Our Toxic Remake Culture: Why Do We Insist on Making the Same Old White-Guy Movies?

Originally posted on Salon.com

Like it or not — despite the many, many hectoring jeremiads by the people who fall on the “not” side of the argument — “remake culture” seems to be here to stay. The most anticipated films of the upcoming year are all adaptations of or sequels to works that are decades old.

And that’s not news; these days it would be news if that weren’t true. The Avengers, Star Wars, Jurassic Park — if my 12-year-old self were magically transported to 2015 while walking up to a “Coming Attractions” marquee at a movie theater he’d probably be briefly confused about whether he’d actually gone anywhere. (The fact that Star Wars: The Force Awakens technically comes “next” after Return of the Jedi in series order doesn’t help matters.)

And we can have a long talk about possible reasons Hollywood is becoming increasingly risk-averse, from declining profit margins for theatrical releases to the increasingly bloated stock-market-like backroom trade in film rights from existing properties.

But a big reason is that studios are actually listening to their customers, and remakes are what you want.

It’s what you’re making, after all — and by “you” I mean the vast majority of people out in the indie fan world that supposedly serves as our alternative, our escape from the moribund studio system.

What has the Internet been spending all this time making? Fan fiction, fan art, fan films. It’s hard to tell at times if the people making “gritty reboot” trailers are parodying Hollywood or unironically creating something they want — the sheer volume of excited fans who crowd around various gritty reboot projects seems to imply the latter.

Hop onto the self-published e-books listings on Amazon and see how many of the e-books are transparently marketed as fanfic for some established franchise (and how many of those are, specifically, a well-known franchise “plus zombies”). Hop onto YouTube and see how many videos are just “remixing” the video from one well-known thing to the soundtrack of another well-known thing, or are “tributes” to an existing viral video consisting of other people exactly imitating the first video. See how exhaustive the list is of musicians who do endless cover versions of the same exhausting series of Top 40 pop songs.

And look, I don’t want to be a cranky old fart about this. I was one of the founding members of freeculture.org. I’m aware of the sayings “Pop Will Eat Itself” and “Everything’s a Remix.

All art builds on other art, and some of the greatest art in history was directly inspired by the conscious desire to build on others’ work. Shakespeare borrowed all the plots from his plays from other writers; Mozart based compositions on popular folk tunes; some of the most memorable films in history are remakes, like the 1983 Scarface.

Which is actually getting a 21st century remake too, actually.

But Mozart didn’t just cover “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on an electric guitar or ukulele in front of a webcam and call it a day. Shakespeare’s adaptations of other people’s plots are as notable for their bold changes in what they added or changed as for what they preserved — Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is the memorable “King Lear” because it’s the one where Lear and Cordelia die, instead of preserving the “canonical” boring ending where the good guys win.

When you make something based on something else, whether you consciously label it as a remake or call it an original work taking inspiration from the past, the only reason to do it is if you’re bringing something new to the table. Some new angle, some nuance, some take on the old material that hasn’t been covered yet.

Every act of remaking is a tension between nostalgia and innovation — between the part of us that gets that warm glow of reassurance that we’re hearing the same old story again and the part of us that hungers for the excitement of hearing something new.

And, well… right now it seems like nostalgia has the upper hand. (Note that geek icon Alan Moore made an obsession with “nostalgia” one of his signs of the coming apocalypse in Watchmen.)

Take Ghostbusters. If there is a reason to do Ghostbusters without the classic original cast, it’d be to take the kind of action-comedy with heart that Ghostbusters pioneered and try it from a different perspective.

What made the original Ghostbusters memorable was having a bunch of comedians known for playing quirky lovable losers doing something they’d never done before — star as action heroes in a supernatural adventure to save the world.

The only way to sort of recapture that magic would be to once again bring in the most unlikely set of comedians to be action heroes fighting supernatural evil. And, of course, the only way to get more “unlikely” comedian action heroes would be to make them comedienne action heroines. We’ve come to expect comedians becoming quippy badass world-saviors, when they’re guys, but did even the most hardcore fans of Kristen Wiig or Melissa McCarthy ever imagine they’d be cheering them on against the forces of darkness in a feature film?

