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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