"The Amazing Spider-Man" — Marc Webb's reboot of Sam Raimi's 2002 kickoff to the popular and profitable superhero franchise — has managed to charm critics and audiences despite the fact that, almost to a man, everyone who has seen the film has declared it unnecessary.
"Sony has chosen to re-cast and re-tell, essentially, the same story we all just heard in 2002," wrote Dana Stevens in a largely negative review for Slate.
"I didn't much want to like 'The Amazing Spider-Man' on two conflicting grounds at once: its redundancy and its infidelity, the fact that it was telling an over-familiar story and the fact that it was telling it wrong," wrote Chris Orr in a largely positive review for the Atlantic.
"There isn't a scene in the new, technically improved version that doesn't beg comparison or the question of why rebooting the franchise this soon is necessary," wrote Steve Persall in a mixed review for Florida's Tampa Bay Times.
And so it goes: Three-quarters of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes have given "The Amazing Spider-Man" a positive review, and almost all of them have uttered some version of the same complaint.
But why? Comic books are far from alone when it comes to being adapted over and over again.
Consider "A Christmas Carol." Charles Dickens' classic has been adapted for screens large and small dozens of times. In just the past 20 years, there have been seven film adaptations of "A Christmas Carol," including a version with the Muppets and a version in which Jim Carrey played both Scrooge and the ghosts who plague him. Television has introduced another five iterations of Scrooge to the world.
Many of these adaptations are dispensable, but there have been a handful of true classics throughout the years: 1935's "Scrooge," the first adaptation made with sound, remains one of the best; 1951's "Scrooge," starring Alastair Sim, is considered a classic; 1988's "Scrooged," starring Bill Murray in a comedic spin on the character, is a modern yuletide yukfest.
Similarly, Shakespeare doesn't get old. You'll never see a critic write, "'Romeo and Juliet' — again?" Or "The Danish Prince still?" Or, "This Macbeth joker, always with the murders!" Shakespeare theater troupes proliferate; New York City's Shakespeare in the Park is a world-famous tradition; high schools, colleges and community theaters dip into the Bard's catalog every year — and the productions are judged by their quality, not by whether someone else has staged the plays recently.
The thing about rebooted comic-book heroes — Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, etc. — is that they are just archetypes. Spider-Man is the everyman granted power who suffers a tragedy after failing to use said powers for good, thus learning, "With great power comes great responsibility."
Batman is a young nobleman whose parents were betrayed and murdered by the city they wanted to help, driving his urge for vengeance against the evildoers plaguing the kingdom. Superman is — well, Superman's a god: invulnerable, essentially omnipotent, can fly. Hard to get more archetypal than that. No wonder DC Comics and Warner Bros. are readying another Supes reboot in 2013.
As archetypes, they are adaptable to any time or circumstance with renewed relevance and power. Tim Burton's "Batman" and dark, gothic Gotham reflected urban unease in the '80s; Joel Schumacher's colorful campfests put Batman and his city square in the carefree '90s; Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, concluding with next week's opening of "The Dark Knight Rises," is a reflection on life in the post-9/11 age, a smart critique of the liberal order's ability to react to an age of nihilistic terror.
Mr. Nolan understands this perfectly well. "Batman will outlive us all, and our interpretation was ours," the filmmaker recently told Entertainment Weekly. "Obviously, we consider it definitive and kind of finished. The great thing about Batman is he lives on for future generations to reinterpret."
Of course, studios don't launch reboots and remakes just because they feed our primal hunger for new iterations of the hero with a thousand faces. They launch them because they make money.
"The Amazing Spider-Man," to almost no one's surprise, did just that, pulling in $140 million in its first six days. Its 2002 forebear raked in almost $115 million in its U.S. opening weekend and went on to make more than $400 million in domestic grosses.
Mr. Nolan's first two Batman pictures have netted three-quarters of a billion dollars domestically — and surely will top $1 billion shortly after "The Dark Knight Rises" opens.
"The Dark Knight" set a record for the biggest box-office opening of all time in 2008, just as Mr. Burton's "Batman" did in 1989 upon its release. Even reboots that don't spawn new franchises or shatter box-office marks do OK for themselves: "Superman Returns" limped to just more than $200 million domestically, a result that was disappointing but far from embarrassing.
These pictures are so lucrative and so reliable that it's a safe bet plans are under way secretly to reboot the Batman franchise as soon as possible.
Obviously, superhero pictures are filling a gap in the marketplace: Critical weariness of reboots aside, audiences love them. We are starved for tales of unambiguous heroism, the sort of film that gives us good guys and bad guys and resolution, self-sacrifice and self-reliance.
When audiences tire of Spider-Man's web-slinging, they'll stop turning out. Until then, don't be surprised to see a Justin Bieber-anchored, Wes Anderson-directed "The Spectacular Spider-Man" headed your way in 2022.