Although the frenzy to “reboot” film franchises has produced some surprisingly good movies in recent years — thanks again for delivering the geek-friendly goods with Star Trek, J.J. Abrams! — the current hit X-Men: First Class demonstrates the possibilities offered by prequels, which have mostly been replaced by reboots.
It may surprise you to realize that only a handful of major movie prequels have actually been made. In fact, most genuine prequels are straight-to-video quickie flicks following up children’s movies or (shudder) lowbrow comedies like The Dukes of Hazzard (2005), which beget The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning (2007). Then again, when you review the spotty performances of the major prequels that have been made, problems inherent to the subgenre quickly come into focus.
One of the first full-length prequels to major box-office hit was Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979), a companion to the legendary Paul Newman-Robert Redford Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Although it’s an entertaining movie, Early Days bombed largely because nobody wanted to see Butch and Sundance played by anyone but Newman and Redford. Early Days costars Tom Berenger (Butch) and William Katt (Sundance) both did solid work, but they faced an impossible task trying to replace beloved megastars.
And that’s why few genuine prequels happen: It’s virtually impossible to cast actors as younger versions of themselves, and recasting iconic roles usually makes viewers feel like they’re seeing pale imitations. Audiences didn’t exactly flock to Hannibal Rising (2007), for example, which features young actor Gaspard Ulliel essaying the Hannibal Lecter role made famous by Anthony Hopkins.
Occasionally, someone comes up with a clever way to skirt the movie-star problem, as Fox did with X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. Since the Wolverine character that Hugh Jackman had already played in three X-Men blockbusters is quasi-immortal, and since Jackman pumped his body up to superhuman proportions for the prequel, the studio pushed the idea that even though Jackman was ten years older than he was in the first X-Men (2000), his character was roughly the same age during events that took place decades before that film.
Okay, maybe that wasn’t such a clever way to skirt the movie-star issue.
A more effective approach has been employed to great success by filmmaker George Lucas, who has prolonged his Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises by jettisoning familiar characters and focusing on their ancestors or, as portrayed by completely different actors, their much younger selves. Lucas is a special case, though, because the combination of his biggest brands and his personal imprimatur is enough to generate interest; unlike mere mortal filmmakers, he’s as bankable as a movie star.
After teasing the idea of a young Indiana Jones during the wonderful prologue of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), which featured River Phoenix as the pipsqueak version of Harrison Ford’s character, Lucas shifted to television for the short-lived series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which ran from 1994 to 1996. (Paramount, the studio behind Indiana Jones, later prequel-ized another one of its big franchises for television, but more on that later.)
Once Young Indiana Jones ran its course, Lucas unleashed the astonishingly successful Star Wars prequels, which dealt with the childhood and adolescence of the Man Who Would Be Vader. The blockbuster trilogy began with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999 and concluded with Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith in 2005. Whereas Young Indiana Jones was embraced by critics for its playful depiction of real historical figures, however, the Star Wars prequels were eviscerated by reviewers (and many older fans).
Nonetheless, Lucas’ projects indicated a winning strategy that few producers have been able to emulate: Make the franchise the star, and actors become replaceable.
A glimmer of the modern prequel arrived on television, when Paramount cleverly re-launched its deathless franchise Star Trek with the prequel TV series Star Trek: Enterprise, which ran from 2001 to 2005. Depicting the first voyage of the original U.S.S. Enterprise, a predecessor to the ship made famous by William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in the original 1966-1969 Star Trek TV series and six subsequent feature films, Enterprise was a respectable attempt to make the franchise fresh without tossing out years of continuity by rebooting.
Around the time Enterprise finished its run, another storied fantasy brand was prequel-ized to far less impressive effect. In one of recent history’s most notorious cinematic disasters, acclaimed writer-director Paul Schrader was hired to make a prequel to The Exorcist (1973) that would depict what happened when the character played by Max Von Sydow in the original film first encountered a supernatural demon, years before showing up at Regan McNeil’s house for the events of The Exorcist.
Warner Bros. hated Schrader’s movie so much the studio shelved the flick and hired a new director, Renny Harlin, to reshoot the picture with a bigger focus on blood-and-guts spectacle. Harlin’s movie, Exorcist: The Beginning, was released to critical scorn in 2004, and so much controversy arose about Warner’s mistreatment of Schrader that his version hit theaters a year after Harlin’s movie, bearing the blunt title Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. Even with the great Stellan Skarsgard playing the Von Sydow role in both versions, neither prequel scored with audiences or critics.
The Exorcist debacle probably turned studios off prequels for a while, especially since a more commercially viable approach to franchises emerged around the same time: Reboots of horror franchises including Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did killer box-office while the Exorcist flicks did not. Virtually the only prequel that did much business in the late 2000s — excepting the previously mentioned Wolverine flick — was Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009), which nearly matched the box-office performance of the original Underworld (2003) despite the absence of series star Kate Beckinsale.
Now, though, it seems a new era of prequels is looming. There’s already talk of a follow-up to X-Men: First Class, although the movie’s somewhat disappointing box-office debut may scuttle that project, and of course one of the very biggest movies of next year will be a prequel: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the next installment in director Peter Jackson’s mega-successful Lord of the Rings franchise, and it’s only half of a larger film, because the second part, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, will be released in 2013.
With X-Men: First Class winning over critics and The Hobbit sure to score at the box office, Hollywood may take a new look at the possibilities of prequels. When that happens, there are plenty of franchises that could benefit from a fresh start.
For instance, there have been numerous attempts to remake/reboot John Carpenter’s terrific sci-fi action film Escape from New York (1981), although it’s hard to imagine anyone matching original star Kurt Russell’s amiable bad-assery. If the remake/reboot approach were ditched, there’s a whole fascinating story to be told about how Russell’s character, Snake Plissken, got to be Snake Plissken.
And once a few years have passed to let people get over the mediocre sequels, wouldn’t it be interesting to see a Pirates of the Caribbean prequel explaining how Captain Jack Sparrow got to be Captain Jack Sparrow?
Looking at a franchise where the concept is the star, how about an Inception prequel instead of the presumably inevitable Inception 2? Wouldn’t learning how inception technology was developed be more fascinating than watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s character scurry down the rabbit hole one more time?
As for the most tantalizing of all prequel possibilities, think Bond. James Bond.
At their best, prequels give fans a whole new perspective on popular characters by unveiling the past that informs the present; the prequel approach is a way to continue a franchise without simply repeating tropes that have lost their edge or, worse, introducing new elements that don’t fit. Chances are no one will argue that the labored special-effects nonsense of the last “new” X-Men movie, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), is preferable to the clever machinations of X-Men: First Class. Similarly, is anyone excited about the new Peter Parker reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), which promises to rehash the origin story that director Sam Raimi got right the first time with Spider-Man (2002)?
Reboots are here to stay, at least as long as they keep making money, but X-Men: First Class should remind Hollywood about something that’s been hiding in plain sight — the intriguing possibilities of the stories that came before the stories.