This is a cross-post of an article which appeared on a different site, a long, long time ago. But with the release of X-Men Apocalypse, I still think it's relevant. Enjoy!
Let’s be honest. Most of the time, “prequel” is a dirty word. Or if not a dirty word, at least a signal that the reader should be wary about what comes next. For me, no phrase other than “upcoming prequel” evokes as much dread laced with illogical optimism. No phrase other than, perhaps, “directed by M. Night Shyamalan.” Nearly every summer since the release of The Phantom Menace has given us our fair share of prequels. X-Men: First Class. Revenge of the Return of the Planet of the Apes. Even the original Captain America, while not really a prequel in the general sense, relies on a few of the same storytelling tropes through its use of the character Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) father. And it’s not limited to movies -- plenty of video game prequels have hit the shelves in recent years, expanding on the stories of popular franchises such as Halo and Kingdom Hearts.
What makes these types of stories attractive? That’s not a very difficult question to answer. For the audience, we get more of the world and characters we love. For the creators, you’ve got a built-in audience, and much of the time, a pre-written story. But as we know from looking at the Star Wars fiasco, these things don’t always work out so peachy.
The main problem is that creating a prequel -- a story before the story we already know -- forces the author to fight the audience’s imagination. Sequels do this too, but in a much less violent way. Sequels can fail to satisfy our hopes -- look at the Matrix sequels for examples of this -- but they rarely crush our dreams. Prequels are another matter. Ever since the first time I saw A New Hope, I dreamed about the Clone Wars. Was it some sort of Dark Side plan that cloned Jedi and turned them evil? Was it an uprising from the clones in the galaxy, used as slave labor, that eventually led to cloning technology being banned? I had notebooks full of this stuff, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And then came Attack of the Clones. The less said about the disappointing reality of the Clone Wars, the better.
So are all prequels doomed to this sort of failure? No, of course not. The aforementioned X-Men: First Class received mostly positive reviews. The Godfather: Part II, while not 100% prequel, is told through heavy use of flashbacks, and is generally considered one of the greatest movies ever made. Metal Gear Solid 3 was an unexpected prequel, and many count it as the best of the series. So there’s a way to do this right. In fact, I think there are a couple of guidelines that the most successful prequels follow:
If you’re making a prequel to “answer questions,” you’re doing it wrong
One of the major problems with the Star Wars prequel trilogy is that it was created to answer questions that never needed answering. No one really needed to know precisely how Anakin became Darth Vader -- if that was a fundamentally important bit of information, it would have been answered in the original trilogy.
Now, to be sure, there will likely be questions answered. For instance, First Class, in the process of telling its story, shows us how Charles Xavier lost the use of his legs. This is fine, and it ends up adding an interesting twist on the character. But the reason why it works is because the story isn’t based around telling us this information. The writers didn’t start by saying “Okay, let’s make a prequel that tells the story of how Professor X lost his ability to walk.” They said “Let’s make a story that explores the history of the X-Men,” and the mysteries solved were incidental.
Don’t subvert the inevitability -- embrace it
The common wisdom about why most prequels suck is that we already know what’s going to happen; why would we be interested? Why would we want to watch a movie about Anakin if we know he’s going to become Darth Vader?
Some prequels try to get around this by slyly changing what you thought you knew was going to happen. This rarely works, and often just creates a lack of cohesion between the two stories. A good example is Padme’s death at the end of Revenge of the Sith. In Return of the Jedi, Leia specifically says she remembers her mother, but this actually proves not to be the case. Instead of creating an interesting moment where our expectations are subverted, it instead just leads to confusion. And even those who accept the logic that Leia’s feelings were metaphorical, or that she was speaking about her adopted mother, are in the position of having to wrangle up convoluted explanations instead of enjoying natural story tie-ins.
Problem is, the whole “we can’t know what’s going to happen” excuse doesn’t cut it. Plenty of stories tell you exactly what’s going to happen, and still manage to be entertaining. We know Ahab’s sense of vengeance is going to lead to his downfall. In Oedipus Rex, like almost all of Greek tragedy, the audience is specifically told the ending of the play in the form of prophecy -- and yet, this doesn’t rob the story of its power.
