The 3 Biggest Problems with Prequels... And How to Fix Them

The 3 Biggest Problems with Prequels… And How to Fix Them

Most prequels are lame, but they don’t have to be.

Before the first X-Men film, Wolverine was a backup dancer for Madonna.

Before the first X-Men film, Wolverine was a backup dancer for Madonna.

It’s spring now in New York.  The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the swine flu is mutating…  It’s a time to be positive.  After all, as that old poem said, April is the coolest month, and May is also rad.

I feel my posts have been negative lately, and that needs to change.  First I wrote a post that said, “No more flat female characters!”  Then I said, “No more Nazi movies!”  I even went so far as to say, “No more ignoring the leap second!

So many “nos.”  How about a “yes” for once?  So, today, when I thought I might write a post entitled, “No More Prequels!” I held back.  Instead, I bring you, “More Prequels, Please!”

And why shouldn’t there be more prequels?  Just because almost every prequel ever made has disappointed, that doesn’t mean we should write off the whole genre!  Today, I’m not going to just complain.  I’m going to be positive, a fixer!  Here are the three most common problems with prequels and how to fix them.

Problem 1: Foregone conclusions

The Problem:
The ending of the prequel is always a foregone conclusion.  We know the main character is going to survive to be in the pre-prequel (also known as the original work). We know who is going to turn out to be good and who’s going to be evil.  We know who is going to end up with the girl and who isn’t.  Surprise is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

The Solution: The best way to avoid the “foregone conclusion” issue is to drop little bits of backstory into a sequel rather than making it the focus of an entire prequel.  However, the fact that the audience already knows who will live and who will die shouldn’t mean a prequel shouldn’t be made.  It only means it has to be made better.  Think about the Greek tragedies.  Everyone who saw Oedipus Rex knew exactly what was going to happen.  The whole play was a foregone conclusion… and one of the greatest pieces of drama of all time.  Why did it work?  A little thing called dramatic irony.  It’s why horror movies still work even though they are predictable in every way.  “Don’t go into that room!”  “Don’t split up and go into the woods!”  “Don’t have unprotected sex, teenagers!”  Suspense is achieved even though you know exactly what’s going to go down.  So, X-Men writers, when you get around to doing X-Men Origins: Nightcrawler, take a tip from Aristotle.  Torture your audience by using their own knowledge of the plot against them.

Another way to avoid the foregone conclusion problem is to include new characters that are a) likable and b) killable.  If Wolverine’s compatriots in his prequel were more interesting, audiences would care if they lived or died, boned or didn’t, and so on.  A good (and bad) example of how to use new characters in a prequel is Indiana Jones and the Temple of DoomToD comes before Raiders in the timeline and is, therefore, a prequel.  We know Indy is going to live, fine.  But what about Short Round?  Short Round wasn’t in Raiders.  You watch Temple of Doom, find out that children are being enslaved and killed, and get to like this adorably racist scamp.  You might say to yourself, “I know Indy is going to live through this movie, but will Short Round?  Will Short Round?!

You might consider Willie, too.  If you are like me, you watched Temple of Doom hoping Willie would die painfully.  I knew that Indy couldn’t end up with the girl, because he was single in Raiders.  So I kept hoping, hoping, that Willie might meet her downfall…

Problem 2: Fan Favorites and Mysterious Pasts

Vincent Valentine is holding out for a prequel till the end of the night.

Vincent Valentine is holding out for a prequel till the end of the night.

The Problem: The characters who star in prequels tend to be chosen because they are fan favorites, but fan favorites often don’t hold up to scrutiny.  More specifically, a lot of fan favorites are beloved because they have dark and mysterious pasts.  Make a prequel and suddenly their pasts are very un-mysterious.  That’s always going to be a disappointment.  It’s even more disappointing when a character’s official prequel backstory turns out to be less interesting than one developed in the fanfic community.

The Solution:
Leave the fan favorites alone.  If they are fan favorites, chances are that their fans have already made up backstories in their heads, and no prequel Hollywood makes is going to hold up in comparison.

I know what you’re thinking, Hollywood.  You’re thinking, “But Shana!  We want to milk more money out of this franchise and the story has no room left for more sequels!  We need to do a prequel!”  That’s fine, Hollywood.  You just need to focus your prequels on other characters.  Characters who might have interesting pasts but don’t spend their time being all mysterious about it are perfect for the job.

