By Cary Hill
The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. — Marshall McLuhan
A friend recently remarked to me that it felt increasingly more like his childhood was being repackaged and sold back to him. We were discussing the recent rash of movies, toys, and TV shows based on things from our childhood: GI Joe, Transformers, etc. New Hollywood franchises (including merchandise) are being launched from shows we watched 30 years ago, targeting our generation and our children. Nostalgia is now big business.
So I wondered: If the majority of Hollywood’s efforts are being put to resurrecting original content from decades ago in an attempt to exploit nostalgia, what happens when all new films and toys are based on prior existing material? We’ve seen Hollywood not even balk at rebooting an existing franchise (Spiderman, Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Hulk), but with the lack of original content (OC) it could reach a theoretical point — or singularity — where there is no original content to recycle.
A reboot or remake is, at the bottom level, a copy. It may have different characters or actors, but the story remains the same. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man was essentially the same story as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (yes, the villain was different but it was still his origin story). And Raimi’s film was based on Stan Lee’s comic. So Webb’s film is a copy of a copy. The upcoming sequel to Webb’s film creates an extension of the copy’s copy. Even if you claim Webb’s film adapts Lee’s comic directly, it still becomes a copy of Raimi’s film which adapted the same source.
Teenage Mutant Turtles is perhaps a better example. Originally a 1980s comic by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, it was adapted into a cartoon series (and toys) and then a feature film. It spawned two sequels then an animated remake in 2007, and finally a live (with heavy CGI) remake last year. This order of simulacra, is chronologically correct in my generation’s minds because we lived through it. Our memory can align which came first and trace the comic book origin back to 1984. But for our children’s generation, there is merely a group of copies to choose from with no memory attached.
So if our nostalgia is packaged and sold as a reimagining, reboot, reset, or remake, there has to be something from our childhood to appeal to us. There is that OC that remember being so new, so awesome, and so…unique. If there is a lack of original content and new franchises, studios are further pushed to recycle existing properties. Recycling begets recycling as all resources are consumed to merely recreate a film or property that already exists. And as there are less and less original films, the risks becomes even greater to take a chance on something novel.
This is, of course, theoretical. I’m sure readers are quick to point out “new” franchises like The Hunger Games that are doing well at the box office. After all, these Young Adult books have become a hot-ticket item, perfect fodder for Hollywood’s most cherished demographic: the teenager. These books (and films) aren’t that revolutionary in plot or story, and seem to share a lot of common themes among them. Regardless, they can play out as something “different” for the purposes of this article. However, given their box office take, one wouldn’t be too shocked to see them remade anyway.
In our theoretical, Simulacra and Simulation-esque (The Matrix, anyone?), Baudrillard vision of Hollywood, at some point the entire palate of films would consist of pre-existing material. The 80s and 90s childhoods repackaged and consumed by the same people (now adults) and their children of the 2000s and 2010s. So in the 2020s and 2030s, can nostalgia be repackaged if there’s no OC from the 2000s/2010s to resurrect? Or do you repackage the repackage?
Baudrillard’s 3rd stage of Simulacra:
The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the simulacrum pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original. Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things which they have no relationship to.
What makes this even more head-spinning is the fact that film is, by definition, simulacrum. Cinema is a representation of something else (a story, or screenplay), played out by actors pretending to be characters. In a decade or two or repackaging, you would have a copy of a copy of a copy of a simulacra. The result, according to Baudrillard’s book, is a decay of meaning through each additional simulacrum.
And maybe that’s just it. Baudrillard’s decay of meaning makes the reboot less effective — people don’t bother to see a fourth or fifth reboot of Teenage Mutant Turtles. At some point it just couldn’t be that different, right? So if the reboot carries no value, it makes it unmarketable by Hollywood to sell. Perhaps at this point all reboots are done away with and there is only original content. A child born in 2030 could have three or four versions of the same franchise to watch, and with so much selection why go to the theater to see that fifth version?
Then again, the “Greatest Story Ever Told,” the birth and death of Jesus Christ, remains a popular adaptation to make over and over since Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) . If Spider-Man and other superheroes are a post-modern, cinematic parallel to Christ, then perhaps their stories too will always be remade over and over.
This is a very interesting topic, one I too have pondered many times. It is amazing how ever since Lucas went about “re-releasing” the original SW trilogy, before the prequels, the whole phenomenon of exploiting our eighties nostalgia has seemingly never stopped. Part of me thinks that such marketing ploys have been used for quite some time, and yet we only start to notice when it starts being done so blatantly to “our generation”…
Sequels, remakes and “re-imagining” may not be a new phenomenon, but it does seem that the trend is more widespread with decreasing length of time between older and newer versions. The economic drive behind this is obvious, but it’s also a benefit to some to keep cultural consciousness in the past and away from present reality.
Indeed. I firmly believe that nostalgia is a far more powerful emotion to be manipulated than most people realize, whether it is G.I. Joes harkening back ti childhood memories with a pro war message embedded within, or even more generic and ubiquitous things like Norman Rockwell paintings of Christmas scenes and Coca-Cola, all deflect away from true reality, and appeal to a much beloved escapist narrative connected to our youth…