Last week, against our better judgment (we were two drinks deep) my best friend and I watched Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. As Millennials weaned on shitty prequels to beloved movie franchises—Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, hell, even X-Men—we wanted to see if the latest J.K. Rowling-penned film would have fun exploring the world before Harry Potter.
Well, let me tell you, The Crimes of Grindelwald is another thoroughly shitty prequel. For a start, Grindelwald—an evil wizard whom young Albus Dumbledore will eventually fight—is played by Johnny Depp. Grindelwald is supposed to be a seductive fascist: the wizard equivalent of Adolf Hitler (the film is set in the 1920s). Depp plays this character by waltzing around in a black cloak, sporting contact lenses and a Tilda Swinton-esque haircut (side note: Swinton would have killed it as Grindelwald) and mumbling about free love and the cruelty of Muggles in a vague British affect. He’s an effete glam-rock Voldemort on quaaludes.
Worse yet, nothing of consequence happens in the film. It’s two hours of mythology-building. There are literal family trees that unveil the bloodlines of forthcoming characters like Bellatrix Lestrange, random cameos from Potterverse legends like Nicolas Flamel (the dude who discovered the Sorcerer’s Stone), and a field trip to Hogwarts that reminds audiences of the good old days when Rowling was still writing the books and it felt like anything could go down in the wizarding world.
Why does this keep happening? Why do studios keep fucking up prequels to treasured franchises? The prequel may be an exercise in shameless capitalism—a means to keep an audience coming back to a franchise they just can’t quit—but in theory, this should grant the filmmakers creative license to do whatever they want. And yet, instead of experimenting and rewriting the universal laws of their franchises, studios treat prequels like fertilizer for the films we’ve already experienced, and this strategy doesn’t translate to cool movies.
Consider Solo, which dropped this summer to “meh” reviews. A Star Wars prequel like Solo requires us to not only demystify our memories of Harrison Ford’s inimitable space pirate, but it also surmises that learning how Han Solo became Han Solo will augment those memories. It doesn’t work like that. Iconic movie characters possess an enigmatic quality that teases our imagination. The Crimes of Grindelwald presents us with a young Dumbledore played by Jude Law (who’s excellent) but do we need to know how exactly Dumbledore went from Hogwarts professor to legendary Headmaster and GOAT of the wizarding world?
Audiences watch prequels because they want to have fun. Unspooling endless backstories is not fun—kind of like your grandpa’s obsession with genealogy. Mythology primers like Solo, The Crimes of Grindelwald, and the George Lucas-helmed Star Wars prequels don’t allow themselves bandwidth to stand out from the franchise canon. They’re half-assed imitations of real Star Wars or Harry Potter movies. And from a capitalist’s perspective, half-assed prequels are a lousy long-term investment. Audiences know when they’re being jerked off, and there’s a limit to how many vacuous prequels they’ll sit through before they abandon a franchise.
The status quo blows, but what if studios loosened the creative reigns on their writers and directors? What if the filmmakers responsible for tomorrow’s prequels adopted some new tenets that would result in better films?
I may be one lowly moviegoing civilian, but I’ve wasted money on too many shit prequels to hold my tongue any longer. So allow me to suggest three simple rules for making cool prequels.
Rule #1: No Limits
Prequels will never be carbon copies of the original films, so why not let go of that misguided idea and try something different? That’s what James Mangold did with Logan, which was a better film than any X-Men sequel had the right to be. It was darkly funny, brutally violent, it featured Johnny Cash songs, and it was strictly for adults—a road movie and Western hybrid with plenty of goons getting slashed to shreds with Wolverine’s Adamantium claws. Logan was a radical departure from prior X-Men films, which were mythology-heavy and family-friendly, and people loved it!
