This year at least five major film franchises released what I have come to call rebootquels - long-gap sequels intended to breathe new life into the franchise. Some of these films tried to distance themselves from previous entries, or even to retcon them out of existence, while some embraced the full sweep of their own history. Some were absolute delights while some were absolute offal. What made the good ones work? What made the shit ones stink?
First you have to understand what a rebootquel is. It's not a remake or a straight reboot (restarting a franchise over with new actors, as in Batman Begins). It's also not a regular sequel. It should come some years after the last entry in the series, and most likely after an entry that seemed to end the franchise. The ideal rebootquel has actors from the original franchise in it, but failing that it should feature characters who are in continuity with the original franchise (see Superman Returns, possibly the first rebootquel). Rebootquels are generally easy to spot - Star Trek 2009 is probably the standard-bearer - although there's room to argue about it (is Casino Royale a rebootquel? It's pretty much a straight Batman Begins style reboot.... except Dame Judi Dench makes the whole thing a bit more complicated). At any rate, this year presented us with at least five easily identifiable rebootquels: Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I believe this to be an absolute record, a trend that speaks to the retread culture in which we live. It would be easy to say it's a bad trend, but since two of these films are essentially masterpieces that's a tough argument to make.
Creed and Fury Road are two of my favorite movies of the year, but it might be more instructive to look at two of the worst films of 2015: Terminator: Genisys and Jurassic World. Both films fall into the same category of 'rebootquels with selective amnesia' but they approach it quite differently. Jurassic World simply politely ignores the events of The Lost World: Jurassic Park II and Jurassic Park III, referencing Jurassic Park almost exclusively. Terminator: Genisys gets more complicated with it, opting to actually erase other films from continuity, leaving us with a movie that's kind of Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day all mashed up, with T3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation completely obliterated (although it does steal Salvation's abandoned premise of John Connor turning into a Terminator). These films fail for a variety of reasons - both have dismal scripts, both have poor directors with weak tone control - but what they have in common is a hardwired commitment to pleasing fans as much as possible while having little to no imagination.
For Jurassic World that worked out fine - despite being an objectively bad film it was a smash success. It hit the right buttons in the right ways, proving that mindless nostalgia can trump everything else. But there's nothing new in Jurassic World, and even its attempts at staking out new ground with the Indominus Rex only plays as "the thing you liked last time, but BIGGER!" (which The Force Awakens did better. More on that later). The movie is a joyless checklist of things you might want to see in a Jurassic Park sequel, mostly dedicated to reminding you how much you liked Jurassic Park.
I'll be honest: Jurassic World's success filled me with despair, even in a year stuffed with great films. All rebootquels come from a similar place: we liked this thing once, so we will probably like it again. Rebootquels are even safer bets than remakes or straight reboots - you're not just bringing back the title that people loved, you're continuing the story and in most cases you're trotting out the aged stars of the original movie. Since most rebootquels have long gaps between themselves and the last entry in the series they come at us like celebrations of the original thing, a return to form that we have wanted for years, if not decades. Jurassic World proved that you don't have to do these things well, you simply have to do them (and hiring one of the biggest new movie stars in the world doesn't hurt).
This makes the failure of Terminator: Genisys very heartening. Like Jurassic World, Genisys wants to write away a couple of bad sequels, but it does this textually, introducing an even more complicated time travel element to the series that vaporizes most of the films. A couple of paragraphs ago I said that Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys shared a lack of imagination, and I really mean it - while Genisys is structurally more complex than Jurassic World, it's as much of a retread. Except in this case it uses the plot mechanics of Star Trek 2009 to allow the movie to run through the high notes of the first two films in the Terminator series. It also brings back a beloved cast member, Arnold Schwarzenegger returning after sitting out Terminator Salvation.
Yet it didn't work! Genisys is clearly even worse than Jurassic World, and it doesn't share that movie's dumb slickness. To watch Genisys is to truly suffer; it's badly made on every level. It's also not well cast, which I think is the ultimate deathblow to rebootquels - your new cast needs to be as likable as the icons they're replacing. Jai Courtenay didn't cut it, and while I like Emilia Clarke she couldn't fill Linda Hamilton's shoes. To fans Genisys is a movie where a bunch of pretenders destroy the original films they loved; compare that to Jurassic World, where even the characters in the movie say the orginal was better.
