Beginning Again: The Reboot Phenomenon in Comic Books and Film
'The superhero genre like any genre, isn't only a static language that remains frozen in time; it's a dynamic, formal structure that plunges itself into repeated, ongoing conversations with its creators, other creations and audiences across time…' (Ndalianis 2009: 285).
Drawing from Joseph Campbell's oft-cited structural examination of heroic narratives, Hero with a Thousand Faces, Luca Somigli argues that cinematic adaptations of Superhero texts - Superman, Spider-Man and Batman et al - do not follow traditional models of fidelity due to the absence of an authentic ur-text (1998: 290). To be sure, the so-called 'adaptations' of comic book material that have rapidly proliferated across the post-millennial cinematic landscape since Bryan Singer's X-Men film (2000), especially those belonging to the superhero genre, are not adaptations per se. Rather, they borrow, steal and assimilate from a wellspring of textual enunciations which demonstrate a "long chain of parasitical presences, echoes, allusions, guests [and] ghosts of previous texts" (Miller 2005: 22) that have no static, explicit origin point.
The term adaptation is often discussed as the transposition of a textual source from one medium to another. Sanders (2006: 20) claims that "all screen versions of novels are transpositions in the sense that they take a text from one [medium] and deliver it...by means of the aesthetic conventions of an entirely different...process (here novel into film)". Ergo, a Shakespeare play translated into film, such as Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996) or Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus (2012) for example, can be viewed as adaptations due to the relocation of the source - the play - into a new medium - in this instance, film. It is, in short, "a move from one medium to another and therefore the 'adjustment' of the narrative to the expressive language of the target medium ...the existence of a source is assumed and even necessary to make the new work a remake or adaptation" (Somigli 1998 :284).
Building on previous scholarship by Will Brooker, Angela Ndalianis and Luca Somigli, I would argue that adaptation is an altogether more complex interaction of intersection and interrelation with a multiplicity of texts cannibalising and feeding each other in an interminable sphere of influence, appropriation and improvisation. As Brooker (2012, forthcoming) points out with regard to the Batman mythos, they are part and parcel of an intertexual 'matrix' that includes film, television, comic books and other, multifarious retellings, recreations and re-visions grafted onto one another in a palimpsestuous fashion, "a phantasmal spiderweb" (Miller 1990: 139) of heteroglossia and remediation. None of the cinematic Batman texts can be described as adapting a particular comic book; rather, they are "free interpretations built around a basic framework, rather than adaptation as we currently understand the term" (Brooker 1999: 186) Batman's first story in 1939 "is not the last word of the myth, but its first, its starting point - and its body of stories increases every month" (Brooker, 2012: forthcoming). Similarly, Superman's debut in 1938 - what Chabon (2010: 12) calls 'minute zero' of the superhero genre - cannot be described as the source, or urtext, as subsequent telling and retellings, 'ret-cons' and 'reboots' "are available to the audience at one and the same time...so that the 'original', [the 1938 story] loses its status and becomes simply one of the many possible ways to articulate the myth" (Somigli 1998: 289). Berger suggests that the many versions and, indeed, re-versions of Superman "are 'shot through' with the voices of many artists, writers and adaptors of the comic books" (2008: 90) alongside other transmedia presences "locked in a dialogic parallel" (ibid: 96).
To illustrate this rationale, one can look at the re-articulation of the Superman origin story which has been revised, reconditioned and retold many, many times since its beginnings. It would be a gargantuan task to discuss all the permutations of the 'Man of Steel' across his seventy-two year cycle here, but it may be a surprise to many that the origin narrative has been told, or more pointedly, retold, a remarkable number of times since the turn of the new Millennium.
In 2003, Millar offered one of many reinterpretations of the canonical mythos in Red Son by positing that the rocket ship propelling the infant Kal-El (Superman) to Earth crash-landed in Soviet Russia, rather than the city of provincial Kansas, where the axiom 'Truth, Justice and the American Way', is superseded by 'Stalinism, Socialism and the International Expansion of the Warsaw Pact; the following year, Mark Waid's Birthright story updated the narrative for the post-millennium consumer that was heralded as a "nascent classic...a groundbreaking retelling for this generation of fans and many more to come" (Gough and Millar, 2004: 2); All-Star Superman, re-presents the origin story with brevity and concision by detailing Kal-El's 'fall to Earth' in a single page of four panels and eight words: "Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple" (2007: 1). Such is the familiarity of the Superman myth and its manifold variations that Morrison has faith that an economic approach will be articulated without confusion; In 2009, following the universe-shattering events of the Infinite Crisis which annihilated and 'rebooted' the entire DC universe from 'year one', another biography was proffered to rationalise the 'new' status quo . Continuity is a labile and mutable affair within the superhero genre and each 'reboot' requires diegetic ratiocination. Geoff Johns' Secret Origin (2009) elucidates the narrative once again in what was heralded as the "definitive story". One could be forgiven for thinking that the term 'generic exhaustion' may be the figurative Kryptonite that finally spells the end for the Man of Steel; but in 2010, Superman: Earth One by Straczynski rearticulates the basic premise and is critically and commercially applauded.
