Fear the Walking Dead, Rogue One, and why Hollywood makes prequels
Fear the Walking Dead is not a spin-off of The Walking Dead. Believe me, I know. When I interviewed the cast of AMC’s new zombie show last month at Comic-Con, I made the mistake of describing Fear the Walking Dead as a “spin-off” of the popular series with which it shares a network, a creative team, a fictional world, and most of its title. Watch at 0:11 in this video as star Elizabeth Rodriguez gives me the finger wag of doom.
“Spin-off” is a bad word right now, even though/almost certainly because so much of right now’s pop culture is spun off from something. There are dopey cop show spin-offs and prestige-cult drama spin-offs and X-Men spin-offs and Harry Potter spin-offs and Dick Wolf’s Chicago-verse. Hollywood has gotten more thesaurus-y in pitching these projects: companion series, expansion, reimagining, “palate cleanser.” And doesn’t “spin-off” sound wrong, classless, shamefully capitalistic? But we shouldn’t kid ourselves: The de facto Hollywood playbook right now is The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase, except now it’s The Simpsons Cinematic Universe.
Do you like The Walking Dead? I’m not quite sure what you’ll think of Fear the Walking Dead. At Comic-Con, Greg Nicotero explicitly drew a line between the two shows. “Walking Dead has these bigger-than-life characters: Rick, Daryl. What’s great about [Fear the Walking Dead] is that they’re every-day people.” He’s talking about Rick Grimes, the raving ex-Sheriff with the Dirty Harry gun who grew a Viking beard and usually spends at least two episodes per half-season covered in somebody else’s blood. And Daryl Dixon, the biker-hunter virgin-whore who wears an angel-wing leather vest and carries an infinite-ammo crossbow. But he could also be talking about the samurai lady who rocks bandana dreadlocks. Or the abused housewife-turned-sniper badass who totally Of Mice and Men‘d an adorable little blond psychopath girl. Or the army vet with a red handlebar mustache who’s named after two presidents. Or Carl.
But those characters weren’t always bigger than life. Initial showrunner Frank Darabont’s angle on Dead was slow-paced, character-centric, prone to long conversations about things that didn’t have much to do with the zombie apocalypse. It was only after Darabont’s departure that the show started leaning in to its baser instincts. The walker death count went up, up, up; everyone’s hair got long, long, long; everyone boring got dead, dead, dead.
I guess some people miss the earlier Dead, or miss the idea Darabont had of a complex emotional spectrum playing out across the post-apocalyptic landscape. But I prefer The Walking Dead as a nihilist soap opera, with action-figure characters trapped in a downward cycle of Southern-boy god-cults and reanimated bodies decomsploding into red CGI gore. The show has become so unabashed. The “story” feels like a series of of hashtag-baiting moments surrounded by slow, quiet, intensely atmospheric shots of dirty people walking down backroads covered in leaves. Last winter’s brilliant half season sent all remaining characters into bottle-episode mini-arcs, which played out like forest fable variations of The Things They Carried. Lots of shows now feature characters who make morally ambiguous decisions. But part of the fun of loving The Walking Dead is how everyone involved in the show — the people making it and the people watching it — find it utterly hilarious that Rick Grimes is completely insane. Or maybe that’s just me. Enough people watch The Walking Dead that you can’t generalize too widely. I’m from the fanbase that loves the show’s indulgent side; I think my favorite episode is still the season 3 premiere, with that long wordless prologue of the Grimes gang Metal Gear Solid-ing their way through a zombie house, and the war-of-attrition brutal push through the prison yard, and the cliffhanger hatchet-to-leg amputation.
My own inclination for a “companion series” would be toward a show that pushes that version of The Walking Dead to some logical extreme. Maybe a show set in the future, 40 or 50 years post-Dead, or maybe even longer — deep enough into the post-apocalypse that the original show’s characters have entered into myth, and all the little Carls have become patriarchs of war-torn mini-societies, struggling to live in a world made of death.
Fear the Walking Dead goes the precise opposite route. It begins before the apocalypse, in a definition-of-average corner of modern American society. A woman and a man live together, struggle with the things that so many women and men struggle with now. They’re both divorced. They have teenaged kids who all are mildly problematic in their own way. (Daughter is smart and bored; son No. 1 is angry and politically motivated; son No. 2 is a drug addict doing an extended James Franco impression.)
The first time we meet Madison and Travis, he’s trying to fix the sink. When he does, he proudly announces that they just saved a couple hundred dollars on a plumber — and you get the vibe that a couple hundred dollars means a lot to them. They both work at a public school, the TV-job symbol for “noble striver,” and the easiest way for TV writers to make intellectual characters seem blue-collar.
