5 Mistakes Prequels Keep Making
It seems like prequels are, on average, worse than sequels. If so, it's obvious why. There's an added level of difficulty in making a compelling story that retroactively fits into your established continuity, versus just saying "What if John Wick had a reason to shoot another 200 people?" Prequels are therefore almost always the worst-received films in a series. And they can't seem to avoid making the same mistakes over and over. Like ...
Destroying Continuity For Convenience
Continuity always seems to be the first victim of a prequel, as the story can either work overtime explaining necessary changes due to casting, etc., or ignore those changes completely. Just look at how the Harry Potter prequels, the Fantastic Beasts series, cast a killing curse on the continuity of that franchise. The scripts (cranked out by some Hollywood hack named ... let's check here ... J.K. Rowling) introduced characters who shouldn't have been born yet, changed the rules of curses, and created a rift in the timeline. Luckily, a lead actor has said that the third film will be " bigger than the first two combined." Sure. That'll fix things.
Meanwhile, The Huntsman: Winter War, a prequel/sequel to Snow White And The Huntsman, dropped Snow White and couldn't even be bothered to include a line that explains the absence of Finn, the major secondary antagonist of the first film and brother to literally half of the characters on the poster. We know Finn wasn't a needle-mover in terms of box office, but couldn't they at least add a throwaway quip like "Where's Finn? Oh, he's in the outer territories murdering peasants."
Maybe the most ridiculous example is the two Exorcist prequels from the early 2000s. Both took place in 1947, and both focused on the same guy playing a young Father Merrin. Why did they need two prequels instead of just one -- or even better, zero? Well, after watching director Paul Schrader's cut for Dominion: The Prequel To The Exorcist, the producers hated it and decided to have another director do a different version with the same cast and sets.
The end result was the Exorcist: The Beginning (and Dominion, which ended up being released anyway). And during all the turmoil, it's surprising that no one questioned why a then-53-year old Stellan Skarsgard was hired to play a 20-plus-year younger version of Max von Sydow, who was 44 when he played Father Merrin in the 1973 original. Apparently Schrader thought Stellan was a great Swedish actor (like von Sydow), and didn't care that a 53-year-old man was playing a guy in his 20s. They should do another sequel where he's played by a teenager, explaining that he's aging backward like Benjamin Button.
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Addressing Questions No One Had (And Which Don't Have Interesting Answers)
We all know what you were thinking the first time you saw Han Solo in Star Wars: How did this guy get his gun? And how did his Wookiee friend get his bandolier? Thanks to Solo, we now know the answer (they got them from a guy).
When watching Dumb And Dumber for the first time, did you wonder how Lloyd and Harry met, or were you kind of fine with assuming that they're just two dumb people who ran into each other at some point? Well, if you were wondering, then Dumb And Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd answered that question. They met in high school, where they were both enrolled in "special needs" classes. Together they thwarted a nefarious plan, got shot down by women, and during a moment of anti-humor, made Bob Saget think they were spreading poop everywhere. It was the worst "How did these two people meet?" film in a year that also included Freddy vs. Jason.
It's hard to think of a prequel that doesn't devote at least part of its runtime to answering pointless questions with uninteresting answers. How did the monsters in Monsters Inc. meet? In college, training to be monsters (never mind they say in the original film that they've known each other since elementary school). The Huntsman: Winter War explained how the Huntsman becomes a huntsman, giving us a whole backstory about an exiled ice queen kidnapping children and training them to become badass hunters who kill people for her. So he couldn't have just been a really good huntsman? That seems badass enough without making him a child soldier. The movie really should've focused on how he adopted a weird Scottish accent.
Giving The Villain A Backstory That Makes Them Less Scary
Horror is all about the inexplicable, the everyday rules of the Universe getting violated in a nightmarish way. ("They're dead ... but they're walking!") The reason horror franchises tend to get worse with time (or abandon horror entirely for slapstick comedy) is that familiarity makes everything less scary. So whatever audiences want out of additional movies in a horror series, the one thing they don't want is what prequels always promise: a detailed explanation of the lore.
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is fantastic specifically because Leatherface, the skin-wearing villain, forces you to only guess his personality. All you hear from him are the chirps and squeals that he makes and the chainsaw tantrums that he throws whenever teenagers are around. So of course Hollywood saw this and thought "We need a remake to explain all this."
Then they saw the remake and thought "Huh, still don't think people are getting it." And so we got The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, wherein we learned that Thomas Hewitt (they gave Leatherface a name, because nothing makes a villain scarier than having rednecks constantly yelling "TOMMY!" at him) was found in a dumpster by his "adoptive family." He later got work as a butcher (hence the chainsaw skills ... sigh), and started killing people when he lost his job. It also tells us that he wears skin masks because he has a "degenerative facial disease." It's adding depth and nuance, which is nice if your franchise isn't called, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Then another film, Leatherface (which is actually a prequel to the original), offers yet another origin story for the famed killer. He's actually a teenage escapee from a mental asylum, but here he dons his mask after getting shot in the face, because nothing helps like a skin mask to cure the ol' shotintheface-itis.
