Prequels: Everything that happened before anything happened.
With Gotham in its second season, and Krypton on its way to Syfy, it seems like prequels are the new ‘in thing’ for television shows, especially those based on comic book characters. This gives us all a chance to see the characters we love in a completely new, thus far unwritten instalment of their lives, and see what made them the people they are. Except, when the prequel is set before anything happens, nothing can really happen.
Gotham is a prime example. We all know that Batman’s career started the night his parents were killed. Batman Begins did a great job connecting the origin story to the main narrative, rather than making it feel like a standalone memory – the way BvS has done – or making the killer the movie’s villain a la ‘89. To do a prequel for Batman, then, would involve showing a time before the Waynes were ever offed in the alley. No?
Well, not according to CBS’ Gotham series, which starts at the infamous incident. But, rather than showing Bruce’s journey to becoming the Bat – as was proposed long before the Nolanverse came into being – Gotham chose to follow Detective Jim Gordon as he rounds up criminals not unlike the Rogues Gallery of the Batman we know.
The result, inevitably, is a mess of static characters, convoluted complications and ultimately a premature introduction of the very villains we know from Bruce’s adult years. Gordon can’t win, because Gotham has to be corrupt for the Batman to be necessary. So, instead, we slowly watch him descend into the same corruption he is meant to fight.
Smallville had the same issue, especially as the series progressed. With Zod, Doomsday, Toyman, and even Darkseid bested before Kal-El had even donned the cape, it’s hard to see how this was a prequel at all. They even formed a Justice League of sorts, with the conspicuous absence of Batman.
But Smallville managed to offset their growing pains in several ways. First, the show was aimed at a teen audience, with a One Tree Hill kind of atmosphere. Second, they stripped Kal-El of some of his powers, leaving him room to progress and challenges to struggle against – not least of all, concealing his identity. It also helped that much of the groundwork had already been laid by the comics, giving Clark childhood friends Pete Ross and Lana Lang.
Krypton, on the other hand, isn’t even following characters we know. Goyer has announced that the show will follow Kal-El’s grandfather, some 200 years before the planet is destroyed. Why on Krypton would we want to see a figure who has no connection to the modern-day mythos fight ‘to save his family’s honour’. This protagonist won’t have any effect on the man Kal grows to be, and is so far in the past he likely won’t have anything to do with the planet’s destruction. So what could possibly be added to the mythos that is worth seeing?
Prequels work when they expand on aspects that were interesting but couldn’t be fully explored in the original series. Who did Batman train with, for example – in the comics it wasn’t just Ra’s al Ghul/Henri Ducard – or how did Superman cope with his powers as a teen? Perhaps even, where did the Joker get those scars?
But what happened to a superhero’s grandfather 200 years ago? Far less intrigue there.
So far, there’s no indication as to the tone or target audience of the show, but it’s probably safe to assume it will be nothing like the CW shows, Arrow and Flash. I’d also expect something closer in tone to Supergirl than Gotham, but who knows? The one advantage prequels have is that the options are endless, but it does come with an equal number of pitfalls. Too many references to Superman will be irritating, but too few will leave us wondering why it’s called Krypton at all.
The problem with prequels, much like sequels, is that they seem to be made to cash in on the viability of a particular character or franchise, instead of building on the need to tell a good story yet to be told. Is the House of El’s honour compelling enough to deserve its own show? I can’t see how it could be.
Beyond seeing the aesthetic choices for Kandor – Krypton’s largest city – I can’t see there being any interest in it. In the orbit of their red sun, the Kryptonians won’t even have powers and family honor doesn’t pique my curiosity enough to watch what will essentially be a brand new story with a tenuous link to a household name. Of course, I’ll reserve judgement until the pilot airs, but expectations are low.
Still, I have to wonder…who was really hoping for this prequel?