Why Prequels Suck (Or: Old Habits Die Hard in Hollywood)
“Before he died hard, John McClane first had to learn how to live hard.”
According to reports, Wiseman “and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura are searching for a screenwriter to develop a prequel story that will center on McClane in 1979 New York before the events of the first film. The movie would feature a younger, grittier version of the action hero, and ideally tell the story of how McClane went from a street cop to the badass protagonist in the 1988 film.”
Finally, a franchise that lives up to its title!
If you’re a fan of Die Hard at all, you know the very idea of a Die Hard prequel is totally absurd. The whole point of Die Hard is that John McClane isn’t a badass; he’s just a street cop from New York who’s completely out of his element in Nakatomi Plaza. The movie hinges on the fact that he’s making it all up as he goes along; that he’s hopelessly overmatched and intensely vulnerable. If anything, the first Die Hard is an origin story for the John McClane who showed up in the four subsequent (and lesser) sequels, who continued, however improbably, to stumble into one incredibly dangerous situation after another. Some of these movies were entertaining (including Wiseman’s knowingly absurd Live Free or Die Hard). But none could hold a candle to the first movie— and if we’re really being honest, all of them were a betrayal of the character’s core, because they turned an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances into an extraordinary guy for whom hostage situations are ordinary circumstances.
Let’s call this prequel — and basically every prequel ever made — exactly what it is: An act of financial desperation. With almost no exceptions (beyond The Godfather Part II, which is really a sequel with extensive flashbacks), prequels only exist as workarounds in situations where a more traditional sequel is otherwise impossible. Cast too old (or too dead) to make more movies? Make a prequel! Killed off key characters in the last sequel? Make a prequel! Your lead actors don’t want to return for another film? Make a prequel! Your movie is based on a historical event that ended in the last movie? Make a prequel!
Any movie with such craven motives is probably doomed to fail. No wonder prequels usually suck; it’s a miracle any of them are watchable. In 99 out of 100 cases, they’re not stories, they’re backstories; longform exposition done up in slick style. Does it really matter how Harry met Lloyd? Does anyone care about the family that used to live in the house from The Amityville Horror? Do you really want to know how John McClane and Holly’s marriage first fell on the rocks? (Actually, that sounds kind of interesting, but Die Hard 6 won’t be a domestic melodrama, it’s going to be a glossy action movie.)
Many prequels take as their starting point a question that fascinated fans of earlier movies. How did Wolverine get those metal claws? Why does Darth Vader need that elaborate armor, and why did he turn to the Dark Side? What the f— is a Minion? But they ignore the fact that what appealed to fans in the first place was the mystery. Particularly in this era of fan theories and teaser culture, viewers vastly prefer reading and deciphering (or in many cases inventing) clues to a hidden puzzle than simply being handed a puzzle’s solution. When you have one of the coolest and most menacing villains in the history of fiction, why on Earth (or in a galaxy far, far away) would you want to see him as a whiny, obnoxious kid?
Die Hard Jr. is one of many prequels Hollywood is actively developing to prolong franchises that might otherwise be in danger of fading away. Disney is working on a prequel to Aladdin tentatively titled Genies about “the realm of the Genies and reveal how Aladdin’s Genie ended up enslaved in the lamp.” Even though The Hunger Games is out of source material to adapt, Lionsgate is “actively looking” at the possibility of prequels. And in a few years you’ll see another Star Wars prequel about a “young” Han Solo. Because Star Wars prequels always turn out extremely well!
Some of these movies might be okay. But good or bad, they’re a symptom of a movie industry that values brand identity and name recognition ahead of everything else, including directors, writers, and actors. Die Hard became “Die Hard” because of the work of John McTiernan, Jeb Stuart, Steve E. de Souza, Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, and so many more people. Its success was as much about its creators as its concept — but too many film fans follow the characters rather than the filmmakers. They’ll go see a Star Wars prequel no matter who makes it, but they might not go see an original Phil Lord and Chris Miller production even though they’re the guys who made The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street.
The only prequels that consistently work are the ones based on episodic franchises: Star Trek, about the continuing adventures of a starship and its crew; James Bond, a spy who goes on an endless series of missions. These movies might fill in a few details of their characters’ pre-histories, but they’re also telling new stories rather than simply explaining the mythology behind old ones. Not everything should — or can — become a prequel, and the more effort spent on rehashing previously popular movies, the less effort is spent creating new popular movies. Instead of another John McClane, how about we find the next John McClane?