Photo: Disney, Pixar and Twentieth Century Fox
Hollywood has always been into sequels, but lately it seems like no franchise is complete without a prequel. This weekend’s Monsters University, which shows us Monsters Inc.’s Mike and Sulley as undergrads, is only the latest trip back in time; in the past year, we’ve seen Oz the Great and Powerful and Prometheus on the big screen, while television has given us The Carrie Diaries and Bates Motel, two teenage takes on iconic pop-culture characters. Filmmakers seem increasingly enamored by the notion of a prequel — James Cameron hasn’t even made Avatar 2 or 3 yet, but he’s already decided that Avatar 4 ought to be a prologue to those films — and audiences must be, too, to judge from the online fanfare that accompanies each new prequel announced in the trades. And yet, all too often when these prequels actually arrive, we end up disappointed by them; they rarely hold a candle to the original movies, and they diminish the backstories we’ve invented on our own. It raises the question: Why are we all so driven to fill in the blanks that ought to stay blank?
Call it the wiki-ization of pop culture: We’ve become an obsessive society that picks apart every piece of entertainment we love, and prequels are a natural outgrowth of that invested interest. When there’s someone special who intrigues us in a movie or TV show — whether it’s Star Wars’ Boba Fett or Mad Men’s Bob Benson — we’ll collect every scrap we know about the character, speculating on where they came from and what drives them. It’s only natural, then, that studios would notice our interest and interpret that to mean we want more: more explanations, more characters’ backstories, more prequels. (And if they can monetize our interest by giving us something we already liked trussed up in a fresher package, all the better.)
But do we really want to know, or isn’t it a little more delicious to be kept in suspense, using our own imaginations to answer any questions that might arise? Ridley Scott justified his prequel Prometheus by claiming we all had an interest in the dead, dessicated Space Jockey from the first Alien movie … but once he explained it, dutifully handing us a feature-length puzzle piece that interlocked with the beginning of Alien, it couldn’t help but feel like a letdown: The mystery was gone, and that’s part of what made Alien so alluring in the first place. Did most of us actually care where the aliens came from? Wasn’t it scarier when we had no idea whatsoever?
Consider, as a cautionary tale, the much-maligned Star Wars prequels. The original trilogy in that space saga planted plenty of titillating clues as to what came before: The fall of Anakin Skywalker! The rise of the Emperor! But after Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, audiences spent sixteen long years guessing how those dramatic events went down, and that’s a whole lot of pent-up interest and imagination that ultimately proved impossible to live up to. When the prequels finally arrived, everything that had once seemed mythic about the series became mundane: We found out that Anakin was an inelegantly acted sulker, while the Emperor’s mysterious rise to power actually came about through an enervating series of political maneuvers. Even the Force was overexplained, a previously magical concept reduced to “midichlorians” in the bloodstream. There was so much more to it all when we knew so much less about it. Comedian Patton Oswalt put it best in one of his routines: “I don’t give a shit where the stuff I love comes from!”
Unfortunately, the new Star Wars trilogy appears to have inspired the most pernicious trend in prequels: reducing a fearsome villain to a series of unnecessary “what made them bad” moments. We don’t need to know what made the Wicked Witch of the West’s skin turn green or that she rides a broom because of an offhand comment that James Franco made once in Oz the Great and Powerful, just as 2007’s Hannibal Rising didn’t need to saddle Hannibal Lecter with a childhood trauma that dutifully explained the inspiration for his cannibalistic tendencies. Next year, Angelina Jolie will take on the more fearsome of Disney antagonists in Maleficent, where her prequel will blame the Sleeping Beauty villainess’s terrifying pure evil on a simple broken heart.
Prequels are also hampered by a pretty significant stakes problem: When we already know what will happen to these characters in the future, there isn’t any real jeopardy to be found in their prior adventures. We know that Obi-Wan is in no danger of dying, just as we know that Norman Bates will never be found out until he finally kills Marion Crane as an adult. How do prequels compensate for that lack of suspense, then? By leaning into it: Oftentimes, prequels will pack their running time with aha moments that overexplain what we already know about a character, puzzle pieces that are meant to fit into a totally different work of art instead of completing the one they’re actually in. (The Carrie Diaries is filled with so many wink-wink callbacks to Sex and the City — a character telling Carrie, “I can imagine your picture on the side of a bus,” or Carrie declaring that cosmopolitans will be her go-to drink — that we made a supercut out of them.) Those footnotes can be cute in moderation, but they’re deadly when they have to serve as a project’s entire raison d’être: It was fun when the third Indiana Jones film gave us a fleet prologue explaining Indy’s forehead scar and aversion to snakes, but when that notion was expanded to TV-series length with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the show was swiftly canceled for lack of interest.
Prequels aren’t going away anytime soon: For penny-pinching studios, they provide an efficient way to continue a brand-name franchise once the original actors have gotten too old or expensive. Still, it’d be wise to keep our expectations in check from now on, since for every X-Men: First Class — a smartly cast prequel that was able to stand on its own — there’s a misfire that recalls Butch and Sundance: The Early Years. Surely you’ve heard the oldest maxim in show business: “Always leave them wanting more”? It’s time for us to realize that, sometimes, wanting more is preferable to actually getting it.