Prequels: Storytelling’s Most Difficult Magic Trick

Laser Time, prequel, star wars, the hobbit, lord of the rings, x-men, wolverine, first class, indiana jones, temple of doom

Most of us have sped through Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp by now, and that brings up a bit of a question. How does one make a good prequel?

Prequels are a tricky beast. They’re usually considered “world builders,” in that they add more plot, characters, and “depth” to a story that has its threads already tied up on the other side of the chronological spectrum. Usually when a prequel is announced, you can see a fanbase cry out in terror before being silenced. That reaction is justifiable, given that prequels don’t have the greatest reputation. But that’s not to say there aren’t great ones out there.

How’s that accomplished? Perhaps the bigger question is: what’s the difference between a great and a not-so-great prequel? There’s no defined rule, but the difference is about the same as staring into the sun and living in a moleman utopia deep in the dark tunnels of the Earth.

Laser Time, prequel, star wars, the hobbit, lord of the rings, x-men, wolverine, first class, indiana jones, temple of doom

Episode I: The Moleman Tunnels

One issue that artists seem to encounter when approaching a prequel also plagues a lot of sequels: more of the same. Why not throw in more of what people liked in the first place? There’s no such thing as too many helium balloons, right? This is all part of the corporate machine that piggybacks off properties which audiences are already familiar with, rather than try something new and possibly untested.

But let’s compare that to the thinking behind Godfather: Part II. That might not be too fair, considering it’s both a prequel and a sequel, but we’ll focus on the former. Part II deals with Michael Corleone securing his grip on his empire, while also telling a parallel story of Vito Corleone’s ascension to power decades prior to the events of the first film. Looking at the parallel storyline, we see that the film builds off the fact that Vito Corleone’s character was popular in the original. It’s a self-contained story which adds depth to the original without being bound to it.

Another film that isn’t often recognized as being a great prequel (as it pays almost no mind to the original work) is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Sometimes unfairly viewed as the worst of the trilogy, Temple of Doom is a great prequel.

Laser Time, prequel, star wars, the hobbit, lord of the rings, x-men, wolverine, first class, indiana jones, temple of doom

Indiana Jones & the Not-Necessarily-Worst Adventure

One reason? Most people don’t even know it’s a prequel. Much darker than Raiders of the Lost Ark, it sees Indy as a different character, a couple of years younger, with fewer miles clocked up. He’s a bit cockier and brash, and he’s not so much as invested in the film’s macguffin so much as he is dragged and booby-trapped into it. He’s not even in India by choice, but rather through a botched trade-off for a large diamond in the film’s memorable opening.

Perhaps that’s a sign, though, because much like The Godfather: Part II, Temple of Doom doesn’t occupy its time worrying about being a good prequel, so much as it’s concerned with being a good film. And ultimately, that’s what’s lost most of the time.

However, there are more than a few prequels heavily intertwined with prior works that still manage to be good, X-men: First Class being a prime example. It relies heavily on characters, relationships, and background all established in the original trilogy (well, first two films) and tells a good, if not great, origin story around Charles Xavier and Magneto. It’s well known that continuity is pretty lax within the X-Men franchise, but First Class still manages to pick and choose what parts to acknowledge and what to ignore — like the entirety of the other prequel in the franchise, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Laser Time, prequel, star wars, the hobbit, lord of the rings, x-men, wolverine, first class, indiana jones, temple of doom

X-Men Origins: The Flop

One could blame a multitude of factors for Wolverine’s abysmal quality. The 2007-08 writers’ strike surely had an impact on the script, which felt like a first draft screenplay at best. But perhaps the main problem with this prequel — and perhaps the biggest sin a prequel can commit — was that it told the exact same story as in X2, only much poorer, with worse acting, worse dialogue, worse characters, and no Brian Cox. What the hell?

There’s another problem which plague prequels, one especially highlighted Star Wars and The Hobbit: demystification. We all know the Force, explained by Obi-Wan and Yoda in Episode IV and V, respectively. Bring in midi-chlorians, and you’ve got the most reviled part of Episode I (aside from one Mr. Binks, of course).

You feel Gandalf is a powerful being in Lord of the Rings he takes down a damn balrog! But in The Hobbit, getting into a fancy Harry Potter-esque light show in Desolation of Smaug takes a little away from his power, despite the intent being otherwise. The same deal applies to Legolas. Yes, he is awesome in Lord of the Rings, but his inclusion in The Hobbit feels forced. It’s like the audiences are being told, “Hey remember how cool he was? Still is!”

Laser Time, prequel, star wars, the hobbit, lord of the rings, x-men, wolverine, first class, indiana jones, temple of doom

The Hobbit: A Journey We All Saw Coming

That’s not to say there aren’t great moments in The Hobbit trilogy. Bilbo shares amazing scenes with both Gollum and Smaug, and it’s in these scenes in particular that Peter Jackson and friends forget about The Lord of the Rings and simply focus on telling a good story set in the same world. Less bloated scenes like investigating the necromancer, more Smaug. Less (re)defining of the Force, more of kick-ass “the circle is complete” lightsaber duels between Anakin/Obi-wan and Yoda/Palpatine. More Hugh Jackman First Class cameo, Less Patrick Stewart Wolverine cameo.

Clearly then, the shackles of bad prequels can be broken. In a world where every property — film, video games, television, whatever — has to be a franchise, prequels are going to become more commonplace. And unless you’re a joyless soul who likes being disappointed, nobody wants to see a bad prequel, or sequel for that matter. People want to see more of the worlds, stories, and characters they love, and that includes “before” a piece of art just as much as “after.” In a world where great prequels are as common as great sequels, everyone wins.

Article by contributor Ramez Kafrouni.

One thought on “Prequels: Storytelling’s Most Difficult Magic Trick

  1. Great article and the writers strike most likely caused the downfall of wolverines first Solo film. Ive seen the directors other work and he as competent as the come.

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