that was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography.