​Is our love of character reboots killing our creativity?

Illustration for article titled ​Is our love of character reboots killing our creativity?

Is our love of character reboots a source of creative inspiration, that lets us re-imagine and reinvigorate our favorite stories? Or is it a symptom of a progressively timid nostalgia that comforts us with the familiar (but this time, with more lens flare)?


In a post for The New York Times, James Parker asks if our love of reviving old characters in new situations — the neo-Sherlocks, The Doctor(s), the crew of the Enterprise, the many, many Batmen—- is evidence that we are locked into "a diminishing loop of derivative creativity, some kind of stranglehold of the secondhand":

"The originators, the exuberant men, are extinct," Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1957, "and in their place subsists and modestly flourishes a generation notable for elegance and variety of contrivance." We do not have Tolkien, in other words: We have J. J. Abrams. Or Steven Moffat, lead writer of "Doctor Who" since 2009 and co-creator (if that's the right word) of the new BBC/Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes. Nothing against Abrams and Moffat; they're both clearly brilliant — zanily gifted reorganizers and rewirers of material. "Elegance and variety of contrivance," yes indeed, by the bucketload. My point is that the material, for the most part, is not theirs. They work in tropes, memes, brands, jingles, known quantities, canned reactions, market-tested flavors, whatever you want to call them. The cultural critic Simon Reynolds has named this phenomenon "retromania": He published a fascinating book about it in 2011. Tolkien, too, was of course drawing on his sources, his own scholarly vaults of inspiration, his Kalevalas and Nibelungenlieds and all that. But he was closer to the root, to the first fictive impulse. Which makes "The Lord of the Rings" a rather juicier and more self-sustaining "subcreation" — to use Tolkien's terminology — than, say, "Star Trek Into Darkness."


Of course, another way to look at it is that character reboots are a source, not a snare, for creativity — a way to give a character a deeper history, throw a twist into their circumstances, or even to shift the spotlight and answer the question of just what all those other characters were up to while our heroes had their adventures. And incidentally, it's also worth pointing out that when Evelyn Waugh was sounding originality's death-knell, Tolkien had just published the final book of his Lord of the Rings trilogy two years prior.

So, what do you think? Are the literary-characters that we love to see again and again increasing the creativity of our stories, or curtailing it? And what it is about some characters that makes them just so hard to let go?

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I think the medium is important here, because the pressures on a book and the pressures on a major movie are totally different. Writing a book is relatively low-risk (for the publisher, if not for the author), whereas financing a blockbuster movie (which is what we're talking about when we complain about character reboots and excessive sequels) is a huge risk for all involved. If a new character-based book takes off, it's an unexpected win, and if it fails, it's no big loss. If a new character-based movie fails, it's a major financial disaster. So it's easy to see the allure of preexisting properties that have, at least potentially, a built-in audience when studios decide which movies to make.

So it's not exactly fair to compare Tolkein's writings to J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot and conclude that we've lost our societal creativity. Movies are just more likely to be reboots or adaptations than books are. Some are good and present new and interesting twists on the familiar, and some are bad and just rehash things we've already seen. But there's nothing inherent in reboots that means we're circling a drain of diminishing creative returns.