Media Studies Scholars on Cycles, Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes, and Reboots

Did we as a culture ask for Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising? Is Hollywood’s alleged addiction to remakes, reboots, sequels, and other ‘multiplicities’ anything new? We asked three media studies scholars to debate the concept of originality in entertainment, what it means for the media to disparage perceived repetition, and how audiences interacting with an entire product like Star Wars: The Force Awakens—from pre-production to marketing— impacts how we read cultural output.

Participating in this discussion are Amanda Ann Klein, an associate professor of film studies at East Carolina University and co-editor of the new volume Cycles, Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes, and Reboots: Multiplicities in Film and Television and American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, and Defining Subcultures; Jonathan Gray, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts among other titles; and Will Brooker, the first British editor of Cinema Journal and Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University. Brooker has spent the last year living as David Bowie for the forthcoming book Forever Stardust.

You can find Amanda Ann Klein on Twitter @AmandaAnnKlein and Jonathan Gray @jonathanagray. Read Jonathan Gray’s wonderful media and culture blog Antenna here.

Scholars in Conversation

Amanda Ann Klein: The release of The Force Awakens back in December got many moviegoers, fans, and anti-fans alike disparaging the film because it is a primary example of a “multiplicity” (a category which includes adaptations, sequels, remakes, imitations, trilogies, reboots, series, spin-offs, and cycles). Why is it that people are so critical of texts which appear to replicate other texts? Why are we so devoted to the idea of “originality”?

Will Brooker: Are we, though? People went to see the recent RoboCopTotal Recall, and Point Break—all remakes of movies that to me, seem almost part of the recent past. People optioned, produced, starred in, and distributed those movies. It’s true that they weren’t especially critically successful, but if we as a culture were so devoted to the idea of originality, they wouldn’t exist. If we were so hung up on originality, Fantastic Four wouldn’t have been remade last year, The Amazing Spider-Man wouldn’t have rebooted that character so quickly after the previous Spider-Man series, and we wouldn’t be seeing a new Batman in theaters this spring. We wouldn’t be seeing a new Bourne movie advertised now. We wouldn’t, surely, have seen Mad Max: Fury Road, and we wouldn’t have seen it critically acclaimed, because it’s essentially an unoriginal idea, an addition to a franchise, arguably a soft reboot of some form. We wouldn’t have a Marvel Cinematic Universe that generates so many different movies under the same umbrella, and on one level is just made up of endless sequels to the first Iron Man. And if these remarks seem to refer only to one (broad) genre—action/SF/superhero—look how many literary adaptations and movie remakes of TV shows have been released over the past five years.

AAK: I disagree with you here. In doing research for this anthology I read a lot of popular press pieces on the release of reboots, remakes, sequels, and cycles and they were almost wholly negative. The comments from readers backed this up. If films received good reviews, it was often in spite of the fact that they were multiplicities. Obviously people go to see these films (if they didn’t, Hollywood would not produce them), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a general feeling, culturally speaking, that Hollywood has lost its originality. This is, of course, an ahistorical claim. My essay in the anthology is actually about how multiplicities have been a part of cinema since its origins. But that doesn’t change the fact that people cling to this idea that “originality” is better than repetition. So that is my question to you—why do we as a culture value originality over repetition?

Jonathan Gray: I think that on one level we can all be guilty of equating “more of things I like” as “original” and “more of things I don’t like” as “unoriginal.” What’s behind that, in turn, are probably a set of issues about proximity. If you like something, you can get up close and see all the small differences that matter and that make it original in its own way; by contrast, from a distance, you’re just looking at very broad things like genre. So, it should have come to no one’s surprise that the people who were primed to hate The Force Awakens and who have never liked the franchise—or who fell out of love with it long ago—think it’s “unoriginal.” Conversely, if you’re interested and excited enough to engage with it more—to get up close (I’m thinking of that famous scene with Cameron and the Seurat painting in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)—then you can see ways in which Rey is so profoundly not “just” Luke or Anakin, how Han’s death (I can say that now?) does very different work than Obi-Wan’s, and so forth.