One must not forget the television text, Smallville, which lasted for ten years and stands as the longest running superhero narrative in television history. For Ndamianis (2009: 270), this points towards "an intense dialogic engagement with the codes that comprise the Superman media universe, but it also becomes one of many Superman realities that occupy a multiverse of possibilities". In film, Superman will once again take to the skies of Metropolis in Man of Steel (2013) and fight the ultimate nemesis, General Zod, in a Christopher Nolan produced 'reboot' which seeks to invalidate Bryan Singer's critically mauled, Superman Returns, and resurrect the brand for the 21st century.
This notion of 'rebooting' fictional entertainment franchises is a relatively recent phenomenon in cinema - although comic books have utilized the method since the 1950s avant la lettre. The term itself derives from computers where, put simply, it is another word for restart which is usually conducted "in an attempt to clear an error condition" (Dainith & Wright 2008: 426). Yet in the world of fictional narratives and long-running, serialized stories, the term is used to indicate a removal or nullification of history in order to 'begin again' from 'year one' without any requirement of canonical knowledge of previous incarnations (which is, of course, an implausible conceit as the audience cannot be rendered amnesiac at the whim of a corporate monolith). In short, this can be an economic decision to re-invigorate, revitalise and, crucially, re-monetize the brand/property in order to extend its commercial life-span. As we shall see with the Batman film franchise, the reboot can be described, at least in part, as a strategy which seeks to dislocate 'new' product from a critical or commercial failure. This paper, then, seeks to discuss this phenomenon through an overview of its modus operandi across comic book history (with a focus on DC Comics) and, by extension, its impact and raison d'etre in film. As Levitz (2009: 77-78) argues, we are living in an 'Age of Reiteration' where the cultural fabric is constantly revised, repeated and, indeed, rebooted, in such a way as, arguably, never witnessed before in history. Schwarz (cited in Kaveney 2008: 191 - 92) suggests that comic book universes need an enema every ten years or so to clear out the aesthetic 'excrement'; but this statement requires significant adjustment to take into account the rapid acceleration of the reiterative and adaptive processes we are witnessing. This, I argue, further unsettles and disturbs the 'romantic notion of adaptations that struggle in vain to faithfully copy their original' given the abundance of enunciations promiscuously comingling within the textual matrix (Brooker 2012: forthcoming).
Firstly, this discussion will provide an historical overview of the superhero genre in DC comics generally and, more specifically, the DC comic book reboot. The reboot paradigm is intrinsically connected to the complexities of continuity and it is necessary to demonstrate how this functions within DC's "hyper-diegesis" (Hills 2002: 137).
The Golden Age of Superheroes
According to Jenkins (2009:19), the Golden Age was a "period of articulation and discovery". This was an age of invention when the world was introduced to its first superhero, Superman. Given the circulation of the popular icon within the cultural circuit, it is rather difficult to recreate the context with which this 'last son of Krypton' literally exploded onto the world stage. Suffice to say, the result was a cultural phenomenon and within three issues of Action Comics, the text hit a monumental circulation of a million copies (Carter 2011). Comic book writer Neal Adams argues that "there was never anything like it. There was that Supermania that hit in 1938 and 1939 and '40. Beatlemania was not that big. We have never seen anything like it in American pop culture since" (quoted in Carter 2011). Detective Comics, in fact, preceded Action Comics but it was with issue #27 that Batman swooped into the DC story-world and into popular cultural iconography. Following the 'Dark Knight', or rather the 'Caped Crusader' as he was known in the early days, William Marsten Moulton created the first female superhero, Wonder Woman, and the Golden Age of Superheroes was born. By 1941, "comic books were selling at the rate of 10 million copies a month" (Duncan & Smith 2009: 33) and by 1945, circulation had tripled (Carter 2011). The comic book medium was catapulted into the cultural stratosphere.
