All the Young Dudes: Solo and the Plight of the Prequel
How do young versions of iconic movie characters measure up to the originals?
Harrison Ford (left), Alden Ehrenreich (right)
Ever since Solo: A Star Wars Story went into production, there’s been one question burning up the internet: How will Joonas Suotamo’s Chewbacca live up to Peter Mayhew’s? (Also, there was apparently a little bit of concern about this Alden Ehrenreich guy.)
All this chatter got us thinking: How many movies are there that feature young versions of iconic characters — and thus new actors attempting to emulate the stars who had become identified (and sometimes synonymous) with those characters? As we plunged into cinema history, we found that the list of young versions of iconic characters was surprisingly short — that is, once we’d established the ground rules of our search.
Firstly, the iconic character needs to actually be iconic. Plenty of films have featured young and old versions of the same characters, but a truly iconic character needs to (a) have appeared in at least one film prior to the introduction of the young version, and (b) have captured the pop-cultural imagination in some way, thus putting the onus on the young version to live up to that mighty example.
Secondly, the young version has to exist within the same story world as the iconic character. There must be a clear (fictional) biological continuity between the iconic character and its corresponding young version. This eliminates straight-up replacements or wholesale franchise reboots from contention (your Bonds, Batmen, Hulkses, etc.), as well as the many iterations of such public-domain characters as Robin Hood, King Arthur, the Three Musketeers, Sherlock Holmes, etc.
As you’ll see from the results of our investigation below, these seemingly clearcut rules nevertheless led us into some perplexing ontological conundrums. And it also led us to the discovery that — at least as far as our initial findings indicate — the iconic characters in film history who merited young versions are almost exclusively (a) male, and (b) Caucasian. (Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian might be the first POC example to date.) Draw what larger socio-cultural conclusions you will from that — and if you find any examples that disprove those findings, let us know!
Steve McQueen as Nevada Smith, Nevada Smith (1966)
The Original: Alan Ladd, The Carpetbaggers (1964)
Barring further intensive research, this is the earliest example our intrepid team could uncover of a younger, prequel-version incarnation of an established character. Shane star Alan Ladd had his last role as Nevada Smith, an Old West gunslinger turned Hollywood cowboy hero, in Paramount Pictures’ lavish adaptation of Harold Robbins’ bestseller The Carpetbaggers. This unabashedly trashy potboiler was so successful that Paramount decided to give Nevada (a supporting character in the first film) his own spin-off — though unlike Solo, the studio here was clearly banking less on the character’s name value than on leading man McQueen, whose ’60s stardom was approaching its peak. (He would receive an Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles the same year, and two years later starred in the blockbuster Bullitt.)
Directed by old hand Henry Hathaway, Nevada Smith is a handsome if fairly standard-issue revenge western, with the half-Indigenous hero tracking down the men who murdered his parents and meeting up with the father of future Carpetbaggers protagonist Jonas Cord (played by George Peppard in the ’64 film). If the film has left any legacy, it’s the middle-tier iconic image of a shirtless McQueen shouldering his rifle in a Jesus Christ pose, staring at us like we need to be saved.
Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone, The Godfather Part II (1974)
The Original: Marlon Brando, The Godfather (1972)
Robert De Niro’s name and face are now so linked to Godfather lore that it’s easy to forget that, at the time, fate seemed set against the rising young actor ever being a part of this most hallowed of movie franchises. De Niro had auditioned for the role of Sonny Corleone on the first film, losing out to James Caan, and he then passed up a smaller part in the film in order to take a more prominent part in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight — a part that Al Pacino had vacated when he landed the plum role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, which made him an overnight star. By contrast, De Niro was still a largely unknown quantity, despite critical acclaim for his performances in Bang the Drum Slowly and Mean Streets. But thanks to director Francis Coppola’s greatly increased clout with Paramount following the blockbuster success of the first Godfather, De Niro was cast in the central role of the young Vito Corleone in Part II — not only laudably filling the sizable shoes of his Oscar-winning predecessor Marlon Brando, but scoring his own Oscar in the process (making him and Brando the only two actors ever to win Oscars for portraying the same character).
