Prequel Checklist Syndrome (culture)

 I don’t care for prequels.

Let me amend that.

I don’t think anyone should care for prequels.

I’m not talking about the original definition.  Originally, a prequel was simply a story that took place before a previous story.  The Temple of Doom is a prequel in the chronology of Indiana Jones’s life.  Jungle Tales of Tarzan is a midquel for the Tarzan character, taking place between the beginning of the first novel and Tarzan’s first run in with Europeans later in that same novel.  In both these cases and many others, prequel was simply a story designed to fit somewhere within the already established continuity of a character or a universe.  I have no problem with those sort of prequels. 

But as we all know, the definition for prequel has changed and not for the better.  It’s come to embody a cloying, unimaginative attempt to add depth to a character / universe by obsessing over the smallest details of a character’s life.  Perhaps it’s just the nature of our world today, where we gather in chatrooms to discuss everything ad nauseam, but characters and details aren’t allowed to just exist.  If a character has a limp, you bet your ass it has some dramatic origins.  If John and Jane have a history, you can bet it is a painful one and that it has some relevance to the current storyline in some shocking and mysterious way.  Nothing just happens.  Everything is important.  And every character has shaped the life of the other characters (even unknowingly) in some radical and preposterous way.

Part of this is the Conservation of Detail.  Fiction tends to make everything important by its design.  If a character is adopted, that’s probably a plot point.  If Chekov took the time to put a gun above the mantle, somebody will probably get shot by it.  A small conversation characters have will have some importance to the larger story and characters all exist with some purpose.  It’s basic storytelling, and it’s even satisfying when done properly.

But in a larger universe, it can become a problem.  It can make everything seem so small and uninteresting if EVERY character has some sort of relationship with EVERY other character, if EVERY quirk a character has is IMPORTANT, and if EVERY event was somehow related to ANOTHER important character.  One of the problems I’ve always had with Spider-Man’s universe, for example, is that though he lives in a city of millions, every villain he faces has some connection to Peter Parker.  This wasn’t always true, but with each adaptation, his universe shrinks.  The newest Spidey movies tie everything, even the original death of his parents and the motivations of Electro, to Peter and Spidey.  It works fine for creating drama, but it also makes New York seem like a city of a dozen or so people with a few million extras walking around in the background.

In The Wizard of Oz prequel we learn that The Wicked of the Witch only became evil because she loved the Wizard and her vulnerability to water is because of a broken heart.

The new TMNT movie ties everything to April O’Neil with a convoluted series of circumstances.  Technically, not a prequel, but a similar problem.

But where this tendency to obsess over details is currently most present is in Gotham, the new TV series on Fox about Gotham City before Batman.  Never mind that there’s not a heck of a lot to distinguish Gotham City from any other crime drama without Batman and Supervillains present.  The show’s real sin is that it suffers serious Prequel Checklist Syndrome.  EVERYTHING is important in Gotham, and every shot should end with a freeze frame and a footnote explaining why this is important.  It’s the laziest, most ridiculous form of foreshadowing, except foreshadowing is meant to give hints of what’s to come so that when the audience gets there, it can seem like the thing that should’ve happened all along.  But we already know how this is going to turn out, so it’s less foreshadowing and more backshadowing.

Yes, that’s a term.  I might have just invented it.  Who knows?

The show is laden with backshadowing, and most of it is either silly or unnecessary.  Edward Nigma loves riddles.  Oswald Cobblepot is already called the Penguin.  Selina Kyle goes by the nickname “Cat” and wears goggles that look a little bit like cat ears.  None of it is particularly inventive or interesting, but it’s not meant to be.  Foreshadowing is subtle.  Backshadowing is obvious.

Prequels answer questions we never asked in the most boring, predictable manner possible.  Of all of Batman’s foes, the Penguin is probably among the most well-adjusted.  So naturally, Gotham decides he must have a deranged mother and some built in mania.  Could Deranged Mother as Justification be any more of a cliche at this point?  It doesn’t fit well with the character, but then again, neither does the nickname he’s already earned.  Burgess Meredith walking around in a top hat and monocle, squawking while committing bird-themed crimes, that guy is rightfully called the Penguin.  Gotham‘s version is just a guy who everyone seem to know will become a bird-themed supervillain at some point.

Of course, Selina Kyle witnessed the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents.  She’s also a runaway because we all know international cat-themed thieves all come from troubled backgrounds.

The Riddler loves riddles.  Young Poison Ivy is seen holding a potted plant because it’s just easier that way.  Why bother anything subtle?  And Poison Ivy needs to be there because . . . shut up, that’s why.

I’m not the only one to point out that Bruce Wayne’s parents dying has become such a common scene that it bears almost no psychological impact at this point.  We’ve taken the death of two innocent people, the orphaning of a child, and deprived it of even the smallest weight, reduced it to a checklist.  But that’s what prequels are at this point.  Just a list of references to be made, backshadowing to be done.

Yet none of this genuinely answers why we should care?  Like the Star Wars prequels, Gotham trades on our nostalgia and loyalty to much more interesting material without adding anything interesting to it.  But we’re fooled because we think we want these answers.  We love feeling like we’ve discovered secrets, and those secrets allow us to log into our chatrooms, our fan pages, our whatever, and talk about stuff that isn’t really interesting but sure looks like it should be.  It’s storytelling as hobby, not experience.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,




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  1. Shawn P. Bellamy
    Posted October 3, 2014 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    Gotham without Batman is pointless. Our culture is full of fads. Prequels are just the latest fads and fads in Hollywood are churned out with some of the worst ideas. I think you watched it with the hope that there was something worthwhile. Being a writer you must be annoyed at the work they call craft. You have valid points but dude it’s just bad T.V.

  2. L. K. Johnson
    Posted October 6, 2014 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Personally, I blame the nerds. Well, actually the screenwriters who feel they must over-pander to the true-fan and neo-fan audience. Not just them. In Gotham, I counted three critics and one news announcer, all of whom took note of the excess of Easter eggs and then just dismissed them as a necessary evil. In other words, “How things are done in these comic based stories.” It bothers me slightly that the “Fantasy Ghetto”, where there exists an expectation of bad writing still seems part of the culture. I think you expressed similar misgivings regarding Kaiju movies

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted October 7, 2014 at 4:14 am | Permalink

      It exists in a myriad of forms, but what it basically comes down to is that insulting compliment: “Good for what it is”.

      You’re absolutely right. My dislike of the latest Godzilla flick has less to do with how dreadfully underwhelming the movie is and a heck of a lot more to do with how its defenders seem to believe kaiju flicks are innately stupid and don’t require basic adherence to a sensible and rewarding story.

      Excellent thoughts. Thanks for sharing them.

  3. Nic Behrens
    Posted October 14, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Personally I would love a Batman-less Gotham series. However, setting it before he becomes Batman is stupid. The ripple effects from Batman’s crime-fighting could be an extremely interesting series. Caveat: If this series is setting up to go through Batman beginning to crime-fight and goes into the rest, it could be great.

    I whole-heartedly agree on “backshadowing.” It feels like easy mode for trying to figure out those imaginative secrets that readers and watchers would normally come up with on their own. Some things should be left to the imagination.

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