There was never just one…This week sees “The Bourne Legacy” hit theaters, and it’s a little hard to know what to describe it as. After all, it doesn’t feature, except tangentially, the character whose name it bears, Matt Damon‘s Jason Bourne. Instead, it focuses on a new character, Jeremy Renner‘s Aaron Cross, whose adventures overlap with and feature some of the same characters in the previous ‘Bourne’ films. Is it a sequel? Kind of. Is it a “sidequel,” as some have termed it? Yeah, maybe. But given the way it jumps off from the existing ‘Bourne’ films and heads off into new territory, we think it qualifies as one of the more successful examples of a less-than-illustrious Hollywood concept: the spin-off.
The idea of taking a character who proved popular in another work but wasn’t necessarily central to the action and giving them their own film is a fairly logical one, but it’s more common in TV (see “Frasier,” “Private Practice“) than in the movies, in part perhaps because so many of the examples (and there have been several in recent years, often with the comic book movie genre) have been so wretched. But with things looking up a little (“The Bourne Legacy” comes on the heels of “Puss In Boots,” which was better than most of the “Shrek” films that spawned it, while Christmas will see Judd Apatow follow some of the supporting characters from “Knocked Up” in “This Is 40“) it seemed like a good idea to briefly delve into some of the examples we’ve had across the last few decades, for better or (mostly) for worse. And you can see how “The Bourne Legacy” fits in when the film opens this Friday, August 10th.
“A Shot in the Dark” (1964)
One forgets now that Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) was not, in fact, the central character of the first “Pink Panther” film; a major part, for certain, but mostly a dim-witted foil for the lead, jewel thief Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven in a role originally intended for Peter Ustinov). But mid-way through shooting, director Blake Edwards realized that Sellers was walking away with scenes more than Niven was stealing jewels. Edwards was, at the time, working on an adaptation of Harry Kurnitz‘s play “A Shot in the Dark,” itself an adaptation of Marcel Archard‘s French-language play “L’Idiote.” Edwards and co-writer William Peter Blatty (who would go on to write the novel “The Exorcist“) decided to retool the film to star Sellers’ Clouseau. The result is by some distance the greatest of the Clouseau movies, introducing Herbert Lom as long-suffering boss Commissioner Dreyfus and Bert Kwouk as faithful assistant Kato, as Clouseau is called in to solve an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery and fails miserably, partly because he’s fallen in love with the most obvious suspect and partly because he’s an idiot. Released a mere three months after the original “Pink Panther,” it remains the best-plotted and plain funniest of the series, and probably the best-ever example of the spin-off paying off, even if Edwards and Sellers fell out to the extent that they wouldn’t work together again until “The Party” four years later. [A-]
“Get Him to the Greek” (2010)
Yeah, so the reputation of the spin-off is such that a film as uneven and bloated as “Get Him to the Greek” qualifies as one of the better examples. But the film is the rare one that does surpass its source (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” has its moments, but feels like the most bitter and misogynistic of the Apatow factory films), and has more than enough to recommend. Jonah Hill (playing a different character to his ‘Sarah Marshall’ cameo) is an aspiring record company employee who’s tasked by his boss (an uproariously funny Sean Combs) with looking after fading, relapsing rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand, who is reprising his role from Nicholas Stoller‘s earlier film). This sets off a debaucherous few days for the duo as they try to travel from London to L.A., with stopovers in New York and Vegas. It’s as scrappy and hit-and-miss as most B-grade Apatow fare, but there’s an anarchistic streak to it that puts other R-rated comedies to shame. And it’s stuffed full of some terrific comedic performances, from something as small as T.J. Miller‘s gutshot hotel clerk to Rose Byrne‘s scene-stealing cameo as pop star Jackie Q. Best of all is Brand, who expands his earlier performance into something surprisingly vulnerable and touching, giving the film more heart than you’d expect. It was the brief moment when it looked like he could actually become the star that everyone seemed to want him to be. [B-]
“U.S. Marshals” (1998)
