Why Hopeful Prequels To Dark Stories Still Matter

Why Hopeful Prequels To Dark Stories Still Matter

After I started recommending The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance to anyone I possibly could, two questions kept cropping up. The first was “Do I have to watch (or re-watch) the movie to understand it?”, but it’s the second that fascinated me the most: “What’s the point of investing in these characters knowing they’re doomed to fail?”

Because, yes, Age of Resistance is, as the title implies, a story of resistance, of the Gelfling clans uniting to overthrow the world of Thra’s corrupt overlords, the Skeksis. Except, it’s set many, many years before the events of The Dark Crystal, which — spoilers but not really, but I guess it does answer the other question — almost immediately tells the audience that not only do the Skeksis still rule Thra, but that the Gelflings were wiped out almost entirely, save for the movie’s two protagonists, Jen and Kira.

Brea, Deet and Rian, the heroes of Age of Resistance? Even little Hup the Podling Paladin, their adorable friend? They failed. They’re dead. Their resistance doesn’t work.

On the surface, this is a depressing realisation to make, especially as you fall in love with these characters and believe in their plight over the course of watching the new show. Depressing enough for some that, as people asked, why should they even bother investing in the first place? But to me, that’s kind of the point of it all, and why a prequel about hope in a time of darkness is much more satisfying for my soul than a tale of tragic inevitability is these days.

That we know these characters will fail is not important in the context. The point is that they don’t have that foresight. They see that the odds are overwhelming — when Rian and his allies ultimately rise up against the Skeksis and face them in combat during the climax of the series, they very quickly realise just how hard the battle to come is going to be, and how many of them might not make it. And yet, they resist, they persist, regardless of that fact.

What point is there to resistance without the threat of failure to overcome in the first place? It’s there that hope shines brightest, and at its most beautiful. The ultimate thesis by the end of Age of Resistance isn’t that it’s sad that these characters will fail. It’s that we should take solace in the glimmer of hope that they have achieved, ahead of a fight still to come, and used it to carry on fighting in the face of a dire fate.

In an age of prequels and cyclical sequels, it’s an idea we’re starting to see a lot of in our pop culture.

It’s actually something that Steven Universe: The Movie just championed.

Set several years after the most recent events of the show in a “happily ever after” scenario, Steven ultimately realises that — after confronting a new villain — not only is his ability to acknowledge change and growth as vital a superpower as his Crystal Gem abilities, but that state of victorious hope, that happily ever after, is not a state to exist in but one that must perpetually be chased for it to feel earned in the first place.

From one series about space jewels to another, it’s an idea that has come to define Star Wars, both meta-textually and within its narrative. It can be frustrating at times that the Star Wars sequels are dredging up the plot beats of the franchise’s past with a shiny lick of paint — a new war to fight, a new empire to rise, a new rebellion to defeat them — from a thematic perspective.

But there’s something to be said about the power of facing such a despair-laden realisation that some fights have no end, with the idea that the realisation doesn’t make the decision to fight pointless.

If anything, it makes the pan-generational legacy of Star Wars’ themes of hope and resistance that much more enduring. After all, by having a movie like The Last Jedi pointing its criticisms of that cycle of failed resistances directly at the establishments that perpetuate it in the first place (and saying that lasting change can only be brought about by radically overhauling those establishments, or getting rid of them altogether), its message of hope becomes much more nuanced and subversive than simply Dark vs. Light.

But we’re also seeing it reflected inversely — and how the idea of a hero’s deserved rest can come across as incredibly selfish instead of an earned reward.

Take Captain America’s arc in Avengers: Endgame for example, still inspiring frenzied debate (among fans and among the team behind Endgame’s story, who seemingly cannot come to a solid agreement on the actual mechanics of the film’s paradoxical take on time travel and alternate realities) months after the movie released.

On the surface, Steve’s happily ever after with Peggy is a reward, his decision to leave the fight he has burdened for so long to have time to himself.

Upon the realisation that it requires Steve sitting out on myriad injustices in his own parallel reality before returning to close the loop with Sam Wilson, it can read almost like a betrayal. A character defined by his steadfast hope and persistence — the man who triumphantly stands back up and says “I could do this all day” — specifically choosing to peace out of said fight, for the sake of another timeline, and his own desires.

Instead of continuing to fight the good fight with the chance the Infinity Stones give him — with the context of knowing that it ultimately all has to culminate with one of his closest friends sacrificing his life — he leaves it up to someone else. A thought far more depressing than the fact that all our Gelfling heroes in Age of Resistance are dead and buried by the time of the movie.

In the end, however, it all comes back to that idea of having hope even if we know at some point down the line there will be losses — existential, spiritual, or otherwise (arguably all three in the case of Dark Crystal, considering the Gelfling believe that in death they are returned to Thra’s life essence). It’s not knowing that it will pay off that really matters; it’s about having hope in the first place, and acting upon it without knowing if it will.

It’s a message we could all do with in our own lives, every now and then — a reminder that it’s a brave choice to persist in the face of the unknown, in spite of hardship and strife. There’s no better message we can ask of our stories than to inspire a little hope of our own.