The concept of the movie sequel actually dates back much further than people probably realize. In fact, depending on your perspective, the first sequel ever filmed could be traced back as far as 1916 with Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation. However, there’s another cinematic class that’s decidedly more modern: the prequel. This category encapsulates any on-screen story that takes place in the time before an existing film but within the same universe.
Prequels have been met with varying levels of success over the years. Some are so bad the filmmakers themselves would rather forget about them altogether. Others could even be called more successful — both critically and monetarily — than their original predecessors. It’s the latter group (and those that come close) that concern us today, as we’ve rounded up what we believe to be the 16 best prequel movies of all time.
What Constitutes A 'True' Prequel?
As filmmaking has progressed, the waters have become increasingly muddied as to what constitutes a prequel (or even a sequel, for that matter). Now there are remakes, reboots, soft reboots, in-between-quels, spin-offs, and so much more. As such, we’ve had to create a fairly rigid selection of criteria outlining what, specifically, needs to exist in order for us to consider a film a “true” prequel. We’ve outlined these aspects below. Keep in mind, not all of these need to be met in order to qualify, but most should.
Timeline: The most important metric for determining whether something qualifies as a true prequel is when — in relation to the original film(s) — the story takes place. In order for it to be a prequel, it has to have happened prior to the events of the original film and/or series. We have given a bit of leeway to stories that take place across multiple periods, however — so long as the time spent in the story prior to the events of the original film(s) is significant.
Universe: This should go without saying, but a story must take place within the same overarching universe as the original film(s). As such, reboots that wipe the previous universe’s slate clean — as can be seen in James Bond films or any of the many different Batman franchises — do not qualify simply by virtue of the fact that they’re near-complete restarts, so to speak.
Title Connection: One of the simplest markers of whether a movie has the potential to be a true prequel is in the naming conventions. This is not a hard and fast rule, as some prequels do not share the overarching series name — but many do. Even a suggestion of a connection through the name of a character, theme, important item, or idea can solidify the prequel status therein.
Character/Story Connection: In lieu of a connected name, a prequel can be made apparent by its connection to the original’s gallery of characters and/or the overarching storylines. Sometimes, a prequel tells the story of how a character or characters came to be — either their personal origin or what led them to partake in the events of the original film. Other times, the characters of a prequel hold a metaphorical torch that is to be handed off to the characters of the original. Sometimes, the stories even concern the ancestors of the original series/franchise.
Directness: This is one of the hardest metrics to pin down, but it can be made apparent through the use of examples. In essence, a film that fits into a larger cinematic storyline does not immediately qualify for prequel status. For instance, the DC Universe’s Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot) first appeared as an ancillary character in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which takes place in roughly the present day. However, her origin film — titled simply Wonder Woman — takes place during WWI, about a century before the events of her first onscreen appearance. Because her first appearance wasn’t in a film centered around her own activities and it was more akin to a cameo, we don’t count Wonder Woman as a prequel film.
In increasing, exponential fashion, Michael Bay’s Transformers series became more and more ridiculous and hard to follow. The characters (both human and animated) seemed to be on a hop-on, hop-off rotating carousel and the lore was muddied at best, even amongst the more watchable entries. And then came 2018’s Bumblebee, which both functioned as a prequel to the rest of the series and also marked a high point in the franchise — potentially spelling wonderful things for the future of the films. Not only did it offer up character designs that were much closer to the ones 1980s kids grew up adoring, but the story was fun, heartwarming, and not marred by the five previous entries and their overzealous, heavy-handed CGI and accompanying lore. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we’ve seen of the live-action adaptations of the beloved cartoon/toy franchise of yesteryear.
