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This Was the Year of the Prequel

Once in short supply, the indispensable prequel dominated screens both big and small in 2022, transcending the genre’s spotty track record and giving sequels a run for their money as conversation drivers

Disney/Hulu/AMC/HBO/Amazon/Ringer illustration

The conceit of our Year in Review series is that the end of the year is a good time to look back and take stock of the cultural trends that shaped the past 12 months. The premise of this piece, though, is that in 2022, the act of looking back has been a yearlong activity, a focus that from start to finish defined the scripted content we watched. On both big screens and small, this was the year of the indispensable prequel, a commodity that was once in short supply. This bumper crop of prequels transcended the genre’s spotty track record, making 2022 an unprecedented triumph for tales centered on the times before established stories began.

Prequels are not a new invention, but the current conception of the prequel was cemented centuries after the rise of the sequel. That’s appropriate, because prequels have historically been the scarcer, sketchier cousin of the sequel—the third wheel that sometimes tags along with well-loved original releases and their often similarly celebrated follow-ups. Sequels, of course, had a good year too: Nine of the top 10 movies at the domestic box office were sequels, ranging from Top Gun: Maverick to Avatar: The Way of Water, to the usual complement of Marvel movies. But sequels almost always have a good year; they’re the Yankees or U.S. Steel. This year, though, prequels gave sequels a run for their money—if not at the box office, then on TV and, by extension, in week-to-week watercooler conversation.

Better Call Saul, which boldly rewound the tape from where Breaking Bad began, wrapped up its sterling, storied run in immensely fulfilling fashion, and Andor—a prequel to a prequel!—kept it close company on lists of the year’s best TV shows. Tony Gilroy’s grounded, anti-fascist spy series earned uncommon critical adoration for a Star Wars release, told a story that seemed much more essential than the series’ logline would have led one to believe, and revived fans’ flagging faith in the franchise’s creative potential—faith that, admittedly, was shaken in part by the more lackluster prequel that preceded it, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Rehabilitating franchises was something of a theme for 2022’s prequels. House of the Dragon exceeded all expectations, drawing as close to a Game of Thrones-sized audience as a new series could, breathing life into the slow-to-develop Thrones extended universe, and putting distance between fans and the original’s rushed ending. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power elicited a more muted response but still re-established LotR as an active on-screen concern and a more picturesque, sweeping, PG-13 complement to HBO’s behemoth. Prey revitalized the moribund Predator franchise by capitalizing on the promise of a template that could power many Predators to come. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds returned Trek to its roots and managed to be by far the most charming live-action entry in the swelling Star Trek slate. The rapidly expanding Yellowstone universe featured two compelling prequels, 1883 and 1923. This year was so prequel-centric that both the throwback slasher film X and its prequel, Pearl—which played prominent parts in a huge horror-movie year—came out just six months apart, kickstarting a rare franchise for A24. Everywhere one looked, prequels were doing heavy lifting for prominent IP.

Even some of 2022’s less inspired prequels drummed up popular appeal. I’ll confess to missing the much-memed Minions: The Rise of Gru, but I must have been the only one: The prequel/sequel hybrid made almost a billion dollars in theaters worldwide. Uncharted, a critical failure, grossed $400 million, enough to build buzz about a sequel. (In a sign of the relative statuses of prequels and sequels, prequels aspire to sequelhood more than the other way around; one member of the 1923 cast described it as “a sequel to the prequel,” though like The Rise of Gru, it’s a prequel too.) About the worst one can say about one of the year’s high-profile prequels is that Lightyear flopped by Pixar standards, possibly because nobody could describe what it was. (I know Lightyear might not technically be a Toy Story prequel—but come on, yes it is.) Taken together, the year’s big-name prequels ranged from “disappointing but watchable” to “all-time great,” clustering overwhelmingly toward the desirable side of the quality spectrum.

No one was more surprised by this prequelssance than me. (Can you call something a “-ssance” if it just got good for the first time?) I’ve been a prequel skeptic for most of my life, a bias born of formative exposure to the first two Star Wars prequels and decades of most other prequels being superfluous and forgettable. Two years ago, I made my case against the form as I marveled at Saul as a stunning exception to the “prequel curse.”

Prequels, I noted, rarely sit at the most interesting stage of a story; if they did, the creators of the film or series that spawned them would have chosen to start there instead. The question prequels pose, even more desperately than sequels, is “How much more meat is left on this bone?” Often, the answer is “not enough.” We’re accustomed to time moving forward, but prequels ask us to enter reverse in stories that may have already ended. Thanks to viewers’ foreknowledge of the fictional future, prequels are prone to a lack of suspense, and they tend to fixate on crossovers, call-forwards, and setup, as if their primary purpose is to service the fans and polish the legacies of the projects whose popularity made them possible. Burdened by high expectations and high degrees of difficulty, they’re set up to let us down.