There’s more to “originality” than just the above, however. After all, I heard from several people who loved The Force Awakens but still felt it lacked originality. Here, I wonder how much the myth of originality and the wild, unsustainable expectations that go along with it, have become so encompassing that we even allow them to discipline our pleasures and to make us second-guess ourselves. So, just as generations have been told that female pleasures are unworthy, lesser, silly, and trivial to the point that the apologetic language of “guilty pleasures” and such surrounds popular culture that in any way directs itself towards women, so too has this big myth of originality convinced many of us that what we’re watching isn’t actually original; it’s “just” repetition.

That myth is wrapped up in so many other sustaining myths of power, though. It’s premised on the idea of the artist as superhuman, and adjunct to God or gods in his (usually) powers to add things to the world that weren’t there. And a whole field of criticism—both popular and academic—is propped up by that myth, since it seems to require a critic who can translate, explain, curate, and canonize that quasi-divine creation. Etymology should warn us of how deeply set this is in our culture: small surprise that “authority” requires an “author.” Even those who aren’t otherwise invested in holding up these myths are taught them, however; we’ve likely been exposed to these myths in high school English or art classes and the like to the point that it’s easy to roll a criticism of something being “unoriginal” off the tongue without stopping to think about all the crap and baggage that goes along with that phrase.

WB: I don’t think it’s true that many moviegoers, fans, and anti-fans disparaged The Force Awakens. Fans, in my experience, didn’t disparage it for that reason. There were articles that criticized its retreading of the first 1977 Star Wars (renamed Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope), but I think a big driver there was the need to say something new—anything—about a movie that everyone seemed to be simply and joyfully embracing. You can’t publish a clickbait article that says “Everyone was right: The Force Awakens is great.” You can publish one that says “The 24 reasons why The Force Awakens sucks,” in that context. So in that sense, yes there is a push for originality. Journalists and their editors, and these days that’s a big field that encompasses a range of online platforms, feel a need to find something distinctive and new to say.

AAK: Oh I wasn’t saying that there were widespread complaints about the The Force Awakens’s similarities to A New Hope. I was saying that there were complaints about the fact that the film was made at all. As in: why do we even need more Star Wars films? But I find your references to clickbait interesting because you’re right—when a big film (or TV show or album) comes out, there is a rush to find something NEW to say about it. So you’re right; critics were more nitpicky.

WB: But I do not agree that as a whole, there was a negative response to The Force Awakens because of its parallels to A New Hope. I agree there was a significant strand of discourse that did so, but I think it was noticeable as a contrast to the dominant reaction, because people like to circulate things they disagree with and can argue with.

AAK:A New Hope was itself an homage/repetition of Westerns and samurai films, which are likewise influenced by previous textual forms. If we assume that there is nothing new under the sun, is it possible to even define originality in a film? Especially a blockbuster film?

JG: If originality requires the addition of something that wasn’t there before, surely everything is original (even a carbon copy, as Walter Benjamin suggests, has a different context and hence is “new” in other ways). Thus it’s a question of degree. But how do we measure that degree? It can’t simply be about counting things that are different, or else the Mona Lisa wouldn’t cost all that much, nor be all that revered, since it’s remarkably similar to thousands of paintings of women that preceded it. Difference must be perceived, after all, so there will always be a hugely subjective element to any determination of originality.

I’d rather, therefore, that we cease talking about originality and talk about the power of certain differences on one hand (so, for instance, what follows from Cagney and Lacey being a cop drama with two women, not two men?), and about our reactions to them on the other hand. I can imagine all sorts of ways to make a film that we could all agree was starkly original, yet that we’d all also agree was utter crap. So who cares about originality in that case? What matters more is whether a film (or any other text) inspires thought, expands how we consider something/anything, or challenges us to grow in some way or form.

WB: It is possible to define [originality] in distinction to other things. A movie that isn’t a sequel, a remake, a reboot, or an adaptation is ‘more original’ than one that fits those categories. An adaptation of a source text that hasn’t previously been tapped is more original than one that’s been adapted many times.