De Niro auditioning for the role of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather
The Godfather Part II is, of course, the rare example of a prequel rolled into a sequel, with the De Niro-starring flashback scenes (set in post-WWI New York) alternating with a late-1950s narrative featuring Pacino reprising his role as Michael Corleone. (De Niro and Pacino never appear onscreen together — and wouldn’t until Michael Mann’s Heat in 1995.) Speaking almost all his (minimal) dialogue in Sicilian — which the one-quarter Italian-American actor spent months learning for the role — De Niro creates a canny rendition rather than an imitation of his model, offering a more animated version of Brando’s stone-faced old Don. (For all his vaunted naturalism, De Niro’s channelling of Brando’s Corleone was almost scientific: to prepare, he got his hands on a primitive video camera, taped Brando’s Godfather scenes from a theatre screen, and then studied them intensively.)
As the film progresses, the famous distinguishing characteristics take shape before our eyes: the tilting head, slightly jutting jaw, and contemplative stare exuding a building confidence, wisdom, and rigid code of honour, even as poverty and pernicious neighbourhood corruption conspire to turn the honest, hardworking young immigrant father into a triggerman and eventual crime chieftain. It’s a fine-tuned exercise in foreshadowing, capped by the most explicit callback (or, rather, call-forward) to the original film, when De Niro’s Vito says, in reference to a heavy-handed local mob boss, “I make him an offer he don’ refuse” — predicting, with studiedly unpolished diction, Brando’s most famous Godfather catchphrase.
Tom Berenger as Butch Cassidy, William Katt as the Sundance Kid, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979)
The Originals: Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Perhaps the best that can be said of this patently unnecessary prequel was that Tom Berenger (then “hot” after playing one of Diane Keaton’s hook-ups in the hit Looking for Mr. Goodbar) and William Katt (a Redford lookalike who had previously played Sissy Spacek’s dreamboat prom date in Carrie) were less inexplicable replacements for the dreamy duo of Newman and Redford than were Jackie Gleason (Newman’s one-time Hustler antagonist) and Mac Davis in The Sting II four years later. As Roger Ebert wrote at the time of the film’s release, “If events of crucial interest had really happened to Butch and Sundance in the early days, either (a) they would have been included in the original movie, or (b) the present film would not have waited so easily for ten years to be made.” (Regardless, just enjoy the movie — it has Tom Berenger in it.)
The one point of potential interest here is the studio’s choice for the film’s director: Richard Lester, who had helmed the first Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 and whose subsequent The Knack, How I Won the War and Petulia had some critics claiming him as a kind of Anglo-American answer to the French nouvelle vague. By the 1970s, however, he had settled down into being a more-or-less straightforward commercial director with a penchant for superficial genre revisionism: e.g., his lightly spoofy takes on the Dumas classic in The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Four Musketeers, and his depressingly dour rendering of the Robin Hood legend in Robin and Marian, which criminally wastes its star duo of Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as aged versions of the outlaw lovers.
By the time he came to Butch and Sundance, however, it was clear that Lester was just jobbing it: he freely admitted he hadn’t seen the first movie, didn’t overly care for westerns to begin with, and that as far as he was concerned he was making “a Victorian adventure.” Shortly thereafter he signed on for another mercenary task: replacing Richard Donner on Superman II after the director had departed the production under duress, depending on whose story you believe. (Lest you think we’re laying the lash to Lester, may we heartily recommend his surprisingly taut 1975 cruise-liner thriller Juggernaut.)
