Bold statement I know and my research has hardly been exhaustive, but from the evidence I’ve found I think this is true.
I’m mostly talking about movies here, but I’ll dip a toe into books too. There are basically three kinds of “prequels” that will be discussed here and not all of them are terrible. There’s the extended flashback (as in Godfather, Part II). That duel flashback and continuing story gave resonance to the entire work but I don’t consider it a “prequel.” To further bolster my claim that it is not a prequel, just look at the misguided “complete” Godfather where they re-edited all the flashbacks to before the first film. It was tedious.
In pop culture, similar examples would be the “early” X-Men movies where younger versions of the characters are featured. But I don’t really consider those “prequels” in the traditional sense. They are complete stories in themselves and don’t end at the moment the original series begins.
There are also “reboots” that walk the line of a prequel but I’m giving them a pass. The 2009 Star Trek, Batman Begins and 2006 Casino Royale are fun in and of themselves and while they may have moments that call back earlier themes, moments and characters they aren’t really trying to tell what happened before a specific story.
I’m mostly here to pick on Rogue One and prequels in a similar vein. The Lucas Star Wars prequels, Monsters U., The Hobbit movies and to a lesser extent Fantastic Beasts fall into this category of films purposely made to take place and fill in the story of an already existing story or series. They also tend to lead right up to the moment the original tale began.
I first asked about this on Twitter and was not surprised to hear Godfather II mentioned right out of the gate (by the always worth reading Tim Stahmer). It’s an excellent sequel and owes much to its filling in of the backstory to the first film but I think I’ve clearly stated why I don’t count it as a pure prequel.
Of course this is in my mind at the moment because of the disappointing (to me) double whammy of Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One. It’s probably not fair to consider Fantastic Beasts a prequel though, no more than it is to consider those young X-Men movies prequels. It’s a series following different characters (for the most part) in the same fictional universe but not directly leading to the original series. So I’ll skip it.
To be fair to Rogue One, it’s not completely terrible (as Monsters U. isn’t completely terrible.) It’s just that they suffer from something worse (to me). They are unnecessary.
Good things about Rogue One: the character of Jyn Erso and the magnificent actor playing her. The badass Force believers of Chirrut and Baze. The actors overall. The diverse cast. The lack of romance! (And kudos to Teen Vogue for going into this so well and thoughtfully.) The Vader hissy-fit. The general look of the thing.
Bad things about Rogue One: Maggie Stiefvater summed it up pretty succinctly on Twitter saying it was, “Too strung out to be tense. Not fun enough to be fun. Not philosophical enough to be tragic.” I would also add that I found the CQI-ification of dead or aged actors to be jarring, rather course and not even done as well as it could have been.
The only one of those that really points out the weakness of the idea of prequels though is the lack of tension or suspense. We know what’s going to happen. It’s all right there in the first part of the opening crawl of the original Star Wars film we (or at least I) have seen a thousand times:
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”
Flashbacks and callbacks in series TV and long running stories can be awesome. I loved seeing the Starfleet Academy Picard get his butt kicked in a flashback. The last episodes of Breaking Bad made some fun references to the beginning of the series. But a whole movie or series of movies filling us in on what happened before we get to the stuff we already know we like? Yawn.
This was a problem with The Hobbit movies as well. I realize that the novel The Hobbit isn’t a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote it first. Then later had the idea to expand his fictional universe with the later series. But the movies were different. The original trilogy of films were an amazing achievement and stand alone. Because of various legal reasons Peter Jackson was unable to obtain the rights to The Hobbit until after The Lord of the Rings films were completed. But he didn’t just make a movie of The Hobbit. He made a prequel trilogy to The Lord of the Rings, adding characters and situations and dragging it out in a way that sadly weakened it.
Since I’m a school librarian I’ll mention one children’s book series that could be considered a successful prequel, though I would argue that it’s really a reboot. Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson wrote a series of books about Peter Pan. It was, at first at least, presented as a prequel but there are so many (wonderful) differences that it’s really a “reboot” in the best sense. (This series was pointed out as a “good” prequel by an excellent educator named Sarah Guest, also on Twitter).
So there you have it. As far as I know, there is no such thing as an excellent prequel and there probably won’t be.
I’ll leave the final word to Patton Oswalt.