There was much Muggle rejoicing when J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard made his Broadway debut this week. Critics and fans raved about the spellbinding special effects in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, set 19 years after Harry defeated Voldemort, and how the show extends Rowling’s magical tale. (See Film & Stage.) Yet for all that applause, it’s hard not to see this latest Potter installment as proof that pop culture is running low on ideas. All that’s left to scrape from the story barrel, it seems, are sequels, spin-offs, and revivals. Fifteen of last year’s 20 biggest films—including Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Wonder Woman—were sequels or relaunches. And at least 43 of this year’s box office releases are reboots or follow-ons, among them Avengers: Infinity War—the 19th (19th!) film in the Marvel superhero series. Roseanne and Lost in Space recently returned to our TVs, and Amazon is now working on a five-season Lord of the Rings show, presumably to satisfy Hobbit huggers who thought the 10-hour movie trilogy wasn’t quite long enough.
All this recycling makes financial sense for entertainment executives. They know that in a competitive marketplace, consumers will typically pick a brand they’re familiar with over something new, whether it’s dish soap or a movie. And for audiences, this cultural regurgitation can be a source of comfort in an age of uncertainty and deep political division. Bombarded with news of turmoil in Washington, terrorist atrocities, and mass shootings, it’s understandable that many people retreat to predictable fantasy worlds like Star Wars—where the light and dark sides of The Force have been doing battle for 40 years—or the Marvel Universe, where the superheroes of their childhood comic books are still vanquishing villains. But leave the theater or turn off the TV, and the real world—where the plotlines are always messy and reboots are rarely allowed—is still there.