Click to viewSo the new Star Trek movie isn't exactly a reboot, or a prequel. It's more like a "preboot." And the recent Incredible Hulk was sort of a sequel to Hulk, but sort of a reboot. So everyone described it as a "requel." What's wrong with the world when we need to speak crazy jargon just to understand what's going on with our favorite stories? It's all part of a deliberate strategy to confuse hardcore fans on purpose, but keep the casual audiences from noticing. Here's what's really going on. Big science fiction franchises used to have incredibly complicated storylines. But nowadays, the storylines are simple but the differences between the stories are complex. Take Superman: there used to be only one version of the Superman saga, stretching back decades and including a super-monkey and a super-horse. But now, you have pre-Crisis and post-Crisis Superman, plus All-Star Superman, Smallville Superman, Donner Superman and whatever new version will appear in the next movie. Each version has a fairly simple story, but you have to have a PhD in geekology to understand where they diverge.
This isn't just an accident caused by different creators wanting to put their stamp on a character. It's a deliberate attempt to appeal to mainstream audiences while giving hardcore fans something to geek out about. Ideally, the average Smallville viewer barely thinks about how the show's version of Clark Kent is different from Christopher Reeve's. But the die-hard minority can spend hours obsessing about the differences, like whether, and at what point, Pa Kent dies. It's like dog-whistle fanservice, the fine art of sticking in references that will drive fans nuts but go over the head of regular viewers/readers.
When I mentioned pre-Crisis and post-Crisis above, you either nodded your head wisely and thought about Harbinger's ribbed crotch (it represents the striations of the timelines), or you just shrugged at the appearance of more super-babble. But the Crisis On Infinite Earths was arguably the beginning of our current era of faux complexity. In 1986, DC Comics decided its universe was both too silly and too complex, and decided to "reboot" it with a 12-issue miniseries that is now unreadable. (Seriously, it reads like the begats, with tons of random cameos and obscure references.) After the series was done, the universe nearly ended, but instead it restarted, with only one universe instead of a multiverse. But DCU 2.0 wasn't stable, and needed a patch (1995's Zero Hour). In the past few years, the creators have gotten a bit happy with the reboot button, hitting it over and over again in series like Infinite Crisis, 52 and Final Crisis. It's like the universe is constantly blue-screening. But anyway, the idea behind CIOE was to make things simpler and more friendly to new readers. And at first, this worked reasonably well. Creators like Frank Miller and John Byrne put their stamp on the old-school DC superheroes, and everybody had a clear backstory. Until each new batch of creators wanted to put their own stamp on the characters, and you ended up with things like: "Hawkman is a Native American Egyptian archeologist from outer space."
More importantly, though, fans could spend hours discussing the differences between the pre-Crisis and post-Crisis versions of their favorite characters. The Platonic ideal of the Crisis-break is that it would be opaque to the occasional readers of Superman comics, who would have an easier time reading because they wouldn't have to worry about whether the Composite Superman was still a reverse antimatter proctologist. And the reboot would provide "jumping-on points" for new readers to start reading without worrying that they missed something. It would only be transparent to the detail-obsessed fans. (A side note: I feel as though in the past, when there were multiple continuities, there was much more of an effort to have the "canon" continuity and the non-canon versions. So you knew the Superman in the comics was really canonical, and other versions didn't "count." Or the Star Trek movies counted but the books didn't. Or something. But now, when you have multiple movie continuities contradicting each other, it's become impossible to keep up with. Probably the last franchise that seemed to be trying to have one unified continuity was Star Wars, which at least claimed that all of the comics, video games, books and now TV shows were in continuity. George Lucas even said a few times that he would never make any movies after Return Of The Jedi because the post-ROTJ story had already been told in the novels. But even the maniacal SW mono-culture has become a giant tangle, according to "continuity cop" Leland Chee, who laments that George Lucas has a habit of tossing out long-accepted facts when it suits him, and introducing new "facts" like "Anakin built C3PO" Says Chee, "George's view of the universe is his view... He's not beholden to what's gone before.")
So what's the problem? The casual viewers can ignore the differences between Ultimate Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man and Tobey Spider-Man, and the fans can obsess about them. And everybody's happy, right? Sort of. The problem is that the distinction between casual and intensive consumers of geeky culture is breaking down. Take comics: They're meant to be read by kids, especially tweens and teens, and then discarded. There's supposed to be immense turnover among comics readers, so that people reading Zero Hour would never even have read CIOE. The die-hard fans would be aware of the older stories, but not the fickle readers, who were only in it for a few years. The same goes for TV and movies to some extent: superhero and space opera shows and movies are supposed to attract a young, Ritalin-addled audience, who tune out after a few years, because they've started a garage band or gone to college.
But that kind of churn among consumers of escapist entertainment isn't happening the way it used to. Instead, things like Trek and superheroes are going "mainstream," which means it's cool for people to follow them longer term. As regular people stick with these narratives for longer periods, they're likely to become more aware of the endless reboots and revamps and divergences and reinventions. And to some extent, it may be exciting, like a revamped brand — the 2009 Mazda Miata or New And Improved Bounty — but over time, it may start to get annoying. (Which is why I think, in spite of the cruddiness of Spider-Man 3, Sony did the right thing bringing back Tobey Maguire and Sam Raimi instead of trying to reboot Spidey.) The other problem with this endless proliferation of alternate versions is one I alluded to earlier: it's fake complexity. Instead of having stories that are complicated and multi-layered, we can have lots of simplistic stories. You can distract yourself from the limitations of these one-track stories by thinking about how they differ. But that only works for a while. After a time, you get tired of facile storylines with tons of version numbers, and you start to crave one single storyline that gets more elaborate, satisfying and addictive as it goes along. Let's hope Hollywood can take its greasy fingers off the reboot button long enough to give it to us one of these days.