If you’re going to bring back Ghostbusters at all, this is the only defensible way to do it — to do it in a way that somewhat approximates how groundbreaking the original was, instead of doing the worst possible thing–making a Ghostbusters that is, itself, just another one of a long chain of movies ripping off Ghostbusters.

And, naturally, nostalgia-addicted pop culture being what it is, the all-female Ghostbusters got blasted with incredible vitriolic hate, until the haters were mollified by the announcement of another, separate Ghostbusters remake that is exactly the shallow Ghostbusters rehash they were apparently hoping for.

Perhaps it’s unfair for me to say that, but come on: This project is backed by Dan Aykroyd, who’s on record as saying he wanted a “conventional” Ghostbusters remake after his plans for a straight-up sequel with the original cast were scuttled by Bill Murray’s, justifiably, refusing to do it because it would be pointless.

And the stars? Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt, who, in sharp contrast to Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, or Kate McKinnon, are exactly the people you would expect as the leads in a wacky action-comedy where lovable heroes save the world, because that’s how they’re being cast in all the other movies. You’ve got Pratt in the goofy flirty Venkman role, Tatum in the gung-ho badass-but-dorky Stantz role — just stir in Benedict Cumberbatch as Spengler to play the brainy cold-fish genius like he always does, add a black sidekick (can we borrow Terrence Howard from the first Iron Man movies) and, poof, you’ve replicated the 1984 formula in the most predictable way possible.

And yes, I do think it’s fair to make the prediction that the Bro-busters will be more derivative, predictable and boring than their female counterparts. I’d make this prediction even if the two films had the exact same script — because casting doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and some of the most groundbreaking female characters in film started with characters written to be gender-neutral who acquired new significance when played by a woman. (Ripley from Alien is the most famous example.) [Ed. note: Coincidentally played by Ghostbusters’ own Sigourney Weaver.]

Unlike people who sneer about “diversity for diversity’s sake” as a negative, I’d say of all the repeated clichéd tropes that I’m sick of, one of the biggest is how the majority of stories we publish center around white male protagonists even though white guys are only 31% of America’s population (and 9% of the world’s). If nothing else, yes, a new Ghostbusters could improve upon the original by questioning tropes like throwing a badass actress like Sigourney Weaver into the mix only to play a damsel in distress, or having the only black character be a working-class outsider who joins the company in order to act as a foil for three white Ph.D.s.

But I don’t get the impression that the difference between the two films will just be that one cast is “more diverse” by EEOC standards. The race and gender imbalance in Hollywood is the most glaring elephant in the room in terms of conservative Hollywood sameyness, so much so that the Bechdel Test was invented to spoof what a dire sausagefest the average mainstream film’s cast is.

To look at a landscape as massively skewed as modern Hollywood and not just defend it but viscerally, emotionally defend it speaks to a bone-deep longing for familiarity, a fundamental resistance to change. It’s what gets us a sixth Rocky movie, a fifth Rambo movie, and a whole film series based on the premise “Nothing About Sylvester Stallone’s Career Has to Change.” It gets us comic book “resets” that annihilate years of character development to restore them to their pristine, 1960s status. It eventually leads to death threats against community managers for video game Kickstarters for daring to draw fan art of a Mega Man-inspired character as a woman.

And yes, in case my bias isn’t showing, a deep attachment to the same old stories about the same old white guys tends to betray a lack of creativity in other areas. Whitewashed films are generally not good films.

The TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender earned critical praise and a massive cult following for its innovative style, and the groundbreaking decision to imagine a fantasy world where Caucasian-looking people simply did not exist was an integral element in that style. When M. Night Shyamalan demonstrated he didn’t get why the race of the characters mattered and instead did standard Hollywood white-centric casting, it was a predictable sign that he didn’t get anything else about why the series was unique and instead made a generic, forgettable heroic-fantasy action movie.