Release Date: 2018
Director: Travis Knight
Length: 1H 54M
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
With eight hugely successful movies in the Harry Potter franchise, it was only a matter of time before filmmakers started exploring other aspects of the wizarding world created by J.K. Rowling. And while there are plenty of stories not connected directly to the main storyline of “the boy who survived,” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is not one. In fact, it’s directly connected to the original series through the involvement of Dumbledore (played, in this instance, by Jude Law), Voldemort’s trusted snake sidekick Nagini, and numerous other connections — including the fact that Hogwarts is the protagonist’s alma mater. Set in America during the 1920s, this prequel is part magical romp, part period-piece, and a whole lot of fun and high-stakes action.
Release Date: 2018
Director: David Yates
Length: 2H 14M
Fire Walk With Me
Like The Godfather Part II, Fire Walk With Me is technically both a prequel and a sequel — in this case, to David Lynch’s cult hit television series Twin Peaks. With most of the original cast returning, this feature-length film follows the investigation into the murder of Teresa Banks and the last seven days of the life of Laura Palmer (her murder being the catalyst for the entire series). While the film itself was a critical and monetary failure — likely due largely to Lynch’s already-divisive filmmaking style — it has since become a cult hit itself and is widely considered some of the director’s best work. It’s worth pointing out that viewing this film is predicated on having viewed the series first, which could be a tall order for the uninitiated. However, if you happened to enjoy Twin Peaks and haven’t yet seen this origin-conclusion mashup, it’s definitely time to change that.
Release Date: 1992
Director: David Lynch
Length: 2H 14M
The Godfather Part II
This is the film where we have to admit to bending our own rules just slightly. You see, The Godfather Part II isn’t strictly a prequel. Rather, it functions as both a sequel and a prequel, as it takes place across two separate eras. The part of the film set before the events of the first Godfather, however, is so significant to the rest of the series, we’re giving this masterwork of crime cinema a well-earned pass. This movie is so good, in fact, that there’s an ongoing discussion amongst cinephiles as to whether it’s actually better than the original. For those who haven’t seen it, The Godfather Part II tells two distinct stories tied together by blood: one that follows the rise of a young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) and another that traces the path of his son Michael (Al Pachino). We won’t spoil any more because this is truly a movie you have to see for yourself and will undoubtedly go down, alongside its predecessor, as one of the best crime dramas ever filmed.
Release Date: 1974
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Length: 3H 22M
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Famously one of the best western films of all time, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the third entry in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy — the spaghetti westerns that follow Clint Eastwood’s most iconic character, The Man With No Name. And while it was the third to come out in theaters, it actually takes place well before the events of the other two films, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, during the American Civil War — specifically 1862. What’s especially unusual about this particular film, apart from the fact that it was actually filmed in Italy and that it confusingly takes place before the other two, is that it’s also an extremely rare example of a third entry in a trilogy that’s widely agreed upon as being better than its predecessors. That alone makes it worth a watch, even if you’re not a traditional fan of westerns.
Release Date: 1966
Director: Sergio Leone
Length: 2H 58M
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Lord of the Rings
It would, in some circles, be considered blasphemy to suggest that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings follow-up trilogy, The Hobbit, comes anywhere close to the overall quality of the original three films. However, it is not entirely without merit. In fact, the first entry in the prequel trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, did a pretty fantastic job of drawing viewers back into the magical realm of Middle Earth and setting up a familiar-yet-novel storyline. For those who aren’t familiar, the 2nd trilogy follows the story of Frodo Baggins’s uncle, Bilbo, as he tags along with a group of dwarves trying to reclaim their ancestral home and kill the dragon that took it from them. In the process, he also happens upon the ominously named One Ring to Rule Them All — the MacGuffin from the original LotR trilogy. Unfortunately, the second and third movies didn’t quite work as well, but the inaugural flick is worth watching.