There was certainly some of that in evidence this year. Every media conglomerate that’s sitting on some choice, unexploited IP wants to build that brand into an empire, even if it means trying to spin straw into TV gold or a big-screen blockbuster. Some stories aren’t really ripe for sequels—because their characters were killed or fulfilled, their conflicts and drama were defused, and their mysteries were solvedwhich leaves prequels as the only (or most obvious) answer. The only path forward for the franchise is to turn around, and thus the go-to move among network execs and their chosen storytellers was the same as Jack Shephard’s: We have to go back.

Lightyear smacked of the less creative cash-ins that characterized Pixar’s past slumps. Was anyone asking for a recursive origin story of the in-universe fictional film character that inspired young Andy’s new favorite toy? Obi-Wan was so hemmed in by the surrounding Star Wars canon that in order for the series to slot in between trilogies, its characters couldn’t evolve or act logically. The series had its high points, and the nostalgia unleashed by the reunion of Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen was so strong that even the older, once-maligned prequels got a retroactive glow-up. But by the end, Obi-Wan had run full tilt into frustrating prequel pitfalls and failed to articulate pressing reasons to exist. And while Taylor Sheridan’s latest tales from the Duttonverse are still compulsively consumable, the breakneck pace of his multitudinous productions—and the pressure to keep cranking out content to fill the Yellowstone-sized hole in the Paramount+ library—have seemingly started to take a toll.

But the best of 2022’s prequels point out possible solutions to the hardships all prequels impose. One way to make a great prequel is simply to entrust it to Gilroy or Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan. That may be a foolproof plan, but it isn’t one that scales easily. Still, even if those three can’t be cloned, other prequel creators could study and learn from the structures of both Better Call Saul and Andor. Each series ostensibly centers on an eponymous protagonist who’s headed for a far different life, and each series set out to show us how he gets there. Gilroy, Gould, and Gilligan, enabled by Bob Odenkirk and Diego Luna, make those journeys more riveting than they have any right to be. But the journeys of Jimmy/Saul and Cassian, and their ties to Breaking Bad and Rogue One, are only part of the appeal. (Though Saul, in the end, freed itself from the tyranny of one time period and morphed into a free-floating vehicle for visits with the ghosts of Albuquerque past, present, and future.) The key to those series’ success is that they gave us new characters to care about, ones whose fates and feelings were brand-new ciphers to be solved. Few writers can craft characters like Kim Wexler or Luthen Rael, but no prequel can subsist solely on the same old (or young) faces.

Other prequels, like Dragon and Rings, separate themselves by putting centuries or millennia between themselves and their famous forebears; they’re at their weakest when they try too hard to bridge those gaps instead of being content to carve out their own corners. Still, others such as Prey and Strange New Worlds are so episodic that the weight of old mythology doesn’t drag them down. They’re prequels, yes, but they’re not so tightly tied to the future that their stories are stifled. Their formats set them free.

In my “prequel curse” cri de coeur, I concluded, “In summary: Stop making most prequels. They’ll never be Better Call Saul.” Hollywood had a different idea: What if, instead, we made many more prequels? I have to hand it to the TV- and moviemakers: Prequel-wise, they had a heck of a year. In 2022, the entertainment industry made the whole plane out of prequels; on-screen, scripted content was prequels all the way down. In the process of pumping out prequels, the prequel-industrial complex proved me wrong—or, at least, only half right. No, nothing can be better than Better Call Saul. But the curse has been lifted, and there may be more potential in prequels than we’ve witnessed in the past. If we’re stuck in a world where IP is all-powerful, every success is seen as fodder for spinoffs, and every major movie is a sequel or a prequel, then the freedom to go backward as well as forward within these sprawling worlds may be the best hope we have of variety.

In 2021, I wrote about the end of “unfilmable” IP, observing that the advent of big-budget TV adaptations bankrolled by flush streaming services—which were probably flusher last year—had allowed complex, long-gestating adaptations such as Dune, Foundation, and The Wheel of Time to reach the screen in presentable states. (The Sandman followed this year; now do The Dark Tower.) If that was the way on-screen stories innovated last year, then this year’s neat new trick was the indispensable prequel. Prequels have always operated under the assumption that what’s past is prologue. But in theaters and on streamers in 2022, the present was prologue, too.