River Phoenix as Henry Jones, Jr., Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
The Original: Harrison Ford, Raiders of the Lost Ark – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (1981–2008)
Harrison Ford’s first “farewell” to the whip-cracking archaeologist-adventurer famously opens with a prologue set in 1912 New Mexico, where the teenage Indy — played by the ill-fated star-in-the-making River Phoenix, who, three years previously, had been Ford’s onscreen son in The Mosquito Coast — runs across a band of unscrupulous grave robbers who have unearthed the golden cross of Coronado. Determined to donate the priceless artifact to the museum, our young hero swipes it from the dastards and leads them on a merry chase through and on top of a circus train, in the course of which he acquires his trademark bullwhip, chin scar, and ophidophobia (thank you, Google).
While the film here goes out of its way here to point out the continuity between Phoenix’s and Ford’s incarnations of Indy, the play with doubling in this opening sequence is rather more intricate. To begin with, Phoenix, complete with avant-Leo floppy bangs and willowy Teen Beat physique, resembles Ford in neither bearing nor manner. (Certainly not as much as this guy.) But the fact that the young actor is quite consciously not playing Ford is balanced by the other actor in the sequence who is: bit player Richard Young, who as the leader of the thieves sports Ford’s fedora, leather jacket, stubble and gravelly voice.
The implication, of course, is that this is a variant version of Indy: a vision of what he might be absent his moral compass and flexible but still firm principles. The conclusion of the sequence, therefore — in which the wryly admiring “Fedora” endows Phoenix’s plucky whippersnapper with that signature chapeau — is not so much the crystallization of a destiny than a fusion, a nexus of possibilities that managed to produce the hero we know and love. Movie ontology is heady stuff, man.
Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars Episodes I–III (1999–2005)
The Original: Alec Guinness, Star Wars – Return of the Jedi (1977–1983)
Just off the heroin boil of Trainspotting, fresh-faced Ewan McGregor was the defining casting coup of George Lucas’ long-awaited Star Wars prequels — even though his roguish offscreen behaviour made him perhaps more akin to Han Solo than Alec Guinness’ sage, saintly Jedi master Ben Kenobi. (And funny enough, he was already an honourary member of the Star Wars family thanks to his uncle Denis Lawson’s three-peat turn as Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy.) McGregor’s was one of the first faces featured in The Phantom Menace’s gorgeous teaser trailer, and his spot-on emulation of Guinness’ distinctive vocal tones (even when wrapped around such marbly lines as “The boy is dangerous. They all sense it! Why can’t you?”) delighted even the most skeptical of Star Wars devotees, and created the aura of an epochal pop-cultural event about to be revealed to the faithful.
Of course, this rabid fanticipation soon gave way to some of the most virulent backlash in cinema history when the films finally emerged. Those who grew up (new-)hoping that the prequels would focus on a dashing young Kenobi kicking galactic ass while trying (and failing) to train the future Darth Vader outside the auspices of the Jedi Order were proved to be — well, half-right at least. So while McGregor himself is rarely cited as one of the major problems with the second trilogy — among the human performers, Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen bore the bantha’s share of the fan rage — his performance thus also carries with it the acrid whiff of missed potential.
Nevertheless, throughout the trilogy McGregor is game for it in a way that none of his co-stars (save for the deliciously wicked Ian McDiarmid) seem to be. He gives the young Ben a playful, laddish body language that makes his lightsaber fights the best in the trilogy, while dutifully keeping his mien close enough to his model that he maintains the character’s DNA; it almost works, if you ignore the fact that there’s no “there” there in Obi-Wan’s role in this story. Or maybe it ended up working in another way: bolstered by an outstanding (non-McGregor) run in the Star Wars: Clone Wars television series, fan interest in the character of Kenobi has remained high enough that the Scottish actor may yet get a shot at an Obi-Wan solo (not Solo) movie. Ever the Star Wars fan, McGregor seems to be as up for it as he was two decades ago: after all, he’s already reprised the role for a single line in The Force Awakens, and he’s also been recently spotted growing out his beard…
Zachary Quinto as Spock, Star Trek (Kelvin Timeline) (2009–ongoing)
The Original: Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek (Prime Timeline) (1966–1991)
The J.J. Abams-helmed Star Trek and its sequels Into Darkness and Beyond present one of the conceptual grey zones that haunt an exercise such as this. While the recent feature films are commonly referred to as a “reboot” of the venerable sci-fi franchise, the presence (and face-to-face meeting) in the 2009 series-starter of both Zachary Quinto’s and Leonard Nimoy’s Spocks demonstrates that the former is indeed the younger version of the latter — ergo, the Vulcan’s fellow Enterprise crew members are also the junior incarnations of their Original Series counterparts.