Same with Khan as played by Ricardo Montalban being one of the most memorable Star Trek villains ever — the only one to graduate from the original TV series to the silver screen — only for Star Trek Into Darkness to cast Benedict Cumberbatch to play him in the reboot. Again, the issue wasn’t simply that the character’s race was changed — it was that blithely changing the character’s race was merely symptomatic of apparently not caring what the character was about and treating him as interchangeable with the Standard Creepy Benedict Cumberbatch Character.

The reactionary demand for a steady diet of the familiar is most obvious and most damaging when it comes to issues like race and gender but it rarely stops there. The people outraged at Spider-Man being anything other than white are the same kind of people who react with violent outrage to changing how Spider-Man’s powers work or altering the same familiar origin story that we’ve already rehashed countless unnecessary times.

So yes, I’m extremely opposed to the bone being thrown to the cultural reactionaries with the all-new all-male Ghostbusters, not because I’m opposed to whiteness or maleness on principle, but because in media whiteness and maleness tend to go with sameness, and I’ve had all the sameness I can stand. I support diversity in media not just because diversity is valuable “for diversity’s sake,” though it is, but because it’s the people willing to throw out the tired white male protagonist formula who are willing to throw out formulas in general — and in the Age of the Remake that’s the most precious quality a creator can have.

27 thoughts on “Our Toxic Remake Culture: Why Do We Insist on Making the Same Old White-Guy Movies?

  1. “The people outraged at Spider-Man being anything other than white are the same kind of people who react with violent outrage to changing how Spider-Man’s powers work or altering the same familiar origin story that we’ve already rehashed countless unnecessary times.”

    Great article overall, but I have to disagree with you on this point. I find that comics fans in particular are immense hypocrites when it comes to this sort of thing. They will accept ludicrous death/resurrection cycles, wildly shifting origin stories and multiple poorly-defined alternate universes to accommodate all the discrepancies – but if a change contains even a hint of diversity or inclusion, it’s suddenly a major continuity issues . They’ll accept a hero’s mantle being passed down through generations of white guys, but throw a woman or a PoC in the mix and ALL COMICS ARE RUINED FOR EVER.

    This was particularly apparent when it was announced that Thor is now a woman. There’s plenty of precedent for this in the comics. Back in the 80s, the writers established that Thor is a role, not a person and whoever wields the hammer Mjolnir become Thor. In terms of wacky violations of the established rules of a universe, a female Thor is tame. And I can guarantee that if new Thor had been another white guy, there would have been barely a ripple of discontent. New Thor is a female power fantasy and there’s a subsection of nerd types who find that threatening, but instead of admitting that they don’t want to see more powerful women in leading roles in comics, they hide behind dubious appeals to continuity and canon to justify their stance.

  2. I agree. The best result would be if they went ahead with the female Ghostbusters project considering it is a change and a fresh idea. There’s nothing worse, as you mentioned, than seeing a remake that brings almost nothing new to the table. So I actually look forward to seeing the “Bridesbusters”!

    1. I don’t see how its disrespecting it’s origins in anyway just because of its change in gender format. Its trying something new and different whilst I imagine it will be kept in tradition of the original 2 with a lot of references and cameos. Anyway, There’s no point in shitting on an idea before you’ve seen the finished article… If by then it turns out to be crap then yeah… what a shame. ..but until then I’m intrigued

  3. Diversity =Variety.

    SJW’s are not asking to end the universe or crap on the original source material, etc. To me, this kind of thing is no different then parody movies or remixes of a popular song. Or The work of Weird Al Yankovic, which is both and I love that guy.

    It’s no different to me then casting Lucy Liu as Watson or having a version of a Shakespeare play enacted by bears. Oh and if youre going to trot out the old sawhorse about making Black Panther a White guy, we already have several iterations of that guy.
    His name is Tarzan.Just as we’ve had umpteen bazillion movies about White men who want to be the next Bruce Lee.

