vulture's summer movie preview

Spider-Man and the Half-Life of the Movie Reboot

Photo: Sony Pictures

“That didn’t work? Okay, then — go ahead and reboot.”

We’ve become used to hearing this shopworn command these days, usually uttered by a bored IT guy. Yet, until recently, reboot was a dangerous word, and one seldom intoned in the corridors of Hollywood. A reboot was the movie equivalent of using a defibrillator on a heart patient. It was risky and undertaken only as a last resort, when a film franchise was dying or already half-dead.

In 1978, Superman: The Movie flew into theaters 30 years after the George Reeves TV version went off ABC. Nearly 30 years after that, when EON Productions rebooted the James Bond franchise in 2006 with a 007 that had not yet earned his license to kill, it was still considered a perilous procedure. But over this past blockbuster-hungry decade, that window has gradually gotten smaller and smaller. Just look at Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, a 2005 retelling of the Caped Crusader’s origin story released a mere sixteen years after Tim Burton tackled it. Earlier this month, there was news that Universal would reboot its Mummy franchise, likely for 2014, just six years from its most recent release.

This July, The Amazing Spider-Man will set a new land speed record for rebooting: Just five years after Spider-Man 3, with the image of Tobey Maguire still dancing in moviegoers’ minds, Sony has installed a whole new creative team (director Marc Webb of (500) Days of Summer, and stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone) on its $2.5 billion franchise to deliver an origin story radically different in tone and premise from director Sam Raimi’s trilogy. 

Unlike previous reboots, which followed box-office disappointments (like Edward Norton’s 2008 The Incredible Hulk, coming five years after Ang Lee’s Hulk) or utter creative failures (see 1997’s Batman and Robin, a franchise-killer that George Clooney recently described as “really shit”), The Amazing Spider-Man is coming close on the heels of a vaguely unloved third film that still managed to gross just shy of $900 million worldwide. Hypothetically, there was enough juice left in the Raimi-Maguire–Kirsten Dunst trio. But when Raimi expressed creative exhaustion and was bereft of new ideas, Sony realized that with a great franchise comes great responsibility. So it quickly hit the reset button because there was too much at stake to show patience: The company’s annual bottom-line profits have ebbed and flowed based on whether or not they’ve had a new installment of Marvel’s best-known title that year. And beyond the theater, there are mountains of merchandising money to be lost when there is no new movie to tie tons of Spider-Man toys to. With that kind of pressure, this kind of short-turnaround total reboot is likely to become more common in blockbuster-obsessed Hollywood, a town already so dependent on franchises and brands and the lure of the familiar.

Besides the Spider-Man trilogy’s multi-billion-dollar theatrical grosses and DVD sales for Sony, the films have generated an astonishing amount of revenue for Marvel — now owned by Disney — and its toy licensee, Hasbro. It’s too early to tell how much merchandise The Amazing Spider-Man will ultimately sell, but if the previous film is any indication, it will be substantial: In April 2007, toys tied to the release of Spider-Man 3 were estimated by analysts to have contributed as much as $70 million to Hasbro’s first-quarter revenues — and this was from a film that wouldn’t open in theaters for another month. “In the case of Marvel,” explains Geoff Ammer, a former marketing chief at both Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios, “their primary objective is to sell merchandise.” Which is why, to hear top producers and directors tell it, there is almost no such thing as too soon when it comes to the right time to refresh a film franchise these days.

To see just how important it is to reboot quickly, consider the case of Jim Henson’s Muppets, a beloved seventies franchise that had lost its mojo — until last year. Nostalgic parents couldn’t stop talking about the film. But NRG audience research leaked to Vulture by studio insiders last December showed that while a whopping 93 percent of kids under 12 were aware of The Muppets, only a little better than one in three expressed “definite interest” in seeing them return to the big screen. Kids 12 to 16 were even less interested, as they had no memories of Fozzie and friends. The franchise, the last film of which was 1999’s much-derided Muppets in Space, had simply waited too long to return to theaters. Kids greeted Disney’s reboot with a quizzical “Wait, what’s a Muppet again?”

It went on to gross $158.4 million worldwide, which is good enough for a $30 million film. But Spider-Man 3 cost over $250 million, and blockbusters of that size just don’t have the luxury of risking kids losing interest. According to Brad Woods, who is in charge of licensing DreamWorks Animation’s iconic characters to American toy companies, the clock starts ticking loudly, fast. He says kids start to part ways with the traditional toy categories (think action figures, vehicles) starting at around age 9. That’s when casual entertainment in the form of video games, iPads and the Internet takes away their attention. “It’s like watching the snake eat the rat,” says Woods, “You still make as many toys, you’re just compressing it into a tighter group of kids, over a shorter period of time.”

As a result, the younger-skewing a film franchise is, the greater the pressure to figure out a way to reboot it and keep it going, and Spider-Man certainly fits that criteria. “It would have been a mistake to wait another year,” insists Todd Black, the Sony-based producer originally tasked with coaxing a fourth Spider-Man film out of Sam Raimi, but who gave up when the director ultimately balked at re-retreading its already well-worn themes. “With Batman, you can wait a bit longer; it’s darker, a little more grown up,” Black says, “but Spider-Man is for kids, for families. I actually think it’s risky to wait too long.”