I’m not sure if we could attain or even imagine any pure form of original popular cultural text, but we tend to work it out in a common sense way, in terms of scales and spectrums. The first Ghostbusters, I would argue, was original in many ways, even though of course we could find precedents and influences for it. The Ghostbusters sequel would, naturally, occupy a different position on that scale. The 2016 Ghostbusters entry in the series is arguably less original than the first movie of 1984. I think these would be uncontroversial opinions. No doubt we could work out more theoretically informed models of establishing ‘more’ or ‘less’ originality but I think they would be much like the common sense ones, with added quotations and references.

AAK: Do you think part of the pushback against The Force Awakens’ so-called derivative qualities is related to the way the film has been widely marketed and promoted? In other words, do you think this film is singled out for being derivative partially because, at least for the month of December, it seemed to hijack American popular culture (in the toy store, on TV, in the press, EVERYWHERE)? I feel like a lot of the critical disdain for multiplicities is tied to the feeling that we are somehow being taken advantage of and exploited by money-hungry studios. It’s like fans are saying “A-ha! We’re onto you, George Lucas! This movie is just like all the others—I’m not falling for it!” Do we flatter ourselves for appreciating what we perceive as originality?

JG: Sure. As I said above, for those who didn’t want to get up close to the film, it was remarkably cookie-cutter. If you’re sick and tired of seeing Kylo Ren’s face on everything sold in Target, then we can understand why you’d react to the idea of anything else with him in it as, by nature, crap. Especially because we’ve seen this marketing playbook before. If that playbook bugs you, it makes sense that you’d see anything using that playbook to be hackneyed rubbish.

And so, as noted above, since originality is so wrapped up in myths of artistic genius, and hence of goodness, we can avoid the guttural “this is crap!” declaration and seemingly perform more aesthetic and cultural panache by saying the entirely synonymous “this is unoriginal.”

WB: Again, I genuinely haven’t seen fans saying this, as a rule. But your suggestion is true, I think, in that The Force Awakens dominated what people talked about (or, if we want to get theoretical, dominated discourse) for about a month at least. My sense is, again, that the pushback was driven simply by a pragmatic need for sites like HuffPo, Buzzfeed, and so on to find something different and distinctive to say. If everyone is embracing a new movie, what are you going to do except try to point out its flaws. And “originality” is a big, easy target for The Force Awakens, because it so clearly walks down a very similar road, with very similar motifs, character types, story beats, and dialogue to A New Hope. It did that for specific reasons, I think: a (pragmatic/ cynical/ commercial?) need to reassure viewers that this was a return to “good” Star Wars, the original trilogy rather than the prequels; a desire (perhaps more legitimate and “artistic”) to establish thematic and character parallels and a sense of generational symmetry, of patterns repeating over time, in this broader story; and more vaguely perhaps, to evoke the sense of nostalgia that I think has always been inherent in Star Wars, even when it was new. The first Star Wars movie had the power to make viewers feel they’d been here before, even though it was also new—because, of course, it was a reworking of so many familiar sources, from John Ford movies to World War II movies to Flash Gordon to The Wizard of Oz (and those are just the sources familiar to mainstream American audiences of Lucas’s generation).

As fans, or just as viewers in general, I think we do like to play games with the producers and spot references. Often that’s a game the producers join; that’s why Easter Eggs exist. So I think there was certainly a pleasure in recognizing the parallels and similarities in The Force Awakens, but I don’t actually think that was catching the producers out.

And yes, arguably, we are being exploited by money-hungry studios if we pay to see remakes, sequels, and adaptations. Of course studios are money hungry. That’s how they work. And they do need viewers to go and pay for those movies and their merchandise. I would suspect that most people who make such complaints are still subscribing to the system and actually fuelling the whole process by ensuring that those movies are successful enough to keep the sequels and the series coming. But what are you going to do? If you ever watch a cop show, I think you’re falling for that process of giving your time and money to an unoriginal pop culture product. I am not immune to the appeal of unoriginal shows and movies myself.

AAK: Jonathan, in a blog post on this subject you write, “We’re often doing things wrong as analysts if we’re looking for true, stark difference . . . as instead there may be just as much value to be found in seeing how night and day are related yet still different.” I’m intrigued by this idea that the fault is less in the texts than in our (absent) critical reading abilities and knowledge of the history of popular culture. If that is the case, how can we read these multiplicities the “right” way?