Comic book sales have never been as health since this inaugural zeitgeist that lasted until the denouement of World War 2. It is interesting, and extremely pertinent, to mention that the early superhero narratives are "dominated by relatively self-contained issues" unlike the serialized complexity of its later incarnations (Jenkins 2009: 20). As Levitz (2009: 191) has written, "[e]arly superhero comics were comparatively mild about relating one issue to another or one series to another within a publisher's staple of titles". It is fair to say that the genre was immature and unsophisticated during this period and bears little resemblance to the byzantine mega-narratives that germinated in the late 1950s and beyond. Kaveney (2008: 25) claims that the paper universes of DC and its bête noire, Marvel, are "the largest narrative constructions in human history (exceeding...the vast body of myth, legend and story that underlies Latin and Greek literature)".
After over a decade of popularity and prosperity, the comic book medium became the subject of intense scrutiny and moral calamity. In 1954, psychologist, Dr. Fredric Wertham, published an assault on the medium, Seduction of the Innocent, in which "[c]omic books and their creators were painted as cunning corruptors of children, as monstrous artifacts crafted by experts to twist young and impressionable minds in the direction of crime, drug addiction, and perversion" (Morrison 2010: 54). Among other charges, Superman was denounced as a fascistic ideologue "designed to make children feel inadequate and inclined towards delinquency" (ibid: 55). Batman, on the other hand, was blamed for "causing children pernicious harm". As Schwartz (2000: 119) puts it: "Wertham suggested that the living arrangements at Wayne manor were 'unnatural' - what he construed as basically a household of three unmarried males - and the self-proclaimed expert raised unfounded questions about what might be really going on". The mere suggestion of a homosexual ménage a trois between Batman, Robin, and their loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth, instigated a national panic which culminated with parents burning their children's comics in public.
The furore and moral panic surrounding this debate continued with a succession of court room hearings which resulted in the creation of the Comics Code Act which set out to censor these so-called obscenities. If one did not comply with the code, then your product was pulled from circulation. Coupled with the end of World War 2 and the resulting decline in popularity and profit, this signified a fundamental shift which stultified comic book content to the point of consumer disinterest. The only remaining characters to survive in this period were the archetypal triumvirate, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. But their stories were puerile and lacked panache and invention. The comics code stunted artistic growth and the superheroes fell "into the envelope of Conservative America" (Carter 2011). Superman began life as a 'champion of the oppressed' but the period of censorship reduced him, and the other superheroes, into 'policeman of the status quo' (Waid quoted in Carter 2010). More than that, however, one year after implementation of the comics code, "sales plunged by 75%" (ibid). Thus, the Golden Age of Superheroes ended with a whimper.
The Silver Age: Canon, Continuity, Complexity
Many critics argue that the genre's regeneration in the 1960s can be attributed to Julius Schwartz who single-handedly rebooted DC icons such as The Flash and Green Lantern, so much so, that he has an almost messianic reputation in comic book lore as the man who saved the industry from complete collapse. Moreover, Schwartz was instrumental in creating a conceit that enabled DC's entire stable of characters to exist within the same spatio-temporal environment. As Grant Morrison (2010: 111) explains:
Julie had invented a trick that would be adopted as the industry standard. Schwartz was a world builder, and, under his guidance, the DC universe became a part of a 'multiverse', in which an infinite number of alternate Earths occupied the same space as our own, each vibrating out of phase with the others so they could never meet. The idea of infinite worlds, each with its own history and its own superheroes, was intoxicating and gave DC an even more expansive canvas.
Unlike the disparate, episodic narratives of the Golden Age, the Silver Age introduced the concept of seriality into the DC universe and an interconnected and interrelated narrative universe was created. This "principle of continuity", as Jenkins (2009): 20) calls it, "operates not just within any individual book but also across all of the books by a particular publisher so that people talk about the DC and Marvel universe". One of the pre-eminent pleasures of fandom is the negotiating of this continuity.