    If you can find a seriously compelling reason to explore Luther or Luke Cage as White men, I’ll give it a look-see, I won’t hate on it prematurely, Although it will get some significant side-eye because we already have several movies about invulnerable White guys and their names are Captain America, Thor and Superman.

    It’s not that I don’t love White men in movies. They are Hella fun. In fact, I’m looking forward to seeing a few this summer but I have no problem throwing my money at a Black Captain America or a female version of Thor and cheering them on too.

    It’s not a zero sum game. the original Ghostbusters will still exist and I don’t even begin to understand how having a Black Stormtrooper or a female Ghostbusters is crapping on the original source material. I just don’t get that its disrespectful to it all.

  4. Well first of all – whatever happens – I promise you the original will always exist! And secondly – It’s diversity through care and appreciation of its origins. As the author of this post mentioned, the reason why Ghostbusters worked so well the first time round is because they were “underdogs” fighting paranormal activity – Now what better “underdogs” than 4 female actresses that aren’t your typical Hollywood “babes”. These are still comedians playing these roles. Although very little has been released describing the creative elements of the project, most of what has been publicised leads me to believe this film is in very good care. I mean even Reitman is in favour of this as it seems to be the birth of a GhostBusters universe. And finally, it seems like you’ve got what you wished for so please enjoy that cake as much as you can:-


    1. yeah, I think the new male version of the Ghostbusters is a bad idea only because its a counter-response to another movie based on it. Not because the people making it really love the idea. they’re making it because they love the original.

      I think it’s a bad idea but that doesn’t mean it wont be any good. I might go see it, Idk. I’m just giving it the side-eye, right now, because of the manner and reason for which it was announced.

      I have no idea whether or not it will be a crap movie, I do know that making that movie or Enter the Dragon are bad ideas. That’s all. I can’t hate them before They’ve even started making them yet but I can question whether they need to be made at all. Hell, they may turn out great and I’ll love them and the originals. There’s room in my life for remakes.

    2. The original will exist because it’s not physically being changed or edited. That will forever be untouched. Cherish it in your DVD collection….it’s there forever mate 🙂 and I think you’re totally missing the point

      1. You’ve lost me. You’re making way too many contradicting statements and very little sense. I hate to use a cliché here but let’s agree to disagree.

      2. Films aren’t exclusively for the audience of it’s release. I’m pretty sure a lot of young people know who they are and are intrigued with their story just as much as people from the 80s were. Its the same with Star wars or many other films… hardcore fans exist from whatever their age, background, etc. That’s the beauty of film duckhunter1… it’s recorded. Like I said before the Ghost busters original and whatever source material is being remade will remain completely intact… so why not have something new and fresh added to that… it’s called evolution… and like I said looks like you fanboys have what you want as a Brobusters film looks to be on its way at the same time

    3. Why not? I wish they would! I’d watch the Hell out the out of a Gay or Transgender superhero with a disability. Now Thats some variety, right there!

    1. Yes, the reply windows don’t seem to be used properly in this website.

    2. Oh, btw. I have no clue who duckhunter is talking to or even what he’s trying to say, so we’re all confused.

      1. Thank goodness I’m not the only one who thinks that. Seems like he’s blowing a lot of steam in different pointless directions

  5. Anyway, the issues on remakes are also relate to some of the issues that were brought up in the last Hard NOC Life discussion. I think it would be good to revisit that again and focus on concepts of authorship, fandom, and when fans start becoming the authors.

    As for Hollywood’s habit of remakes it’s still a sad aspect of their industry. Some stories get retold because they’re classics. Icons like the Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, Hercules, and King Arthur will always be re-adapted. BTW: this isn’t isolated to Hollywood. Many other countries love to retell their classic tales. But the later 20th century pop culture films are more suspect because they have more of a cult status. They’re actually more connected to the period they were made in with fans still alive from when they first came out. Unfortunately, unlike the heroes I mentioned earlier, they belong to a specific company, and they’re licensed out for maximum profits. Look at the attempt to revive slasher films like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre…they didn’t have the same impact as before. Any genre is prone to being burnt out when they run out of ideas.

