A brief primer: Sisyphus was a figure in Greek mythology who was, for his craftiness, punished by the gods by being forced to push an enormous boulder up a hill. When it reached the top, it would roll to the bottom, and he’d have to start again. Sisyphus is a symbol for futile work.
This year, we were treated to Zack Snyder’s BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, a critically panned but financially successful superhero flick that has fans wincing and having to rejigger their expectations as to what to expect from upcoming films in that particular series (which has, at last count, 140 planned chapters). DAWN OF JUSTICE is at least the sixth film iteration of the Batman character since he first debuted in low-budget serials back in 1943. There was also Leslie Martinson’s 1966 film, the series that began in 1989 with Tim Burton’s film, the celebrated three-film series by Christopher Nolan, and even a notable role for the character in THE LEGO MOVIE, who will be getting his own spinoff film this coming February. DAWN OF JUSTICE came only four years after THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
Spider-Man, too, has been granted several screen iterations, and fans have reacted with a mixture of outrage (natch) and enthusiasm (natch). There was the three-film series begun by Sam Raimi in 2002 (which was the earnest kick-off of superhero movies in earnest). Then there was the two-film series directed by Marc Webb. Just this year, Spidey appeared in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, and will be getting his own movie in 2017. That’s three versions of the character in less than 15 years.
The notion of restarting a series that has begun to flag in popularity is, well, a popular one. We live in an era where fans have come to demand and dictate what sorts of stories they want from filmmakers, and studios, knowing there are massive amounts of money to be made by listening, have become happy to oblige. Never mind that SPIDER-MAN 3 made massive amounts of money. Fan reaction was tepid, and a reboot was made to order. When that series proved to be disappointing, the fans sent it back to the kitchen, and ordered that Chef Disney re-bake it from scratch. As someone who appreciates striking and original artists bringing their own thoughts to the cinematic superhero table, this approach constantly leaves me wincing. Fans shouldn’t be making the orders. Filmmakers should be. But then, fans love having this power, and are used to it. Studios are eager waiters. The slightly-more-daring idiosyncratic superhero movies (HULK, MYSTERY MEN, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, IRON MAN THREE) are typically hated by fans.
Reboots of superhero franchises are now common, and I constantly hear fans demanding more of them, usually when a film disappoints. X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, which was released very recently, was not reviewed well, and some reviewers demanded a reboot.
But there’s a fundamental aspect to reboots that should be leaving audiences cold. After caring so much for a particular version of a character, and after investing so much in their adventures, doesn’t it strike you, dear readers, as callous and mean-spirited to rip those versions away and start over with a new one? Never mind that old product. Give it back. Here’s what we really meant. You liked that old one? Too bad. This is the new one. Canon? Only when we say it is. After a while, it seems like our caring for any particular character will only mean less and less as time passes. Eventually, we’ll have so many filmed versions of Batman, that to start a new franchise only means pushing that boulder up a hill again. When we’ve reached the pinnacle, we’ll go back to the bottom of the hill and start pushing again.
According to Albert Camus, Sisyphus can be interpreted as an inspiring figure. Camus saw Sisyphus as someone who was not trapped in an eternal futile struggle to accomplish nothing, but a craftsman who began to take comfort in his immediate job. He made the boulder — in Camus’ words — “his thing.” He got to know the boulder, savored its crannies, took pride in the fact that he was pushing at all. Some hopeful cynics can jibe with Camus’ dark theory, and Camus’ essay on Sisyphus has become a popular document in the history of modern philosophy. This, it seems to me, is what fandom culture has become. They are Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a hill, blissfully uncaring about the futility of their job, happy to take pleasure in their immediate surroundings.
But one often finds Camus’ theories to be dispiriting and over-reachingly bitter. Yes, there can be a great deal of comfort to be had in acknowledging that your futile existence has meaning so long as you look immediately in front of you, but there is still a sad, dark cloud of futility hanging over it all. This is what modern superhero reboots evoke. We’re too busy focusing on the product in front of us that we fail to acknowledge that we’re no longer accomplishing anything. As fans, we’re getting what we ask for, but we’re not getting much.
Perhaps a big problem with superhero reboots is that they tend to tell the same types of stories over and over. If we’re going to start Spider-Man over again, then we need to repeat all the usual beats we have seen before. Spider-Man must behave a certain way, go through the exact same origins, experience the same tragedies, and learn all the same lessons. Once we know the story, a reboot can only be wholly fatalistic. Everything will eventually be reshuffled, but the cards will fall in the same place. And what have we learned? The exact same thing we learned before. A new version of the story is still the same story.
And there is a difference between rebooting a superhero franchise and re-adapting, say, HAMLET for the 100th time. HAMLET is a classic piece of literature, with a single definite source and a single version of the character that has been around for over four centuries. HAMLET is more than pop culture. HAMLET is culture. HAMLET is so rich, deep, wide, and complex, that it requires multiple iterations and re-visitations throughout history to get to the bottom of its brilliance. With apologies to the fans, Spider-Man is no HAMLET. The lessons from SPIDER-MAN are all there on the surface, and can only be delved so far. A young teen, of course, can take a great deal of inspiration from Spider-Man. But how often can they take that same lesson before it loses its power. With great loss of power, to co-opt the phrase, comes a great loss of responsibility.
If a reboot is to be applied to a certain character — be it Batman, the X-Men, or Spider-Man – then we need to begin to learn to tell new stories with them. Cinema offers a great swath of opportunities to reinterpret, change, and fundamentally examine what these characters are all about. It seems to me that, by embracing reboots so enthusiastically, that the superhero genre has long been in a rut.
Yes, many of these films are enormously entertaining, and I have liked a good number of them along the way. I will defend some of the unpopular ones, and join you in your enthusiasm for the popular ones. I will also lambaste some of the ones you love. That’s my job, my opinion, and my right as a critic. But something needs to expand within this genre. We need to look past the boulder, and toward a more varied way of looking at these figures. We need to start doing something daring, something artistic, something more complex than merely repeating what we already know about the characters. Let’s deconstruct as we move forward, perhaps. It can only mean more health in the long run.