As with so much Trek, however, time-tampering muddies the waters. Midway through, it is revealed that the murderous actions of the film’s time-jumping Romulan antagonist (Eric Bana) have produced an alternate reality — which means that the altered origins and natures of the otherwise familiar characters represent not an erasure of the previous franchise but a parallel to it, one which the ever-vigilant editors of the official Star Trek Encyclopedia dubbed the “Kelvin Timeline”, in order to distinguish these splinter Star Treks from their canonical forebears.
What all this arcane world-building means is that (a) the ontological relationship of the Kelvin Trekkers to their Prime Timeline counterparts is thrown into some confusion, and (b) correspondingly, that the ensemble cast of the Kelvin Treks presents a fascinating array of performance styles, with some of the new actors eschewing mimicry of their crusty forebears and some embracing it wholeheartedly. In that first group, Chris Pine as Kirk stays a good parsec away from any Shatner-stylings, while Zoe Saldana and John Cho bear only the most superficial resemblances to Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura and George Takei’s Sulu. In the latter category, Quinto does a pitch-perfect, resolutely Nimoyan Spock, while on the broader side, Simon Pegg (Scotty), Karl Urban (McCoy), and the late Anton Yelchin (Chekhov) exult in the exaggerated verbal mannerisms of their models (them being James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, and Walter Koenig, respectively).
James McAvoy as Professor X, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, X-Men: First Class – X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2011–2019)
The Originals: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, X-Men – X-Men: Days of Future Past (2000–2014)
“Which one? McAvoy or Stewart? These timelines are so confusing,” quips Ryan Reynolds’ mouthy merc in Deadpool, after iron giant Colossus declares that he’s taking the rogue mutant off to see Professor Xavier for a good scolding. In actual fact, the initial introduction of James McAvoy’s pre-cueball Prof and Michael Fassbender’s Master of Magnetism was relatively straightforward: First Class took place approximately three decades before the action of the first X-movie, in which the characters were incarnated by old Shakespearean hands Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen — and the continuity between the past and present versions of the characters was hammered home by the presence of the ageless Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in the 1960s.
As with Trek, though, time travel tends to make things twisty. In Days of Future Past, both the McAvoy/Fassbender and Stewart/McKellen duos are on hand: the former in the 1970s, the latter in a dystopian future where mutants are being systematically hunted down and killed by the virtually invulnerable robots known as Sentinels. Tripping back through time (don’t ask how), Wolverine recruits feuding frenemies Xavier and Magneto to stave off the crucial event that sparked the creation of the Sentinels — which [spoiler alert] he achieves by movie’s end, and returns to a new version of the present wherein characters who had died even earlier in the series (including his beloved Jean Grey, played by Famke Janssen) are now alive and well.
So all’s well that ends well — except that, as with Trek’s diverging timelines, this fiddling with history (perhaps?) makes the younger assorted X-people less the biological forebears of the previous cast than alternate-world offshoots of them. Is Jennifer Lawrence the same Mystique later (earlier) played by Rebecca Romijn? Is Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey a different being than Janssen’s — particularly as she will be playing out a different version of the “Dark Phoenix” storyline previously covered (or ruined) in the Janssen-starring The Last Stand? Will any of these fraught questions and philosophical paradoxes impact the box office of the forthcoming Dark Phoenix? (No, is the answer.)