So here's the lesson of Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys: hit the nostalgia notes as hard as possible, feel free to quietly ignore previous films and always profess your fealty to them. If possible have your characters say out loud what huge fans they are of the beloved previous movie.
Enter Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which does all of those things to the letter. The Force Awakens has a lot in common with Jurassic World; both films act as an apologia to fans who dislike previous entries in the series, but they do not canonically overwrite them. Both films bring back beloved characters... with a twist. Dr. Wu returns as a villain, Han returns as dead meat. Interestingly Wu originally died, but a recut kept the character alive for the sequels. Having only Wu in the film is more restrained than bringing back Han, Leia and Chewie, but it was also the only choice for Jurassic World - the previous bad sequels had brought back Ian Malcolm and Alan Grant, so if you wanted to distance yourself from those films you couldn't play with those characters. The Force Awakens only needed to disavow the Prequels, which happened so long ago, in universe, that it wasn't even an issue.
The Force Awakens did everything that Jurassic World did - including the 'hey it's this old thing, but bigger!' - except that it did it all better. Part of this comes down to the fact that JJ Abrams is a far more competent filmmaker than Colin Trevorrow; even if I have a lot of problems with Abrams' storytelling I cannot deny that he's incredible at pacing, at character and at handling tone. This is why people love his movies when they first watch them - they hit you right in the pleasure centers, and it isn't until you get a couple of rewatches in and the rush fades that you recognize how poorly constructed everything is. Abrams also had a weapon Trevorrow didn't - Lawrence Kasdan co-wrote the film. Kasdan's been hit or miss (or largely miss) for some time, but when thrown back in these waters he showed he could still swim. Trevorrow had Steven Spielberg guiding him, and I will say this heresy: I don't think Spielberg's half the producer he should be. I think he enables too many filmmakers' bad habits, and we only have to look at Super 8 to see that happening. It's frightfully similar to Jurassic World - a movie trying to ape Spielberg but one that totally misses the mark in everything, but especially tone. If you were conspiracy minded you might even say Spielberg is sabotaging these young filmmakers trying to copy him.
At any rate The Force Awakens is the Platonic commercial ideal of the rebootquel - it's well made, it's incredibly well cast, it features just enough of the original icons to satisfy the fans, it ignores the stuff that nobody likes and it trafficks heavily in nostalgia. It's interesting watching people respond to critiques that The Force Awakens is just a remake of A New Hope with a bit of Empire and Jedi sprinkled in - they simply don't care. It's what they wanted, cinematic comfort that keeps them warm. I'm not a leftovers kind of guy, but I know that many people love reheated food, and they love reheated movies as well. Of course the secret to great next day leftovers is to mix and match the food with other items, and The Force Awakens adds the right new ingredients to elevate it above cold pizza.
For me The Force Awakens represents the exact middle ground between the odious rebootquels and the brilliant ones. It's certainly better in every way than Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys, and it definitely recaptures the flavor of the originals more adeptly than either of those films. But it also hits nostalgia notes with plodding regularity in a way that Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed don't, and it doesn't have the joy of freshness that those movies boast. I suspect that the pleasures of The Force Awakens will fade as the Star Wars films (hopefully) extricate themselves from wistful walks down memory lane, and as we are reminded that the real magic of all these films we are revisiting now is that they once felt totally new.
Enter Mad Max: Fury Road. Out of all the films discussed here this is the odd man out; I can argue that the return of Hugh Keays-Byrne fulfills the requirement that the original actors come back (as if mass audiences have any idea who Toecutter even was), but this film is closer to a standard reboot than any of the other four. It's a whole new set of actors, and while you can point out continuity (Max's leg brace) this might as well be a wholly original take on the property. Except for one thing - the most important icon of all came back for Fury Road: George Miller himself.
