This week, American film audiences can head to their local theater for the release of "Power Rangers," a live-action movie based on the popular martial arts children’s show that premiered in 1993. The movie is just the latest in a long line of cultural products from the ’80s and ’90s to be rebooted for modern audiences. The last few years alone have seen new film adaptations of "Ghostbusters," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Jurassic Park." Combined with the seemingly endless stream of superhero flicks, it would be understandable for audiences to ask the question, “Why all the remakes?”
The simple answer, as it is for many things, is money. Of the 10 highest grossing films released in 2016, eight of them were sequels, reboots or part of a larger cinematic universe. Even when they bomb, reboots and remakes make more than their competitors. In 2015, "Fantastic Four," which was universally panned by fans and critics alike (it received a 9 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes), made more money than the movie "Spotlight," which won the Academy Award for best picture, according to Box Office Mojo and oscar.go.com.
There’s nothing mysterious about why studios continue making these kinds of movies. What’s less clear is why audiences keep choosing to go to them while many are also asking, “Why doesn’t Hollywood make anything original these days?”
In a 2015 blog post, writer and actor Simon Pegg tackled this very question. He theorized that the generation that grew up in the 1980s and ’90s was the first generation that didn’t face an existential crisis such as a world war, severe economic depression or the imminent threat of nuclear holocaust. Because of this, he wrote, “It wasn’t imperative to ‘grow up’ immediately after leaving school.”
This led to what Pegg called an “extended adolescence” in which young adults are drawn to the movies, shows and toys of their childhood in a kind of cultural nostalgia.
Examples of this phenomenon abound, and not just in film. Last summer, the smartphone app "Pokemon Go" capitalized on young adults’ nostalgia by getting them to go outside and catch virtual Pokemon monsters on their phones. Or there’s the resurgence of the Polaroid camera. According to Google Trends, each of the last four years has seen an increasingly larger amount of interest in buying Polaroid cameras, particularly around the winter holidays.
However, nostalgia can’t explain all the movies developed from a consumer product. "The Angry Birds Movie," which was released last year, is based on a smartphone app that only preceded its cinematic spin-off by seven years, hardly enough time for the public to develop a sense of nostalgia for it. It still made nearly $350 million worldwide, which was five times its production budget, according to Box Office Mojo. Similarly, this summer will see the release of "The Emoji Movie," featuring characters based on a set of images that people include in their text messages to convey simple emotions or ideas. As emojis are a current trend, this also couldn't be a case of nostalgia.
Reboots and remakes as a cultural phenomenon are also not even exclusive to modern audiences. The concept has existed for centuries. Perhaps the earliest famous example of a sequel is Homer’s "Iliad" and "Odyssey." The tendency to recycle content exists in other mediums as well. Musical artists continue to cover popular songs of the past, such as 1939’s “Over the Rainbow,” multiple times over.
The best proof that the entertainment industry’s love affair with remakes and reboots is nothing new is the Tarzan franchise. It may not seem like much of a franchise today, but the king of the jungle was a Hollywood mainstay for most of the 20th century. IMDB lists 46 Tarzan movies that were released between 1918 and 1999. That averages out to be less than a two-year gap in between each iteration.
If this has been going on for so long, maybe it is not so much the result of a unique historical occurrence as Pegg suggested, but more of an innate part of human psychology.
Raj Raghunathan, associate editor of The Journal of Consumer Psychology, wrote in Psychology Today that humans are naturally predisposed to “initially dislike unfamiliar stimuli.”
According to Raghunathan, this is the reason that people favor the familiar over the unfamiliar. For example, many people choose to go to the same restaurant for the hundredth time because they know they like it, rather than going to a new place and risking not liking it.
As Raghunathan put it, “We are hardwired to feel that the ‘known devil is better than the unknown angel.’”
The same principle may explain why movie remakes and reboots are so popular. When people stand in line at the movie theater trying to decide which film to see, chances are they are more likely to go with what is familiar, even if there is a possibly better alternative.
So, if the trend stays true, the new "Power Rangers" movie will likely make a lot of money, whether or not it's any good.