To illustrate: the original Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick, had been culled from circulation in 1949. When Schwartz 'rebooted' The Flash in 1956, he ignored the original version in favour of a distinct iteration which introduced a different origin story and a new character, Barry Allen, to take on the mantle of 'the scarlet speedster'. While Jay Garrick was transformed into the Flash by inhaling hard water, the latest incarnation was birthed by science, an accident in a laboratory- which soon became a generic trope in this era with comic book characters such as the Hulk, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four, for example, gaining their gifts (or curses as the case may be) through perils of scientific mishap. Mark Waid comments that we had moved into the Atomic age and it was no longer viable to depict superheroes getting their powers through 'magic'. "Kids", he says, "were hipper than that in the 1950s" (quoted in Carter 2011).
This process of 'rebooting', then, can be seen as a method of adaptation. The Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, is a distinct entity from the Jay Garrick version - in fact, they both exist on entirely different plains of existence. Yet during this period, there is no medium-centric transposition. Barry Allen is, in part, an adaptation of Jay Garrick: they are both superheroes who can move at phenomenal speeds; who share the same nom de guerre; who each bear the same lightning flash on their respective costumes (although they look rather different too). It is not a story per se that is being adapted, although that is part of the process too, but, rather, I would argue, an essence. As superheroes become more and more popular and branch out into other, transmedia localities, the adaptive process grows with an ever-increasing complexity. But at this infant stage, part of the adaptation is that the comic is adapting itself rather than a source outside the medium. Although, as we shall see later, this suggestion is problematic given the utterances and enunciations within the cultural circuit that The Flash has borrowed, stolen and alluded to all along (such as mythological narratives). The point I want to make, is that an adaptation does not only apply to external mediums, but the medium itself. A reboot as an adaptive process draws on a wealth of material within what Collins (1992:331) calls "the intertextual array" but it also adapts elements of itself. It is, in this respect, self-cannibalising.
The multiverse, then, - this nexus of infinite parallel worlds - was first introduced in The Flash #123 (published in September 1961) which reconciled Golden Age characters with their Silver Age revisions. As it originally stood, the DC universe lacked a coherent sense of continuity; in short, old readers - the 'first' fans if you like - began to question the veracity of the universe and its narrative order. If Barry Allen was the Flash, where was Jay Garrick now, and how did he fit into the story? The new Flash disavowed and nullified the old Flash and this perplexity was rationalised through the creation of the multiverse which, in essence, moved the narrative into the complex, complicated, and eventually, contradictory 'mega-continuity' that still persists to this day.
In The Flash of Two Worlds, Barry Allen comes face-to-face with his Golden Age ancestor, by vibrating at such speed that he passes across the liminal barrier that separates his world from a parallel universe which became known to readers as Earth-2. Earth-1 was inhabited by the Silver Age iterations or, rather, reiterations of the classic archetypes; while Earth-2 was home to the classic characters themselves (Earth-3 was a mirror universe which flipped our heroes into villains and vice versa. Superman was adapted into the nefarious Ultraman while Lex Luthor was a force of morality). The Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott, possessed a magic ring which gave him powers whereas the 'rebooted' Silver Age Green Lantern was re-envisioned as Hal Jordan who belonged to a vast intergalactic police force who sought to protect the universe beneath the auspices of the dictatorial 'Guardians of the Universe'. The ratiocination of the multiverse allowed both incarnations to exist within the same narrative universe and opened up a raft of possibilities for story-telling. Soon after, the DC universe was awash with "crossovers galore where Silver Age characters met their Golden Age predecessors or perhaps just did things that couldn't be done in normal continuity (like dying)" (Schwartz: 2000, 92). Moreover, the birth of the multiverse ushered in an age that significantly shifted the consumptive nature of comic book worlds: the era of fandom.
In many respects, continuity is a considerable preoccupation of fandom (Levitz 2009: 190). Putsz (1999: 134) writes that "Information based on continuity becomes the source of discussion, jokes and arguments, making it the raw material for the interactive glue that holds comic book culture together". Reynolds (1992: 38) describes fan activity as essentially "the most crucial aspect of enjoyment for the committed fans". And while Kaveney (2008: 26) points out that "understanding continuity is one of the pleasures of serial works of art", she also insists that the aesthetic inventions of such narrative complexity cannot be separated from the economic machinations that inevitably become part and parcel of the entire practice: "Crossover narrative threads, which start in one of a house's titles and continue over the months in several others, are an effective way of compelling readers to spend more money" (ibid: 30).
