Friday, June 3, 2011

Which Came Firster: The Prequel or the Reboot?

On the eve of X-Men: First Class’s release tomorrow, there is a question that needs to be answered once and for all: Is this a prequel or a reboot? What’s the difference?

Both genres include films that go back to the origins of characters and trace how they came to be in the current franchise. They feature actors playing younger versions. And they usually get released years after the last film. Fox is hoping First Class is considered a reboot. At the box office, the prequel genre has been littered with mostly bombs, save for the Star Wars trilogy Episodes 1-3.

Prequels seem good in theory. They can delve into histories of beloved characters and explore rich worlds and mythologies. However, they have a limited audience, primarily fans of the original franchise. People think if they haven’t seen the first one, they won’t get or care about what’s going on in this one. Prequels are viewed as flashbacks, and you need full knowledge of what went down previously to be emotionally invested. Watching a 10-year-old boy race in a pod isn’t compelling unless you know he grows up to be Darth Vader. (Even then, it wasn’t that compelling.) Going into a prequel cold is like going to party where you don’t know anyone, and everyone is telling inside jokes. The reason the new Star Wars trilogy worked was because Darth Vader is so ingrained in our culture that all moviegoers knew the backstory, even if they didn’t see the original films.

Moviegoers are savvier today. They also understand that most prequels released are desperate cash grabs for the studio – not a sincere attempt to continue the story. For one, they’re cheaper to produce. The biggest expense for a sequel is usually cast salaries. With a prequel, studios can cast younger (read: cheaper) actors but still play on the name recognition of the franchise. Most of the prequels in this decade came along unwanted by fans and years after anyone cared about the previous film. Nobody was clamoring for Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, Exorcist: The Beginning, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, or Hannibal Rising.

In turn, Hollywood also got savvier. They realized the toxic connotation the word ‘sequel’ contains. Now when they want to salvage an aging franchise by hiring young, cheap actors and going back to the beginning, they call it a reboot. Batman Begins kickstarted the trend, followed by Casino Royale and Star Trek. All 3 films scored with critics and audiences. While prequels consider the existing movies as canon, reboots start from scratch. Christopher Nolan’s Batman does not exist in the same universe as Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher’s Batman, and the Warner Bros. marketing team made sure we all knew that. Wolverine was a prequel because it continued the story of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine from the original X-Men franchise. Reboots are usually strong enough brands where they don’t need to rely on what happened in the last movie to propel their new story. Batman and Bond have been played by multiple actors, and the previous films were self-contained. The new Jack Ryan movie Paramount trying to get off the ground falls into this category as well. The line does get blurry: technically, Star Trek is a prequel because it employs Leonard Nimoy as older/alternate universe Spock, meaning that it accepts the older Star Trek films as truth. But the writers were smart and had the character go through a wormhole/plot device spitting them out into an alternative timeline, thus preserving the original films while standing on its own. (And they did a good job of explaining this in the movie.)

So what is X-Men: First Class?  I’m going to call it a prequel because it does accept the previous trilogy as canon.  And as popular as the series is, the brand is not strong enough to stand independent of the previous movies. A casual moviegoer cannot go into the movie knowing next to nothing about the series. Finding out how Professor X and Magneto became enemies is not as broadly appealing as how Anakin became Darth. Hopefully the strong reviews of First Class will translate into word of mouth and it doesn’t fall prey to the prequel curse.

What are your thoughts on prequels and reboots?


  1. Hmm...interesting explanation. If I'd had to explain the difference prior to your post I would have said that a reboot was a 'remake' (think 'A-Team') and a prequel was a 'how they got to be where they are'. Thus I would have said that 'Star Trek' and 'X-Men:First Class' were both prequels.
    Luckily for profits, this is why am trying to be a writer and not a marketing guru :)

    Best of luck with your blog Phil. Films and books, two awesome things in one blog. I'm looking forward to reading future posts.

  2. Ahh my first comment! X-Men: First Class did not do so well at the box office its opening weekend, so it seems to be playing like a prequel. However, it has gotten great reviews, so it could have word-of-mouth a la Batman Begins.