Get Back: Prometheus, Before Watchmen and the Complicated Art of the Prequel

Why do we love revisiting pasts we've never known? And why do so many of them disappoint?

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DC Comics
DC Comics

For fans of speculative fiction, it seems, everything new is old again. This week sees the release not only of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s return to the world(s) of his 1979 horror science fiction movie classic, but also Before Watchmen, DC Comics’ attempt to transform the groundbreaking 1986 comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (one of Time’s top 100 novels of all-time ) into a franchise. Both projects have been subject to much debate ahead of their debuts, but for very different reasons: while Prometheus is highly anticipated by almost all who’ve seen one of the many teasers or trailers, Before Watchmen was widely condemned before anyone had even seen a page of the project. Prequels, it seems, are a surprisingly touchy subject… but why? And, for that matter, why is it so hard to create a prequel that’s actually any good?

Before we examine the phenomenon, it might be fitting to go back to the beginning. The word “prequel” was created, it’s believed, in 1958 by science fiction writer and editor Anthony Boucher to describe the novel They Shall Have Stars by James Blish for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, although it’s claimed that its first mainstream usage came from movie director Richard Lester in interviews promoting his Butch and Sundance: The Early Days movie in 1979. The earliest prequel definitely predated the word itself; Jean Webster’s 1911 novel Just Patty could be considered the first prequel as we generally understand the term, set five years earlier than Webster’s 1903 debut When Patty Went to College, but the idea may have come from much earlier than the 20th century. Wikipedia, somewhat cheekily, suggests that the Cypria is actually a 7th-century prequel to Homer’s Iliad, but I’ll leave the validity of that one for the scholars to decide.

It’s easy to understand the lure of the prequel, as British literary critic Mark Lawson once explained. “Readers and theater-goers often make more investment in a particular person or plot-line than the author is willing (boredom, other ideas) or able (death) to pay out,” he wrote. That conflict—the desire for a continuation beyond a creator’s intent or ability—fuels a tension often at play in the creation of a subsequent, derivative work, with the victor more often than not commerce rather than art. “The movie business loves sequels for financial reasons—a studio accountant would always rather see Tired Franchise 4 on the production slate than Risky Concept 1—but this enthusiasm also reflects an attitude to creativity,” Lawson continued, pointing out that “Hollywood’s definition of authorship is the absolute opposite of literature’s.”

(MORE: TIME’s Richard Corliss reviews Prometheus)

The complicated question of authorship is certainly one of the core complaints against Before Watchmen. Neither of the original story’s creators was involved with the mammoth prequel, which is more than twice as long as the original story. Original writer Alan Moore has spoken out against the project many times, and original artist Dave Gibbons’ sole contribution on the subject was a sullen company-released endorsement that started with a terse “The original series of WATCHMEN is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell.” There has also been much heated discussion over the fact that DC, technically, doesn’t actually own the characters, but is able to exploit them as it sees fit thanks to a legal loophole in the original contract with Moore and Gibbons.

It’s tempting to look at the prequel, then, as some kind of crass commercialization of culture; story-as-commodity instead of story-as… well, story, really. After all, for all the prequels that could claim some level of “because you demanded it!” as a reason for existing, there have been countless more that were merely the attempt to squeeze one more morsel of profit out of an empty toothpaste tube of franchise potential. After Silence of The Lambs and Hannibal, did anyone really want Hannibal Rising? Once Battlestar Galactica had finished with the whimpering instead of the banging, was there honestly a massive demand for Caprica? (Considering that it was cancelled midway through its first season, the answer to that one is clearly “no”.)

And yet, isn’t reducing prequels to “the triumph of business and bottom lines over creativity and inspiration” an overly simplistic way to look at it? After all, creators are often involved in prequels: Ridley Scott, of course, is the moving force behind Prometheus. And their mixed results that have as much to do with the artistic impulse as any financial concern. For every The Godfather Part II, with Francis Ford Coppola in charge of expanding the story of Michael Corleone to thrilling effect, there’s an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where Steven Spielberg and George Lucas get carried away with their influences and ambition and produce an uneven, bad-tempered story where the hero gets possessed and monkey brains get eaten because, hey, aren’t those foreigners weird?. Perhaps more importantly, Lucas, again, was all over the “Prequel Trilogy” of his Star Wars series, and look how that turned out. The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of The Sith are often held up as examples of everything that is wrong with prequels as a concept, with some justification: The more modern trilogy is unmistakably the work of an older man who lacks the recklessness and optimism that made the original movies so charming, even before you get to such (sensible) objections that no one wants a movie called Star Wars to center around trade disputes or how frustratingly slow democracy can be.

