The standard complaint against sequels is that they have an essentially parasitic relationship with the original. As payment for your love for and loyalty to Big Blockbuster Movie, the producers will coerce you to shell out for Big Blockbuster 2: Blockbustier, then B3g Blockbust3r. Or even worse, they’ll hit you with a franchise reboot, in which a bunch of new, younger actors reenact a perfectly good movie that already exists. For opponents of the sequel/reboot, 2015 looks to be a particularly grim year: The Avengers, Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, The Terminator, Star Wars, and more will get shiny new chapters or versions. One film, Fantastic Four, is actually a reboot of a reboot, rising from the ashes of an unloved 2005 Fantastic Four film that itself rose from the ashes of an unloved (and unreleased) 1994 Fantastic Four film that was produced for just $1 million.
Many of this year’s movies, however, arrive with a twist. Rather than piggybacking on your affection for some previous beloved installment, they want to pretend — and, moreover, want you to pretend — that one or more of those previous installments never happened. They aren’t sequels, exactly, or even reboots — they’re movie mulligans. They’re a chance for producers to shout, “Do-over!” after some particularly egregious past creative misstep.
A sequel is a sequel, obviously — the continuation of an ongoing narrative — while a reboot is an attempt do defibrillate a long-dead franchise back to life. The movie mulligan is something different and new, and particular to our post-comic-book-movie culture. In golf, a mulligan is what you claim after you send a particularly terrible shot sailing into the rough, and the mulligan allows you to take a single-shot penalty and move on as if that shot never happened. The movie mulligan operates in much the same way — except in this case, the errant shot is one or more regrettable, and hopefully easily forgotten, previous installments.
The producers of Jurassic World, for example, would be happy if you forgot all about the events of (and your feelings for) The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III. Similarly, the new Terminator film, Terminator: Genisys, is content to arrive in your backyard, crouched and naked, claiming no connection to, and evoking no recollections of, that recent Terminator movie Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t in (and which Schwarzenegger recently announced “sucked”). And at least those films exist in some sort of vaguely contiguous, if hopelessly mangled, timeline. Sony has plans to serve up yet another Spider-Man, which not only won’t be related to the Andrew Garfield Spider-Mans (which themselves were quasi-reboots of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Mans), it will actively ask you to more or less forget those movies ever existed. (My insightful editor has dubbed this phenomenon “tentpole amnesia.”) And while we don’t know much about Neill Blomkamp’s recently announced Aliens 5 movie, we do know Blomkamp intends to more or less ignore the existence of Aliens 3, Alien: Resurrection, and, of course, all those Alien vs. Predator films. (Though Blomkamp, recoiling from fan outrage, later quasi-recanted those views, without actually contradicting them.) In effect, he could simply call his movie Aliens: Mulligan.
Why do we let producers get away with this? In part, it’s because so many blockbusters now are based on outside source material, such as comic books. You can retell the Spider-Man story over and over again because fans aren’t going to compare these movies to some beloved original film (as they will with a sequel like, say, Ghostbusters 3). Rather, fans compare each new Spider-Man movie to an abstract, Platonic ideal of Spider-Man–iness. It’s as if the perfect Spider-Man movie is out there, just waiting to be made, and fans will let you keep making movies over and over until you finally nail it.
There’s some logic, or at least precedent, to this practice. Marvel made three separate cinematic runs at the Hulk — Mulligan! Mulligan! Hole in one! — before actually getting it right. First, they got it very wrong (Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk), then sort of wrong (The Incredible Hulk in 2008), then finally more or less right, with the Hulk as he appeared in The Avengers in 2012 — right enough, at least, to consider, yes, yet another Hulk reboot. An even better example: The recent quite excellent Planet of the Apes films — Rise and Dawn — succeed precisely because they’re mulligans that pretend the horrible Planet of the Apes reboot, directed by Tim Burton, never existed. It’s worth noting that Burton’s reboot and Rise of the Planet of the Apes made about the same amount of money — between $175 and $180 million — on nearly identical production budgets. But Burton’s reboot was so widely panned that the idea of a full-blown franchise resurrection was abandoned, while Rise — the mulligan — was critically praised, thus opening the door to a sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which grossed an additional $200 million for Sony.
So you could view the advent of the movie mulligan as evidence of a disheartening spaghetti-against-the-wall mentality, which, even worse, involves continually picking up the same spaghetti, then asking someone new to throw it. Or you could argue that all these do-overs mean that Hollywood’s become like a mad laboratory where scientists strive to engineer a perfect mutant hybrid, while all their hideous misfires get buried and forgotten — you know, just like in that one Alien sequel that we’re now all supposed to bury in our minds and forget. Or you could view it another way. There are good arguments to be made in favor of fearless rewinding. Even reboots, as a creative endeavor, have their foolhardy defenders. These mulligans aren’t necessarily examples of Hollywood consistently getting it wrong. They’re by-products of Hollywood striving again and again — and occasionally succeeding — to finally get it right.