The other films discussed have participation from people connected to the original movies - James Cameron gave his thumbs up to Terminator: Genisys and Schwarzenegger stars, Lawrence Kasdan returned to Star Wars, Steven Spielberg produced Jurassic World and Sylvester Stallone is right there on screen in Creed - but none of these movies came directly from the original geniuses who started the franchise. Except Fury Road, which is also the rebootquel of 2015 that trafficks the least in nostalgia. The other films came from avowed fans picking up the reins, but George Miller has never conceded them. And so Fury Road, despite having the oldest director of the bunch, stands out as the most original and new of the group.
If The Force Awakens is the commerical Platonic ideal of the rebootquel, Fury Road and Creed represent the artistic ideals, if coming from very different directions. Fury Road has exactly the blast of newness that people old enough to remember Mad Max and The Road Warrior will recall; those films felt like nothing else, and they didn't even really feel like one another. Fury Road honors the original films by being as new and daring as the original films, and the only real nostalgia rush you get with the movie is the nostalgia of remembering when movies made you feel this excited, when they could be this unexpected. There's a wonderful comfort in getting something you loved served to you again, but that comfort can never match the rush of being served something new that you didn't realize was your favorite thing in the world.
Creed splits the difference. Like The Force Awakens, Creed hits many of the same plot points of the beloved original film (Rocky in this case), but unlike The Force Awakens Creed feels really new, really fresh. In some ways this is a testament to the alchemical power of cinema, that two movies can do similar things but be wildly different, but I think the true dividing line is filmmakers: Ryan Coogler has spun the context of this underdog story in a way that allows it to stand separate from Rocky, while also being incredibly respectful of the films and the character. Coogler has also put a new stamp, visually, on the film, while The Force Awakens is standard Star Wars, updated for the current blockbuster era. The little visual flourishes - the onscreen text, the one shot boxing match, other long takes - put Coogler's stamp on the film in an unmistakable way. Like The Force Awakens, Creed likes to reference iconic elements and beats from the first film and put a spin on them; unlike The Force Awakens that spin is integral to the whole movie and to the character of Adonis Creed. In The Force Awakens the spin happens scene-by-scene, played as fun reversals of our expectations, while in Creed that reversal is inherent in the very concept of the movie.
Creed and The Force Awakens are both seventh films in long-running series started 40 years ago, but Creed has a secret advantage over The Force Awakens: it's part of a simpler series. Going back to the well of 'underdog trying to prove himself' feels less like a retread in a series that is about small triumphs of humanity. Star Wars, meanwhile, is a baroque family saga where the very safety of the galaxy is at stake. Going back to the 'hidden data and Death Star' thing feels much more like a retread in a universe that is infinitely vaster than the Philadelphia of the Rocky films. Returning to Rocky's roots in Creed actually feels newer than returning to Star Wars' roots in The Force Awakens; what's more, Creed has the advantage of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky stepping into a familiar role, that of Mickey from the first film. The Force Awakens holds back Luke's ascension to the Obi-Wan Kenobi position, leaving a hole in the center of the story.
For me Creed and Fury Road aren't just great films, they're great hopes for the future. I know that the rebootquel craze will continue, and that we will always get trash like Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys. I believe we can get solid efforts like The Force Awakens. But I truly hope we can get more like Creed and Fury Road. If we're going to revisit old franchises let's try to recapture the excitement of discovery that made them beloved in the first place, or let's bring them fully into a new perspective, instead of simply accepting 'second verse, same as the first.'
We live in a reality where familiar franchises rule the landscape. It's easy to look at this and decry the very state of big budget cinema... but I wouldn't trade Mad Max: Fury Road or Creed for anything else this year. The best of these films showcase the best aspects of long running stories and iconic characters - with Mad Max at the center of his film, George Miller could create something insane and unique, anchored around a familiar name. With all of the baggage of Rocky Balboa Ryan Coogler was able to tell a story that works on its own but that carries extra emotional weight because of our connection to that character. At its worst, as in Jurassic World, this kind of storytelling can be cynical and ugly and manipulative, but the truth is that Creed and Fury Road - and even The Force Awakens - are way better than Jurassic World is bad.