Release Date: 2012
Director: Peter Jackson
Length: 2H 49M
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
This is another one on our list that will probably surprise people, as most folks don’t actually know that it’s a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. But there is an interesting story behind why Spielberg and his crew chose to take this route. You see, Indiana Jones was actually co-created by none other than George Lucas who, in his wisdom, wanted to avoid using Nazis as the villains a second time in a row. Thus, Temple of Doom actually takes place a year prior to the original film in the series. While we wouldn’t go so far as to call this the best of the series — or even second-best — it’s definitely still a very fun romp through the fantastic world in which Indiana Jones, anthropologist extraordinaire, exists. And (let’s be honest), it’s still worlds better than the fourth entry in the series, as much as we’d all like to forget Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Release Date: 1984
Director: Steven Spielberg
Length: 1H 58M
Kevin Smith is fairly well known for tying together the various stories in his own personal movie universe (named the Askewniverse, after his production company View Askew), which is typically done through the inclusion of his most famous character duo of Jay and Silent Bob — the latter of which is played by the director himself. However, even die-hard fans might not know just how closely related Smith’s first film, Clerks, and his beloved follow-up Mallrats actually are. Believe it or not, Mallrats actually takes place the day before the events depicted in Clerks. Interestingly, the involvement of Jay and Silent Bob aren’t the only tie-ins between Clerks and Mallrats — there is also a reference to future film Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back in the epilogue, in which it states the two characters would eventually come to own an orangutan.
Release Date: 1995
Director: Kevin Smith
Length: 1H 34M
Originally released in 2001, Monsters Inc. was a clever and heartwarming spin on the classic monster-under-my-bed story that helped solidify Pixar as an animated movie mainstay — and was actually only the 4th film created by the company. And while the concept itself required no revision or revisitation, the filmmakers decided to do a follow-up anyhow — in the form of Monsters University. This flick saw the return of Billy Crystal and John Goodman as Mike and Sully from the first movie but followed them in their younger years, as they tackled the trials and tribulations of collegiate-level schooling and subsequent extracurriculars. While it wasn’t necessary, we’d dare say there are reasons to think that Monsters University is actually superior to its predecessor. At the very least, it’s a star-studded, hilarious, and heartwarming romp through a major part of the monsters’ world that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
Release Date: 2013
Director: Dan Scanlon
Length: 1H 44M
Paranormal Activity 3
The original Paranormal Activity was shot on a shoestring budget by novice filmmakers, yet it ended up becoming a wild success and spawned a massively profitable franchise. Unfortunately, the second movie in the series didn’t quite live up to the promise of the first. However, the filmmakers righted the ship for the third entry, which could certainly be looked at as the 2nd-best of the entire franchise. What’s especially interesting about that is that, chronologically speaking, PA3 is actually the first part of the story and shows the origins of the hauntings present in the other films. Like its predecessors, it was wildly successful and actually set a record for the highest-grossing midnight release of a horror film and the best first day of sales therein. It also offered a satisfying explanation for how things came to be in the preceding films and will likely go down as one of the best found-footage-style horror movies ever made.
Release Date: 2011
Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Length: 1H 23M
Ridley Scott will go down in the annals of film history as one of the most influential directors of all time, thanks largely to the fact that he helmed Alien — one of the most iconic sci-fi horror films of all time. And while he’s expanded his filmmaking prowess far beyond the reach of that franchise, he’s also returned to it several times — most notably in the prequel Prometheus. Completely loaded to the gills with onscreen talent — including (but not limited to) Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, and Charlize Theron — this movie follows a scientific crew trying to trace the origins of humanity. Unfortunately for them, they end up on a harsh alien world marked by ancient structures and artifacts put there by the race of beings responsible for the creation of the Xenomorphs (the blacked-out, H.R. Geiger-designed monsters from the original series). As you might imagine, things don’t really work out. However, if you want to know what, exactly, goes wrong, you’ll want to watch Prometheus for yourself.
Release Date: 2012
Director: Ridley Scott
Length: 2H 4M
Silence of the Lambs
Hannibal Lecter will undoubtedly go down in movie history as one of the most sinister and disturbing characters of all time, despite the fact that he’s spent the majority of his big-screen time behind bars. However, his savagery and insanity are also rivaled by the murderers he’s tasked with helping catch — especially The Tooth Fairy, AKA Francis Dolarhyde, as played by Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon. Interestingly, this movie actually takes place in the time before Silence of the Lambs and functions as an ad-hoc remake/reboot of Manhunter, which was originally released in 1986 and starred Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter, rather than Anthony Hopkins. While SotL has all of the pop-culture clout (thanks largely to the iconic Buffalo Bill and the infamous lotion scene), we’d go so far as to say that the occurrences and the overall story in Red Dragon are both more interesting and much more disturbing — but we’ll leave the final judgment up to you, the viewer.
