We live in an age of creative desolation. The big players aren’t interested in art, only wringing money out of sure bets. Some might say ’twere always so, but a glance at the films or books of yesteryear prove otherwise.
I’m not the first (or the last) person to do the “pick a year” thing and note that only a few decades ago, the entertainment offerings would include numerous films, books or shows we now consider classics. I remember my grandmother sniffing with disdain about the movie offerings of the 1980s and how they couldn’t compare to the Good Old Days. Well, yes, there was a time when the Best Actor contest would pit Humphrey Bogart against Marlon Brando in arguably the best roles of their storied careers. (Seriously, On the Waterfront vs The Caine Mutiny? Tough call.)
Of course, the 1980s were a lush paradise compared to today’s bleak landscape.
One of the signs of this is Hollywood’s obsession with prequels. Time was, if you had a good story, a sequel was the accepted way to expand it. Obviously, not all sequels were worthy of association with the original. Jaws 3D and Grease 2 come to mind.
The thing is, at least sequels try to move the story forward. Most of the time it fails, but when it works, it’s great. Compare, for example, Alien to Aliens. The original is just a standard monster story in space, but the second created a whole new kind of storytelling.
Nowhere to go but Backwards
The first problem with prequels is that they are essentially locking the characters into the genre film ghetto. The vast majority of these films are origin stories, and the only people who care about that are the most dedicated fans. If you don’t care about the original film, the prequel isn’t going to do anything for you.
Shocking absolutely no one, Disney is a major offender in this respect. Recall their abysmal Maleficent, which was essentially a vanity project for Anglina Jolie. Yeah, she looked creepy in her CGI-enhanced makeup, but was there actually a bunch of people demanding to know the backstory from a 1959 movie that is also now completely problematic? I mean the prince is literally kissing a “sleeping beauty”! Not only is that cis-hetero-patriarchal, but where’s the informed consent?!
But wait! There’s more!
Disney’s now strip-mining 101 Dalmatians, with an origin story for Cruella Deville.
Cruella was (and I use the phrase advisedly) literally a cartoon villain. For current college grads than means that she is a villain that is so two-dimensional that she could only work in the setting of an actual cartoon. For children. Because it’s so simple.
That is to say, any attempt to ‘flesh out’ this character is an exercise in cash-grabbing Onanism.
In other words, it is perfectly in accord with Disney’s current marketing plan.
Disney is not unique in this. Hasbro Studios (!?) is doing a movie on based on their G.I. Joe Snake Eyes action figure. Once a person of mystery, Hasbro wants to completely wreck that.
This isn’t art, this is infomercials. Still, you can make infomercials interesting. I mean who saw the second season plot twist when the shouty Oxycontin Oxyclean guy with the beard overdosed?
This brings us to the bigger problem with prequels: the almost total absence of dramatic tension. You already know what’s going to happen in the end, so where’s the suspense?
Yes, it is possible to tell a known story and make it interesting and there are lots of period pieces that specialize this. They might be Jane Austen romances, yet another retelling of Henry VIII’s turbulent reign or something by Shakespeare. What sets these apart from prequels are the quality that goes into them, from top-flight casts to exquisite sets and costumes. There’s also the fact that the stories themselves are superb, either because they were crafted by masters or because the sweep of history itself can be awe-inspiring.
One can know that the 54th Massachusetts Infantry failed to take Battery Wagner during the July 18, 1863 assault and still be captivated by the recreation of it in Glory. The storytelling is superb.
Modern prequels rarely have anything close to that level of skill. The characters are typically flat and the story sterile. If it’s a period piece, expect lots of stupid ahistorical Woke dialog to be factored in so that the main character can show how stunning and brave she is. (Women are always the stunning and brave ones in current historical dramas.)
Flat acting and a thin storyline can still work if the outcome isn’t known, but when even that spoiler’s been given away (“Um, yeah. Superman doesn’t die in high school. Sorry to ruin it for ya.”), what’s left? Yet another CGI demo reel.
The Exceptions that Prove the Rule
The classic example of a successful prequel series is the Man with No Name trilogy. So far as I know, it wasn’t filmed with that in mind, but each episode in the loosely connected series actually goes backwards in time. This isn’t explicitly spelled out until the final installment, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
The first clue was the regressing weapons technology the characters start the series using cartridge revolvers but use cap and ball in the final film. There’s also the fact that the American Civil War preceded the opening of the Western Frontier, and again, that’s in the last movie. The film itself spells it out in the final scene, where Clint Eastwood for the first time in the movie dons his trademark gear. It’s a neat approach.
A second way to do a good prequel is to confine the (future) main characters into supporting roles. This is particularly useful in superhero or space fantasy situations where the power curve is a major concern. One can’t show a young Luke Skywalker moving rocks in the proposed Obi-Wan series because he only learns that skill during The Empire Strikes Back. Period pieces do a variation on this where instead of focusing on the key historical figures, they provide more detail on lesser personalities. The default way this is done is showing events from the female perspective, and it can be very effective storytelling as well as a useful corrective to the myth that women had zero political, religious, or cultural influence until Brie Larson was born to redeem us all.
However, none of these approaches lend themselves to our Woke era. History is bad and wrong, except when you shoehorn it into a progressive cause.
For example, it is a gross distortion to say that the United States was founded on racism or sexism or any other current -ism the SJWs are targeting for fun and profit. Daisey Ridley and Brie Larson are nothing more than opportunistic grifters playing to public ignorance when they claim to be breaking some sort of glass ceiling. Sorry girls, Mary Pickford co-founded United Artists a century ago. Bette Davis broke the legal basis for the contract system 50 years before you born. What the hell have you done?
The same is true in race relations. Pretending that it’s 1948 (or 1859) is not only a lie, it does an immense disservice to all the brave people who suffered and sacrificed in the cause of civil rights. Do the SJWs who want to ban Gone with the Wind realize they are spitting on Hattie McDaniels’ triumph? Probably not, because they are selfish and ignorant.
Thus, the standard historical-style approach to prequels is completely closed to them.
As for backgrounding the main characters, modern storytelling isn’t about showing how people (often of limited abilities) can overcome obstacles through courage and determination, it’s now about how obviously awesome people convince (or force) other people to appreciate their awesomeness.
It’s something of a paradox that at precisely the time when we have the least capable and creative writers, they’ve decided to embrace what is arguably the most difficult form of storytelling.