Indeed, continuity gave the industry free reign to create 'blockbuster' events which tied in all their titles beneath one diegetic umbrella that invited readers to engage with an intertextual Über-narrative hitherto unparalleled in serialized fiction. This tension between art and commerce is a fundamental dialectic of the comic book industry and "it is possible to resent quite deeply the extent to which the comics companies are keen to part one from one's money" (ibid: 54). For example, in 2011 DC Comics published the monthly crossover, Flashpoint, which included seventy interconnected titles while Marvel issued the colossal Fear Itself which incorporated over one hundred tie-ins which had long-time fans scratching their heads in disbelief and suspicion. And while the cash nexus is a crucial part of understanding how the industry operates, I would argue that the reality of the situation is a rather more complex affair than bemoaning the passivity of fans bowing to every whim and whimsy of a corporate entity force-feeding them texts. As I shall discuss later, audience agency is a fundamental aspect of how a reboot functions, especially in film.
The Multiverse is dead! Long live the Multiverse!
Over the years since the multiverse opened up an incredible array of possibilities, the DC narrative had become bloated, convoluted and incredibly paradoxical. As Wolfman (1985: 1) points out, "continuity was so confusing no new reader could easily understand it while older readers had to keep mile-long lists to keep things straight. And the writers...well, we were always stumbling over each other trying to figure out simple answers to difficult questions". The solution to this corpulent and labyrinthine problem was to reset the DC universe by creating a cataclysmic event within the spatio-temporal 'hyperdiegesis' that would streamline continuity and reboot the story-world "by merging all existing parallel worlds into one, unified coherence" and, essentially, 'rewiring' its multifarious history in one fell swoop (Proctor 2012: 6). Ergo, Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985), a twelve-issue series was an "attempt to reign in what was seen as the excessive complication of the DC universe" (Kaveney, 2008: 191). On the one hand, this would provide a perfect opportunity for new readers to enter the fray who had previously been precluded from participating due to a fifty year narrative that featured a multitudinous array of characters and a multiverse of infinite worlds to navigate. On the other, enticing new readers is an economic principle and DC comics are a vast subsidiary of Warner Bros who are concerned with 'the bottom line'. However, I would like to re-iterate that consumers/ fans play an active role in steering aesthetic decisions. Comic books are frequently cancelled if a significant portion of the audience refuses to purchase low-quality material. This illustrates a dialectical struggle for hegemony between the forces of creation and consumption, art and commerce.
The events in Crisis depicted the death of Supergirl, and the end of the Barry Allen Flash character who spent twenty-plus years in suspended animation until Geoff Johns, by emulatiing the Julius Schwartz reboot technique, resurrected both The Flash (2011) and Green Lantern (2005). Death is rarely, if ever, permanent in comic books and Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Human Torch and Captain America "have all died and been miraculously resurrected through some quirk of ratiocination" (Proctor 2012: 7).
Following the events of Crisis, Superman was rebooted for the first time in The Man of Steel (Byrne 1986) which updated the legend for the neo-liberal 1980s to take account of the overwhelming success of the 1978 Superman film. Frank Miller's Batman: Year One (1986) re-envisioned the origins of Batman; and Wonder Woman, who also died during Crisis, 'begins again' in a newly numbered monthly comic book. These new stories had the added advantage of being severed canonically from their forebears which allowed fresh re-interpretations and contemporaneous versions to exist without impinging upon their antecedents. But, as we will see, this is a problematic assertion as the intent to disconnect invariably creates intrinsic connections.
Since Crisis on Infinite Earths, the DC universe has gone through several convulsions in order to bring on-board new readers and tidy up continuity. The effects of Zero Hour: Crisis in Time (1993) were designed to work in a similar way to Crisis, but this was deemed a failure and the changes were largely ignored. However, the twentieth anniversary of Crisis heralded the dawning of yet another 'new beginning': Infinite Crisis resurrected the multiverse, but, this time, instead of an infinite canvas of parallel worlds, we bear witness to "the violent resurrection of 52 new parallel universes" (Morrison, 2008: 5 - 6). And the DC universe found itself back at the beginning... again.