Release Date: 2002
Director: Brett Ratner
Length: 2H 4M
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes
Prior to the release of this 2011 film, there were actually six preexisting Planet of the Apes movies — including Tim Burton’s much-maligned reboot from 2001, which was intended to relaunch the series. However, when Burton’s take tanked, the studio moved on and, eventually, settled on this prequel/origin film starring James Franco as a pharmaceutical chemist who accidentally develops a drug that can increase the intelligence of primates — namely a chimp called Caesar (masterfully played by Andy Serkis who, by all measure, should have gotten an Oscar for his performance). As the chimp’s intelligence increases, so does his sentience — resulting in an awareness of his captivity, along with the captivity of the other primates within Franco’s scientific facility. As you might imagine, this leads to conflict and, eventually, a large-scale escape plan put together by Caesar. Even going in blind with no awareness of the original series, this prequel is worth a watch, if only for Serkis’s mastery of motion-capture acting.
Release Date: 2011
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Length: 1H 45M
For theater audiences, Rogue One marked the very first time a major Star Wars film didn’t center directly on the Skywalker family. And while it didn’t actually divert too far from the main storylines tackled throughout the series, it did offer a fresh take on a universe that too frequently focuses on a very small, select gallery of characters. As it turns out, that ended up being a pretty solid approach, as this movie benefitted from a warm critical reception, which was matched by audience scores. Perhaps even more interesting, this prequel — which ends just moments before the beginning of A New Hope — actually grossed over a billion dollars in total, which was even more than The Phantom Menace (not accounting for inflation). It also spawned a television show that is presently in production and functions roughly as a prequel to this prequel, focused on the origin of Cassian Andor — played by Diego Luna.
Release Date: 2016
Director: Gareth Edwards
Length: 2H 13M
Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace
Saying that the prequel Star Wars films are divisive is kind of like saying that the sky is blue. Yes, on a surface level that very much may be observable, but there’s also a lot more to it just under the surface. For instance: the critical reception (and the comparable viewer reviews) were middling pretty much across the board. That being said, the film also still made a marvelous $924.3 million at the box office — which adjusts to well over $1 billion when considering inflation. It also gave audiences the first-ever look at the childhood and origin story of one of the most iconic movie villains of all time (Darth Vader), showed a completely different (read: prosperous) side of the beloved Star Wars universe, and introduced some characters that would go on to become longtime fan favorites — including the likes of Qui Gon Jinn and Darth Maul — and help shape the future of the franchise to this day.
Release Date: 1999
Director: George Lucas
Length: 2H 16M
X-Men: First Class
While it could be argued that the original X-Men films from the 2000s were the original big-ticket superhero blockbusters, they largely left fans of the comic franchise feeling ignored and like the filmmakers didn’t actually care much for the source material. That ship was rightest, however, by the prequel-reboot that was X-Men: First Class. Technically the fifth film in the franchise, this story actually predates the events of all four other films and follows the inaugural class of Professor Xavier’s mutant school. There is a bit of confusingly clever retconning with working this entry into the overall series, but this Matthew Vaughn-directed prequel was a breath of fresh air for fans of Marvel’s famous mutant-focused series. If only they could have kept that trend going after Days of Future Past.
Release Date: 2011
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Length: 2H 11M
The 30 Most-Anticipated Movies Of 2021
All of the movies on the above list are at least a couple of years old. However, if you’re on the hunt for new and upcoming releases, you’ll find a slew of exceptional ones to look forward to on our list of the most-anticipated movies of 2021.
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