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Nothing’s New: Sequels, prequels, and remakes in cinema

Cinema is dead. Of course, I’m being dramatic, viewership emerging from the pandemic across streaming platforms, and in theatres has been at all-time highs, but despite the data, I can’t help feeling that the content is bland, formulaic and predictable. I’m not a film snob, and I live for a crappy rom-com, but the proliferation of remakes, sequels and prequels is something I can't ignore and I don’t think is too much of a hot take either. Of course, all these are a staple of cinema and have been for some time, but emerging from the miasma of the Barbenheimer phenomenon, I feel as if cinema has plateaued again. Maybe this ‘crisis’ is something I’ve imagined, but I think it’s worth at least observing how the film industry continues to supplant promising new projects with franchise money grabs.

Audiences aren’t idiots, despite what film execs might think; and films that aren’t good, don’t do well (shocker) - which is perhaps why the latest Marvel profit ploys have been such a flop - with Ant-Man: Quantumania (2023) grossing only $30mil (mere pennies in Marvel terms). Of course, other factors affect these films' success - such as marketing, audiences, scheduling and so on. So perhaps it is better to say that if a film is a remake, that is not a prerequisite for its failure, but rather the trend appears to be that these films tend to be low quality due to lazy filmmaking and relying on existing audience investiture in the original. 

Perhaps this disillusionment with cinema is due to the underappreciation, undervaluation and underpayment of writers in Hollywood - evidenced by the SAG-AFTRA strike - or maybe this is all just a Mandela effect and the number of prequels, sequels and remakes isn’t that significant, it just feels like cinema has suffered this crisis of faith. My disparaging comments aside, this does not negate the originality or ingenuity behind recent projects such as How to Have Sex (2023) or Bottoms (2023). So why do I feel like the value of cinema has cheapened? For one, streaming services have increased the accessibility of film, with exclusive releases to platforms designed to bring in new consumers. This has had a two-fold effect; cinema is no longer a big event, and so film executives have to be sure that their films will bring in audiences to maximise profits, whilst at the same time streaming services scramble for subscribers (Netflix no longer holding the monopoly). The dilution of the streaming market to different platforms has enlarged competition between them - with the more recent rise of Max (formerly HBO Max), Peacock and AppleTV - as well as with traditional cinema. This has been exacerbated by rising costs of living, which leaves prospective audiences weighing between going to the cinema and choosing between platforms. Thus, the reliability of a remake, franchise film or sequel which already has existing popularity is theoretically a shoe-in to making a profit. For example, Hunger Games: Catching Fire alone grossed over $865 mil worldwide and with the prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2023), the franchise has grossed over $3.3bil. Another effect of streaming services on cinema is the commodification of original films - we are all familiar with a Netflix Original - and now Amazon Prime, Apple TV and HBO are following suit. Thus, not only does traditional cinema have to compete with streaming services and make content that will bring in profit, but it also has to compete with the rise of films made independent of the traditional film industry - for example, Netflix produces and owns the rights to these films, rather than outsourcing to one of the major production companies (such as Warner Bros, Universal and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

So, both ‘traditional cinema’ and content generated through streaming services suffer the same problem: competing for audiences is inhibiting the innovation of the film industry, leading to recycled or stale content. Disney is a key example of this - producing content both for traditional cinema and exclusively for its streaming platform. Recent Disney films have capitalised upon the remake market; reprising classics in live-action such as The Little Mermaid (2023) and Mulan (2020). Principally, these two films exemplify how remakes suffer a contradiction - staying true to the original and yet, the expectation that the studio must achieve something new with the story. 

The Little Mermaid (2023), for all its faults, felt like a genuine effort both to pay tribute to Disney’s original film and emphasise the representation of people of colour as central protagonists. Halle Bailey's excellent portrayal of Ariel is a performance in its own right, it neither overshadows (nor is overshadowed by) the original, but also provides an opportunity for black and brown girls to feel represented and empowered. The significant viewership on Disney Plus within just five days of release indicates the resonance and demand for such inclusive storytelling; The Little Mermaid garnered over 16 million views in its first 5 days on the platform. Furthermore, The Little Mermaid (2023), while not entirely groundbreaking, has a soundtrack that combines the original with a few new additions - complementing Halle Bailey’s talent - and the vibrancy of the cinematography reimagines the original in the technicolour of modern visual effects. So, remakes have a role to play, and The Little Mermaid, despite its disconcerting photorealism - Flounder’s new look is particularly upsetting - is a respectable addition to Disney’s plethora of remakes, updating an anachronous story with a captivating new look whilst revising tropes that no longer reflect 21st-century values.

Mulan (2020) paints a starkly different picture. The 1998 animated version is a heartwarming story exploring family dynamics, gender roles, and determination through adversity. The remake felt like an insincere reimagining of the original film; instead of underscoring what makes Mulan a relatable and admirable heroine, Mulan (2020) made its titular character somewhat of a Mary Sue. This characterisation of Mulan as a ‘Mary Sue’ - a female character who is overly idealised, lacking in flaws or weaknesses, and whose abilities or qualities far exceed those of other characters in the story - appears to be a misguided attempt by Disney to adapt their stories to more feminist notions. Yet Mulan, unlike traditional Disney princesses such as Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, delves into gender roles and expression, surpassing them. So, while aiming to revise an outdated film, it may have overcompensated. The Mary Sue trope often oversimplifies female characters, erasing their nuances, its tendency to serve as a vehicle for self-insertion can make these characters equally inaccessible. Mulan of 2020 is a cheap caricature of the 1998 one, usurping the exploration of gender expression to instead sell a picture of ‘empowerment’ minus any meaningful character development. 

The fixation on sequels (or prequels) and remakes does appear to be a disease in Hollywood, with the recent Mean Girls remake and Wonka, the live-action fixation within Disney and the oversaturation of franchise films that are shoved down the public’s throat. This, however, would not be a problem if they successfully navigated the paradigms of originality and paid homage to its source. Thus, it becomes apparent that relying on these well-loved stories as a crutch to draw in audiences, whilst at the same time often completely erasing what made them loved in the first place, it appears studios and streaming services alike - with the chief perpetrator, Disney, at the centre of it all - are in a dark place. On a side note, I would like to add that just because a film is part of a franchise, does not mean it is inherently bad - but - the general trend tends to be toward lazy writing - incorporating recycled tropes, characters and storylines. Furthermore, in a Radio Times article from 2018, ‘the figures show a steady rise in sequels and remakes since 1993, with their number multiplying by 700 per cent over 25 years’. Thus, the franchise film is both in its golden age - in terms of sheer output - and altogether in its darkest time, with the quality of these films tending to be low, on counts of both storytelling and filmmaking. It seems that the exorbitant amount of remakes, sequels and prequels - whether or not they are well-received - is primarily driven by profits, regardless of the good intentions of ‘reimagined classics’ (as Disney Plus names it). Though there is still hope, it is abundantly clear that capitalism does not breed innovation; remake-mania does not appear to be letting up.

Words: Lizzie Winter, she/her


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