(MORE: A Song for George Lucas)

Damon Lindelof, one of the writers for Scott’s Prometheus, has a theory about prequels in general, and the Star Wars prequels in particular. “The thing about a prequel is, as fascinating as it may be to watch Anakin Skywalker turn to the dark side of the Force, there’s an inevitability to it, so you know when you go in that the prequel can only cover A to Y, and that Z is going to be the pre-existing material, and so you can’t really end it in an exciting or surprising way, you can only end it in the inevitable way,” he told the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast. “So it’s really just about starting a movie with Hercule Poirot saying, ‘It is you, the butler, who did it!’ and then, for the next two hours, I’m just going to watch a series of events of how Hercule Poirot came to the revelation that the butler did it. Who wants to see that movie? That’s not interesting.”

More than any question of authorial intent or ownership, this is the core concern of a prequel: Is it interesting? In the age of writers’ rooms creating such critical successes on television as Mad Men, or the number of people necessary to create something like Avengers, after all, the idea of a singular auteur feels curiously out of place. As much as it’s heartening to think that the outcry to Before Watchmen is entirely rooted in concern over the contractual ownership of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the reality is far more base: After Watchmen, the story feels finished. We know these characters, their histories and inner struggles; the idea of telling more stories with Nite Owl, Doctor Manhattan or Silk Spectre feels unnecessary, and worse yet, uninteresting.

Compare that with Prometheus, with its entirely new cast of characters and a central storyline that includes the larger universe of Alien, but isn’t beholden to the events of that movie at all. No surprise, then, that the level of anticipation and excitement for that project has been so much greater. We don’t know, yet, what Prometheus actually is, or how it will end. Talking to Kevin Pollak last year about this issue, he said that “a true prequel should essentially proceed the events of the original film, but be about something entirely different, feature different characters, have an entirely different theme, although it takes place in that same world.” It’s a risky idea—one that assumes that the audience’s connection to the original story was as much about the world building as it was the characters—but one that allows the prequel to have the dramatic tension that comes from not needing to head towards the beginning of the story they already know. A prequel doesn’t have to be an elongated, glorified “story-so-far,” this theory suggests; it can, in fact, be a story that succeeds in and of itself.

(READ: Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre Fiction Is Disruptive Technology)

There is, of course, an option C: The “Everything You Know Is Wrong And This Is The Real Story” option which can be ill-considered, at best. Essentially telling an audience “You know that story that you really liked? Well, it didn’t really happen like that” could, depending on its execution, be taken as a disrespectful slap in the face to both original source material and the fans thereof, especially if the replacement status quo doesn’t match up to what it’s taking the place of. 2009′s Star Trek reboot took this idea to the extreme, not only changing its audience’s understanding of everything they’d seen before, but actually changing the “history” of the entire franchise. Thankfully, most everyone seemed to appreciate the changes; apparently, lens flare goes a long way to soothing potentially frayed nerves.

Ultimately, the success of any prequel will come down to what the audience expects of it, and that’s a difficult subject to get to the heart of. Moreso than a sequel—where writers have the option to go wherever they want, freed of any expectation of where things will end—prequels are burdened by the nostalgia of the audience, a desire to revisit favorite characters or situations with the knowledge that everything will end up, if not alright, then at least back where we already know. What audiences really want from prequels, it’s worth arguing, is a recreation of the experience of the original movie/show/novel/comic/whatever, a return to the way they felt that first time—and that’s something that feels unfair to demand of them, because it’s such an impossible, subjective goal. Despite such unusual successes as X-Men: First Class, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or television’s Spartacus: Gods of The Arena, prequels are practically destined to disappoint by their very nature. It’s not just that we want to go back, it’s that we want to go to such a very personal, very specific idea of “back” that even the best efforts by outsiders have little chance of reaching. The promise of a prequel is a sense of explanation and closure that can’t really be fulfilled by anyone other than ourselves; it’s always going to be tempting to want to see what happened to favorite characters before we first met them, but unless that backstory matches the one we’ve already constructed for ourselves, it’ll feel disappointing and “unreal.” The best prequels will always be the changeable, constantly-shifting ones inside our own imaginations; they’re the only ones that we’ll ever manage to be totally satisfied by.

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