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Criticwire Survey: Origin Stories That Worked

Criticwire Survey: Origin Stories That Worked

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: In their reviews of “Pan,”
many critics are expressing their frustration with the proliferation of
origin stories: movies that invent a new background for an
already-beloved characters.
Why do you think Hollywood is so fond of the prequel right now, and are
there any that have done it well?

Jordan Hoffman, Guardian

J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek is a one-in-a-million, lightning-in-a-bottle case of having your Bajoran Hasperat and eating it, too. We all knew about Kirk, Spock and Bones and their five year mission to split infinitives, but we never knew HOW they got there? (Unless we read the not-quite-canon book “Enterprise,” which has nothing to do with the prequel television series “Enterprise,” but that’s just complicating the matter.)

The suits were right to revive the franchise, and to do so with the original characters was the right play. Exploiting sci fi’s loopholes (or, wormholes, or, in this case, black hole) to thread the already existing narrative and let Leonard Nimoy’s version of Spock (or, as we say at our house, Real Spock) be the bridge to the alternate reality was the only thing that prevented many of us from marching in protest outside the Paramount lot. Abrams’ second Trek film is an abomination, but the first one really is quite good, and something of a masterpiece of realpolitik.

Jason Bailey, Flavorwire

Hollywood is fond of the prequel for the same reason they’re fond of the sequel and the remake and the (cringe) reboot: because nothing is scarier to low-risk studio execs than a film that doesn’t have a pre-existing #brand, so, given their choice, every film will be a version of something that already exists. Can they work? Sure. The best prequel ever made is nested inside the best sequel ever made: the Robert De Niro scenes in “The Godfather Part II.” They’re one of many ways that film could’ve gone spectacularly wrong: after all, it’s an “origin story,” with a younger actor attempting to replicate an iconic performance, filled with little nods to the story we already know. But in the hands of masters like Coppola and De Niro, those sequences serve not as merely pandering fan-service or exploitation of good will, but a vibrant exploration of the character’s past and a rich explanation for how he became the person we know.

Nell Minow, Beliefnet

Is it too obvious to say “Godfather II?” I’d pick that not just for Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone but for what I consider the most powerful last scene of all time, the flashback to the family dinner when Michael tells everyone he has enlisted and Connie meets the man she will marry in the first movie’s opening scene. Those glimpses of the Corleone children, waiting for their father to arrive for his birthday party, knowing what we know about what they will become, is my favorite origin story. In a completely different category, “Lion King 1 1/2” is a different take on the idea of a prequel, maybe more of a “side-quel,” with origins of supporting characters from the original story.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

“Godfather II.” Ok, maybe not fully a prequel, but the gloriousness of “Godfather II” pretty much applies to just about everything.

Charles Bramesco, Random Nerds, Newsweek

I don’t think it takes too much deep analysis to figure out where this wellspring of dum-dum origin stories came from. Studios love creative properties with pre-existing brand recognition, and prequels feed the demand for ever-more-detailed worlds without the messy need to think up a new story. The neat part about prequels is that the endings write themselves. As for prequels that actually pull this off in enlightening and entertaining ways, we can’t really do better than the magnificence of “Hellraiser IV: Bloodline.” Like “The Godfather Part II,” the film sidesteps many of the prequel’s pitfalls by structuring itself as a prequel and a sequel. (Also like “The Godfather Part II,” it is a perfect film.) In fact, it’s a prequel and two sequels! There’s a pre-fame Adam Scott pretending to be a fancyman in olden-times France, assisting in the creation of Lament Configuration puzzle box that houses Pinhead. Then there’s the normal Hellraiser stuff in the present, but then there’s also future Pinhead, tormenting people in space in the year 2127. The real cleverness is that none of the new information provided by the past-segment actually clarifies the enigma that is Pinhead. He remains as unknowable as ever, a monolith of violence and pain, impervious to the overexplaining of prequels.

Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine

Hollywood is fond of the prequel, because it allows them to make more money on using the same characters we all fell in love with (hopefully) again, instead of telling something new or different. As much as I, or readers, or almost everyone else on the planet, may grouse about the “Star Wars” prequels, those suckers made a ton of money. And so we get origin stories that allow studios to potentially create new franchises without going to the trouble of creating new characters or worlds or ideas. In general, I can’t stand prequels, but I will allow that at least one did a pretty good job: Monsters University,” a film I was expecting to loathe but walked out loving. Here’s a movie that uses audience knowledge to its advantage — the real crisis isn’t about how Mike and Sulley become friends, but about how Mike will accept his destiny isn’t to be scary. “Monsters University” was, as it goes with every Pixar film, very successful at the box office. But it actually told a prequel story pretty well.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

Origin stories aren’t so much feature films but pilots for potential film franchises. 

