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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The basic premise of most crime revenge dramas is how much of our humanity we're willing to trade to get back what the other people — the ostensible baddies — have taken from us. Oliver Stone returns to this familiar stomping ground with Savages a splashy adaptation of Don Winslow's novel about a unique love affair a major marijuana-dealing business and an increasingly violent pissing match between two SoCal growers and the Baja Cartel.
Stone's frenetic visual style is in full swing but even this Oscar-winning auteur can't quite raise the film from mediocrity. It's hard to care whether or not Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) rescue their gorgeous mutual girlfriend O (Blake Lively) from the cartel if O isn't engaging enough to persuade us she's worth the bloodshed. O (short for Ophelia — an allusion to her earthshaking climaxes) is not a well-written character to begin with but she's even less engaging as played by Lively. Johnson is unconvincing as the bleeding heart Ben and the details his character is given — extra earrings a shoddy-looking tattoo on his neck even white boy dreads at one point — undercut his believability even more. Kitsch is given a few prominent scars and a mean squint but he doesn't quite bring the weird slightly empty vibe of Chon to life.
On the villain side Benicio Del Toro chews every inch of scenery from Laguna Beach to Tijuana as Lado. He's rocking an intense moustache that he strokes when he's lying or being a creep (which is most of the time) a vaguely mullet-like wig and a fondness for torture. Salma Hayek takes no prisoners as the head of the cartel nicknamed Elena la Reina who is both a frustrated mom whose college-age daughter is blowing her off (aw!) and a brutally tough woman in a man's world. John Travolta definitely enjoys a bit of Pulp Fiction ridiculousness as Dennis a DEA official who's in Ben and Chon's pocket. It's hard to tell just how funny Savages is aiming to be. Lado Elena and Dennis are cartoonish but Ben Chon and O are earnest — which is to say a little bit boring.
The double- and triple-crossing is practically moot as is the wacky technology that Ben and Chon employ; it's like The Social Network meets surfers. The real meat of the movie is the flash and violence but it's not the kind of thing that stays with you like Stone's Natural Born Killers. Savages doesn't have the same lingering aftertaste. It's not that a movie needs to have some sort of message with its pointed commentary on the media's bloodlust but the gist of Savages — that we're all savages at heart or that we can easily become a savage given the right circumstances — is not that interesting or unique.
Oddly enough Savages pulls a few punches when it comes to its source material (hard to believe when the movie kicks off with a glimpse of an abattoir-like enclosure and close-ups of men begging for their lives just as a chainsaw revs in the background). Winslow's book is a quick enjoyable read with an interesting on-page style that's hard to replicate verbally. It has a sort of ADD-addled feel that the movie tries to but doesn't quite capture. While it's not always fair to compare an adaptation to the book it's based on Winslow is both the author and one of the screenplay writers so some of the choices made behind the scenes don't quite add up. Cut are significant and menacing back story for Lado and all of the zestiness out of O. Why add in certain plot points and take out others unless it was to give one of its big name stars more screen time? The most interesting part of the story the love story is treated like a wink wink homoerotic thing than an actual relationship between three people who adore each other which is how it's portrayed in the book. It's hard not to be a little disappointed especially given Stone's no-f**ks-given attitude. (Or as O would say baditude.)
That said it is a somewhat entertaining diversion and a nice tour of lifestyles of the rich and criminal. Lively is all tangled tan limbs and luxurious hippie clothes and the homes they frequent whether on Laguna Beach or a desert compound are meticulously decorated with exquisite expensive taste. Santa Muerte imagery also figures heavily in the background of many scenes. The scenery is gorgeous — even the marijuana looks amazing. It's good for adults to have another R-rated choice in what's usually a season dominated by blockbusters but in years to come you'll more likely to reach for your old True Romance DVD than Savages.