Last month, audiences got their first glimpse of the trailer for the upcoming film, Joker, which explores the origins of its iconic title character, last seen in the Batman franchise. The trailer came just weeks after Captain Marvel was released to cinemas, detailing the back story of Carol Danvers, a superhero who suffers from amnesia and struggles to find out about her past.
Joker is not the only prequel in the works. DC entertainment (also behind Joker) will follow up with The Batman, a 2021 film set to focus on a younger Bruce Wayne. The sixth instalment of Die Hard, titled McClane, will also be an origin story focusing on John McClane in his 20s.
And after the critically acclaimed Better Call Saul – a prequel to Breaking Bad – it was recently announced that classic TV show The Sopranos would be followed up with a prequel movie. Even Game of Thrones will be filming a prequel series.
Prequels and origin texts focus on the back story of our favourite characters. Traditionally much rarer than sequels, they are fast becoming a popular mode of storytelling, alongside the recent boom of 90s remakes. Prequels allow filmmakers to stay in familiar territory while also developing new storylines for old (and even dead) characters.
While prequels present a unique opportunity for storytelling, they are often poorly received, from Dumb & Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, to Exorcist: The Beginning. On the list of film prequels on Wikipedia, 36 were direct-to-video. Prequels like Godfather Part II and Better Call Saul appear to be the exceptions to the rule.
Why the appeal?
Society loves origins. Much like our obsession with the lives of celebrities "before they were famous", we're naturally curious about the past of characters. The great attraction of the prequel and origin story is that we get to take a look into a character's elusive past.
Film scholar Darren Mooney argues origin stories offer what the late Stan Lee called the "illusion of change", so that our understanding of the character can evolve, even when the character themselves remains more or less the same.
Prequels rely on this process of change, and if we can watch this unfold, it can make certain enigmatic characters more relatable – from the Joker to Tony Soprano. This might explain the popularity of prequels in the horror genre, where we see the early years of killers from Norman Bates to Hannibal Lecter.
Just like sequels, the prequel format is a particularly lucrative business model; Captain Marvel has grossed more than US$1 billion worldwide, continuing Marvel's blockbuster run. By taking advantage of the prequel angle, production companies can capitalise on their films without needing to be particularly original. This means the big film franchises will likely continue their cinematic reign under the guise of "novel" storytelling techniques.
As film studies scholar Andrew Scahill puts it:
"The prequel offers the pleasure of familiar characters and settings while further exploring the narrative world of the existing text and possibly deepening the audience's connection with central characters."
Yet he also acknowledges that "as an industrial mode, the prequel provides the financial safety of a tested storyline with a built-in audience". This means popular culture, once a thriving field of experimental storytelling, risks becoming ever more derivative as it heads into the next decade.
When prequels go wrong
Prequels are more difficult to pull off than a sequel, because we already know how the story ends. As AMC President Sarah Barnett said of Better Call Saul: "We know clearly the end was already written before the beginning began." Filmmakers must also contend with the natural process of time, since actors inevitably age. The task is to make the back story both engaging and authentic to the original narrative.
The Star Wars prequels illustrate how easy it is to do a bad job. The first two films in particular were poorly received and accused of bad writing, equally terrible acting, and falling well short of the original trilogy in regards to storytelling. When prequels are weak, it often seems as though they are simply there to make money for production companies.
While sequels and reboots defined the 2010s in popular culture, prequels are set to define the 2020s, which is not necessarily good news. Ironically, there is no longer anything particularly original about origin stories, as the format has already started to exhaust itself.