There are few things more appealing to Hollywood than nice, reliable, intellectual properties. Most of Hollywood is built on the backs of these properties, from the expansion of “Star Wars” and the MCU. Yet one of the ways in which properties often begin to misstep is through the prequel. Prequels make sense in theory. Yet the success rate is rather low. With controversy around “Solo,” and impending prequels to “Game of Thrones” and “The Lord of the Rings,” let’s look a bit deeper at the successes and failures of prequels in modern entertainment.
While the words prequel and George Lucas carry negative connotations together, there’s an argument to be had that one of the very best came from his mind. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” does not feel like a prequel. Yet “Temple” takes place in 1935, the year before “Raiders of the Lost Ark” takes place. The story does not scream prequel, and confidently shows the heroism of Indy without removing his skepticism.
One way in which blockbuster films have been able to pull off fun prequels is by drastically distancing their characters from their fellow heroes. “Wonder Woman” set the title characters against the backdrop of a World War after we had already seen her in the modern world. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” set their prequel 70 years before the start of Harry Potter, and fighting the equivalent war for the wizard community. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” examines the battle before the events of “A New Hope,” and while it was criticized for its last few minutes, most of the film is still well regarded.
TV has also spawned some very interesting takes on the origins of characters via the prequel route. “Hannibal” may have been the most successful foray into the prequel world, but took a wildly different turn than the films. “Bates Motel” also grabbed attention for some time, but this may have been more related to the brilliant Freddie Highmore, Vera Farmiga and modern setting than actual interest in Norman Bates (see “Psycho IV”).
“Better Call Saul” has done an excellent job at filling in the backgrounds of many “Breaking Bad” characters. Whether you like Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), Mike (Jonathan Banks), or Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), the show offers plenty of interesting stories. Finally, “Star Trek” has been the ultimate prequel TV show, with both “Enterprise” and “Discovery” functioning as prequels. That said, the broadness of the worlds they explore allow characters to grow and exist independent of other characters from the original series.
Frankly, the world of prequels is littered with extremely disappointing films. It’s clear we need to start with “Star Wars” as these are often the worst offenders. There was an interesting story to be told in the years prior to “A New Hope.” However, Lucas’ greatest issue may have been that he surrounded himself with “yes-men” instead of people who would challenge him.
No one questioned him when he made the Jedi tax collectors who were essentially UN Peacekeepers with no power to settle disputes. The staff lacked diversity, so no one saw the racial issues plaguing the Jar Jar Binks character or Trade Federation. Last, Lucas doesn’t seem to direct actors particularly well. Hayden Christianson, Jake Lloyd, and even Natalie Portman suffered because of this. It’s tough to make a good movie, but when no one can step up and ask hard questions, directors can lose their way.
This brings us to the misfire with “Solo: A Star Wars Story” this summer. Regardless of where you stand on the movie’s quality, any film that costs above $150 million, and nets back a global gross of under $400 million, is tough to swallow. Beyond the issues of the “should this movie exist” debate, the film struggles because it overexplains. There’s no need to know every little detail from Solo’s past. These issues are not unique to this film, and further highlight the problem of prequels in general.
Enter Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy. This group of films is extremely bloated and spends too much time on characters or villains that don’t work. Some of this is due to extending the story into almost eight hours of content. The idea felt like a cash grab from the start, and this feeling only grew with the additional sequels. The practical effects that endeared many to the franchise were erased in favor of CGI monstrosities. While technology got better, it wasn’t the lack of visuals that brought audiences to the story in the first place. On the contrary, it was the ability to build the astounding visuals through practical effects. Once we’d experienced something tactile and real, a world built through computer effects felt inessential.
Other franchises have mixed results. The “X-Men” films fluctuate between strong to very poor films. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” are borderline unwatchable. Meanwhile, “X-Men: First Class” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” were relatively successful. If FOX had hard rebooted with “First Class,” this inconsistency would have been avoided. Similar issues plague “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant,” both of which have their supporters. However, the “Alien” franchise can’t find a box office footing and feels doomed because of the bloated budgets.
When Do Prequels Work?
This leaves us with the big question: when do prequels work? The answer clearly seems to be through disconnecting the stories from their original source material, both in tone and in the story. For studio executives, this may seem like the worst-case scenario. However, it is really the only way to craft success.
“Fantastic Beasts” regardless of where the sequel takes the story in 2018, gave us 3-5 characters we can bond with, even if someone were to dislike Harry Potter. Even though Potter characters show up, the heart of the story lies with characters unconnected to the boy who lived. “Star Trek” is continually reinventing itself, and delivers on the promise of space exploration time and time again. The epic scale of “Wonder Woman” gave us a world that we are familiar with, which in turn allowed audiences to understand the true power she possesses. Indiana Jones can exist in any time, and by separating Indy from Nazis or characters from “Raiders,” the film succeeds. “Rogue One” built emotional stakes for its characters, and followed through on its promise to kill our heroes.
The “Alien” prequel films were a drastic departure from the original franchise, and while the actual stories contain some weird moments, the instinct to shift away from a straight A leads to B was the right choice. If Fox had rolled with “X-Men: First Class” as a hard reboot, that franchise would have represented a drastic shift in tone. “Hannibal” and “Bates Motel” work on their own terms, disconnected from the characters of the original IP.
Last, avoid over-explaining. Stories built on character development, where we already know the outcome of that development, don’t work. To quote Patton Oswalt, we didn’t need to see Darth Vader as a little kid. There’s no narrative payoff to see that transition. We also know too much of the story for too many characters. Yoda must train Luke. Vader kills Obi-Wan. Luke and Leia will be born. Knowing the paths of too many characters creates over-explanation, and is a major flaw in any prequel storyline.
Prequels can be narratively fulfilling. However, the chances of stumbling or failing on prequels seem to be much higher than sequels. There are sure to be other prequels throughout the history of film, but it is unwise in most cases. A hard reboot with a singular vision is more likely to be successful than the prequel route.