Cycles, Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes, and Reboots: Multiplicities in Film and Television, Edited by Amanda Ann Klein and R. Barton Palmer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016, 367pp, $29.95 from the publisher’s website)
It is hard to imagine a summer blockbuster that is wholly new, unattached to an existing franchise or some kind of source text, be it another film or TV series, a novel, comic book, video game, or even a board game. Each new mega hit – whether a sequel, reboot, or adaptation – seems to be someone’s last straw and confirmation of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy. This stance is hardly fair to the innovations and experimentation on full display in contemporary commercial cinema. And, more importantly, it ignores film history and more than 100 years of filmmakers relying on previous material to tell their stories. It may be tempting to dismiss Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016) outright, to paint it as a desperate cash grab built on shameless branding, but is its project of creative recycling so far removed from that of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Roy William Neill, 1943)?
Amanda Ann Klein and R. Barton Palmer, the editors of Cycles, Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes, and Reboots: Multiplicities in Film and Television, propose that we look past the derivative nature of these projects. Or at least that we stop devaluing them for it. Not because their allegiance to previous work is exaggerated or misunderstood, but because it is, on the whole, no different from the intertextual constraints of any other film, whether experimental, independent, commercial, or anywhere in between. The editors draw on the work of Gerard Genette and stress the importance of context, of considering the connections between texts. They cleverly move away from critiques based on originality to propose that films and other media do not lose value according to their recognisable brands, but rather that they should be evaluated on their individual merits and with reference to the cultural and industrial factors that influence their production.
This question extends well beyond blockbusters. Klein and Palmer stitch together various discourses surrounding repetition and adaptation in the cinema, proposing the term “multiplicities” to account for the commonalities between such seemingly different concepts as genre, transmedia storytelling, sequels, spectatorship, and more. They seek a cohesive framework that highlights the multiplicities at the heart of many existing discourses, and they largely succeed, bringing together thoughtful, original essays on seemingly disparate topics.
Popular film and television do occupy a special place in this framework, no doubt, needing to be “the same” while also, paradoxically, offering something new; genre conventions are a perfect, basic example of such a double-bind. But Hollywood’s reliance on the audience’s “preawareness” should not be conflated with mindless tentpole action films – there is no reason to blame the unoriginal banality of bad blockbusters on their relationships to past texts.
Klein opens the collection with her own essay on early cinema’s fascination with public displays of heterosexual affection in the “kissing cycle,” where the repetition of kisses served as the main and often only attraction across many films. She looks at the mixing of sexes in cities, changing gender roles, and emerging trends of street harassment at the turn of the century, and the cinema’s attempts to normalize white, patriarchal heterosexuality. Robert Rushing uses a similar methodology to look at the Italian peplum genre of sword-and-sandal epics and its American offshoots; he finds thematic and aesthetic continuity across distinct cycles in their depictions of physical space and the reification of gender norms and colonialist ideologies.
The book’s stated aim is to open up new dialogues and offer a sampling of voices and arguments, bringing together different theories of intertextuality, so it is hard to fault it for not touching on everything. It does beg for further essays and books, though, and tends to steer clear of some of the very categories that it seeks to unpack: there is in fact very little consideration of sequels or spin-offs, for instance, and the book appears to be invested in film cycles more than anything else.
The collection would benefit from clearly defined sections. Many of the essays that follow continue to look at generic cycles, as with those written by Palmer and Steven Doles on postwar “semidocumentaries” and the mid-century “race problem” film respectively. Constantine Verevis strays into some of the overlap between sequels and rip-offs in the revenge-of-nature disaster films that followed Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975). Then the collection briefly moves into new territory with Chelsey Crawford’s look at the recent American cycle of Asian horror remakes and the process of cultural “translation.” From here, we move back and forth between essays on cycles, generic conventions, and remakes of different kinds.
Elizabeth Birmingham explores the weaponized girls of ’90s anime series, arguing that this cycle reflects patriarchal anxieties surrounding femininity while reinforcing the control and containment of female bodies. Vincent M. Gaine delves into the political paranoia surrounding the War on Terror in Bush-era thrillers. Noah Tsika provides a fascinating glimpse at Nollywood’s “anti-biopic” cycle and Nigeria’s complex relationship with Hollywood’s star system and auteurist traditions. Sarah Kornfied looks to familiar generic conventions to argue that a cycle of “gender-reversed” detective TV series recreates the patriarchal politics that the series claim to undermine. Claire Perkins continues this look at gender representation on television, focusing on Showtime’s cycle of series featuring unconventional middle-class white mothers, each dysfunctional in her own darkly comic but empowered way. Kathleen Loock takes on the recent spate of ’80s remakes and reboots, proposing a cycle of “retro-remaking” centred on nostalgia for the recent past. Amy Borden, acknowledging the heterogeneity of mumblecore, locates the genre’s multiplicity and cycle status through its treatment of masculinity as constructed around changing gender norms by a new generation of auteurs.
Some of the essays do truly stand apart, expanding the scope of the collection beyond cycles and remakes. Murray Pomerance provides an extremely thoughtful examination of the bonds between actors and their characters, looking specifically at casting in the Harry Potter series and the extradiegetic experience of seeing a cherished character played by two different actors, as when Michael Gambon took over the role of Albus Dumbledore after Richard Harris passed away. Faye Woods seeks to explain how E4’s Skins maintained cohesion and cultural relevance across its different cycles of cast “generations,” with its biannual replacement of teen ensembles and a brand centred on both renewal and continuity. She shares her focus on paratexts and transmedia storytelling with Kathleen Williams, whose insightful essay on audience engagement and the creative reworking of promotional material highlights and even creates links between films. Andrew Scahill wraps up the collection with an interesting look into the television prequels Bates Motel and Hannibal, series that reuse characters, settings, and plotlines from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) and The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) respectively, but exist in the present, overwriting their precursors’ temporal realities along with our understanding of original story details. His treatment of the series blends elements of TV seriality, cycles, prequels, and reboots, highlighting the collection’s ambitious project while proving its feasibility and overall worth.
Cycles, Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes, and Reboots should have a wide appeal and deserves a large audience. It will be useful to any student or scholar of cycles, seriality, or transmedia studies, as well as to cinephiles interested in multiplicities more broadly. Each essay is focused, providing insights into specific films and their place in cultural and historical contexts. And each author offers a wide range of original ideas, contributing meaningfully to these various fields of study. The collection also fits nicely alongside several other important texts, building on Klein’s own work in American Film Cycles (University of Texas Press, 2011) as well as on earlier scholarship on sequels by Carolyn Jess-Cooke and transmedia studies by Henry Jenkins and Jonathan Gray. I look forward to further developments in multiplicity studies and hope to see an even wider range of topics in future projects.