29 Apr 2011 10:30 am

5 Things Prequels Do Right

Okay, prequels are everywhere nowadays. I'm not suggesting that's a good thing. In fact, if you don't like the title of this blog, check back in a week for "5 Things Prequels Do Wrong". But, if done right, prequels can be kind of cool. So whether you're watching "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" or "X-Men: First Class", here are five things a prequel should do.

5. Reveal Unexpected Developments. You know what I hated the most about the Star Wars prequels? I could live with Midichlorians, a perpetually whiny Darth Vader and a whole race of backward-talking Yodas. No, it was Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen that put me over. I always remember seeing them in the original trilogy and wondering who they were when they were younger. Jedi allies? Clone War veterans? Republic spies? Apparently they are nobodies - because George Lucas couldn't be bothered to write a backstory for them. Which is all the more frustrating when Obi-Wan implies Owen and Anakin are actually brothers in the "A New Hope"!

But this blog is about what prequels do right. I'm not sure if "X-Men: First Class" will be done right, but it's certainly got a leg up on "Star Wars" - from the trailer we see a young Beast and Mystique sharing a kiss! While this might not be entirely accurate with the comics (and might even be a little creepy, since Magneto, seen as Mystique's headmaster in the film, implies he and Mystique have a sexual relationship later in the series), it certainly puts the "X" in unexpected.

At their core, prequels are only compelling if they explore new directions not touched upon by the original work.

4. Exploring the Passage of Time. Whether we like to admit it or not, a lot can happen in a year, a decade or a century. Prequels let us put a variety of time frames under the microscope. It's this timeliness that I personally find interesting about prequels. A lot can happen to a character during any given span of time, and exploring their development through a prequel often makes interesting character study.

While its probably the furthest thing from a "character study", "Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe" explores the development of its title character in a relatively short amount of time. Set only two years before the start of the series, the show lays out the event which took Campbell's Axe from seasoned Seal to Miami Beach wash-up in campy fashion. And while it's mostly harmless disposable fun, there's some underlying darkness to the plot, especially when Burn Notice's title character Michael Weston shows up to tell Sam his actions are the kind of stuff which lead to people getting sold out for.

Ultimately, its the events, not the passage of time, which ultimately matter. "The Fall of Sam Axe" doesn't take place all that long ago, but the transpiring events have a huge impact on the character.

3. Furthering the Character's Journey. If you've read Joseph Campbell, you know every hero embarks on a similar journey - from a call of adventure through a descent into the underworld. That's a pretty tall order for most movies, and even a trilogy can be hard-pressed to fit all of these stages into the narrative. That's where a prequel comes in handy.

Prequels work especially well with the initial narrative started in media res right in the thick of things. Whether the character is William Adama or Roland the Gunslinger, the hero's early days are often well behind them by the start of the main plot. Both "Caprica" and "Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born" serve to explore the characters' first call to adventure, and in doing so, present a view of the character before they became heroes.

There is one caveat to this use of prequel: it only works if you stick with it. Roland spends the better part of five graphic novels growing into Stephen King's memorable anti-hero, and Adama's journey extends through several TV prequels to become the grizzled captain of the Galactica. Compare this with "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", where Logan goes from sickly child to muscular Hugh Jackman during the opening credits.

2. Introducing New Characters. Whether it's Asoka Tano or Dash Rendar, new characters bring two things to successful prequels. First of all, they provide an element of suspense. After all, they're not around in the original works, so what happened to them? (If you've been watching "Star Wars: The Clone Wars", you know Asoka Tano will be in some serious jeopardy in the future.)

But more to the point, new characters provide a fresh point-of-view to engage both new and seasoned viewers of the original work. This is particularly helpful with characters like Asoka Tano, who actually bring out the more heroic side of Anakin Skywalker as a Jedi hero and not a Sith-Lord-Waiting-To-Happen.

At the very least, new characters give writers an easy way to explain the plot in a fresh way without retreading over the basics time and time again.

1. Laying out the Ground Work for the Future. Sooner or later, every prequel has to look ahead, not to the original film, but further down the road.

While we may never get a third Star Wars trilogy (a fact which doesn't really bother me after seeing the prequel), a forth X-Men film is certainly a plausibility. The possibility is an exciting one, however, not just because the third one crashed and burned, but because the prequels have already laid a foundation for more characters and directions. A fourth X-Men film is exciting not because of the return of Hugh Jackman or Halle Berry, but because of the possible inclusion of Gambit, Deadpool and whoever else is still around at the end of "X-Men: First Class".

At a glance, prequels might just look like another way for studios to cash in on an original property. That's certainly how Hollywood seems to be working nowadays. But whether it's intended or not, prequels ultimately give way to sequels which further a franchise's future instead of pushing it further back into the past.

(That's it for this week's rant. Check back next Friday for a breakdown of what prequels typically get wrong - as well as another edition of Blue Yonder Wednesday.)

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