Answers to Questions Nobody Asked

It’s come up before (perhaps too many times before) that I’m really not into sequels.  The reasons are varied and many and have been covered in much detail in this blog in the past.  I don’t see much point in getting into it again, but I do think it’s worth talking about the sequel’s evil cousins, the prequel.

I am not a fan of prequels either.  Possibly the biggest reason for me is that prequels by their nature take place before a story really begins.  The most obvious example is found in the Star Wars prequels, a series of 3 movies that add absolutely nothing to the original trilogy.  We can put aside the question of whether they’re good movies or not.  That’s irrelevent.  But do they make the original trilogy stronger?  Nope.  There’s really nothing in the prequels you need to know to enjoy the original trilogy.  If you watched The Empire Strikes Back without watching Star Wars (and yeah, I call the first film Star Wars, not A New Hope or Episode 1), you could still enjoy Empire.  But you’d be missing something, elements that made the story payoff.  You could watch Return of the Jedi all alone, but you’d be missing out on the payoff that comes from the arc of the three films.

But the prequels don’t add anything.  They elaborate on backstory that is already well established and intended to be just that: Backstory.  As in events that take place before the real story begins.  Even if the prequels had been great, it would be hard to make them relevant to the original trilogy because the original trilogy was made to work without them.

This is the prequel’s dilemma.  How do you make something relevant when it is irrelevant by design?  We don’t need to see Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side.  If you do a good job of it, then we are just allowed to watch events unfold in a predestined way that is difficult, if not impossible, to make interesting.  If you do a bad job, you make established backstory seem ridiculous and stupid.  So you can either be boring or harmful.  You can rarely be neither.

I’m not arguing that prequels cannot be commercial successes, which is ultimately all they’re there for.  When a writer is out of ideas and wants to milk a few exra bucks from an established property, prequels work great.  They have the illusion of importance, of being worthwhile information.  If Darth Vader’s eventual redemption is worth seeing, then shouldn’t it follow his corruption is too?  Well, no.  No, it isn’t.  And this can apply to a long list of ideas that don’t really pay off the way they could in our ideal imaginings.

Is anyone really excited to know that the Empire was formed via political manipulation?  Does knowing how Luke and Leia’s parents met and fall in love add anything to their story?  Is any depth added to Boba Fett when we discover that his dad was a bounty hunter too?  And do we care more about C-3po if he was built by a young Darth Vader rather than just bought at a store?  These are unnecessary, unimportant.  They’re the illusion of character development, of world building.  But they are answering questions that don’t need to be answered.

Ironically, the character that comes out the best in the Star Wars prequels is Han Solo because he isn’t in them.  His dad isn’t in them.  We don’t learn that Emperor Palpatine built the Milennium Falcon in his garage.  And because of that, Han remains an interesting character.  His past remains mysterious (which is part of what makes him interesting), and we aren’t forced to hear about every unimportant detail of his childhood in the mistaken impression that if Han Solo, the smuggler turned hero, is worth following then Han Solo, Jr. space ace, is someone we should watch too.

It’s easy to pick on Star Wars.  Heck, all but the most ardent Star Wars fan will admit the sequels are flawed at best.  But the problem with prequels of all sorts is that they just remain pointless exercises.  The Wolverine prequel suffered from the same flaws the Star Wars prequels did.   A meandering story trying to squeeze plot points together into a coherent story, an obsession with making even the smallest details important.  And this isn’t just true for films, but for comic books too.

The prequel’s comic book cousin is the retcon, a reworking of past events to make them fit a current story.  And it is, with rare exception, a waste of time.  I much preferred when Wolverine didn’t have an origin over the one we were finally given.  He worked just fine as a character without it.

Sometimes a story is best served when questions aren’t answered.  Either because they’re unimportant or because any answer we get will be unsatisfying.  I don’t need to know how Bruce Wayne built the Batcave.  I don’t need to know how the Kent’s adopted the young Clark.  I don’t need to know who built C-3po.  I don’t need to know a whole hell of a lot to enjoy a story.  And knowing won’t always make me enjoy it more.

The observation is as true as it is irrelevant.  Prequels aren’t made because people think those stories need to be told.  They’re made because they’re an easy sell.  And if art is all about money, it’s hard to argue that either the Wolverine or Star Wars prequels were failures.  They put butts in the seats.  They make money, and money is what it’s all about.  And I can respect that to some degree.  It’s like dropping zombies into Pride & Prejudice.  You don’t do it for the artistic merits.  You do it for the money.  And, like all artists, the approval.

Having never really gotten that level of approval, I can’t even claim to be immune to it.  If someone offered me a million dollars to write a Gil’s sequel, I’d write it.  I’m not taking the high ground here.  I’m just making an observation.  It’s not a scientific fact, just an opinion from one humble novelologist.  Make of it what you will.

Speaking of unnecessary reboots.  There’s a new Spider-Man film in the works.  Funnily enough, the reason has less to do with any demand for such a film as for the legal requirements that if they don’t make the film, the studio might lose the rights to the character.  That’s pretty common.  As a wise person once observed: “It’s true that Hollywood is the Dream Factory.  Well, the factory part at least.”