In 2011, following the temporal disruptions of the Flashpoint mega-series, DC took an unprecedented step and cancelled their entire product line and 'rebooted' the narrative universe with a series of 52 monthly titles - dubbed 'The New 52' - that seek to re-invigorate the genre (again) in an era of austerity and economic uncertainty. The goal? To invite new readers into the fold by promising a 'jumping on' point unencumbered by decades of continuity, convolution and canon. Ergo, the oldest superhero comic that first introduced Superman to the world, Action Comics, is rebooted from 'year one' and we find ourselves at the beginning...again. Like all generic artefacts, the superhero genre is a combination of standardization and differentiation, but, I would argue that the reboot paradigm operates in a rather different fashion. The regenerative aspects of the reboot are consciously invoked within the diegesis that signifies that 'change is happening'. By collapsing canon and continuity and rationalising it within the story-world itself is a statement of intent. The genre dialectic is more subtle, a sequence of delicate shifts, changes and movements, of formulae and innovation that occur gradually over time (although I acknowledge this is not always the case); whereas the reboot is an instant declaration of dislocation that quests autonomy (although this can never truly occur). This will be discussed in the next section on the Cine-Reboot and how the strategy may strive to begin again, but simply cannot due to a variety of elements.
In 1997, film director Joe Schumacher released the fourth instalment in Time Warner's financially successful Batman film franchise, Batman and Robin. Following Tim Burton's instalments, Schumacher's "represents some kind of nadir, certainly for the franchise, and arguably for the genre" (Kaveney 2008: 246). To be sure, the castigation and general unpleasantness hurled at Schumacher's Bat-texts (including Batman Forever), seem to be universal. Morrison (2011: 338), for example, declares in typical hyperbole that the film is "widely regarded as the worst Batman film ever made and indeed reviled by some commentators as the most indefensible artefact ever created by a so-called civilization". Darius (2011: 241) is rather more restrained: "Schumacher's [Batman films] were singled out for almost religious disdain - so much so, that in comic circles, Schumacher was never mentioned without disparagement". This catastrophic failure forced the bat-brand into hibernation for the best part of a decade.
In 2005, Christopher Nolan succeeded in reviving the Batman brand from cinematic purgatory and rejuvenated the property in both the critical and economic spheres. This culminated with billion dollar triumph of The Dark Knight (2008) (Radner 2011: 170) which was praised with as much passion as Schumacher's efforts were disdained. First and foremost, Batman Begins had to distance itself from the Schumacher era in order to re-establish itself as a viable commodity. As Gray (2010: 132) puts it,
The tale of Batman Begins is one of how to escape a dark shadow. Audience and critical reception of Batman and Robin had been so near-universally caustic that it had set up a strong paratextual perimeter and a flaming hoop through which any subsequent Batman text would need to pass. Batman Begins and Time Warner needed to apologise for Batman and Robin and to erase any semblance of an intertextual connection: only Batman himself could remain, albeit radically configured.
Thus, rather than attempting to continue along the same narrative trajectory and produce another sequel, Time Warner and, by extension, Christopher Nolan, rebooted the series from 'year one' in order to dislocate itself from its predecessor and attain autonomy.
If we take the concept of rebooting a computer and propose an analogy with the franchise, it could be suggested that
the commercial and critical disappointment of the Burton/ Schumacher cycle of Batman films resulted in a kind of central error in the 'aesthetic processing unit' that 'crashed' the operating system. Shutting down the computer - or, in this case, the franchise -- and rebooting it, resets the hardware and, hopefully, restores the unit to optimum functionality. As with a computer's internal memory, rebooting the system does not signify total loss of data. Rebooting a franchise does not imply that its core memory is destroyed. In other words, pressing the reboot button does not eradicate the iconographic memory of the cultural product. The 'essence' of Batman - a vigilante dressed as a bat avenging his parent's death one criminal at a time - remains part of the system's memory (Proctor 2012: 5).
Drawing from the comic book reboot, then, we can suggest that the first Batman series of films - Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997) - takes place in the cinematic equivalent of Earth-1. It is possible to discuss this series as two pairs of films given the contrasts between Burton and Schumacher's interpretations, but Time Warner released these films on video and then DVD as one set, therefore one franchise (and then releasing Batman Begins and The Dark Knight as a separate collection). The differences between Burton and Schumacher's texts are stylistic and generic, rather than story-related which repudiates the suggestion that Schumacher's texts are 'reboots' of Burton's. Schumacher's first entry, Batman Forever, does not depict Bruce Wayne at the beginning or in the process of 'becoming' - he is already in media res as Batman when the film starts.
Thus, Nolan's series of films - Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) - take place in an alternative, parallel world: the cinematic Earth-2. There is clearly a 'disconnect' between the two series as emblemised by the divergent story-lines that feature the same characters. In Burton's 1989 film, Batman and the Joker are intertwined in a symbiotic tangle, each responsible for the other's psychological trauma. The Joker, or Jack Napier as he was known before his transformation, murdered Bruce Wayne's parents, the event which splintered Wayne's psyche and gave birth to the Batman persona; while the Joker was born when Batman failed to prevent him falling into a vat of toxic waste.