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit trilogy (2012–2014)
The Original: Ian Holm, The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003)
Following the otherworldly success of the big-screen Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s no surprise that director Peter Jackson and his collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens opted to return to the Tolkien well — particularly as the author’s first excursion to Middle-Earth, The Hobbit, was lying right in front of them like a golden egg on a nest of spun platinum in a coop constructed entirely of diamonds. So when pre-production on the new adaptation began, the only really pressing questions were (a) How long would Jackson & Co. stretch out Tolkien’s less-than-300-page children’s novel for the screen, and (b) Who would play the young Bilbo Baggins, on the heels of Ian Holm’s embodiment of the aged hobbit hero in LOTR?
While the answer to (a), by almost universal consensus, was “way too damn long,” (b) proved to be a happier result, as the British actor once best known as “that guy from The Office” was cast in the title role, to widespread approval from fans and the press. Martin Freeman’s pixie-glam mullet, pre-Rings naïveté, and presumably hairy feet make him the ideal forerunner for Holm’s endearing (yet guarded and slightly sinister) Bilbo the Elder. (That said, it would have been interesting if Jackson had worked his Weta Workshop magic to cobble together a Bilbo performance from footage of a younger, Alien-era Holm — though the fact that the actor spent much of that movie messily decapitated may have mitigated against it.)
Josh Brolin as K, Men in Black 3 (2012)
The Original: Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black 1–3 (1997–2012)
A full 15 years after the first Men in Black, Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) reunited for a third kick at the extraterrestrial-hunting can, with a time-travel twist tacked on for good measure. Said twist occurs when an old enemy of K’s, the Boglodite outlaw Boris the Animal (played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement at his most ruthlessly ridiculous), escapes from a maximum-security space prison and sets out to wreak vengeance on his crusty human nemesis. Voyaging back to 1969, Boris offs K outright — not only altering history as we have known it, but setting the stage for a Boglodite invasion of Earth in the present.
In the “new” 2012, J — who is still somehow a Man in Black despite the events of the first two films being wiped from history — is the only agent who remembers his grouchy partner. Setting out to save both K and the future, J leaps back to the ’60s through a fracture in the space-time continuum (which is helpfully located somewhere between floors one and 77 of the Chrysler Building, though on the considerably less safe side of the windows). When he arrives, he promptly encounters the Nixon-era iteration of his old partner — who is now embodied by Josh Brolin, wearing a perma-scowl and sporting a Southern drawl in such an uncanny impression of TLJ that director Barry Sonnenfeld reportedly wept with joy upon witnessing Brolin’s performance for the first time. In the end, Volume Three offers even more tears, as it ties up J and K’s relationship with an emotional wallop that has absolutely no right to exist in a movie that has a talking dog as one of its main characters.
Below you’ll find four more examples of this rare species, which our research team was unable (or in some cases unwilling) to research in depth:
Mark Addy as Fred, Stephen Baldwin as Barney, Kristen Johnson as Wilma, Jane Krakowski as Betty, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000)
The Originals: John Goodman, Rick Moranis, Elizabeth Perkins, Rosie O’Donnell, The Flintstones (1994)
We’re just not going to get into this one.
Derek Richardson as Harry, Eric Christian Olsen as Lloyd, Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003)
The Originals: Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey, Dumb and Dumber (1994)
This one either.
Gaspard Ulliel as Hannibal Lecter, Hannibal Rising (2007)
The Original: Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs – Red Dragon (1991–2002)
This happened, remember?
Procedural note: Mads Mikkelsen’s take on the good doctor in the TV series Hannibal is not eligible, as that show qualifies as a reboot rather than a prequel. (Same goes for Bates Motel, so don’t try and catch us out on that one either.)
Stellan Skarsgård as Father Lankester Merrin, Exorcist: The Beginning (2004), Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005)
The Original: Max von Sydow, The Exorcist (1973)
The always-game Skarsgård had the distinction of stepping into his countryman Max von Sydow’s demon-hunting shoes not once but twice, when Paul Schrader’s Dominion was unceremoniously scrapped by the studio, only to subsequently gain a release when the Renny Harlin-directed replacement — featuring an almost entirely different cast, save Skarsgård and a couple of supporting players — tanked.