Scott Mendelson, Forbes

I think it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of why “Batman Begins” and “Casino Royale” were hits. They were just damn good movies that operated as origin stories and first adventure narratives. They were origin stories, to be sure, but they also followed the template of “Superman: The Movie” in that they basically offered a fully formed version of the iconic hero within the first hour, which left the rest of the 140-minute movie to show our hero doing his thing while also somewhat adjusting to his new status quo. The stuff that really doesn’t work, think “Pan” or “Robin Hood,” are the “origin story” movies that basically spend the entire running time just getting our hero or heroes to the point where they will be doing what we wanted to see them doing in the first bloody movie. I don’t want to have to wait for a second “Fantastic Four” movie to see the foursome doing their cosmic superhero thing, nor do I want to wait for a “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” sequel to see our heroes working swimmingly together in the new status quo. The origin story templates that don’t work are the ones that basically intentionally withhold what audiences came to see in the first place. Even “The Mask of Zorro,” which is an origin story through-and-through, gave us a full act of a costumed Zorro doing the Zorro thing, along with a prologue offering “past-tense Zorro” kicking butt in costume as well. 

Kyle Turner, Movie Mezzanine

Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” always struck me as an interesting origin story, primarily in the way it seems to eschew “origin story” tropes. The construction and creation of James Bond seems both gradual and natural as well as immediate and piercing. There’s the impression that it’s not the mission in and of itself that made 007 who he is, but rather the emotional, psychological, and physical impact of that mission’s crescendo, and particularly the aftermath that contributed to Bond’s identity. Reconfiguring Bond around Daniel Craig was also intriguing because it gave the actor, probably more than before, more, ahem, agency in interpreting this character as dispassionate, world weary, and, at his core, vulnerable. 

Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter

As we learn with great frequency, endings are the hardest part of writing, but if you choose to do a prequel, it’s almost like a better writer than you are already went and wrote the ending and, if you’re lucky, dropped expositional breadcrumbs along the way. So you know you’re dealing with a character who will eventually become a one-legged, one-eyed supervillain and you know a parrot is going to have eaten his leg, why not start with an adorable, kind-hearted kid who loves nothing more than his menagerie of birds. It writes itself!

You knew I was going to do this, but TV handles prequels better than movies as well. Better Call Saul? Great prequel to “Breaking Bad,” in large part because it seems to exist in the same universe as “Breaking Bad,” but the writers, who conveniently were also “Breaking Bad” writers, have committed to very slowly bringing the story along and Bob Odenkirk is the rare example of an actor getting to do a prequel for his own character and he has been terrific. Hannibal eventually reached “Red Dragon” in its third and final season, but the prequel that followed the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter was a twisted treat. And the first season of Fargo was, in context, the loosest of sequels to the events in the Coen Brothers movie, but the second season has flashed back and, with Patrick Wilson embodying the Minnesota decency that Keith Carradine brought to the original, it looks poised to equal its source. Even Bates Motel,” which is laughable as a literal prequel to “Psycho,” is a fairly decent story about a guy named Norman Bates who is just a bit too close to his mother and is prone to going a little mad sometimes.

Monica Castillo, International Business Times

So Hollywood has figured out another way to extend the shelf life of characters and stories we know and recognize. Instead of building a fan base from the ground up, it can play “what if” with spin-offs centered around a beloved character. The premise in both small screen (think “Young Indiana Jones,” “Gotham” and “Hercules: The Animated Series”) and silver screen iterations have been largely derided as cash-ins. But something like “Maleficent” was intriguingly different, both in the way it addressed its source material (in a very “Wicked” manner, by explaining that we’ve misunderstood the villain all these years) and incorporated adult themes (the symbolic stealing of the wings as the impetus for Maleficent’s revenge). It felt as if Disney was using the origin story to experiment, to expand how it depicted its female characters and continue growing story arcs based on non-romantic relationships. 

Well, there’s always another “Spider-Man” origin story to be rebooted. 

Richard Brody, New Yorker

The prevalence of prequels is due to the intersection of two factors, one industrial (the marketability of already-familiar characters) and the other (more important) one, sociopolitical. The prequel habit is inseparable from the backstory story. What the prequel does at the level of multiple films, backstory does within a single film: it asserts that what needs to be known about a character in order for that character to make sense, to appear full and motivated, is more than can be seen in the present tense of action. Who a person is, isn’t merely a matter of instantly identifiable visual identity, whether of social category or of behavior — it’s a person’s distinctive and unique, a person’s personal experience. Of course, at a second level, these backstories and origin stories may well inscribe a person (meaning, a character) into experiences shared by a group, into history — and that, too, is one of their key functions: to show the impact of politics and social forces at work in the peculiar and idiosyncratic details of an individual’s life. In both of these regards — restoring individuals to their uniqueness and their actions to motives and causes of their own, while also showing the importance of community or collective experience in the formation of personality — both prequels and backstories are intensely democratic.

The reason why some critics get frustrated with backstories and prequels is that they’re stuck in the way that Hollywood did things in the high studio age, when the movies reflected the era’s far less democratically inclusive political values. The nostalgia for old Hollywood is an unintended nostalgia for the very exclusions and persecutions, injustices and indifferences on which its styles depended. That’s why it’s no surprise that one of the very greatest of prequels, Jacques Tourneur’s “Wichita,” is also the work of a director whose aesthetic matched his progressive political vision.