In Nolan's universe, Joe Chill killed Thomas and Martha Wayne, and the Joker is unleashed in the second instalment which is categorically not a remake, but a contrary story-line altogether. Simply put, they each take place in contradictory and contrary continuities.
Moreover, to further widen the chasm between franchises and achieve a level of autonomy, Christian Bale signified his
desire to play the definitive Batman as Christopher Reeve had played the definitive Superman. There, too the previous Batman films were criticised in order to open the possibility of Batman Begins being in some way 'definitive': Bale had to explain that Batman hadn't possessed that 'definitive' quality' (Darius 2011: 243).
So, then, the cine-reboot is set up to disassociate itself from its direct ancestry for reasons of commercial and/ or critical malaise. However, while the story-world may take place in an alternative 'Earth' due to narrative discontinuities, a total state of disconnection can never be achieved given the wealth of texts colliding, intermingling and meshing within the Batman matrix. Simply put, a 'clean' reboot or tabula rasa - that is, a blank slate - dislocated from history is an impossible conceit. As Brooker writes in Hunting the Dark Knight (2012, Forthcoming), nineteen out of twenty-seven reviews of Batman Begins compared Nolan's film with Schumacher's and Burton's efforts, therefore "in the process of cutting ties with the previous versions, these protestations of difference tend to make the earlier text visible". From this perspective, the reboot precariously straddles a fulcrum between new and old, inseparable yet disconnected, what Derrida describes as a state of 'undecidability' due to the erosion of ostensibly immutable binary opposites (Sarup 1993: 52). Batman Begins erases Batman and Robin yet through this process of 'undoing', it also preserves. The 'trace' will always remain.
The Reboot as Adaptation
According to DiPaulo (2011: 55), "Batman Begins won the support of comic book aficionados across cyberspace as a 'traditional' and pitch-perfect portrayal of Batman". Firstly, this statement seems to imply that there is a traditional Batman with which to adapt, but, as discussed in the introduction to this paper, this is rather problematic. Batman Begins does not borrow or adapt an ur-text, as such, but is influenced and informed by several enunciations within the Batman matrix. I say 'several', but even this is harder to pin down than I suggest. What is Batman Begins adapting? If it is not an original, singular text, then what episodes or instances provide the influential material that creates this notion of 'traditional' or 'authentic'?
Brooker (2012) points out that Batman Begins adapts "not one text, but many...not a single source but a vast archive". However, Brooker reads the film as comprising a limited selection of material rather than a "composite and condensation of the sixty-six year mythos", as Nolan himself seemed to claim. Key influencing texts include: Batman- Year One (Miller 1987), The Long Halloween (Sale 1996), The Man Who Falls (O'Neill 1989), and Denny O'Neil's Ra's Al Ghul stories from the 1970s. But even this pinpointing, Brooker admits, is rather problematic and that this shouldn't be interpreted as "a central, luminous ur-text". This suggests that the plurality and abundance of texts oscillating within and across the cultural circuit make it difficult, if not impossible, to accurately identify any one source as signifier and that "the works of previous and surrounding cultures [are] always present" (Sanders 2006: 2). Batman Begins as adaptation simply has no static, unified source text.
It is not only the Batman matrix that a new text - or, to use Gerard Genette's (1997) term, a hypertext - is constructed, shaped or penetrated, but within "an intersecting and indefinitely expandable web" of texts (Sarup 1993: 52). Even Batman's foundational years in the late 1930s and early 40s adapted elements of other textual utterances. According to Egan (2009:93), for instance, Batman is "an amalgam of existing properties: the result of a creative vision through the prisms of childhoods spent consuming pulp magazines, movies and literature" which include, among other quotations: Douglas Fairbank's The Mark of Zorro; Alex Raymond's Hawkmen from the Flash Gordon comic strip (Jones 2005: 150); Harry Donenfeld's Spicy Mystery Stories included an issue entitled The Batman (McMahan 2005:128); there were pulp crime-fighters called 'The Black Bat', and 'The Bat' (Jones 2005:150). Significantly, 'The Bat' "had a eureka moment when a bat flew in his window" which inspired him to use the symbol as a secret identity which, in turn, became a vital component of the Batman origin story (Egan 2009:94). The Circular Staircase (1908) "may have inspired the bat signal as one of the most memorable images in the film was of a moth trapped in an automobile headlight, its shadow magnified on the wall, looking like a giant bat" (McMahan 2005:129). The early Batman stories were arguably influenced by Edgar Allen Poe's mystery stories, at least thematically. According to Daniels (cited in McMahan 2005:130), Poe's fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, "served as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and Dick Tracy" which, in turn, had an effect on Batman demonstrated by "the style of line drawing in the comics, the gadgets and the spectacular array of villains".
