Prequels, prequels, prequels. The conventional wisdom? They don’t work.
In modern IP culture, anything that’s remotely successful deserves(?) a follow-up. But sometimes, franchises bring themselves to perfectly logical end points, with absolutely no reason to move past the happy or not-so-happy ending we get. So, the solution is not to move forward but instead to move back, looking at the journeys that brought key figures from the original movies to where they were when the beloved original films began. That’s how we got movies like “Harry Potter” spinoff “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” or gritty “Wizard of Oz” riff “The Great and the Powerful,” or all those very convoluted “X-Men” movies. The general poor quality of these films have lead many to write-off prequels as a whole, deeming them unnecessary world-building exercises that suck the mystique out of the movies they’re based on.
But prequels don’t have to be bad; sometimes, a look at what made the original characters we know and love who they are can work gangbusters, like Ti West’s slasher prequel “Pearl.” Others succeed by going back in time but otherwise telling a standalone story, like the second “Indiana Jones” movie, “Temple of Doom.” Some particularly ambitious films mix prequel with sequel to tell two separate storylines that build on each other gracefully, like “The Godfather Part II” or, of course, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.”
This month gives us a prequel that seems to have defied popular wisdom and set itself admirably apart from the films that followed. Based on the book of the same name by Suzanne Collins, “The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is a prequel to the blockbuster dystopian YA “The Hunger Games” series, which ruled the box office from 2012-2015 and is best remembered for establishing Jennifer Lawrence as a household name. Set 64 years before the events of the first movie, “Songbirds & Snakes” focuses on the rise to power of Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland in the originals, Tom Blyth in this film) and the growing popularity of the titular child death games. Also starring Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, and Viola Davis, “Songbirds & Snakes” has been widely praised by critics as an enjoyable standalone in its own right, one that builds on the themes of the original trilogy while charting a new path for itself.
In honor of “Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes,” IndieWire decided to round up the times that prequels managed to stick the landing, working as both additions to the movies that we love and as separate films unto themselves. To qualify as a prequel, a film needs to (1) be released after the first movie, obviously, and (2) take place before its events, without completely rewriting them in their entirety. So reboots, like how “Casino Royale” reset the world of the “James Bond” franchise, don’t qualify for this list. With that in mind, read on for our list of the best prequel films of all time. Entries are unranked, and listed in order of release date.
“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (dir. Sergio Leone, 1966)
What it’s a prequel to: Leone’s spaghetti westerns “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More,” which star Clint Eastwood as a nameless wandering bounty hunter. All three movies have standalone plots, but “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is considered a prequel because it explicitly takes place in 1862 during the American Civil War, whereas “A Fistful of Dollars” has a gravestone in it with the date of death marked for 1873. The movie also ends with Eastwood’s character finding and donning the iconic poncho he would wear at the beginning of “A Fistful of Dollars.”
Why it works: With no real plot points it needs to lead into, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is free to be its own entity. And Leone’s film is still widely considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time: an epic battle between three men to find a hidden fortune that concludes in one of the most iconic scenes in film history. When the prequel becomes much more famous than the movie it’s building on, you know you’re doing something right.
“The Godfather: Part II” (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
What it’s a prequel to: Yes, yes, “Part II” implies that this follow-up to Francis Ford Coppola’s original mobster epic is a sequel. And half of it is, following Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as he slowly descends deeper into the darkness after taking over the family business. But the other half of the movie focuses on Robert De Niro as Michael’s father Vito in 1917, as he rises to power and founds his crime empire.
Why it works: The decision to split the difference between prequel and sequel works wonders for “The Godfather: Part II.” The rise of Vito and the fall of Michael are compelling stories individually, but together, they create a tragic story of father and son that makes the film all the richer.
“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1984)
What it’s a prequel to: “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Spielberg’s original film starring Harrison Ford as whip-carrying adventurer Indiana Jones. The original movie was set in 1936 and focused on Jones fighting Nazi forces for control over the Ark of the Covenant. Because George Lucas, who wrote the story for both movies, wanted the second film to feature different villains than the Nazis, it became a prequel set the year before the first film about Jones journeying to India to recover a mystical stone from an evil cult.
Why it works: “Temple of Doom” is the most divisive film of the original “Indiana Jones” trilogy, between its dour tone and poorly-aged portrayal of Hinduism and India in general. That said, despite its flaws, the movie works because it fashions itself as just another “Indiana Jones” adventure rather than a prequel, allowing Spielberg to focus on what he does best in creating memorable action scenes, like the series peak mine car chase.
“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (dir. David Lynch, 1992)
What it’s a prequel to: “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch’s influential horror/crime drama/soap opera about Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) investigating the death of small town teenager Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), acts as an entryway into a convuluted supernatural mythology involving the town. After the show was canceled during its second season on a cliffhanger, Lynch got the money to make a follow-up movie, but decided to make it a prequel focusing on the last days before Laura’s death.
Why it works: Because it didn’t answer any questions left over from the show’s original run, the consensus towards “Fire Walk With Me” was that it didn’t work initially. But the years have been kind to it, and it’s now frequently ranked among Lynch’s best works. Part of what makes the movie so powerful is how it fully introduces us to “Twin Peaks’” central character: Laura is a presence in the original, but doesn’t get a lot of focus, on account of the whole “being dead” thing. “Fire Walk With Me” gives Lee a real showcase, and she’s phenomenal in a demanding role that explores the impact the abuse she’s suffered has had on her. The film is as dark and weird as its reputation, but its sensitivity and emotion is what makes it one of Lynch’s best.
“Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” (dir. George Lucas, 2005)
What it’s a prequel to: “Revenge of the Sith” is the third and final entry in the “Star Wars” Prequel Trilogy, which is almost synonymous with the concept of prequels in general. Following up on “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones,” the movie follows Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) as he is manipulated by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) into turning over to the Dark Side, to the horror of his wife Padmé (Natalie Portman) and mentor Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor).
Why it works: Most would argue that it doesn’t. “Revenge of the Sith” is not a flawless movie by any stretch. It has a lot of the same problems that the films it followed up on, with stilted writing and direction dragging it down. But it’s still a massive improvement upon “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones.” Christensen gives a better performance, the character-work is better, there are some genuinely great moments like the opera scene and “so this is how liberty dies,” and (Padmé dying of a broken heart aside), it manages to stick the tragedy of the landing as Anakin fully goes over to the dark side and the galaxy descends into tyranny. Also, time was kind to it, as “The Rise of Skywalker” failure showed how badly a trilogy-capper it could have turned out.
“X-Men: First Class” (dir. Matthew Vaughn, 2011)
What it’s a prequel to: The original “X-Men” trilogy of films, which started with the 2000 film. After the trilogy ended with a dud with “The Last Stand” — and then “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” flopped — Fox scrapped Wolverine and decided to make a prequel focusing on how the X-Men were originally formed back in 1962.
Why it works: “First Class” has a lot of issues: wonky CGI, flat acting from supporting cast members, and some points where the timeline between it and the original films just doesn’t match up in any conceivable way (this problem would get much worse in the film’s sequels, where the continuity became basically incomprehensible). Still, all that can be forgiven because the movie absolutely nails the casting and relationship-building between its three core characters: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence are all perfect as the young versions of Professor X, Magneto, and Mystique, and the movie’s depictions of their growing relationships with each other is alternatively funny and tragic. That, plus an enjoyable swinging-’60s vibe, makes the film by far the most successful “X-Men” movie beyond the first two.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (dir. Rupert Wyatt, 2011)
What it’s a prequel to: This is cheating a little. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and the films that followed it have been called reboots for the original “Planet of the Apes” films, not prequels. However, the 2011 film can be seen as a prequel of the original sci-fi classic if you want, detailing an ape uprising against humanity that will lead to the iconic ape-dominated world of the 1968 film.
Why it works: Rather than focusing its energy on nods to the original, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” works because it has a strong central hook, following genetically enhanced chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis, doing incredible performance capture work) as he goes from captivity to leading an uprising against humanity. Caesar is a stronger character than any from the original films, and gives “Rise” and its follow-ups their emotional punch.
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” (dir. Ol Parker, 2018)
What it’s a prequel to: The “Godfather Part II” of the musical genre, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is both prequel and sequel to 2007’s big screen adaptation of ABBA jukebox jam “Mamma Mia!” One half of the film revolves around Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) reopening the family hotel after her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) passes from cancer. The other half focuses on Donna’s youth, where she’s played by Lily James and focuses on her romances with the three men who all may be Sophie’s father.
Why it works: “Here We Go Again” has a slippery relationship with concepts like “logic” or “linear time,” which is precisely what makes it fun. That’s best exemplified in the film’s looney ending sequence, in which all of the actors — including Donna, who (again) is dead and the younger cast — all gather to sing a giant number of “Super Trooper” with each other. It’s big, it’s weird, it’s nonsensical, it completely defies basic concepts of time and space. So it’s perfect for “Mamma Mia!”
“Prey” (dir. Dan Trachtenberg, 2022)
What it’s a prequel to: The overall “Predator” series, which started with the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger original. “Prey” doesn’t feature any of the characters from the original, aside from a member of the titular trophy-hunting extraterrestrials. Instead, the film goes all the way back to 1719, back before colonization of the Americas, and follows a young Comanche woman (Amber Midthunder) who squares off against a predator that arrives lands near her tribes grounds.
Why it works: What makes “Prey,” a totally fine action movie, so refreshing is how little it kowtows to franchise mythology or set-up for the original movies. There’s no Schwarzenegger cameo or major references to the original films. Instead, Trachtenberg is content to let the film be a lean, mean standalone sci-fi film, and it’s all the better for it.
“Pearl” (dir. Ti West, 2022)
What it’s a prequel to: “X,” a ’70s set slasher film from Ti West that A24 also released in 2022. “Pearl” began production immediately after “X” concluded filming, and reunited West with Mia Goth, who played lead hero Maxine and villain Pearl in the first movie. The prequel flashes back to Pearl’s youth in 1918 during the influenza pandemic, looking at how her obsession with stardom paved the way to her ruin.
Why it works: “Pearl” is the rare prequel that actually manages to not just live up to but actively surpass the original film. Whereas “X,” a fun ’70s slasher throwback, sometimes felt a bit thinly drawn, “Pearl” is much richer and more original, with a fun “Wizard of Oz” ’30s film aesthetic that gives it a unique place in the slasher canon. It also helps that Mia Goth gets a much stronger star vehicle here, and her messy, short-wire performance ranks as among the best in recent horror memory.