    When a concept can be improved on and done right, it can succeed. From “Blacula” we slowly went to “Blade”, despite the writer’s efforts in directing the third film. From classic Star Trek we went to Next Generation and then got Captain Sisko in Deep Space 9. That’s just a small sample of what can be achieved when creators start to break the mold.

    1. Duck, are you seriously asking because you don’t know why classics are remade? it’s fairly self-explanatory.

      Why are you assuming the creation of Capt. Sisko is tied to the creation of a gay character in Star Trek? Arthur Chu’s article was not about gay characters. That can be discussed elsewhere.

  6. duckhunter1 please do your research… Mad Max: Fury Road is a sequel – At most it will be a reboot sequel but it’s one project that appears to be a major continuation from its origins more than any other “remake or reboot” nowadays as the creator George Miller is all over it, directing, writing, producing, you name it.

    1. @duckhunter1 you’re very passionate about “your” treasured movie series’ and I really appreciate that… but I think you really need to take a long hard think about what it really is that upsets you – because to everyone else there is absolutely no logic or coherence behind your arguments.

      If Mel Gibson does or doesn’t make an appearance (who knows as he might make a cameo or it might even turn out that Hardy is his son) doesn’t instantly mean it’s going to be an awful movie and most certainly doesn’t devoid it of being a sequel.

      Countless amounts of sequels, remakes, and reboots have worked and just as many haven’t. Here’s a handful of remakes that have flourished both financially and critically:

      Ocean’s Eleven
      The Thing
      The Departed
      The Fly
      Dawn of the Dead
      King Kong

      Note that none of them have “original” actors in starring roles.

      Here’s a list of reboots that have had a lot of success:

      Star Trek
      Casino Royale
      Batman Begins
      Rise of the Planet of the Apes

      And here’s a prime example of a sequel not working out that starred it’s original actor almost 20 years after his last appearance:

      Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

      So as I’ve said before and as the point of this article has failed to make you realise: Rehashing material just to satisfy a core fan-base is unhealthy for the development of cinema.

      Some of them bring something new to the franchise, some of them don’t. How about just waiting until it’s released to make your judgment?

      1. You may have an inkling of a point (It’s good that it’s a point that works for you and logically works for you) with everything else you’ve said but you’re really off the button with this Mad Max thing.

        As much as Mel Gibson was a huge part of the first 3 films, the most creative factor was the creator himself, George Miller, and if he sees fit for someone else to play his star character, or to use CGI combined with practical effects or whatever he thinks is the right thing to do, then not only should you stop calling this a lazy rehash but it really seems to be the best indication of the truest form of original Mad Max representation you can get.

        So if I were you I’d actually give the film a chance instead of wallowing in your own pessimism.

        And there’s far more important things in the world to protest than superficial issues so… no thanks.

      2. Yeah but Aliens is slightly different, Miller is a huge part of the creativity of the mad Max world.

        Ridley Scott was huge for the Alien universe but he isn’t the sole creator… plus Prometheus was Ridley Scott’s idea and a lot of people actually enjoy it so you should respect that not go around claiming that everything should be the way you want it like some spoilt brat.

        You have to realise that films are for everyone and not just yourself. That we share these experiences and view them in our own completely individual ways.

        That’s the thing about taste… there’s no accounting for it.

        I’m more than happy to discuss film, music or any art form but protesting about subjective issues of taste is a huge waste of time…

  7. @duckhunter1 CONTRADICTABOOM!!!!

    “mark my words no it WONT! people want new not old who remembers Paul McCartney and Ringo star!”

    “so why do we do that? Classics should not be remade. like Mad Max”

  8. I have to admit, I agree with what you are saying. The way that Hollywood is stuck in a remake culture is saddening. Growing up on the 80’s movies that became iconic (Ex. Blazing Saddles, Pulp Fiction, Star Wars, Dirty Harry), I can only fear the changes that could happen if anyone would try to remake them. Some movies are better left unchanged.

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