Indeed, Batman's identity partly oscillates between detective and superhero amongst other mobile signifying elements that actively resist closure and that elusive final 'signifed'. Batman is an unstable sign who resists interpretation as he moves within, without and between texts. A text, such as Batman Begins, or Marc Webb's Amazing Spider-Man, may distance itself from history, in theory, but is always pulled violently back into the universe which is seeks to escape. Its ambition to erase only preserves the connection.
Landow (2006:232) argues that, the act of reading "takes the additional form of constructing, however provisionally, one's own text out of fragments, out of separate lexias". Indeed, the reboot, like other adaptive processes, can conjure a cornucopia of endless permutations without any durable causality or end-point. Collins (1992: 331) writes about the hyperconsciousness of media-literate consumers - "sophisticated bricoleurs" - who navigate the 'intertextual array' to 'write' their own version of the text. As Sanders suggests (2006: 14)
[p]art of the sheer pleasure of the reading experience must be the tension between the familiar and the new, and the recognition both of similarity and difference, between ourselves and between reading texts. The pleasure exists, and persists, then, in the act of reading in, around, and (and on).
The Batman text, the comic book hyperdiegesis, and the cultural fabric more generally, are wrapped in processes of 'prosopopeia', a perpetual compilation of competing voices, accentuation and re-accentuation. The reboot seeks the status of 'beginning again' but cannot ever achieve this in a clean sense. The 'bricoleurs', these 'heteroglossic detectives' play in the sandpit of textuality that "creates an infinite horizon of play, an endless game board" (Chabon 2010: 45). Consumers possess a variety of 'intertextual competences 'and may inhabit different 'interpretative communities' (Fish, 1980). For example, there are far more people who have seen a Batman film than read a Batman comic (as indicated by the inordinate discrepancy between each medium's profitability). A comic book fan well-versed in the lore of the Batman multiverse will have an assortment of 'textual tools' at their disposal to traverse the matrix and the array. A cine-literate consumer may not read Batman through the topoi of comic texts but perhaps through an exegesis of Hollywood and other textual networks. This open-ended quality is at the heart of text, the nerve centre of our cultural dialogue and one of the many pleasures of our many adventures in textuality.
The reboot, then, whether in comic books, film, TV, or other textual forms struggles to dislocate itself from history. In the DC universe, the reboot process is invariably explained within the diegesis itself which gives it an internal rationale. One can trace the DC narrative from beginning to present day and the collapse and subsequent rebirth of the universe, or multiverse, is part of the story. The same, however, cannot be said about film although J.J Abrams' Star Trek (2008) reboot utilizes the multiversal option to rationalize the narrative shift which, as with comics, does not affect or pollute classic stories. As with the comic book reboot, we are talking about franchises here, entertainment universes, brands with instantly recognizable iconography that portray the 'beginning again' of a narrative with the protagonist in the process of "becoming"(Arnett 2009: 3). Since Nolan's Batman reboot, the concept is fast entering common parlance within paratextual materials and the process is accelerating. Post- Batman Begins, we have had Casino Royale (James Bond 'becomes' 007); Star Trek (Kirk 'becomes' the legendary Captain of the Enterprise), the forthcoming The Amazing Spider-Man (Peter Parker 'becomes' the web-slinger) and Man of Steel (Kal-El 'becomes' Superman). All reboots are serialised narratives beginning...again.
It is a process of regeneration, of resurrection and rebirth. It allows tired brands, exhausted properties, the luxury of rebirth and the chance to remain vital and relevant whilst providing a relatively stable source of material that does not rely on original untested sources. It is also, of course, connected inextricably to the industry which is "a collection of businesses seeking power and profit" (Gomery 2005: 7). This provides an opportunity to resuscitate, recycle and regenerate 'damaged' franchises by returning to recognizable and iconic product range rather than original, untested material.
A reboot is a brand-new product; yet it is already old. All texts oscillate. All are palimpsestuous. All texts are adaptations. There is no blank slate.
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