Released last month, Disney’s Cruella is the latest arrival on the increasingly crowded prequel movie scene – and it won’t be the last, if this live-action Emma Stone vehicle’s success is anything to go by. Indeed, flashback features like Black Widow, Snake Eyes, The King’s Man and Army of Thieves are already set for release later this year, with just as many in the pipeline for 2022 and beyond.
For most fans, this is a good thing; after all, who wouldn’t be excited at the prospect of seeing their favourite franchise continue? But take a closer, more objective look at why Hollywood is so preoccupied with prequels – despite the inherent narrative drawbacks of this storytelling format – and you’ll quickly realise that looking backwards isn’t always the best way to move a franchise forward.
Why do studios make so many prequels?
Of course, prequels aren’t exactly a new storytelling innovation, nor are they an inherently bad idea, creatively speaking. After all, one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time, The Godfather Part II, is as much a prequel as it is a sequel. The thing is, though, Hollywood’s current fixation with prequels has less to do with filmmakers’ artistic ambitions and more to do with studios’ bank balances.
This won’t come as a shock, but neither will my next obvious statement: movies cost a lot to make. Indeed, they’re so expensive that studio executives prefer the security of greenlighting the next instalment in a franchise – which has a built-in audience, making it a safer bet – than a riskier original property. But what do you do when a sequel isn’t possible? It’s simple: you hit the reset button with a reboot or wind the clock back with a prequel.
Reboots typically work best when a franchise has floundered and could use a fresh start (think J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, which cleared the slate after 2002 disaster Star Trek: Nemesis) or has concluded its story so definitively that continuing on seems ill-advised (as was the case with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises). By contrast, prequels are the less drastic option typically reserved for when a franchise is still performing well commercially and hasn’t yet exhausted the audience’s goodwill, but for whatever reason simply cannot sustain a sequel (see Harry Potter spin-off franchise Fantastic Beasts).
And like I said earlier, there’s nothing wrong with this approach. Done right, prequels are a viable means of keeping a franchise alive or even building a new one – heck, taken on its own terms, Cruella is a fun, stylish romp that breathes new life into the 101 Dalmatians series.
But there are some pretty big storytelling hurdles to clear when producing a truly satisfying prequel, and sadly, most prequels released today (including Cruella) fail to clear them.
What major shortcomings do prequels have?
The most obvious of these hurdles is tension… or rather, the absence of tension. Since we already know who will live and who will die, the real appeal of most prequels lies less in keeping audiences wondering what will happen so much as how it will happen (the Star Wars prequels are a great example of this). And honestly? This isn’t that compelling, dramatically speaking. There are ways around this creative roadblock, but it usually means messing about with established continuity (something that contributed to the gradual decline of the X-Men franchise) – which creates more problems, not less!
However, there’s an even bigger issue with prequels than a lack of dramatic tension: to put it bluntly, most of them straight-up shouldn’t exist. See, an overwhelming number of prequels don’t have anything interesting to say about a franchise’s characters or overarching narrative that could only be revealed through a retrospective narrative. Instead, they exist purely to exist, adding nothing to the overall canon – and occasionally doing irreparable damage to it.
Maybe they destroy the mystique around characters that forms a core part of their allure, like 2007’s Hannibal Rising did with iconic baddie Hannibal Lecter. Or perhaps they resolve long-standing mysteries that are best left unexplained – as was the case with Ridley Scott’s controversial Alien prequel Prometheus, which delivered answers that were no match for most fans’ own imaginations. Either way, they’re not adding to what we already love about a franchise, they’re chipping away at it.
But both these shortcomings – lack of tension and lack of purpose – pale in comparison to the biggest problem with prequels today: post-modern revisionism.
The post-modern problem with prequels
Now, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. As Polygon’s Galaxy Brains podcast rightly points out, prequels like Cruella – which recast classic villains as misunderstood anti-heroes – are part of a much wider trend of re-evaluating the hero/villain labels attached to iconic figures (both real and fictional). And there’s merit to this approach, especially when recasting an antagonist as a protagonist addresses pre-existing racial or sexual inequality – but the thing is, it takes uncommon skill to pull off.
Not only does it require you to re-contextualise a villain’s established history – retroactively justifying their misdeeds to make them less morally dubious – but it also demands that you do so in a way that fits within said villain’s accepted characterisation. Too often, one or both aspects are mishandled, leading to a story that doesn’t fit the franchise canon, starring a watered-down version of a one-time villain we barely recognise.
It’s how we ended up with Cruella’s punk rock-infused, feminist role model version of Cruella de Vil, an inspired reimagining of the character that’s nevertheless fully at odds with her 101 Dalmatians self, and all the poorer for it. Because if you downplay a legendary villain like Cruella’s evil inclinations, you don’t just lose the heart of the character, you also sacrifice the essence of what she represents – as aptly summed up by Jacobin’s Eileen Jones, unfettered consumerism and near-superhuman levels of entitlement – to the point where you may as well just create a new character.
And once you reach that point, the best course of action is to scrap your prequel project entirely – except, of course, that studios simply aren’t willing to do that.
What will convince Hollywood to stop making so many prequels?
So how do we get Hollywood to stop churning out sub-par prequels? It’s simple: we stop paying to see them. When you get right down to it, studios only keep making prequels because we keep queuing up for tickets, so steering clear of these movies is a way of saying “Please stop continuing franchises like this, we won’t pay for it.”
But then, maybe most moviegoers do want it. Maybe people like me are in the minority, and everybody else is happy for the seemingly neverending cycle of prequel movies to continue ticking over, so long as it gives them a new instalment of their favourite series. I sure hope not, though, because I’m not quite ready to accept that the future of cinematic storytelling lies in its past…