I have a lot to say about the tendency of Hollywood to produce prequels, especially in lieu of actually greenlighting an original idea (this also holds for remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations). But while I’ve gone on (and on and on) about why prequels generally turn out to be a terrible idea, I haven’t put forth any constructive criticism on how to determine if a prequel might actually be an idea worth exploring. Luckily, I’ve thought of a litmus test, a benchmark, if you will.
In my first post on prequels, I theorized the fundamental question a prequel should answer is – How did Character X become Y? Y could refer to an emotional state, or a change of personality, or so on and so forth. A successful prequel would answer this question and have enough references to the original to link the series but not so much as to overwhelm the prequel or undermine the original.
So now I propose an even more fundamental question – why should the audience care that Character X becomes Y? The answer is that Character X’s back story must somehow be fundamentally compelling. And many prequels fail right there. As I’ve said, in general, characters in prequels must be slightly less interesting than in the original so they have room to grow. That means the character must be pretty darn compelling in the first place to warrant any kind of prequel. I think many prequels, especially ones about popular villains, fail because their implied back stories are just not at all interesting to begin with.
The Litmus Test:
At this point you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with Doc Brown, beloved deranged mad scientist from the surprisingly good ’80s time travel trilogy “Back to the Future.” I am in no way advocating for a prequel. Please, please don’t misunderstand that. I’m just using Doc Brown as my benchmark because his implied back story is actually super-interesting.
No, I didn’t get hit on the head with something heavy (recently anyway). In 1955, Doc Brown is an eccentric and failed inventor when Marty shows up on his doorstep and basically confirms he will make the greatest scientific breakthrough in the history of humankind, but that it will take him 30 years to figure out how to do it. In 1985, he’s somehow lost the huge Brown estate (Cracked.com posits he burned it down for the insurance money to continue his experiments) and lives in a dinky apartment with no friends but a dog and an eighteen-year old boy. But also by 1985, Doc Brown has traveled to an unstable, war-torn Middle Eastern country, successfully located and infiltrated a terrorist cell that was well-organized/connected enough to have access to nuclear materials, faked them out to escape, and returned to the U.S. carrying contraband nuclear materials! I mean, damn, what kind of person does that? That’s Daniel Craig-as-James Bond level espionage right there, and the great plutonium theft (at the height of the Cold War, mind you) is pulled off by an addle-brained middle-aged failed inventor!
And this barely touched-upon back story is a few scenes in a trilogy of comedies. So my litmus test for a prequel is this – is how Character X became Y as interesting as Doc Brown’s implied back story?
Many, many times, the answer is – *NO.* Not even close.
Maleficent – she’s an evil fairy and there is nothing more interesting implied by that. And the answer to how she turned evil? Woman scorned, moving on. Clichéd and boring.
Dracula Untold – we already know this story. There was no reason to tell it again, and honestly Dracula as a tortured soul is not interesting. By this time, that is clichéd and boring.
Pan – okay, given that J.M. Barrie based the character of Peter Pan on his dead brother, it seems more than slightly disrespectful to try to create some back story about the character whole cloth. The movie flopped, and part of that is because I think the audience saw nothing interesting in exploring the question, “How did Peter become Peter Pan?” and “How did James Hook become the evil Captain Hook?” The answer was also nothing more than a sequel teaser because why make one movie when three is more profitable? There’s a whole of nonsense about flying ships and fairies and pirates which sounds way more interesting than it actually was.
Monsters University – I’m putting myself out here. I liked this movie, but there was no reason for it to be made. There was nothing about Mike or Sully that wasn’t satisfactorily set up in the original, and certainly nothing as interesting as plutonium theft to justify a prequel.
Passed the Test, Mishandled the Results:
On the other hand, I will grant that the premise of the “Star Wars” prequels did meet the Doc Brown benchmark. How did a good man (as described by Obi-wan) like Anakin Skywalker, turn so evil? I’m not sure it’s a question that needs to be answered, but it is a compelling question nonetheless. Unfortunately, the creative team that decided to answer that question was wholly unqualified to do so.
The original premise of Gotham, that of a good cop like Jim Gordon watching his city degenerate into the type of place that would welcome vigilante justice dealt out by a clearly insane person dressed up as a nocturnal mammal, was actually interesting. Alas, even in the second season that series cannot figure out how to answer it.
Hollywood should make movies that are interesting. The premise behind prequels is actually usually not interesting. And if it is, actually telling that story is beyond the skill of many movie teams. I’m not saying a prequel is always, always a bad idea, but I am saying if the premise doesn’t even meet the Doc Brown benchmark, don’t even start on a draft.