The Subtle Rise of Good Prequels

Whisper it, but are movie and TV prequels a little better than they used to be?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

It doesn’t feel like all that long ago that sequels came in for a lot of derision. The second one, people reasoned, is never as good, with The Godfather Part II being the exception that proved the rule rather than a decent rebuttal. Nowadays, however, things have changed in a big way. It’s fairly unremarkable when a sequel is considered superior to the original, and in some cases films get a lot of slack from people who say “yeah but they’re just setting things up for a better second one.” For a long time now, sequels have been fairly respectable, meaning the derision of filmgoers has shifted instead to remakes and prequels.

Writing off an entire category of film is narrow minded, but to be fair prequels have never really had a Godfather Part II proving their worth (although it could be argued that that film is a prequel of sorts). The highest profile prequels were, of course, Star Wars episodes I-III, and even in their best moments they are hardly a ringing endorsement of the form. And there were plenty of other grim examples: Hannibal Rising, Dumb And Dumberer, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Exorcist: The Beginning, the list went on, and nothing on that list inspired confidence. And while a case can be made for Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes or Casino Royale, those are more franchise reboots than preludes to specific films. The Apes films never feel like they’re trying to fit comfortably in the continuity of the original. X Men: First Class also possibly has a place here, yet it’s so rife with continuity errors that it’s hard to feel like the makers of that film cared as much about tying it in with earlier films as they did about (successfully) rebooting the series.

The fact is, prequels are tough. You’re already on the back foot in having to create an engaging, suspenseful story when people know the end, and making a prequel feel essential or like it enriches the original is hard; after all, if this story is so good, why wasn’t it the first told? A sequel can use an original as a foundation, whereas a prequel almost has to provide the foundation for the foundation, an act of reverse engineering that rarely feels natural. George Lucas insists that Star Wars is meant to be watched in numerical order, but apart from the fact that doing so would rob a new viewer of some of the series’ biggest twists, there is no way that the 2005 special effects of Revenge Of The Sith will ever feel like an organic predecessor to the more grounded look of A New Hope, no matter how much clunky CGI is added to the earlier film.

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The same issue can be found in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, which at once feel like they’re trying to pack as many references to The Lord Of The Rings in while using an almost cartoony visual style that feels at sharp odds with their predecessors. Or consider Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising, which are both slick and glossy compared to the stark early ’90s grit of Silence Of The Lambs.

And then of course there’s the issue of character. Most prequels are built around showing us how a certain figure from the previous film became the person they are, but this is a huge risk. Screw it up and you can demystify an icon (Vader), or make the younger character too similar to the older one so you have to wonder what the point is (Hannibal).

So prequels are seemingly doomed to fail. Except in the last few years we’ve seen the beginning of what I sincerely hope becomes a trend; prequels that are not only good, but in some cases better than the original. Prequels that, at the very least, enrich what came before them, sometimes in unexpected and thrilling ways.

To get a bit further into this however, we have to discuss what actually constitutes a prequel. After all, technically Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom is a prequel as it takes place before Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but does anyone really consider it an example of the form? The events of Temple have no bearing whatsoever on the events of Raiders, and nobody is insisting you watch Temple first in order to better understand Indy’s motives and character. A true prequel, for my money, has to have some bearing on the events of the original, whether it is filling a narrative gap or explaining the backstory to a certain character.

It’s for this exact reason that, as much as everyone is avoiding the word in reference to a new Star Wars film, Rogue One is in every way, shape and form a prequel. It doesn’t remotely stand alone, its events are only really important in the context of A New Hope, and were you to watch it in a vacuum it would make little sense and be largely unsatisfying.

However, it’s this reliance on the original film to give it any sense of purpose that not only makes Rogue One a prequel but stops it from being a good one. It’s so devoted to either emulating or setting up the original trilogy that it forgets to be a complete and satisfying story in its own right, with weak and forgettable characters ensuring that it won’t have any legacy outside of being “just another Star Wars film.”

