Movie prequels have been around at least as long as Butch and Cassidy: The Early Years (1975) or The Adventures of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). Still, when Phantom Menace came out in 1999, George Lucas presented it as a bold new horizon for filmmaking.
That promise was a corporate vision, not a creative one. Lucas was sometimes the artist who made THX 1138, sometimes a purveyor of cheap plastic toys, and always a tinkerer. He made no secret of “moichandising” and his desire to turn Star Wars into an endless source of profit. To the industry, Star Wars’ first prequel looked like a shiny rollout of stratagems to reuse and recycle massive franchises. Give the people what they want.
To everyone else, it looked like surgeons cutting into healthy flesh. Rooting around in the past of a well-rounded story can break its bones. More so than a bad sequel, a bad prequel can force you to reconsider what you liked about the original to begin with. Vader’s image, for instance, never quite recovered in the public’s imagination.
But 2022 went for it. This year, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones all went under the knife. Unprecedented levels of cash and labor flowed into franchising the history of those universes. Millions of dollars and man hours later, it’s worth spending a few moments to reflect on the results of the year’s prequel series, and examine their seams.
House of the Dragon
It’s clear that HBO wants a do-over.
The re-staging of the show’s Season 1 finale is deliberate. It may be set 172 years before King Robert’s reign, but a white-haired queen once again holds court on an island fortress (quite a familiar island fortress) and plots to retake her throne from a common usurper. When Rhaenyra’s subjects crown her in Episode 10, “Black Queen,” the music swells and the camera lingers on her reverent subjects. Later in that same episode, her aunt delivers an on-the-nose speech which basically amounts to “In Rhaenyra We Trust.” It positions Rhaenyra as a surrogate for adrift positive feelings about that other Targaryen girl, whose heel turn was so low (and her appeal so high) that even U.S. senators complained about it.
To that end, Rhaenyra’s arc is a whirlwind tour of Daenerys’ character beats. Daenerys’ transformation from a chattel princess to emancipated regent took around three seasons. Rhaenyra does it in 10 episodes. For hard lessons about sex and power, Daenerys had multiple teachers: her brother Viserys, Khal Drogo, and Jorah, among others. House of the Dragon conflates those into one mentor, her uncle Daemon.
She’s not well-rounded. She’s a hasty sketch supplemented by our comfort with the original Thrones, and she’s just an example of this canny shorthand. House of the Dragon is trying to core its sister show, cutting out the divisive zombie apocalypse bookends and retaining the juicy, soapy drama within King’s Landing.
It’s leaning into an established framework of Thrones lore, traveling quickly over the known to reach the unknown. Discarding the existential crisis costs the franchise some poignance, pushing the House of the Dragon closer to the endless gyres of a soap opera. Still, the overall approach seems economical and HBO’s veteran status in this arena is definitely felt. As I’ve mentioned in the past, HBO has been creating in this niche for a while.
Yet you can’t really substitute audience knowledge for time spent organically on character development. Its compression fails. Rhaenyra’s coronation feels hollow and unearned. She, and House of the Dragon as a whole, remains a sketch.
And that’s a shame because there are details which display serious ingenuity. House of the Dragon and Martin have created a rich composite of countless real-life dynasties. The Targaryen imperial family tree is convincingly knotty. It’s full of personal indiscretions, dead-ends, dark horses, and obscure relations ignored until they become politically valuable. Sometimes this creates confusion (“Who are they? What’s their claim again?”), but that’s a bewilderment known to anyone who looks at the Tudor family tree.
Whenever House of the Dragon explores those angles, it’s promising. Viserys’ last meal, for instance, is a cracker of a scene and undergirded by some real narrative power. Whenever it looks backward, it turns into a pillar of salt.
Prequel Strategy: Recycle
Kenobi is Star Wars’ first stab at an MCU-esque spinoff show, and the result is mixed. Its first half promises a quasi-thriller which turns out to be toothless. It doesn’t help that we now have Andor, a more dedicated political thriller which would stand out even without the Star Wars label. Judge it as a prequel in a long line of prequels, however, and it fares a bit better.
Usually it’s another Solo, a hodgepodge of answers to questions we never asked. There are some unexpected delights, such as Haja (Kumail Nanjiani), a grifter posing as a Jedi. Haja is a clever bit of worldbuilding in a series that often struggles with it—a sign that its society is responding to the absence of the Jedi in complex ways.
Furthermore, there are scenes which give necessary closure. Kenobi’s (in)famous parting words to Vader on Mustafar always felt like half of a conversation. From Phantom Menace to Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker (and Hayden Christensen’s unfortunate performance) was an emotional dead zone, but the loss of his brother-in-arms should have evoked some pathos. If nothing else, Kenobi delivers that.
Still, the big picture takeaway doesn’t make this show more meaningful. These contributions are too negligible to sustain anything more than a faint curiosity. At its best, Kenobi is restoration work. It’s putting a bit of blush on some wooden characters and smoothes out a few curves. At its worst, it’s a Post-it note slapped on someone else’s work. A parasite.
Prequel Strategy: Restoration
Rings of Power
Rings of Power repeats the mistakes outlined above and invents a few more. On the one hand, it follows suit with House of the Dragon and relies on shorthand for the development of its newest characters. On the other hand, its treatment of legacy characters such as Galadriel or Elrond is more akin to Kenobi. Unfortunately, it inherits the worst aspects of both approaches.
