Judd Apatow's This Is 40 is being dubbed as "semi-sequel," a clever buzzword that, when defined in the official Hollywood.com Reboot Glossery, basically boils down to "spin-off." Which is not a bad thing: as Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann have escaped the supporting character confines of Knocked Up to star in their own comedy vehicle, so have many other characters and actors since the beginning of film history.
In anticipation of Hollywood's latest spin-off, we take a look back at where the trend came from and where it's going from here….
The Early Days of Spin-offs
In the turn of the 20th Century, movies were even more episodic than they are today, with serials dominating the theaters. Genres of every kind had films slowly released over time, but rarely did they "spin-off" in the traditional sense. Eventually, silent stars like Fatty Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd would help spin-off newcomers into their own movies. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, not specific characters they played, became franchise lynchpins. Later, Universal's horror movies would become a steady stream of almost-kinda-sorta spin-offs, as was the case with 1936's Dracula's Daughter, which continues the events of the Bela Lugosi 1931 Dracula from the perspective of his next of kin. Spin-off or sequel? In the heyday of cinema, it was murkier territory.
Charters and Caldicott
Was Hitchcock the first to film a true spin-off? Actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne first appeared as their alter egos Charters and Caldicott in the director's 1938 thriller The Lady Vanishes, before being revived for his 1940 film A Night Train to Munich. The duo aren't the main characters of either movie — Margaret Lockwood actually stars in both, but as different characters, adding to the confusion. Obviously, people saw the continued use of the characters as reason to bring them back for more adventures: 1941's Crook's Tour put Charters and Caldicott at center stage, appearing in 1943's Millions Like Us, and the two were nearly included in The Third Man before being combined into a new character.
The Comic Book Movies
TV spin-offs were commonplace throughout the 20th Century, but 1984's Supergirl marks the beginning of movie spin-offs' fruitful life. The movie follows Kara Zor-El, a Kryptonian like Superman who also escaped the planet's blast. She heads to Earth — complete with Superman insignia-branded threads — and saves the day from an evil witch. Marc McClure, who played Jimmy Olsen in the 1979 Superman, returns for the movie, the only actor thread linking the two.
Superhero movies are prime for spin-offs, and Hollywood is certainly aware of the potential. Elektra spun off of Daredevil, Halle Berry sent the drowning Batman franchise plummeting even further with Catwoman, and Hugh Jackman has continued to own the silver screen version of Marvel's Wolverine in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the upcoming The Wolverine. With characters out the wazoo and room for cameos to act as testing grounds for new franchises, spin-offs may end up being more prevalent than ever.
With intricate mythologies and ever-growing ensembles, comic book movies are easy to spin off. Everything else? A wee bit harder.
But studios have tried: five years after winning a Best Supporting Oscar for his work on The Fugitive, Warner Bros. brought Tommy Lee Jones back for another round of law enforcing in U.S. Marshals. No Dr. Richard Kimble to be found — Jones was now the star, chasing Wesley Snipes as guilty-until-proven-innocent man on the run. In more reasonable territory, producers found luck in back story (and The Rock's popularity) by prequelizing The Mummy Returns with the Dwayne Johnson-led Scorpion King. Robert Rodriguez took his faux-trailer for 2008's Machete from the movie Grindhouse and spun it off into a full length feature in 2011. With the added time afforded by the feature-length format, the world was granted a Lindsey Lohan nude scene (for what that's worth).
As This Is 40 proves, there's more flexibility in spinning off comedy than in drama. Not every movie would make sense to have a sequel. But as long as there's one character worth paying attention to, Hollywood has worked their alchemy to keep the "franchise" going. After outshining her male costars in Barbershop 2, Queen Latifah had her own salon story: Beauty Shop. Can't get Jim Carrey to come back for a sequel to the ubersuccessful Bruce Almighty? Not an issue, Steve Carrell can try his hand at another Biblical story with Evan Almighty. And This Is 40 isn't the first time Apatow's noticed the spin-off potential of his characters — in Get Him to the Greek, Russell Brand's breakout character Aldous Snow from Forgetting Sarah Marshall is given the star treatment.
The Future of Spin-Offs
The future is bright for spin-offs. Comic book movies continue to gain steam, while long-gestating projects never seem to disappear (see: Tom Cruise's Lev Grossman Tropic Thunder spin-off never failing to revive itself just when we though it was dead). Then there's the case of Star Wars, now in the hands of Disney, who plan to release two to three adventures in a galaxy far, far away per year starting in 2015. They've already hired writers, and the rumors are that the plan is all about spin-offs.
With all the off-shoots in the works, Hollywood is iterating at fractal-like speed, continuing a trend that's been evolving for 100 years.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Universal Pictures; 20th Century Fox]
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Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.