Speaking of iconic villains becoming less frightening the more you add to their Wikipedia page, Hannibal Rising, the prequel to Silence Of The Lambs, went back in time to tell us how Hannibal Lecter became a cannibal. See, after World War II, he watched his sister get cannibalized. And so he hunted down her killers and cannibalized them himself. So in a weird way, he's a hero now, because he's just revenge-eating. You know how a joke gets less funny when you explain it? A similar thing happens with horror.
Of course, on the Mt. Rushmore of "Maybe we DIDN'T need to learn more about this villain" is Michael Myers from Rob Zombie's Halloween, in which a personality-less shape was changed into a kid with a really terrible stepdad. But that one is really a symptom of another chronic prequel problem ...
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Overcomplicating A Simple, Effective Formula
The alien in Alien was a force of nature, an indestructible killing machine with simple motives (kill, breed) that left survivors with a single unanswered question: "How do we stop it?" That was pretty cool, until Alien vs. Predator, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant all suggested different backstories, like students yelling out answers from the back of the class to questions no one asked. AvP suggested the aliens were created so they could be hunted by the Predators, Prometheus posited that ancient humanoid aliens created them as a biological weapon, and Covenant brought forth the idea that robot Michael Fassbender created the first alien eggs. When you want to know the story of a franchise, it's never good to find out that it's multiple choice.
Once again, the horror genre seems obsessed with this idea that raw, visceral terror is somehow enhanced by chapters of convoluted lore. After the flagship Conjuring movies made bank at the box office, we got horror-deflating prequels like The Nun, which shower these simple premises in tangled backstory. The Nun (aka Valek) from The Conjuring 2 was created during medieval times, when a rich occultist created a supernatural rift in a castle. But before he could conquer the world, he was killed by knights who wisely sealed the rift. However, a bomb dropped during World War II hit the castle and opened the rift, which forces brave nuns to pray around the clock to keep the demon Valek at bay. However, after many years, the nuns are wiped out, and this allows Valek to transfer over to human form. Here's a fun drinking game: Take a shot every time a part of that backstory seems unnecessary. And if you haven't passed out by the time you got to "in a castle," you've lost.
Likewise, do you remember being scared shitless by the demon in Paranormal Activity? It was a massive dick who was unrelenting in its quest to hurt people. The horror came from the simplicity of the situation. Sure, there was a mystery, but for the most part the scares came from the constant "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?" However, in the prequels, we learn the demon was summoned by a coven of witches, who will exchange an eventual firstborn baby boy for oodles of riches. (It's like horror movie prequel Mad Libs.) Then, over the course of several decades, the demon was nicknamed "Tobi," and the prequels introduced ghost dimensions, time portals, rituals, possessions, and curses. And it totally worked to keep interest in the franchise alive as the Paranormal Activity sequels/prequels ... never managed to outgross the original. Huh.
Focusing On The Wrong Character
If at this point it sounds like it's almost impossible to actually make a good prequel, that's because it is. Arguably the only reason to do it at all is when the events of the original make it impossible to follow the characters' subsequent adventures because too many of them are dead, like with Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. But even then, that show works because they found an entirely separate series of character arcs that could be extracted from the original and explored.
More often, prequels will decide to shine the spotlight on a character who barely needs more that a footnote. In The Wizard Of Oz, the titular warlock is just a charismatic dude shouting from behind a curtain. You definitely don't need an entire prequel to show how he got that way. But "needs" are rarely a concern in Hollywood, and so we got Oz The Great And Powerful, a movie that by all means should've totally focused on the three witches Glinda, Evanora, and Theodora. In the original movie, they all seem either angry or super passive-aggressive with each other, which is a relationship that's begging for a proper setup instead of being the B-plot to a bumbling James Franco.
Then there's the constant urge to shoehorn in characters from the original who logically shouldn't be involved in anything yet. On paper, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was a home run. The idea to focus on an eccentric wizard named Newt Scamander and his book about finding fantastic beasts was merchandising gold, and it gave us a chance to experience a new facet of the Wizarding World outside of Dumbledore and the gang. Well, until Young Dumbledore shows up with his archnemesis Grindlewald, ripping the spotlight from Newt and turning the franchise into Hollywood Expanded Universe Attempt #612.
Of course, the same thing happened with the three Hobbit films, forcing in Legolas and other elements that weren't in the book. The Star Wars prequel trilogy was also guilty of this, and in fact was guilty of every other item on this list. But those movies have been so thoroughly trashed at this point that it's almost not worth bringing up, other than to say that it's kind of weird that studios didn't seem to learn any lessons from them. Fortunately, Disney has mostly focused on making sequels instead, and Star Wars fans haven't had a single reason to complain since.
Mark Hofmeyer is the host of the Movies, Films and Flix podcast, which has been changing the world since 2015. Also, he writes a lot about Deep Blue Sea at the website Movies, Films and Flix.
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