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It’s in this area where, even though it wasn’t perfect, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them excelled. Whatever its shortcomings, Fantastic Beasts avoided a deluge of unnecessary references to the Harry Potter films, indulging in exactly three outright references to familiar staples of the previous series and only in ways that made sense in the context of what was going on. Furthermore, Fantastic Beasts, even while setting up a new franchise, actually told a complete story that would be satisfying even if you’d never seen a Harry Potter film and didn’t know there were four more instalments to come. As a film, it feels like its own thing even as it takes place in a new corner of a world we recognise.

But that begs the question; being so removed from the Potter films, does it actually count as a prequel?

Absolutely. While much of the film is given over to the funny and charming hunt for Newt’s beasts, the real central danger is Grindelwald and his scheme to use an Obscurial to wreak havoc on Muggles. As anyone who is familiar with Harry Potter knows, Grindelwald and his relationship with Dumbledore is a huge part of that mythos, and will undoubtedly be the backbone of the Fantastic Beasts series. As such, Fantastic Beasts absolutely has some bearing on the original story and is a prequel, albeit one that succeeds through forging its own identity separate from the franchise that gave it birth.

Meanwhile, television is home to arguably the best prequel there is: Better Call Saul. Saul is a more traditional prequel in that it shows us how a key character from Breaking Bad became the person we knew, yet it does so with an elegance, intelligence, and subversiveness that puts the Star Wars prequels to more shame than they already languished in. Saul brilliantly takes the funniest character from Breaking Bad and dials back the clock to a time when he was far removed from the cocky, amoral Saul Goodman, instead presenting him as a man who just wants to prove he can be a good lawyer and impress his disapproving older brother. Suddenly the comic relief of the older show becomes the tragedy of the newer as we get to know Jimmy McGill and slowly realise that the last thing we want is for this insecure, damaged, hardworking man to become the devil-may-care criminal we once thought was so hilarious.

But we know he will, with occasional flash-forwards reminding us that ultimately his attempts to clean up his act will fail. It turns the central challenge of prequels, that we know the ending, on its head by making that a key part of the experience of the show. We may know where this is going, but how it gets there will not be the way we think and furthermore, we don’t feel the way we thought we would about it.

To boot, Better Call Saul is made with the same meticulous craft as its predecessor, meaning that it is comfortably one of the best shows on television right now, one that at its best even exceeds the achievements of its hallowed forebear.

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Elsewhere, another brilliant prequel has received hardly any of the attention it should have, although it was nowhere near as high profile as the previous two. All The Wrong Questions, the four book prequel to A Series Of Unfortunate Events, foregrounded Lemony Snicket, the narrator of the previous series, as a thirteen year old detective investigating a theft in a small town. Like Fantastic Beasts, it initially seems somewhat divorced from its predecessor, but as it goes on it dovetails more and more with the original series, answering huge lingering questions and deepening the central themes in interesting and unexpected ways.

Without Unfortunate Events’ central concept of endless unpleasantness, All The Wrong Questions possibly isn’t as conceptually strong as its predecessor but it is deeper, more challenging, more ambiguous and in a lot of ways more ambitious. All The Wrong Questions is a series for people who grew up with Unfortunate Events and reading it as an adult after having loved the older series as a child is highly rewarding. And best of all, while it provides context and new perspectives on Unfortunate Events, All The Wrong Questions ultimately tells a story that is not in service to another series, but entirely unique.

Perhaps the most important thing for a prequel is that it feels like its own entity. A sequel, essentially a second chapter, can emulate the style of the original with more leeway; in fact, it almost has to. A prequel, however, is almost always implicitly making a case for itself as a retroactive first instalment and for that to work it has to have its own identity. What has differentiated this new wave of quality preludes from those that came before has ultimately been a refreshing willingness to chart their own course, even when providing context for an iconic original.