Kim Dickens plays Madison, and Cliff Curtis plays Travis. These are two great actors who deserve a hit TV show, to the extent that deserve’s got anything to do with it. Dickens had minor or major roles in Deadwood, Friday Night Lights, Lost, Sons of Anarchy, Treme, and House of Cards: What a swath to cut across a whole age of television! Curtis has been low-key great in action movies and short-lived dramas; he should’ve become a star with Trauma, where he simultaneously played Tom Cruise in Top Gun and Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July.
They are, in short, precisely the kind of actors who seem right for what Fear the Walking Dead wants to be. There’s a scene in episode 2 where Dickens has to kill a zombie, and she looks believably terrified about what she’s doing. (She’s also believably terrible at killing zombies.) Fear appears to be adopting the day-per-episode model of TV time, which means the descent into apocalypse will happen very, very gradually in this short first season. That means we get a lot of moments of Cliff Curtis — playing a wholly believable human being — being completely and utterly and realistically confused about what is happening around him.
The problem, I think, is that nobody watching this show is confused. Fear the Walking Dead knows you know what kind of show you’re watching. It even indulges in a few joke-scare moments. Madison walks into the principal’s office… and sees the principal hunched over, breathing hard… and he doesn’t respond when she says his name… and she walks up to him… AND HE TURNS… and he’s still human, whew. The show is constructed entirely around the idea that you, the audience, will bring your knowledge of the drama to come to whatever is happening onscreen.
The show can talk about striking out in a new direction — but by going back to “the beginning,” the show explicitly promises you that it’s going in the same basic direction. I like how Fear portrays the slow spreading dread via news reports and viral videos. But there’s a moment when a few high school girls are watching a viral video of a man who doesn’t die, no matter how many times the cops shoot him. Onscreen, the cops shoot the man in the head, and he falls over. “This here’s the new real,” says one girl. “Killshot, bitch.” It’s such a violation of whatever reality the show is trying to create. The subtext of that scene is: “You know that zombies only die from headwounds, and now our characters know that, too.”
Fear the Walking Dead is a reminder of what made The Walking Dead so revolutionary, both in the original graphic novel and in the TV show. When Rick Grimes wakes up in that hospital, he is essentially arriving late to a zombie movie: His story begins where most zombie stories usually end. So even though Fear the Walking Dead is admirably very different from its mother-show, it’s also a more recognizable version of the zombie legend.
I’m hopeful for the series. It has good actors, an interesting setting, an already-greenlit second season. Maybe all shows move slower now, because people will binge it eventually. The Walking Dead begins with a character getting injured, waking up in a hospital, and leaving the hospital. Fear the Walking Dead begins with a character getting injured, waking up in a hospital, and then staying in the hospital for two-thirds of the pilot episode. It’s an example of narrative decompression. And it feels, in a way, faintly nostalgic. What if you could go back and watch The Walking Dead again, for the very first time? And what if it lasted twice as long? Wouldn’t that make it twice as good?
If nobody prefers to call Fear the Walking Dead a spin-off, they definitely wouldn’t call it a prequel. I’m not sure “prequel” is a bad word, per se, but it’s not a good word, either. Filmmakers love the word “reboot,” which implies a healthy mix of old and new, or “remix,” which implies old stuff you love plus hip Skrillex millennial whatever. If you call something a “prequel,” someone who loves that thing will explain how it isn’t really a prequel. Casino Royale isn’t a prequel, because it’s not set in the same universe as other James Bond movies. The Hobbit isn’t a prequel trilogy, because the book was written first. Prometheus isn’t a prequel, because it’s on a different planet and the Engineers aren’t Xenomorphs and the impregnatory rapemonster in Prometheus is a different species from the impregnatory rapemonster in Alien.
But it doesn’t take much creativity to argue that the whole idea of the prequel is central to what Hollywood has become. After Star Wars, there was Batman Begins, which promised to set a new path for a franchise by going back to the beginning. In a weird way, you could argue that both Begins and The Dark Knight are “prequels” to the Batman myth everyone knows: At the end of Dark Knight, the Joker’s final speech is basically a promise that they will spend the rest of their lives fighting each other, like Batman and the Joker always have in everything else.
