Even the most popular movie franchises reach a point where a direct sequel just isn’t possible. There are several reasons why this could be the case. Maybe core cast members have outgrown their roles, or aren’t interested in reprising them. Perhaps the current narrative has already been wrapped up so conclusively that there simply isn’t any more story to tell, rendering a follow-up movie superfluous.
In situations like these, one solution that filmmakers are relying on more and more is to develop a prequel, instead. It makes sense, too: the previously unexplored origins of characters and their world can provide new storytelling opportunities that would be impossible in a typical sequel. These flashback flicks can also reinvigorate a franchise by revealing surprising information that make us completely reconsider how we view the films that have already been released. On the other hand, a poorly conceived prequel can negatively impact public perception of a formerly revered movie series. Common criticisms of botched prequels include their tendency to undermine existing characterizations, to mangle established continuity, and to generally tarnish the stories they’re supposed to be enhancing.
Clearly, going down the prequel route isn’t a guaranteed way to ensure the ongoing success of a franchise. Indeed, sometimes a spiritual sequel or reboot would probably have been a better option – or even just accepting that the series has run its course, and moving on to another project. Regardless, it seems the prequel is here to stay.
Here are 11 Prequels That Hurt Movie Franchises (And 9 That Saved Them).
20 Hurt – Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
The poster child for bad prequels, Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace is neither as bad as its detractors claim, nor as good as its supporters argue. Indeed, the best word to describe director George Lucas’ 1999 effort would actually be “mediocre.” For everything there is to love about The Phantom Menace (epic lightsaber duels, pulse-pounding pod races) there’s just as much to hate (uneven pacing, over-reliance on CGI, Jar Jar Binks).
In many ways this prequel’s biggest flaw is that it kicks off the entire Star Wars saga too early. So much of what happens here is essentially redundant, which means that audiences can pretty much skip straight ahead to the next Episode, Attack of the Clones, without missing much. That’s hardly the way to launch the most anticipated trilogy of all time!
19 Saved – Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
The announcement that Warner Bros. Pictures planned to revive the Harry Potter franchise with an adaptation of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was met with scepticism, if not outright derision. This wasn’t entirely unwarranted, either: the source material in question is a slim fictional guidebook devoted to the outrageous creatures of J.K. Rowling’s magical world.
There’s no narrative to speak of, so fans questioned how it could serve as the basis for a blockbuster. Luckily, Rowling and director David Yates proved the doubters wrong, teaming up to transform this slender volume into a critically and commercially successful prequel adventure. Fantastic Beasts $800 million box office haul more than earned the film a sequel – more on that later, though.
18 Hurt – X-Men Origins: Wolverine
In purely financial terms, X-Men Origins: Wolverine didn’t do the wider X-Men franchise any damage, as it turned a very tidy profit for 20th Century Fox. Yet strong ticket sales don’t always tell the whole story, and Hugh Jackman’s first solo outing as Logan mutant was widely panned by fans and critics alike.
Complaints levelled at this 2009 prequel include its bloated roster of heroes and villains, abundance of shoddy visual effects, and – most importantly of all – how it bungles the depiction of fan-favorite character Deadpool. Backlash against the film was so strong that Fox was forced to reconsider the direction of the X-Men series, and subsequent films have since retconned Wolverine out of existence!
17 Saved – The First Purge
The third Purge film, Election Year, came out back in 2016, and after the dust had settled, it looked like this action-horror franchise had played itself out. It wasn’t that the reviews were bad – they were as middle-of-the-road as they’d ever been. Equally, the film’s box office takings were the best in the series so far. Nevertheless, the Purge formula – all crime is legalized for one night every year in the United States – was starting to feel a bit stale.
Then The First Purge delivered the shot in the arm the series so desperately needed, by winding back the clock to the first ever Purge night. The movie’s fresh setting and new director Gerard McMurray may not have improved reviews, but fans seemed happy – and Universal Pictures was undoubtedly thrilled by the uptick in revenues, too.
16 Hurt – Prometheus
On paper, Prometheus had all the right ingredients for a sensational Alien prequel. Ridley Scott was back calling the shots, a stellar cast – including Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, and Idris Elba – had signed on, and the script promised to resolve long-standing questions from the series’ mythology.
However, despite being set in the same universe as the other Alien movies, Prometheus was in many ways very much its own beast. Burdened by bizarre religious overtones, muddled plotting, and clunky dialogue, its story provided few of the answers that fans were hoping for. Most frustratingly of all, the mysteries Prometheus did address were so clumsily handled, they only reminded us that some things are better left unexplained.
15 Saved – X-Men: First Class
After the overwhelmingly negative reaction to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 20th Century Fox brought in Matthew Vaughn to right the ship, which he did with another prequel. Fortunately, X-Men: First Class nailed all the elements of a superhero blockbuster that Wolverine fumbled. The film boasted a slick script, decent action set pieces, and respectable CGI, while Vaughn proved himself adept at managing a crowded roll call of characters.