Halbrand is an intentional riff on Aragorn. Any warmth in Elrond and Durin’s relationship belongs to Legolas and Gimli. The elf-man romance of Arondir-Malva is reheated Arwen-Aragorn, which was itself an in-universe echo of Lúthien-Aragorn.
Galadriel, the one Tolkien holdover Rings tries to engage on a deeper level, is a poor subject. It’s an example of restoration gone wrong. Our existing portrait of Galadriel is of an ageless, serene queen. By framing her as an angry, impulsive warrior princess, it’s trying to create contrast and intrigue. But there’s so little overlap between one and the other that the likeness feels unfaithful and dishonest.
I stand by what I’ve written about it before. Count no man happy until his end is known and let a thousand flowers bloom. But Rings of Power’s handling of its IP is as subtle as a howitzer. Its first season shouldn’t be emulated.
Prequel Strategy: Recycle and Restore
Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul’s sixth season wrapped up earlier this year. It’s an alumnus to the rest, which are conspicuously freshmen.
The show is a peculiar specimen. The saga of Breaking Bad seemed like a closed book. Arguably, it didn’t have a universe to cultivate. Putting aside the druglord props, it was a flavor of George Saunders or Raymond Carver. Walter White is grounded in that old “search for meaning in middle America” which still holds heavy real estate in literary fiction. A prequel to Breaking Bad sounds about as appetizing as a prequel to American Beauty.
But Better Call Saul is magnificent. It proved that, when it comes to sequels and prequels, we often look in the wrong direction.
After it falls out of in medias res, Breaking Bad’s first scene shows Walter White describing chemistry as “A study of change. . . . [Chemistry is about] growth, decay, then transformation.” Of course, Walter White is really talking about what’s going to happen to him (duh), but creator Vince Gilligan latches onto that as a unifying thesis. His twin character studies chart a progression between (seeming) opposites so immaculately and logically that they approach the elegance of formulae.
Gilligan and his incredible team of writers are not the first artists to use metamorphosis as a spine for their work. Saul’s mention of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine in its sixth season is, amongst other things, a deliberate nod to that heritage. It’s their choice of medium and tools, TV and long-form character study, that make it remarkable as a whole. They wandered so far from that 2008 scene physically, but their spirit didn’t.
And they were unusually perceptive in their choice of protagonist. Bob Odenkirk brought a great deal of charm to Saul Goodman, but he was initially painted in broad strokes. His characterization landed somewhere in the ballpark of Grand Theft Auto V.
That’s entirely fine. He was detailed enough to pass cursory inspection, and more depth might have been a distraction. When they returned to him after Breaking Bad, there were no preconceptions to sort through. Saul may not have given the fans what they thought they wanted most, but his lack of definition was an asset.
Better Call Saul’s weakest moments (for lack of a better term) come from trying to make a spiritual connection too literal. Gus Fring and the Salamancas are integrated as smoothly as humanly possible, but their inclusion still feels like a drug show is invading our white-collar crime show. Maybe it should have been content with Mike Ehrmantraut and Tuco.
Nevertheless, Saul’s restraint and cohesion mark it as a masterpiece of the form. Gilligan makes an airtight case against anyone who considers prequels lesser-grade narrative. Arguably, nothing on this list would exist without it.
Prequel Strategy: Spiritual Successor; Minor Recycling
I’ve written more than a few words praising Andor and I won’t reproduce them here in full. Instead, I’d like to concentrate on one sentence: “Every step [Cassian Andor] takes toward the Rebellion brings him closer to [his death] in Rogue One.”
Cassian Andor’s big, inspirational arc is about believing in more than yourself, but the “right choice” is going to kill him. That’s the tug of dramatic irony—the Greek tragedy kind. Peripheral awareness of the future informs the central drama.
Crucially, Andor accomplishes this without stressing IP in the manner we’ve come to expect from Disney. It’s such a standalone tale with such a unique angle that it could have survived an off-brand transition.
Call the Empire the “Pangalactic Hegemony” and it would still be a great story about revolutions. Firefly proved that can be enough. But the privilege of using the Empire of many childhoods—its icons, its visual language, its position in our psyches—makes it hit harder than you would expect. It’s that spiritual connection again.
As a side effect, it makes everything else in the Disneyverse look less like it’s supplying a demand and more like it’s been cutting our Star Wars beer with water.
Prequel Strategy: Spiritual Successor
The wild peaks and troughs of 2022’s prequels have taught me this: There’s no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. There’s only more hard work. No matter how you cut it, your audience knows how your story ends. The thrill of discovery and surprise are harder to replace than you think.
This isn’t a new problem, but actually an old one. Over two thousand years ago, Greek playwrights trafficked exclusively in retellings of common myth. Every member of the crowd knew those myths by heart. They probably knew multiple variations of each. By the time Euripedes trotted out his rendition of Antigone, they might have seen three forgettable ones. Another Heracles play this season? Snore.
The best of them neither ignored nor relied upon that dynamic. They toyed with it. In that context, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is one of the best examples of trolling in the history of theater.
Prequels will never become IP’s silver bullet or the gateway to endless exploitation. Nothing about them is reproducible or universally applicable. In most situations, they’re riskier than making something entirely new.
But it could become a new canvas. That’s a creative vision, not a corporate one.
Sean Weeks is a student of classics and mythology who’s wandered slightly off course. If you want to join him in his odyssey, you can visit him at www.weeksauthor.com.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.