Imagine if instead of making Solo, the Star Wars executives had greenlit a Chewbacca prequel in which Chewie hunts and slaughters a platoon of Stormtroopers on a cloud forest planet. It would be Predator, but with a Wookie dismembering the soldiers. It would be a fun, blood-soaked, and batshit crazy standalone adventure—an opportunity to deliver on those moments in the Star Wars movies when Han Solo alludes to the savagery of Chewie when he’s in a foul mood. Remember that great scene in A New Hope when Han mentions that Wookies are known to “pull people’s arms out of their sockets when they lose?” A Chewbacca movie could show us that.
In a way, Gareth Edwards’ Star Wars: Rogue One paved the road for an outlandish prequel like this. (SPOILER WARNING) The rebels who steal the Death Star plans are all dead by the time Rogue One is over. This is a surprisingly grim resolution for a film within a franchise that’s best known for bombastic uplift. It cements Rogue One as a different self-contained story within the Star Wars universe. And it provides a nice segue to the next rule for making cool prequels.
Rule #2: No Prophecies
Remember what a blast Thor: Ragnarok was? Talk to anyone about it and you’ll hear things like, “I never knew I needed alien gladiator matches in my life” and “How did it take this long for Jeff Goldblum to play an intergalactic space lord?” What you won’t hear people gushing about is how the film poured foundations for upcoming stories in the Marvel universe. Because who cares about prophecies when you’ve got the late Stan Lee giving Thor a haircut with a power saw? A cool prequel should always embrace near-term fun and innovation first and foremost.
Let’s reimagine The Crimes of Grindelwald with this rule in mind. Actually, let’s scrap the whole Fantastic Beasts series and envision this—a prequel that finds young Dumbledore and Grindelwald having all kinds of erotic adventures together in the wizarding world equivalent of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Sure, the kids might have to skip this one, but we’d be granted an unprecedented look at how wizards fuck! We’d get literal charmed orgies serenaded by funky goblin bands (a Jarvis Cocker cameo here would be worth the price of admission) and if the filmmakers wanted to make the most of the Weimar influence, they could spend the latter half of the movie depicting the torrid falling out between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. We know that the sexual and artistic freedoms of Weimar Germany were stamped out by the Nazis. The movie’s bittersweet resolution would foreshadow a similar chapter of darkness in the wizarding world, but not at the expense of having a party and flexing its creativity like well-oiled muscles.
If there’s one word in that last sentence to savor, it’s foreshadow. Because that’s the most that a prequel should aspire to do, when it comes to narrative goals that extend beyond the prequel itself. And that leads to the most crucial tenet of making cool prequels.
Rule #3: They're No Big Deal
Here’s the truth about prequels: they don’t matter. That’s not to say that a prequel isn’t worth your time or cash. But in the overall scheme of the universe that prequels serve, they are inherently superfluous. Think of that weird-ass bee honey-infused black IPA that your local craft brewery just added to their tapline. Declining to drink the weird IPA isn’t going to ruin your appreciation of beer in general—you won’t miss anything crucial by not drinking it—and the craft brewer recognized this. They made their weird IPA as esoteric and alluring as they could because what did they have to lose? Nothing! Their flagship beers will keep selling and their bizarre small-batch beers will keep the most loyal customers in a state of intrigue.
A truly cool prequel is the cinematic equivalent of a weird-ass bee honey-infused black IPA. And speaking of bees, it looks like the next prequel hitting theaters soon is Bumblebee, which will tell us the backstory of the friendly yellow-and-black Autobot formerly known as Shia LaBeouf’s 1976 Chevy Camaro. Why are we getting a Bumblebee prequel? I have no idea, and that’s okay! If the filmmakers behind Bumblebee are savvy, they’ll embrace the movie’s non-reason for existing and unburden themselves of the mythology compliance that most prequels adhere to. I don’t know about you, but I’d be A-okay with a Transformers prequel that dispatched with the Decepticons and gave the Autobots a more earthbound task like saving Christmas, winning a varsity lacrosse championship, or repairing a marriage between two parents on the verge of divorce.
This would be a hoot and an affront to the small minority of orthodox fans. But for most of us, it would also affirm that the studios—and their franchises—still have some gas in the tank.
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