Also, I watched The Mechanic this weekend, and it was a good movie.  Nothing mind-blowing but a good story told well with some nice action pieces.  Jason Statham can sleepwalk his intensity through a film like this at this point, and it’s pretty standard.  But SPOILER ALERT, Statham’s character lives at the end.  In the original film (which I recommend by the way) the mechanic as played by Charles Bronson dies.  It’d be tempting to say that it reflects a different society that sees no need to have it’s anti-hero protagonist get is comeuppance.  But it really has little if anything to do with that.  It’s all about sequel potential, something the original film didn’t even consider.  But that was a different world, when sequels were the exception, not the rule.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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6 Comments

  1. Jesse
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I hate prequels. I’m watching the Spartacus prequel because it has all the blood and nudity of the original but it’s very hard to care knowing that any character I already know must live or else they obviously wouldn’t be in the original season and any character I don’t know will likely not be that important as I never saw them before now.

    Wolverine and Boba Fett are two characters that were awesome partly because we knew so very little about their past; knowing somehow makes them less interesting to me.

  2. Nolly
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    Sturgeon’s Law applies, but what about, say, The Magician’s Nephew? There are other prequels that are less about characters’ backstory and more about “how did the world get this way?”, too, like When the Tripods Come.

  3. Rippley
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Martinez,

    Honestly I think you are afraid to write a sequel or a prequel. The reason why I believe this to be true is because on several occasions you admitted that you dislike explanation. Maybe you didn’t use the word ‘dislike’ per se. Maybe you had some sort of argument, similar to the one above, where you try to convince us by example of the needlessness of explanation. “We do not need to know X, because we can safely assume magic is at work…” or some such nonsense.

    However, in order to write either a sequel or prequel, you know as well as I do there must be further investigation as to the HOW and WHY something happened. You can’t rely on ‘it was magic’ to save the day, because it won’t make a worthwhile story. Hence your fear: The second generation story is more complex than the first. You have to explain how the original event happened to uncover why second event is happening–not to mention your even greater fear, outwitting the resolution of the initial story– to create an ever more complex fantasy. I get it. Why would you want to lessen the effect of the first story? Why would you want to desensitize your audience to your novel’s core value?

    You wouldn’t! You won’t! I hope you never do.

    But can you? I don’t think you can. I think you’ve tried and failed, because of the reasons I mention above. Your principles interfere.

    We’ll never ever ever sequel to Monster, because YOU Can’t write it. You would rather see it written as fan-fiction than low your principles. So, there we go #999999999999999999999999999999999999 of the things A. Lee Martinez cannot do. Who else wants to throw the next stone?

  4. skooma
    Posted February 3, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    [spoiler] voldermort dies in the beginning [/spoiler]

  5. Gabe
    Posted February 3, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me the whole idea behind prequals (maybe only for really successful franchises) is to give fans what they want. Darth Vader’s fall remaining a mystery can suit the casual viewer, but the hard-core fan who lives in the universe, or rather wants to, will not only want to know what happened, but want to see it happen as well. The same with Wolverine. I know little about him, but I know even non-comics people think highly of him, and I can only imagine what nerds think of him. Of course they’ll see an origins story. They want it I didn’t like the Star Wars prequals, but I know someone who loved them because he got to see what happened before the Luke saga. And that’s what commerce is about, giving people what they want whether it’s fiction, news, or any other industry.
    When I was a huge fan of a particular show, there were rumours of spin-offs and that one of these would cover the past of these characters. I was FOR it. I wanted to know what happened then, eventhough I knew what couldn’t be done with the characters because of what was presently happening in the show. If people want it, why shouldn’t the industry provide it.
    It is bad art, however, to a certain degree. But I think the commercial nature of the industry rules any artistic integrity out of the question except for the bare essentials to crafting a compelling story and selling it. Art vs. Commerce is another topic all together. So were the Star Wars prequals artistically sound? The money it generated seems to indicate so. People were compelled to see the trilogy of atrocity. So to some degree, maybe it suceeded artistically in a way we don’t know about.

    • Sean
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      “It seems to me the whole idea behind prequals (maybe only for really successful franchises) is to give fans what they want. Darth Vader’s fall remaining a mystery can suit the casual viewer, but the hard-core fan who lives in the universe, or rather wants to, will not only want to know what happened, but want to see it happen as well. ”

      The problem with this, is that the hardcore fans are usually the ones that are the hardest to please. They dont want any old movie, they want the backstory to be as glorious as it is in their imagination. But filmmakers cant make it like that. So we get a film that tries to pander to the widest audience possible, and usually ends up mediocre at best.

      “It is bad art, however, to a certain degree. But I think the commercial nature of the industry rules any artistic integrity out of the question except for the bare essentials to crafting a compelling story and selling it. Art vs. Commerce is another topic all together. So were the Star Wars prequals artistically sound? The money it generated seems to indicate so. People were compelled to see the trilogy of atrocity. So to some degree, maybe it suceeded artistically in a way we don’t know about.”

      Dont confuse commercial success with artistic success.

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