So many other major franchises have followed that same track. The stories might be “new,” but they’re always pointing backwards to a familiar status quo. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek tells the origin story of the original Enterprise, and Star Trek Into Darkness tees them up for a five-year mission — a mission that had already begun the first time we met Kirk and Spock 50 years ago. Before Abrams, the franchise was already turning backwards; the shortlived series Star Trek: Enterprise pitched itself as the origin story for the whole Trek idea. And after three films, Daniel Craig’s James Bond has arrived back at the Sean Connery status quo: Moneypenny, Q, M as a man.
If the Amazing Spider-Man series had lasted for another movie, Amazing 3 would have picked up roughly around the one-hour mark of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man, with a college-aged Peter Parker living in Manhattan and dating some redhaired somebody. The new Godzilla movie is set in a world where nobody has ever heard about Godzilla — which makes it a spiritual prequel, insofar as almost every Godzilla movie since Godzilla Raids Again is set in a world where everyone only talks about Godzilla all of the time. The original screenwriters of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy constructed the films as the origin myth of the first movie; in their mind, at least, the Andy Serkis films should end with Charlton Heston crashlanding on far-future Earth. The new Fantastic Four movie ends at the moment right before the Fantastic Four calls themselves “The Fantastic Four” for the first time.
And for all the talk about how J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first, Peter Jackson explicitly reconstructed that story as the lead-up to Lord of the Rings. In the single least successful scene in all six of his Middle-Earth movies, Sauron shows up in his Noob Saibot form, and Galadriel uses her Scarlet Witch powers to send him back to Mordor, and then Saruman turns to the camera and says “I’ll go deal with him!” and apparently none of the great brilliant leaders of Middle-Earth ever once ask Saruman in the ensuing 60 years how that whole “deal with the most powerful evil being since Morgoth” plan turned out. That scene only really makes sense as a wink forward to The Fellowship of the Ring: Indeed, you could argue that that scene is the most important thing that happens in the whole prequel trilogy, insofar as it sets up the Saruman-Sauron alliance.
There are two interesting questions about these movies, all of which made at least a decent amount of money. Why do we watch them? And why do so many filmmakers want to make them?
The first answer is simple, I think. Who doesn’t want to watch something they love, again, for the first time? And part of the promise at the core of these movies is that this version of the story will be even better. It will reveal new corners of history you didn’t know. (Before Mary Jane, there was Gwen Stacy.) Or it will cast everything you do know in a new light. (James Bond is a womanizer because the love of his life was a traitor-Judas heartbreaker.) Or maybe it will just take everything you know and make it bigger, crazier, more intense, cooler. Certainly, that was the pitch on The Hobbit — “We know you loved the book, but what if the book had a one-armed orc?” — and that was the fundamental operating aesthetic of Man of Steel, the Superman movie for destruction-heads. Imagine: The Walking Dead, but with better characters, and rioting, and, and, and…like, zombies on the beach!
Post-Wikipedia, post-Comic-Con, post-meme-ification of everything, the most casual fan of something now is usually, on some level, a connoisseur. And so there is a sense, on the audience side, that new things in a franchise need to line up perfectly with old things in a franchise. And most people are just casual connoisseurs. So the new Superman movie grabs the villain from Superman 2, and the new Star Trek movie grabs the villain from Star Trek 2. Yes, the filmmakers theoretically have deep, wide histories of sub-mythologies they could grab from instead, but they also know that most people haven’t heard of Braniac, and most people don’t know who Gary Mitchell is.
“Why do filmmakers make these movies?” is the more interesting question, I think. For some young directors, it’s a way to indulge your original inspirations while also take ownership of those inspirations. Any director working on a franchise needs to pitch him or herself as a humble curator, but when you make a prequel, you’re also establishing yourself as the god-complex creator. (Which is fine; all artists have a god complex, directors maybe most of all.) Gene Roddenberry never felt the need to explain where Kirk came from; for someone like JJ Abrams, “where Kirk came from” becomes the entire point of the story. It’s a way to take ownership of the material: “We’re not changing the characters, but we are creating their origin.”
So there is, at the core of all these prequels, a weird loop-around of narrative. The audience wants to be young again, and experience old things in a new way. The filmmakers are nostalgic for what they loved when they were young — and perhaps there is the fundamental awareness that “what they loved” was popular, and they want to be popular, too. This is why, to me, the most interesting prequels are not just creation myths — they feel like fables about creation, a kind of fictional retelling of whatever inspired the original work.
That’s true of Bryan Singer’s rebooted X-Men trilogy. Days of Future Past is an explicit portrait of the X-Men from the ruined future traveling back to a glorious past in an effort to erase all the bad X-Men movies from existence. Before Days of Future Past, Singer had a 10-year run of box office disappointments with Superman Returns and Valkyrie and Jack the Giant Slayer. So the moment in Future Past when Patrick Stewart talks to James McAvoy feels uncannily personal in the context of a kamillion-dollar blockbuster film: An old man talks to his younger self, begging him to believe.