What’s more, the director coaxed strong performances from his talented cast, with Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence leading the charge. Toss in a disarming amount of emotional heft perfectly counterbalanced by Vaughn’s trademark fun directorial flourishes, and it’s easy to see how First Class laid the groundwork for the X-Men franchise going forward.
14 Saved – Paranormal Activity 3
Produced on a shoestring budget, the first Paranormal Activity film raked in nearly $195 million globally and enjoyed a warm critical reception back in 2007, so a follow-up was never in doubt. Three years later, Paranormal Activity 2 dropped, and despite being a decent enough effort, it wasn’t quite able to recapture the appeal of the original.
Both ticket sales and reviews took a slight dip with this prequel, although it still performed well enough to that Paramount Pictures gave Paranormal Activity 3 (another prequel) the green-light. The studio’s faith in the found footage horror franchise was rewarded when the movie came out in 2008, with improved review scores and record-breaking, series-high box office returns.
13 Hurt – Dumb And Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd
1994’s Dumb and Dumber is paradoxically a cult classic and a commercial success story. This off-beat comedy left many moviegoers (and more than a few critics) scratching their heads, but thanks to the power of stars Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, it nevertheless banked over $245 million.
Rather than striking while the iron was hot, New Line Cinema didn’t pull the trigger on another Dumb and Dumber movie for nearly a decade, and boy, was it not worth the wait. Without the Farrelly Brothers behind the camera or Carrey and Daniels in front of it, ill-advised prequel Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd underperformed financially and received a critical mauling. In fairness to director Troy Miller, when the original creative team finally reunited for sequel Dumb and Dumber To in 2014, they didn’t fare much better.
12 Saved – Fast Five
When super-charged street racing flick The Fast and the Furious was released in 2001, few pundits could have predicted that it’d spawn a long-running franchise. Yet 17 years, seven more films and over $5 billion later, the series is showing no signs of slowing down. A key factor in the Fast and the Furious franchise’s enduring success has been its pivot away from its underworld motor sports roots in order to embrace a more universally popular, “heist movie” vibe.
This shift occurred with 2011 prequel Fast Five – which takes place prior to Tokyo Drift – and it was immediately clear that the producers had made the right call. Helmed by Justin Lin, the film garnered much stronger reviews than predecessor Fast & Furious, and it also outgrossed that picture by a hefty amount.
11 Hurt – Hannibal Rising
Prequels headlined by villains can make for great cinema, as they invite audiences to come to grips with the often tragic circumstances that transformed these characters into monsters. The downside here is that the more you know about a baddie’s past, the less mysterious they become – and consequently, the less frightening they are. Take Peter Webber’s Hannibal Rising, which offers up a full-blown exploration of the infamous Hannibal Lecter’s origins.
This poorly conceived psychological horror film – based on Thomas Harris’ equally disappointing novel of the same name – paints a more sympathetic portrayal of Lecter, sapping him of the “otherness” that made him so scary.
10 Saved – Alien Vs. Predator
Few people would consider Alien vs. Predator a great (or even good) movie, but this sci-fi/horror mash-up – which takes place after the Predator movies but before those of the Alien series – deserves credit for reviving two largely dormant franchises. Think about it: prior to 2004, there hadn’t been an Alien installment since 1997’s Alien Resurrection, while Predator 2 hit theatres in 1990!
By putting the spotlight on both properties again – even in the context of sub-par action blockbuster fare – AVP reignited interest in both. Besides leading to a direct sequel (the somehow even worse Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem), this lucrative prequel encouraged 20th Century Fox to pursue additional stand-alone projects like Predators and Prometheus, as well.
9 Hurt – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Director David Yates and scribe J.K. Rowling might have pulled a rabbit out of the hat with the first Fantastic Beasts prequel, but they couldn’t repeat this extraordinary feat with the second. Indeed, the crimes of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald are many. For starters, its meandering plot spends too much time setting up future installments, and is peppered with nonsensical developments that undermine (or flat-out contradict) established canon.
Most disappointing of all is just how devoid of emotion the whole thing is. With so many new and returning characters competing for screen time, it’s hard to truly connect with any of their struggles. It’s thanks to these shortcomings that Crimes of Grindelwald is the worst-reviewed and (to-date) lowest grossing entry in the Harry Potter franchise.
8 Hurt – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Fun fact: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is actually a prequel. This tidbit typically goes over the heads of more casual viewers, who forget that Raiders of the Lost Ark was set in 1936 – an entire year after the events of Temple of Doom.
Prequel or not, the second chapter in the Indiana Jones franchise was generally regarded as the weakest entry in the series-- until the release of 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, at least. True, Temple of Doom’s reputation has improved in the years since its 1984 release. Even so, it remains the lowest grossing Indiana Jones film, and no less than director Steven Spielberg himself has labelled it his least favorite film of the lot!