Check out this Movie Retriever article about the ten character origin stories they’d like to see.  Anton Chigurh, their top choice, from No Country for Old Men, I disagree with wholeheartedly.  He’s a super-cool loner-rebel vigilante-type character.  His past is mysterious.  And it should stay that way.  Giving away his past or, worse yet, justifying his evil deeds with some sob story past would kill the character.

But their number 3 choice, Bill from Kill Bill, is beyond perfect.  He’s a very cool character, but not the only fan favorite in the series.  We don’t know a lot about his past, but he’s not mysterious about it.  In other words, there probably hasn’t been THAT much fan speculation about his adolescence like there was with Wolverine.  And, unlike Wolverine, he’s also a fun character in his own right.  I personally think Wolverine is only a good character when placed next to the insufferably priggish Cyclops.  Bill would be cool no matter who he was next to.

Just to make things easy for Hollywood, here’s a list of popular characters with mysterious pasts who should not (or should never again) get an origin prequel:

  • Dracula
  • Rick Blaine
  • The Joker
  • Dr. House
  • Snape, Snape, Severus Snape
  • Wilson from Home Improvement

Add your own!

Problem 3: Cliched Backstories

The Problem:
Most character backstories aren’t all that creative.  Oh, woe is the hero; his girlfriend died and got stuffed in a fridge!  Or he watched as his whole family was killed by the Big Baddie!  Or his memory was erased by the government after they did secret experiments on him!  And now he’s a loner-rebel badass who is too cool to follow society’s “rules” about “killing” and “maiming” others.  Now the only feelings he has are anger, hate, and vengeance.  His new hobbies include drinking and punching out helicopters.

Belloq appreciates jailbait.

Belloq appreciates jailbait.

Look, Hollywood.  While overused plot points can work in small doses or mysterious flashbacks and dream sequences, a whole film’s worth of them is going to be lame.  Even with explosions.

The Solution:
Why do prequels have to be about a character’s backstory, anyway?  That’s not the case with Temple of Doom, arguably the best prequel out there.  It’s just a cool story about Indiana Jones when he was a little younger.  No life-changing trauma required.  Before you yell, yes, I remember that there was some backstory in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it was good backstory because it was clever and didn’t take over the whole movie.  Young Indy didn’t watch his whole family die while his high school sweetheart was raped by Rene Belloq.  Instead he beat up a lion and got a sweet hat.  Mmm, prequelicious.

Maybe we as a culture need to rethink the idea of “backstory” altogether.  In the movies and on TV, villains become villains and heroes become heroes usually after one extremely dramatic event in their lives.  It’s a simple equation:

Superstrong but otherwise normal guy + One traumatic event = Vigilante!

That’s a little simplistic for my tastes.  Think about yourself.  If a supervillain were to kill one of your loved ones before your eyes, what would you do?  If the answer is “become a badass vigilante loner-rebel hero” or “become a supervillain bent on destroying existence with a universe-annihilating machine,” please call your local shrink.  You need more help than even can provide.

Based on my experience, real life seems to work more like this:

Normal guy + One traumatic event = Needs to see a therapist for several decades


Guy who was never normal + A lifetime of hardship = “Vigilante” and/or serial killer

Rorschach from Watchmen is an example of traumatic backstory done right.  First, it doesn’t take over the whole comic.  Second, it wasn’t one traumatic event that made Mr. Kovacs go all batshit insane.  It was one traumatic event along with a lifetime of parental neglect and isolation from his peers that made Rorschach snap.  And that’s why his traumatic backstory and ensuing transformation are believable.

Now, go, screenwriters, and write those prequels!  I was thinking Gadget from Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers? Can you get on that?  Thanks.

14 Comments on “The 3 Biggest Problems with Prequels… And How to Fix Them”

  1. Andy #

    Prequels are by definition governed by previous work. Unfortunately you have be unduly influenced by your previous articles that have blinded you to the fact it would be a lot easier and better if film makers just didn’t bother with Origin movies. That is the crux of the matter you have picked out Temple of Doom as a good prequel but it is just that, a film set before the original. This is very different to an origin film that sets out to tell the back-story (not just a snippet of it) and by doing so destroys any mystery the character has. Good article all the same!


  2. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Andy: Alas, you are right! But I’m still hoping beyond hope that Star Trek (both a prequel and an origin story) will be super sweet.


  3. Sharper #

    You left out one important prequel law, one which became self-evident to me halfway through the first season of Enterprise:

    No time travel. Seriously.

