Prequels, reboots, remakes, sequels, spin-offs, requels… We’re running out of words to call these things. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a ridiculous resurgence of older intellectual property. Miss your favorite hit show from 2007? Chances are that it’s getting a brand new season sometime soon, or maybe it’s even getting a blockbuster prequel. The fact is that nostalgia sells, and the showrunners and moviemakers know this. Maybe it’s time we took a deeper look at the peculiar phenomenon that is nostalgic media, and all that it entails.
It’s common knowledge that life can be tough. Life is tough. But it didn’t always feel tough did it? Growing up comes with so much stress and drama, that only seems to amplify as time goes on. It can be hard to imagine a life without these troubles, that is, until you’re on your eighteenth rewatch of That’s So Raven and all your worries seem to have melted away. Which isn’t to say that childhood is this pristine and absolutely 100 percent problem-free time in our lives. But going back to old shows, or watching their newer counterparts gives us some sort of tunnel vision. The rough parts around the edges of the past are smoothed and become irrelevant, and our focus at the center is all the good stuff.
Gen Z is a most peculiar case. We are the tweens, teens, and early twenty-somethings of today. We’re still pretty much kids. Yet, more than any generation before us, we find ourselves looking into the past a lot more often, and longing for “simpler times”. We should still be living in our simpler times! Thanks to the internet and social media, we are much more aware of the world around us, and as such, we are overwhelmingly aware of its problems and imperfections. We know so much about topics ranging from racial injustice, to the climate crisis, to mental health, to economic and political turmoil. We are reminded of these things everyday on TikTok,YouTube and Instagram. Sometimes, an escape is just what is needed.
The tunnel vision we get when we look into the past also affects our views on these shows themselves. Jack Powers, a professor in the Media Arts, Sciences and Studies department at Ithaca College shared his perspective on this nostalgic brainwashing. “Our brains do this funny thing where we imagine the past as being more pleasant than it actually was.” Powers said.
“College students, … look back to their childhood [and] they probably have this nostalgic view of the shows that they watched, if they went back and watched those shows today they would say ‘These aren’t good.’” Which is certainly true, and it’s a big part of the ploy that keeps nostalgic media at the forefront of our content today.
Here’s some Media Industry 101. When studios create things based off of older things, it’s pretty low risk. They don’t have to worry about the concept sticking, they don’t have to worry about the cost of gaining the rights to the story, and they don’t have to worry about finding a fanbase: The fan base already exists. For them, it’s a lot less about bringing back a beloved character, and more about making even more money off of that character (bonus points if they can sell some merch from it too).
It may seem like basic logic. People like nostalgia, so they’ll obviously like these nostalgic shows and movies. The studios wish it was that easy. However, that isn’t always the case. Reboots, remakes, sequels, and prequels, all seem to draw opinions as polarizing as the American political system. Fans either eat them up and demand for more, or they completely shut it down (sometimes even before its release) and flare up at the fact that their favorite film has been bastardized. And honestly, you can almost never tell which way it’s going to go.
Sometimes, the pendulum can even swing both ways. Sonic the Hedgehog is the clearest example of this evident swing. Based on the wildly successful eponymous video game series and TV show from the late 90s/ early 2000s, the movie was bound to be a hit… Until its initial trailer came out and it became an instant meme. The character had been “revamped,” and the fans did not like the new look. The Sonic movie became the target of unending online ridicule. After some touch ups though, the final movie was released, and pulled in a whopping $306.8 million. You know what that means… Sequel time! The fans couldn’t stay mad at their favorite witty blue hedgehog, they may have been mad, but they still showed up.
Despite the fact that sometimes remakes and reboots actually get a lot of public backlash, Powers shared that he doesn’t see this nostalgia craze ending any time soon. “[The audience] can say whatever they want,” Powers said “but the evidence suggests that they are still watching. If you don’t like [nostalgic content] then why are you watching it? There is no way, not in 2022, that you can say that there is nothing else [to watch].”
The movie gods don’t show their favor to every nostalgic piece though. Lightyear, Disney’s recent attempt at further capitalizing on the success of the Toy Story franchise barely turned a profit. A common sentiment among upset reviewers is that the film lacks heart. According to them, it’s pretty much an empty cash grab, and as much as we love to project our own emotions and longing into these pieces, the fact is that 99% of the time, it all boils down to the money. This time, nostalgia definitely wasn’t enough to keep things steady.
Love them or hate them, nostalgic pieces are here to stay. According to Powers, “Reboots are here forever, unless we stop watching them, which I don’t think is going to happen. The reason why I dont think it’s going to happen is because I feel like if it were going to happen, then it would have already happened… but we have been doing this for a long time now.” So you might as well just give in, and turn up the volume on your favorite Disney classic.
Ruth Ada Ayambem is a first-year Emerging Media major who is currently on her fourth rewatch of Avatar: The Last Airbender. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Audio recording by Ruth Ada Ayambem.