Days of Future Past made more money than the other X-Men movies, which brings up the other psychological reason for prequel-izing. It’s so hard to make something successful. Wouldn’t it be great to just take your old success, and make it again? So of course AMC has become the network of prequels. No other provider of TV content has had a more rapid rise-and-fall narrative. It was the media’s favorite child and then the media’s whipping boy; the network of Mad Men and Breaking Bad that became the network of The Killing and Low Winter Sun.
The fact that AMC has also become ludicrously financially stable thanks to The Walking Dead only makes that narrative sting more. (The paradoxical mind of the financially successful but critically unsuccessful: “Everyone loves us; why doesn’t everyone love us?”) So they greenlight Better Call Saul, a show about a basically nice guy who is trying not to break bad even though we all know eventually he’ll break bad in Breaking Bad, and Fear the Walking Dead, a show that returns AMC to the initial moment of its greatest triumph.
Days of Future Past is a fun movie. Prometheus is a slog, and utterly fascinating. It’s a return by a great filmmaker to one of the first films of his career. It’s an attempt to transform a new film out of literal detritus from that first film. Prometheus is not based on Alien; it is based on a single piece of furniture from Alien. And the core weirdness of Prometheus is how it turns an alien skeleton into an explicit God creature: the “Engineer.” In this context, the Engineer is Scott’s version of a filmmaker, the architect who creates a world out of base elements. There’s something mildly reactionary about the movie; the central argument seems to be that the alien was the least interesting part of Alien. Nobody who saw Alien would ever think that. But we didn’t make Alien. And maybe the maker of Alien has spent years wishing he could have done something different; maybe that’s why, when they wake up the Engineer in Prometheus, it lashes out on a mission of planetary genocide. The Engineers want to destroy Earth and start over; Ridley Scott wanted to make an Alien movie without an alien.
Prequels are exercises in navel-gazing. When they’re made by the same people who made the original work — Lucas, Jackson, Scott, Singer — you can feel a mild anxiety. It is hard to tell new stories, and maybe a bit scary to think about taking your characters in new directions. Far safer to explore what happened before we met them. And in this age where everyone always freaks out about any new plot turn in a franchise film, it’s also the safe choice for avoiding fan rage. No one will ever kill Ripley in a movie again; much safer to create a Ripley-ish character, who does lots of Ripley-ish things, but who lived so long before Ripley that nothing she will do will ever impact the holy mythology.
Prequels are safe, really. Which is why so many of them feel ultimately disappointing. These are monuments to wheel-spinning, to making you interesting in everything besides the story you already know. They aren’t pointing toward anything new. And there are disappointingly few popular prequels that take any chances, that dare to shift your perspective on the story you already know. You yearn for Wicked, which argued that the Wicked Witch was a morally ambiguous protagonist living in a world vastly complicated and political and emotional than you thought. Hollywood gave us Oz the Great and Powerful instead, a movie which argues that the Wicked Witch was, f’real, a crazy jealous bitch. The closest we have to Wicked is probably Hannibal, which honors the plot points of Thomas Harris’ books but throws in infinite emotional complications.
This moment we’re in began in 1999, with Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. So it may be ending this year, with Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens. The mere act of continuing the Star Wars story feels daring. And whether the movie is good or bad, it will fundamentally say something new about the universe, if only because the original characters are old enough for regrets. And although next year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is apparently set in the early days of Henry Cavill’s Superman, it’s also explicitly a latter-day look at Batman as a middle-aged crimefighter, struggling with the possibility that his war on crime is a failure. (My early working theory is that Batman v Superman is a parallel sequel to The Dark Knight: The Jaws 4 to Dark Knight Rises‘ Jaws 3.)
Or maybe this moment will never end. Because while Disney announced a new line of Star Wars sequels, it’s also rolling out a new line of Star Wars prequels-by-any-other-name. Rogue One promises to pull a Prometheus and zero in on a throwaway plot element from the original movie: the plot to steal the Death Star plans. This could be interesting. I like the idea of a big space action movie about the high-tension thrills of intelligence acquisition.
But it’s another fable of creation, a story about the story behind the story. Which is fine. But sometimes you know that the zombies are coming, and the creators know the zombies are coming. And so you wait for the zombies to come, so the actual story can begin.
Agree? Disagree? Want to talk about how The Silmarillion is awesome? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll respond in next week’s Geekly Mailbag.