Spin-Offs: The Dos and Don'ts

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Studios like money. Audiences like certain characters. Or universes. Or ideas. Or actors. So those who can shove the two together must surely be on to a winner, right? Well... Not so much. Spin-offs are tricky propositions and even the biggest franchises can stumble when trying to craft extra adventures. What lessons can be learned from those that flopped and those that flew?

Admittedly, Machete is not, in itself, a perfect film. It’s sometimes sloppy, often grungy and silly when it should be badass. But as a delivery system for the pure, wild crazed action promised by the original fake trailer in the middle of Grindhouse? Score. Danny Trejo makes for a compelling hero and is more than able to carry the movie, even if it only requires him to kill or seduce people. Plus, producer Robert Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis make sure to push it to the limit. It was successful enough to spawn a sequel, next year’s Machete Kills. And there’s still something in the back of our brains that wants Edgar Wright to produce a full film based on horror promo Don’t.

Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Wolverine quickly became a fan-favourite part of the X-Men cinematic universe. The growling, punchy hero was a natural for a spin-off, but by the time X-Men Origins: Wolverine finally rolled around it really just seemed like a cash-in attempt. True, we got to explore some of his backstory, but it was via disjointed, sappy romance, OTT action scenes that made little sense and a less-than satisfying match-up between Logan and Liev Schreiber’s Sabretooth. Full marks for thinking you can make more use of a popular character. But it helps if you give him a good script first – even someone like Gavin Hood will struggle to make something great. With luck The Wolverine will restore our faith.

With the success of 2002’s Barbershop, which found Ice Cube and co chatting, cutting and collaborating as a man learns to appreciate the value of inheriting his father’s business came a vital financial opportunity in itself. The result was not just a sequel but also a TV series and then, in 2005, Beauty Shop, which saw sequel character Gina (Queen Latifah) open up her own store. The film may not have been as wildly successful as the original Barbershop, but it was still a solid earner and more than made its money back. And yeah, the concept was not a million miles away from the original, but it didn’t simply replicate the chemistry, either.

After introducing the Ewoks into Return Of The Jedi, George Lucas became a little obsessed with the furry bastards, particularly given how much kids seemed to like them. Never one to turn down a chance to stretch things artistically make more dough, he co-wrote and produced two Ewok outings, Caravan Of Courage and The Battle For Endor. Both are frankly embarrassing, even if they are aimed at the ankle-biter crowd. Awful effects, terrible plots and shonky production values means they’re about as welcome in Star Wars viewing parties as the Holiday Special. And even that has kitsch appeal.

Some spin-offs simply want to give us more of the same in a photocopied story. But others, like Get Him To The Greek make use of a compelling, wacky character (Russell Brand’s Aldous Snow) and put him in a very different situation. Though he was a relatively small part of 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, there was enough to Snow that co-creator Nicholas Stoller could send him off on a drug / drinks fuelled adventure with naive record executive Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) and still make the result a funny, crazed, entertaining night at the movies.

For all its faults, the first Wolverine spin-off at least made use of the franchise’s most popular character. But when Universal decided to keep the American Pie cash cow mooing at a vastly reduced, straight-to-DVD budget, they jettisoned the main cast, held on to Eugene Levy and paraded a revolving assortment of newcomers and no-namers in front of him for an increasingly desperate series of sex farces. Things improved when the original cast all agreed to come back for American Pie: Reunion. When Chris Klein and Tara Reid are a saving grace, you know your franchise is on life support.

With some spin-offs, the stench of lazy, uninspired and derivative work taunts your nostrils from a mile away, such as with both Alien Vs Predator movies, which might as well be called Cynicism Vs Expectation. But then comes a delight such as DreamWorks Animation’s Puss In Boots, which not only makes solid use of one of the franchise’s most valuable assets (Antonio Banderas’ featured feline), but also surrounds him with a top notch supporting cast and a great screenplay chock full of moments. Puss feels of a piece with the Shrek universe, complementary and worthwhile.

Universal was somewhat bullish after the huge success of Jim Carrey-as-God comedy Bruce Almighty. So you could understand the studio’s Icarus-like arrogance in thinking it had found a golden ticket to riches and success. Despite not scoring Carrey back for the sequel, the idea of using rising comedy star Steve Carell convinced executives to hand director Tom Shadyac a massive budget to follow the Evan Baxter character on a new misadventure, Evan Almighty. Yeah… not so much. The result was an equally massive flop, which, despite earning $172 million worldwide, didn’t even make its initial outlay back.