No one is more keenly aware of this than Avi Arad, the former chairman and CEO of Marvel Entertainment, the founder of Marvel Studios, and the producer of The Amazing Spider-Man. “Ten years in the life of youth marketing is a huge period of time — it’s a whole new generation,” explains Arad. “Today, retailers look at a big movie as a four-to-six-week window [to sell toys]. But Spider-Man? It’s a staple, like a cereal. It’s always in the stores.” As Sony’s and Hasbro’s fates are intertwined, Spidey simply can’t be allowed to collect cobwebs: Just to turn a profit on its costly Marvel toy licenses (for which it paid a quarter billion dollars five years ago), Hasbro, the world’s second-largest toy-maker, had to sell a billion dollars’ worth of Marvel toy-related merchandise from 2007 to 2012.

But toy stores aside, there’s yet another reason to reboot that’s more relevant to the studio’s bottom line: the Spandex glut. Lauren Shuler Donner, the producer of both X-Men: First Class and next year’s The Wolverine, insists the real reason that franchises are going back to the drawing board with such speed is to head off audience fatigue. “Things are a lot different than when we started X-Men [in 2000],” she explains, “we’re competing with a lot more superheroes now.” As a result, Shuler Donner says, when First Class sought to delve backwards along the film’s original timeline all the way to the swinging sixties, it wasn’t happenstance. Rather, it was part of an effort to expand its appeal to as wide an audience as possible. “Our primary audience is young males and females within that teenage into early twenties demographic,” she says. “But really, with X-Men, we have to cross all quadrants: We have older folks who loved it growing up; the comic books span 40 years. And we have a film franchise that’s been around twelve years.”

In an ironic twist, the producer of a movie about mutants cautions against undertaking any genetic experiments with a franchise’s genome. Instead, to avoid losing broad, inter-generational appeal, Shuler Donner emphasizes the need to refresh what she calls the “tone” of the franchise regularly. “You don’t want people to go and say, ‘Ugh! Saw that already!’” she says, “You have to reinvent and give them a different tone. For example, The Wolverine [directed by Knight and Day’s James Mangold] will be an altogether different tone [than 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was directed by Gavin Hood]. And so you’re not going to see Wolverine fight with his claws in any way that you’ve seen him before. This [one] is very different; there’s sort of a noir, Chinatown flavor to it.”

In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man, some of these radical changes have been made to keep up with the Zeitgeist. In 2012 America, the nerds have very much taken their revenge, insists Matt Tolmach, the former head of production at Columbia Pictures who oversaw the development and production Raimi’s Spider-Man films and who left the Sony executive suites to produce The Amazing Spider-Man. With Mark Zuckerberg a national icon, The Big Bang Theory one of TV’s biggest hits even in reruns, and nerd culture propelling Comic-Con into the mainstream, the idea of Peter Parker as friendless geek outcast feels culturally out of step. “Times have changed so much in ten years. We’d talk a lot about the notion of the underdog — the nerd or the geek who once got sand kicked in his face?” asks Tolmach, “Well, those people have since created Facebook and Google. And so, Peter Parker is reflective of the time we live in.”

Adds Arad, “Here, he’s a hero even before he got his powers. He’s not a loser; he’s an outsider. He’s cool. He’s brilliant. Girls notice him. But he has placed himself outside the core of popular kids.”

Still, there’s a delicate balance between too much change and too little, says director Bryan Singer, who found out the hard way on his 2006 update of Warner Bros.’ Superman franchise, Superman Returns. “I was such a tremendous fan of Superman: The Movie — after all, it was what informed why you should take a comic-book movie seriously,” Singer recounts ruefully, “and so I made what became this sensitive, nostalgic, love song to the Richard Donner picture. I even became obsessed with casting an actor who looked like Christopher Reeve. To a certain audience, that’s very pleasing. But to a younger audience, that’s not what they’re particularly interested in seeing — especially in the summer.”

Singer notes that as studios become increasingly protective of the franchises they rely upon to keep Wall Street at bay, the danger lies in hiring directors who love them too much to blow them up when that’s what’s necessary. “It’s the same reason why I was a better choice for X-Men. Because I was never an X-Men fan,” he says. “J.J. Abrams was never a Star Trek fan, which probably makes him a better choice; I am a huge Trek fan, but I never pursued the Star Trek franchise, because I thought, I’m going to be too precious about it, and I’m not going to reboot it properly.

Which brings us back to the radical reboot of The Amazing Spider-Man. Has it gone too far? Or just far enough? “The question lies in the word reboot,” says its producer, Arad. “In a way, we are looking at the movie as a sequel. We have some new ideas, but after 50 years of publishing, it made all the sense in the world to take another direction with the birth of Peter Parker.”

In this respect, the ever-shrinking half-life of comic-book movies should come as no surprise, for after all, comic book movies are behaving more like, well, comic books: It is an art form that routinely kills off characters, raises the dead, changes genres, ignores timelines, and simply begins anew. Over the years, the Marvel comic book version of Peter Parker has seen him morph from mocked, timid high-school student to an addled but affable college student to a married high-school teacher — only to have his marriage, his public unmasking, and the death of his best friend all erased in a Faustian bargain with a demon. Sometimes, for superheroes and studios alike, starting over is the ultimate wish fulfillment.

Spider-Man and the Half-Life of the Movie Reboot