JG: Well, there would be different readings for different purposes. Listening to what others see or sense as different, new, or “original” might be a nice start, and then we could focus on why or how those differences matter. Let me offer an analogy. Most people wear different clothes each day. For an observer to yell out, “Hey, you’re wearing different clothes today!” would be banal, but it would be similarly unimportant, in and of itself, to note that the wearer had on the same jeans, jacket, and shoes as yesterday, and had only changed a shirt. One might perform a complete change of clothing that is largely “meaningless,” or one might change something so small and tiny that is read as profoundly meaningful. So too with things like film: any moron can sit through two films and point out big differences. But what do the differences amount to? What messages or meanings shift, and how profoundly? Those are the more interesting questions to ask.

AAK: Along the same lines, while it’s true that all texts engage in a form of repetition, is it still possible to offer a critical eye to how these repetitions are employed? From your Antenna posts it seems that you found The Force Awakens’ repetition to be valuable in many ways. Can you think of any multiplicities that haven’t been valuable, that have been poor repetitions? What are some failed multiplicities and what was their failure?

JG: I don’t mean to argue against judgment. We should absolutely still judge, share our judgments, and discuss them. For me, a repetition would be pointless if a lot of energy and/or capital was expended on it, with little to no avail. Going with my analogy of clothing, if I decide that I need a makeover, go out and buy $1000 worth of new clothes, and yet manage to buy things that communicate nothing different either to myself or others, that was a bit silly, wasn’t it? Similarly, if a film or book or other text puts all this effort into creating something that doesn’t offer its audience anything to consider, it’s probably pretty useless. But that gets us into subjective territory, of course, since I may not be able to see differences that you do, and that matter a lot to you. So I could nominate some repetitions that did nothing for me, but I shouldn’t be the ultimate arbiter, as I’d always be open to hearing how they did something for someone else. If we all end up feeling that we’d have been better off re-watching “the original,” then it’s poor.

For me, as I said above, I want to be challenged in new ways. I love Ran because it was great by itself, but it also made me stop and think about King Lear and its issues of gender, nationality, loyalty, comedy, war, and more. The Force Awakens holds up for me because it has a lot to say about nostalgia and family. My personal bar for judging something successful, then, is that I need to come out of it thinking, and not just thinking, “wow, that sucked.”

AAK: How would you describe the difference between a reboot of A New Hope and a sequel like The Force Awakens? In a way, The Force Awakens does appear to “reboot” the franchise with new unresolved conflicts and fresh characters for fans to grow up with and purchase toys of (well, except Rey, sigh…)? Does a reboot always have to start over with the same characters?

JG: I think there’s still some disagreement over whether “reboot” requires re-envisioning, or whether simply kicking the old machine to get it running again after a long time can “count.” The Force Awakens did the latter to the filmic life of Star Wars (which was hardly an old machine, admittedly! It’s been making money for a long time, very successfully), but I wouldn’t see it as a true reboot inasmuch as we still had Ford, Fisher, and Hamill, and nothing in this movie aimed to replace or rewrite anything in the old movie (R2’s now a Wookiee!). Personally, then, I think rewriting needs to occur to count as a reboot, not just a delayed sequel or prequel.

If there’s any rewriting or re-envisioning, I don’t think it matters per se if we’re dealing with the same characters or not. I could imagine a Star Wars reboot, for instance, in which the Jedis are erased from the mythos (not through death, but through simply never having existed), and set on another planet with new characters, and it would still feel “rebooty” to me. That said, the rewriting would probably need to have consequence. If there were smart reasons to erase the Jedi, and if it had a significant impact on the story, I’d be more impressed than if it simply seemed like an arbitrary decision.

AAK: To date media studies has not produced a general term to describe the trans-singular results of these joining processes, for which we propose the term “multiplicities.” Why might it be valuable to read a film like The Force Awakens through this lens of mulitplicities?

JG: That’s for you to say as the editor of the book, no? I do like the term inasmuch as the connotations of multiplication are productive (unless we’re multiplying by zero or a negative number, multiplication always produces more), whereas “unoriginal” seems to focus on lack. So I’m intrigued to hear more about the concept in the book.