Generally, the stories that do it best are the ones that consciously play with the idea of destiny through the eyes of the reader/player. The best example of this concept that I can think of is Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. For those not familiar with the series, Crisis Core is a prequel starring a young soldier named Zack. Zack factors strongly into the story of Final Fantasy VII, but he’s actually dead by the time the main story starts. For most of the game, Crisis Core is not really a masterpiece. It’s very anime-ish, and the new characters the game introduces fail to inspire much interest. However, as the game moves toward its end, we, as players, start to feel a tad of dread. Zack is going to die; we know this, and we’ve known this from the start. But as we move closer to it, that inevitability starts to become more and more real, until we get to the final battle of the game, with enemies closing in all around. We know this is where Zack dies -- the original game shows us as much. But we can’t help but try to fight against the inevitable. We can’t help but try to down each soldier, one by one, even as they lay into Zack beyond any hope of success. This desire of the audience to strive against what they know must happen (what has already happened, in some sense) is something that prequels excel at. It’s a feeling, actually, that I don’t think good old traditionally temporal stories can evoke. The best prequels make use of it.
A prequel needs to be a good story in its own right
This is a “rule” that obviously needs to be true of any story: standalone, sequel, prequel, whatever. And it shouldn’t need to be said. A story needs to be good and complete regardless of what comes before or after, right? Sadly, a lot of producers don’t seem to understand this.
I don’t mean to pick on the Star Wars prequels, but I think I’m going to have to call out Attack of the Clones again. It’s just such a monumental failure when it comes to the idea that each part of a saga needs to be an interesting story by itself. What, if anything, happens? Really, there seems to be some sort of mystery involving who commissioned the clone army, but really, it’s not a mystery at all. Shocker: it was the Jedi that turned evil and is now fighting against the Republic! I know, you never saw it coming! Aside from that, there’s nothing. There’s no story arc. There’s really no character arc; Anakin and Padme’s love story comes apropos of absolutely nothing and is given no time to develop. The one exception I’ll make is for the scene where Anakin returns to his childhood home, finds his mother and slays the Tuskens. It’s a good plot point, but even that is only good because of what it foreshadows for future installments. It does not make a complete story.
It’s easy to say “Well, that’s a middle entry, so of course it’s going to feel less complete.” And that’s a cop out. Look at The Empire Strikes Back. While it’s not a prequel, it is a middle entry, and it absolutely plays its role well. It expands on the world of the first film while giving us a open ending to make way for the third. However, The Empire Strikes Back is a complete story with a satisfying arc (multiple arcs, actually). The easiest one to focus on is Luke’s: he starts out as an accomplished pilot, gets instructed to seek out Jedi training, ultimately quits his training before he’s finished to go rescue his friends, despite the warnings of his teachers … and his overconfidence leads to his failure. It’s not a happy arc, and without Return of the Jedi as a bookend, it would be pretty depressing. But it’s still a story.
Creating a satisfying, standalone tale is what many prequels fail to accomplish. You can’t necessarily write a prequel story to cater to the tastes of people who have never experienced the original, but that’s not the point. The point is to maintain the interest of people who do know what’s coming next.
Or say screw it, and jettison continuity
The Indiana Jones series (well, before the fourth one) cares very little for continuity. Some characters appear from previous movies, but for the most part, each film is a self-contained vignette. What happens in Temple of Doom matters very little to the overall franchise. Nintendo games, especially Zelda and Metroid, take a similar view. Hardcore fans may obsess over discovering an exact timeline, but it’s not the main point of the experience.
I’d almost argue that these works fall out of the scope of “prequel.” Sure, sometimes they may technically take place earlier than the original work, but if they aren’t making use of that backward shift in time, then it hardly matters.
Now you know what to look for
Other films aren’t quite so adept, though. Next time you see an ad for that hot upcoming prequel -- and I assure you, you’ll see that ad sooner than later -- remind yourself of what the artists are trying to create. Yes, promotional material lies, but it’s still easier to categorize a movie or a game than you may think. Does the movie seem to downplay a perceived lack of control while answering silly questions like “Want to find out how Bob got his giant sword?!” Does a tagline for a book proclaim “The story behind the story … is not what you thought!” If that’s the case, shy away … or at least check your brain at the door and enjoy the explosions and gratuitous sex. That’s usually the best you can hope for.