For as much of a challenge as Sequels, spinoffs and other narrative deviations based on original stories have proven to be throughout the entire history of narrative storytelling, none has proven to be quite so challenging to pull off as the prequel. While there are innumerable reasons why this invariably fails as a story-telling structure on its own terms, the primary reason is that, fundamentally, is that the prequel is never actually taken on its own terms (almost by design, in fact). Whereas other series installments are allowed to branch out and do their own thing – beholden only to maintaining continuity with the original starting-off point – prequels need to lead directly into that same property. As such, they can’t develop character, expand on storylines or broaden the world in such a way that would bring about discordance with the story upon which it is based.
Recent years have been kind to the prequel, however. The most recent blockbuster to take over the box office is Solo, a Star Wars prequel that follows a young, restless Han Solo has he tries to find his place in a vast and untamed galaxy. And, when all is said and done, it pulls off its story with aplomb: not only setting up the now-familiar story of A New Hope, but setting up its own sequels and spinoffs and finding interesting new avenues to develop the existing Star Wars setting. It is far from the only film to find success in the half-hinted-at spaces set before a successful movie, however, many of which stretch back for decades.
5 . The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2013) – An Unexpected Journey, like the needlessly stretched-out Hobbit Trilogy to which it belongs (almost as if its “like butter scraped over too much bread”), is mixed-bag of phenomenal moments trapped in an over-long, hopelessly meandering mess of a movie that tried far too hard to chase after the success of its storied forebear. The decision to wring out every last drop of content from the appendices of Tolkien’s Middle Earth (or, in some cases, to simply fabricate others out of thin air), bloated an otherwise streamlined story into an artificially “epic” length. Subplots arrive and leave completely out of nowhere, characters glaringly do not belong and comically over-the-top chase scenes go on for far too long in an already packed-to-the-brim story.
Even so, I’ll be damned if the first movie didn’t just work. The cast seems to have been cut from whole cloth for these precise roles, the Shire (and its surrounding lands) are as immediately breathtaking as ever and its runtime contains many of the singularly best moments in the entire Lord of the Rings franchise. The Dwarves set to song are varyingly comical and chilling. The Riddles in the Dark segment is downright terrifying to watch and reminds us exactly why Andy Serkis is the master of motion capture acting. And Martin Freeman is the most instantly likeable screen presence in a major studio tentpole since Frodo was in The Fellowship of the Ring.
4 . Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) – While I opted to exclude Solo from this list because there really are a surprising number of other options to choose from (I was genuinely upset that I couldn’t find room for Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge when all was said and done), I couldn’t help but include its spiritual predecessor for not only good Star Wars prequels, but compelling side-projects that expand beyond the Skywalker family squabbles and their influence on galactic events. Despite the extremely narrow window of time that it, by narrative necessity, was allowed to draw from – all of which was based on a one-or-two sentence backstory from the first movie in the franchise – it managed to explode outwards everything that Star Wars was allowed to be: dark, dirty, Forceless and operating well outside of the established rules of war.
Beyond that, Rogue One is simply one kick-ass movie with a low of now-iconic moments packed into its fairly lean run-time. From Vader’s alien castle to the final moments of the Rogue One crew to Vader tearing mercilessly through the Rebel soldiers en route to the stolen Death Star schematics, it’s a decidedly different and welcome take on the standard Star Wars mythos: one that makes room for the little guy caught in the crosshairs of guerrilla warfare.
3 . X-Men: First Class (2011) – While it’s strange to think about in an age where the MCU is consistently delivering hit after unqualified hit, the DCEU is plowing along with its bullheaded plans, Sony is somehow making Spider-Man-less Spider-Man movies and Fox is already taking its second pass at adapting the iconic Dark Phoenix Saga for the big screen, but back around the turn of the decade, the franchise was unquestionable on its last legs. The larger team-up movies were floundering to find an audience that could be bothered to care anymore, the Wolverine spinoffs weren’t any good and the entire franchise had been run so thoroughly into the ground that there was seemingly no way forward for them to go. Rather than fight it, however, Fox hired writer-director pair Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (whose collaborations were collectively responsible for Kingsman, Kick-Ass and this X-film) to take the entire production back to square one.
By looking backwards in the franchise’s ostensible history, Vaughn and Goldman were able to bring the team back to their roots: as 1960s stand-ins for marginalized groups trying desperately to find their place in a world that both hates and fears them. They find the Bond-like energy that had always served the franchise best in the comics and were able to explore a new crop of mutants that future continuities would never have allowed for. It, in short, singlehandedly breathed new life into the film series and laid the groundwork for all of the sequels (with their younger, hipper X-teams) to come.
2 . The Godfather Part II (1974) – When you stop and think about it, the second Godfather is a really strange beast, particularly for a time when prequels, sequels, midquels and other such narrative niches weren’t really commonplace in the film industry. One half of the movie is a sequel to The Godfather while the other half is a prequel that tells the origins of infamous gangster Vito Corleone and how he rose from an impoverished Italian immigrant to the head of the largest crime syndicate in the United States. And while any less of a director would have produced a tangled mess of time-shifting narratives, Francis Ford Coppola finds the dramatic through-line across the generations and makes the entire film resonate in harmonious unison.
I’m ultimately not sure if Part II would have worked as either a pure prequel or pure prequel to the original movie. Taken by themselves, neither is as meaty, intriguing or complex as the original. But by laying these stories side-by-side, comparing and contrasting them in the context of events past, present and future, it somehow becomes something more than the sum of its parts: a story that perfectly encapsulates the trials and tribulations of its characters, but also recontextualizes everything that we had come to know about it from the first installment.
1 . The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) – It’s a Hell of a thing to top a Godfather movie, time-tested benchmarks of cinema against which all others are inescapably judged, at anything, but there really is no question in the matter. Sergio Leone’s loosely-connected Dollars Trilogy (individually A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) are perhaps the greatest instance of three-act storytelling in the business. And although it ends on an unmistakable high-note, even ardent Dollars fans might be shocked to discovered that the beloved Good, the Bad and the Ugly – set during the Civil War – is actually a prequel to the preceding two films – which are set afterwards.
What follows, then, is an epic the scale of which has yet to be replicated in virtually any genre: a sprawling story of deceit, treachery and greed that is somehow so much larger than itself individually or the trilogy as a whole. It is a thematically rich, technically perfect and endlessly compelling narrative that effectively sums up the entire franchise to which it belongs. And, even when measured up against the temporal twists of its gangster rival, it comes out decidedly ahead of the competition.