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Popmatters

You know, as far as superheroes go, I always felt “Iron Man” was a pretty solid origin story. More or less as depicted in Jon Favreau’s first “Iron Man” flick (updated only to reflect more current armed conflicts for the U.S.), you had a group of rebel guerrillas abducting a billionaire inventor and arms dealer, trying to force him to build them new weapons, only to see their captive use their time and materials to build a life-saving suit of armor for himself. The fact that the armor also provided him with a pacemaker to keep his wounded heart beating — a device the comics used to great dramatic effect, especially in the early issues — all worked harmoniously to bring us a more-than-mortal superhero, Marvel’s raison d’être. I think the key is the origin gig has to be dramatically engaging, while giving insight into the protagonist’s emotional make-up, all without telegraphing everything. You do it right, and you get a superhero with some levels and depths to them; do it wrong, and you’re either Zack Snyder, or you’re giving Captain Haddock a background shamelessly torn out of a goddamn AA brochure. Tread lightly, film studios, you’re on hallowed ground here.

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times

I think it comes down to the old rule that pre-existing properties are generally safer financial bets than original material. If audiences are familiar with characters and/or a setting, they’re often more likely to spend additional time with them than start the process anew with unknowns. I can also see the appeal of these stories not technically being sequels (how passé!) and that working toward a set end result that viewers already know should theoretically keep a story focused on a particular narrative goal as opposed to the infinite timeline of going beyond the original work.

“Smallville” and the first few revisionist novels of Gregory Maguire (“Wicked”) were smart concepts in their time, but the market has since become saturated and now prequels themselves are feeling stale. “Monsters University” and “Prometheus” are the only recent examples that stand out to me, along with any scene in “300: Rise of an Empire” involving Eva Green. These films make connecting the “new” story with the established one a fun mental exercise while still creating a distinctive work in the process.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, One Perfect Shot

My theory has always been that if the origin stuff was interesting, that would have been the story told in the first place. I almost always hate these kinds of films for that exact reason. Nonetheless, I have to give some credit to the “Star Wars” prequels. No, they aren’t perfect, and yes, they have some serious flaws. But any self-respecting “Star Wars” fanatic would have to take at least a little pleasure in learning how Darth Vader came to be.

Ethan Alter, Film Journal International, Yahoo Movies

Some years ago, the New York Film Festival screened all three “Infernal Affairs” movies back-to-back as a special event. The first one is probably the best of the series overall, but my secret favorite is #2, which treats the characters’ early years as a cop and criminal respectively as a gangland epic in the vein of “The Godfather” rather than a twisty mole vs. mole thriller. And speaking of “The Godfather,” the Young Vito scenes in the “The Godfather Part II” remain my favorite part of Coppola’s entire epic. Those sequences are a gorgeous evocation of the early 20th century immigrant experience and form a complete narrative arc on their own terms. Maybe that’s the real secret to making a decent prequel: treat it as its own story and stop reminding the audience about what’s come before…or, chronologically speaking, after.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

I think the main reason that the prequel is so popular in Hollywood, if not to audiences, is that it’s lazy creativity. You can do whatever you want without affecting the original product that the studio or marketing department is using to sell this “new” work. If you love “Peter Pan,” you’ll love knowing how it all came to be in “Pan,” despite none of it being noteworthy or essential, or even apparently enjoyable.

In terms of successful prequels, a few spring to mind. “Batman Begins,” “Casino Royale,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and the reboot of “Star Trek” are ones that I feel stand out from the pack. The reason? They don’t get bogged down in being prequels and try to tell their own distinct stories.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

Hollywood loves prequels because it means knowing the ultimate destination, and if you know the ultimate destination of whatever the project is IS some beloved pop culture institution then that will trick the brain of the average viewer into feeling satisfied. OR! it’s just a way to tell new stories about old characters without making any huge missteps. “This happened way before you got to know these guys so more or less you can ignore it if you don’t like it.” It’s also a way to just tell the origin story again and Hollywood loves origin stories because as far as the difference between, say, film and comic books is that: film is a story, comic books are a soap opera. Both work off of long-lasting structures that, for the most part, do the trick nicely time and time again. But in order to earn that feeling of a God’s-eye view when watching afFilm it’s necessary to build up in the mind of the viewer that the story being told is an important one, one that necessitates the runtime and the budget and the big stars! An event! But the joy of, say, jumping back into a comic book is that the characters are more or less who they always have been, usually with some cosmetic differences and maybe one or two earth-shattering crises behind them but they’re still up to the same stuff. Batman will always be fighting The Joker but when “Chinatown” ends, it ends, “Two Jakes” notwithstanding (nor counting.) So the prequel is another shot at the origin story without telling the origin story again but still basically telling it again. Film needs a story; comics, the WWE, daytime Soaps just need to keep doing what they do.

Luke Goodsell, Movie Mezzanine, 4:3

Hollywood plays it safe. Origin stories milk brands that have a pre-existing audience. I thought “Pan” was inventive enough as these things go, despite never justifying its need to exist, but I’d have to go way outside the current franchise factory to recall an “origin story” worth recommending: “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.”

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “Steve Jobs

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Sicario

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