    In the worst case, you completely undermine the point of setting the current piece in the past. In the best case, you end up — rather inevitably — with the features (characters, actors, props) from the prequel commingling with the features from the original work. If the original was good enough to spawn a prequel, the prequel can only suffer when the fans are distracted by the features of the original.


  4. sarielthrawn #

    I read this yesterday and last night I dreamt of a Watchmen prequel callED “911: THE WATCHMEN (NOT ABOUT 9/11).” That was the full title.

    It was about the Comedian and it starred Andrew Dice Clay.

    Thanks mlawski. I just wish I could remember some plot points. All I remember is teenagers with guitars.


  5. Wade #

    Thanks to this article, it just occurred to me how many prequels we’re getting this month. Wolverine, Star Trek, Angels and Demons, and even Terminator Salvation are all prequels to certain degrees.

    Terminator Salvation I’m counting as a prequel because, narratively, it takes place BEFORE John Connor sent Kyle Reese back in time to protect Sarah Connor. Except it takes place AFTER said events. Time travel….

    But yeah, 4 prequels this month alone, and NO prequels for the rest of the summer. You’d think they’d have planned this or something.


  6. sarielthrawn #

    I just got back from watching Wolverine.

    It was okay but a tad bit boring. There were large bits of the movie where I just wasn’t interested.

    The biggest problem is, as I see it, the foregone conclusion.

    But with a prequel you have to realise that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey (this reminds me of the Aristocrats joke).

    This journey was boring. But Wolverine is still cool.

    Bring on James T. Kirk.


  7. Austin #

    “It was spring here, too, last week – Sunday afternoon I walked down the steps off Columbus Circle into Central Park, and the odor of piss rose up from the rest rooms, and I knew a year had passed. And down in your old neighborhood, darling, the bag ladies were sleeping outside again on the steps of the St Marks Dispensary, and the whores were in hot pants, and the Polish men standing in front of your building in those dark suits & hats, as if they were waiting for a cortege to begin. EVeryone thought spring had come! And then it dropped thirty degrees in one afternoon, snowed the next morning, Bob was mugged on Ninth Street, and we are right back to a New York winter.”


  8. Trevor Seigler #

    One other thing about prequels: you often have to do a lot of work to connect them to the already-existing work, and sometimes you don’t pull it off. One of the plot holes in the original Star Wars (in relation to its prequels) could be the fact that, even though Obi Wan has lived with the droids through previous adventures, he has no memory of them by the time Luke and R2D2 seek him out. Granted, the argument could be made that Obi Wan either plays dumb in order to lure Luke into the force (kinda like the whole “your father was killed by Vader” routine), or he simply forgot (he’s an old man, after all). Plus, the droids’ memories have been wiped before (memory wiping seems to be a big issue in the SW universe, because both Organa at the end of Revenge of the Sith and Owen in New Hope tell whoever’s responsible to wipe their memories. Is nothing sacred?). So you can explain that away pretty easily, I guess. But the absence of any mention of Qui Gonn (I feel like I’m spelling it wrong, but I’m too lazy to verify that) in the original trilogy leads me to believe that on some level, Lucas made shit up as he went along for the prequels to flesh out the story (he reportedly wrote the entire series, prequels and all, back in the seventies, but had to make the fourth because it was more action-packed and less explanatory than the eventual prequel trilogy).


  9. Gab #

    I’d love to see an origins story for Thing from _The Addams Family_.


  10. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Gab: Ooh, you are onto something! My first thought was Cousin Itt, but then again I think a story about how Gomez and Mortician met and fell in love would be hilarious and romantic…in the usual macabre Addams Family way, of course.


  11. Gab #

    Of course!


  12. Hazel #

    I saw the StarTrek prequel last night, and I have to admit that I liked it a lot. So did the friend I saw it with. I think that this is probably a good sign, because I know next to nothing about the StarTrek universe and my friend is a closet Trekkie.

    My friend tells me there were numerous shout-outs to the TV series, but nothing felt forced to me, which is another danger of prequels – the people who are already fans like the in-jokes, but everyone else is left feeling confused and/or bored.


  13. TheBrummell #

    Gab: I’d love to see an origins story for Thing from _The Addams Family_.

    Nice, and I would definately watch that movie. But your comment made me think I’d like to see the origin story (or, simply a story that happened before rather than necessarily the beginning) for the Thing from _The Thing_.

    Some other planet exterminated? A last survivor escaping from something even more horrible? A strange accident on a far-travelling starship? The possibilities are endless.


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