7 Saved – Red Dragon
Ridley Scott’s The Silence of the Lambs sequel Hannibal divided audiences, but the follow-up prequel Red Dragon left most people happy. With Brett Ratner in the director’s chair this time around, Red Dragon is predictably neither as psychologically sophisticated as Lambs nor as boldly subversive as Hannibal. Still, it’s a solidly told horror-thriller yarn that benefits immensely from the talents of acting powerhouses Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, and Edward Norton.
The critical appraisal of Red Dragon may have stopped short of unqualified praise, but the film slayed at the box office. Red Dragon’s financial success paved the way for less successful prequel Hannibal Rising, before essentially being rebooted as part of NBC’s Hannibal TV series.
6 Hurt – The Nun
Judged on its box office takings alone, The Nun continued the Conjuring Universe’s spectacular, raking in more money than any of the films that preceded it. That’s probably why two more Conjuring spin-offs – an unnamed Annabelle sequel and “dark fairytale” The Crooked Man – are currently in different stages of production. However, The Nun’s commercial performance belies its dismal critical showing.
Corin Hardy’s prequel scored the franchise’s lowest ratings on review aggregator sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Perhaps even more importantly, The Nun is the worst polled Conjuring flick on CinemaScore, indicating regular moviegoers were just as unhappy with it as critics. All of this combined implies that The Nun may have done more damage to the Conjuring brand than its healthy bottomline would otherwise suggest.
5 Saved – Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith
The Star Wars prequels are a pretty mixed bag, but Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is commonly considered the most well executed of the bunch. That’s not to say it’s perfect, by any means: the first half varies wildly in terms of quality and tone, and painful dialogue and eye-melting CGI persist throughout.
Still, Revenge of the Sith gets more right than it gets wrong, and occasionally has flashes of brilliance so inspired – most notably, two stunning montage sequences – they rate among the saga’s best moments. As such, it brought the prequel trilogy to a satisfying close, and helped erase the bad taste Episode I and II left in viewers’ mouths.
4 Hurt – 300: Rise Of An Empire
300: Rise of an Empire is set both before and after Zack Snyder’s 300 – and even occasionally overlaps with it. Still, a sizeable chunk of Noam Murro’s testosterone-fuelled quasi-historical epic takes place in the lead-up to its predecessor, so it definitely qualifies as a prequel. Despite partially sharing the same timeframe as the original movie, Rise of an Empire failed to emulate its success.
Sure, Murro did a bang-up job of aping Snyder’s signature hyper-stylized visual style and use of speed-ramping, but the script he was working from – which didn’t have the benefit of an acclaimed graphic novel by Frank Miller to draw on – simply wasn’t up to scratch. Without a solid story for viewers to latch onto, Rise of an Empire was only a modest hit, placing plans for proposed sequels on indefinite hold.
3 Hurt – The Huntsman: Winter's War
The Huntsman: Winter’s War may well be the text book definition of an unnecessary follow-up – prequel or otherwise. After all, nothing about the forgettable original Snow White and the Huntsman screamed out “there’s more story to tell here.” Well, that’s not entirely true: presumably its $368.6 million box office earnings convinced the studio bigwigs at Universal Pictures that another film was crying out to be made.
That’s how we ended up this superfluous flashback feature, which served up an even less engaging narrative than the first movie’s tepid tale. Admittedly, Winter’s War sports jaw-dropping visuals and an A-list cast – with newcomers Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain more than making up for Kristin Stewart’s absence. At the end of the day, it’s the story that matters, which is why this prequel ultimately flopped.
2 Saved – The Godfather Part II
Saying that The Godfather – which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and is rightly considered one of the greatest films of all time – needed saving is a bit of stretch, but The Godfather Part II took this gangster story to even greater heights, and was crucial in protecting the trilogy’s reputation from Part III’s bad press later on.
A prequel and sequel all in one, Godfather Part II improves on its excellent, yet conventional predecessor by intertwining two timelines for even greater dramatic and thematic resonance. Director Francis Ford Coppola and screenwriter Mario Puzo deftly weave Part II’s flashback narrative into its present-day plotline, masterfully juxtaposing Vito Corleone's rise to power with his son Michael's descent into irredeemable villainy.
1 Hurt – The Hobbit Trilogy
The Hobbit films pack their fair share of breathtaking moments worthy of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that launched the franchise. Even with director Peter Jackson back behind the camera and a top-shelf cast of new and returning actors on board, this trio of prequels pales in comparison to what came before it.
The Hobbit movies are missing a lot of key components that made The Lord of the Rings so special. Rather than blending practical effects and make-up prosthetics with digital effects, Jackson leans heavily on the CGI button. In place of sharp scripts that streamline J.R.R. Tolkien’s sprawling saga for the big screen, we get unwieldy screenplays overstuffed with plot threads and extraneous characters. As a result, films don’t pack the same wallop fans expect from a visit to Middle-earth!
What are some other prequels that hurt (or saved) movie franchises? Let us know in the comments!