Beginning Again: The Reboot Paradox

Curator's Note

Prior to the release of Batman Begins (2005), co-writer David S. Goyer described the film as ‘the cinematic equivalent of a reboot’. Indeed, the concept of ‘rebooting’ had, until that point, been a comic book conceit that operated as a kind of reset device that rendered past narratives obsolete and void in order to ‘begin again’ from a ground zero. DC Comics, for example, conducted a universal cleansing of their narrative universe in 1986 with the seminal Crisis on Infinite Earths which collapsed existing continuity and started again from ‘year one’ in order to streamline inconsistencies and convolution - and , of course, to spin a whirlpool of profit potential. Out of this whole-sale nullification came Frank Miller’s Year One and John Byrne’s Man of Steel which rebooted Batman and Superman for a new generation of readers. Twenty years later gave us the sequel, Infinite Crisis and the recent Flashpoint (2011) series which tied into the New 52, DC’s latest attempt to invite new readers to jump on-board the superhero train in the twenty-first century.

In cinematic terms, Nolan successfully resurrected the Baman from the cinematic graveyard following the critically disastrous Batman and Robin (1997, Joel Schuamcher). In order to dislocate the ‘new’ iteration from the maligned former, Nolan and Goyer ‘rebooted’ the Dark Knight by ignoring and striving to invalidate its antecedent by operating in an alternative, parallel universe. Thus, Nolan’s Batman is disconnected from Schumacher’s ‘toyetic’ interferance by wiping the slate clean and beginning again from a narrative ground zero in a quest for autonomous status. Thus, Batman Begins is not a prequel or sequel to these texts, but a reboot, an autonomous, separate story.

But a paradox exists: a reboot can never truly wipe the slate clean due to the wealth of textual enunciations existing within what Jim Collins calls the ‘intertextual array’. Batman and Robin may have forced the film series into hibernation for almost a decade, but the Batman still functioned in comic books and computer games, for example. I propose that a reboot is both ‘new’ and old - it straddles a fulcrum of what Jacques Derrida calls ‘undecidability’. Any attempt to impose binarisms leads to inevitable deconstruction, a seismic, textual earthquake. As Will Brooker argues, Nolan’s films entered a matrix of other Batman texts; a Deleuzian rhizomatic structure without beginning, middle or end, a perpetually extending constellation of texts. This is the reboot paradox.

 

Comments

Ian Peters's picture

Reboot Paradox, Pleasure, and Cultural Capital

This is a very interesting post, William, and a fine addition to the week. The concept of the reboot paradox is intriguing and definitely calls for further exploration. The one question that I have is whether or not you would consider such a paradox a negative or a positive thing (or if it is dependent upon each example) - particularly in regards to audience reception.

What comes to mind here is various discourse surrounding fandom and the pleasures that are found in familiar texts and repetition and the importance of cultural capital in fandom (a la Fiske, Jenkins, etc.). As you pointed out in this piece and the discussions we had earlier in the week, the matrix does not necessarily follow a linear structure in terms of how we experience it. So people can experience the "Bat nipples" of Batman and Robin (either for the first time or during repeated viewings) with different levels of humor and frustration. One of the reasons that titles such as these continue to endure is that audiences find pleasure in seeing these differences as beloved characters and fictional worlds are updated and changed (and, as you pointed out, reboots also serve as a way of initiating the un-initiated who may not have experienced those earlier texts).

What are your thoughts on how pleasure and the accumulation of cultural capital ties into this matrix in Batman and other similar examples?

William Proctor's picture

Cultural Capital

I don’t think the paradox surrounding the reboot paradigm is either positive or negative - I think it highlights rather well how popular texts ‘work’. It certainly exposes the hegemonic faultlines within texts. Why did Batman need rebooting? Well, fan excoriation seems to be a massive factor. Contrary to popular belief, if one takes into account, as Jonathan Gray and Will Brooker do, that a ‘text’ is not only the film itself, but all the paratexts connected with it, too. Batman and Robin’s merchandising blitz was a huge triumph for the brand and for Time Warner. But the online invective by fans about the film offered Warners a blueprint with which to steer the direction of the next iteration. For me, and perhaps rather optimistically, this shows that the struggle over texts is a dialectic, a relay between producers and audiences. Batman and Robin failed aesthetically so rebooting the series is a declaration of intent. Batman Begins has built into it through paratexts etc a message that seems to say, ‘forget about that…here’s a new one, a better bat’.

Saying that, the success of reboots such as Bond and the Bat created a cycle - and producers/ conglomerates are now rebooting and remaking with gusto. Did Spider-Man require rebooting? Many fans think it was uneccesary - too early after Spidey 3. Does Superman require rebooting? Well, after the dire Superman Returns, I, personally, think a new take on the Man of Steel is necessary.

The cultural capital to be obtained from these re-iterations come, arguably, from the traversing within the matrix and arming oneself with projectiles of knowledge. I believe this is where a lot of the pleasure comes from for fans. Drawing from LeviWe s-Strauss, Jim Collins calls these fans, ‘knowing bricoleurs’ who take great pleasure in dismantling, deconstructing and discussing the bricolage within what he calls ‘the intertextual array’.

What I think may be missing from these discussions and one which I may take up in my research is how non-fans or casual cinema-goers react to these texts. We know fans look for connections etc in the matrix. Outside of fandom, do you think the term reboot has any capital whatsoever? I think this may be an interesting avenue of research.

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