Less a spin-off than a vastly inferior remake, “U.S. Marshals” was the belated follow-up to “The Fugitive,” the 1993 actioner that, let’s not forget, turned out to be a Best Picture nominee. Rather than accusing Harrison Ford of another crime he didn’t commit, the film focused on U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones, who won an Oscar for his last performance) and his team, including Joe Pantoliano and some other guys you don’t remember. This time, they’re tracking another fugitive who’s escaped from a money-shot accident (a plane crash, rather than a train crash — good variety, guys!), in this case Wesley Snipes, who is again wrongfully accused. But this time, he’s a government agent who’s been framed up. The film walks through most of the beats of its predecessor, with added and unnecessary international intrigue to mix things up, but it doesn’t have the emotional backbone of the original. But it does have a much lamer, more predictable script, while veteran editor Stuart Baird can’t give the action the same zip as Andrew Davis did. That said, given some of the other films on this list, it could be a lot worse: Robert Downey Jr. (at the height of his substance abuse troubles) is reasonably good value as a slimy spy, and it’s rarely overtly awful. If it was a CBS procedural (which is what it probably should have been), your grandma would probably enjoy it quite a bit. [C-]
“Evan Almighty” (2007)
No one really asked for an “Evan Almighty” film, but after the surprise success of “Bruce Almighty” (a stellar $484 million worldwide) and Jim Carrey‘s refusal to return for a sequel, Universal just had to do something, no? And so in regular studio fashion, the suits conceived of keeping God as he was (played by Morgan Freeman) and introducing a new human sap, this time played by likable up-and-coming comedian Steve Carell, who’d had something of a breakout, scene-stealing role in the first film that preceded his roles in “Anchorman,” “The Office” and “40-Year-Old Virgin.” Only this time, “Evan Almighty” upped its stakes and spectacle-like tentpole value by introducing a Noah’s Ark story line. It was expensive — a reported $175 million budget not including promotion and advertising making it the most expensive comedy ever made — and it didn’t work (negative reviews, plus the film stalled at a $173 million worldwide gross). It was nominated for one Razzie Award (Worst Prequel or Sequel) and made many worst-of year-end lists at the end of 2007. “Evan Almighty” became a costly lesson that Hollywood probably hasn’t fully learned yet. And while Carell is charming at times, it’s cripplingly unfunny for such a summer comedy (the apocalyptic premise being somewhat less fun than the idea of getting God’s powers), and it’s no surprise that director Tom Shadyac, the man behind monster hits like “The Nutty Professor” and “Liar Liar,” has subsequently retreated from Hollywood as a result [D+]
“The Scorpion King” (2002)
Universal was so confident in the upcoming stardom of wrestler Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson that they put into production a spin-off starring his villianous character from “The Mummy Returns” before the sequel to their surprise hit was even in theaters. Whether or not that they were aware that Johnson was barely in the 2001 film (he gets an opening scene, and then an all-time low of a CGI effect with his face on it for the finale) when they made that decision is unclear, but either way, less than a year later, “The Scorpion King” was in theaters, courtesy of “The Mask” director Chuck Russell. Owing as much to “Conan” and its ilk as “The Mummy” did to ‘Indiana Jones,’ the film sees Mathayus out to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of the Emperor Memnon (Steven Brand, as the single dullest screen villain in history; unsurprisingly, the actor’s barely been heard of before or since), aided by a group of unmemorable characters, including George Clooney‘s writing partner Grant Heslov and scantily-clad sorceress Kelly Hu. Unexceptionally written, directed and acted, and looking pretty cheap on the whole, it does at least have Johnson displaying his bona-fide screen charisma for the first time, which just about keeps it from being dreadful. Fortunately, Johnson would find better vehicles down the road, leaving others to take over for direct-to-video prequel “The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior” and sequel “The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption.” [D+]
“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009)
Fans must have been initally confident that “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” would be better than the third ‘X-Men‘ movie that preceded it. After all, rather than Brett Ratner at the helm, they had Oscar-winning “Tsotsi” director Gavin Hood, and instead of a sprawling cast, things focused in on the best character in the series, Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine. Unfortunately, the film, intended to be the first in a series of ‘X-Men’ spin-offs, was even worse than Ratner’s effort. Given that Wolverine was already the focus of the earlier movies, there really wasn’t much more to learn about the character, and the many, many writers (only David Benioff and Skip Woods were credited) failed to give any compelling reason to watch the solo effort, which tracks Wolverine from accidentally killing his father as a boy, through wars (in a fairly impressive montage, at least) and into the 1970s. With a plot that alternates between fan service (some guy called Deadpool! Some guy called Gambit!) and just making no fucking sense whatsoever, either in the context of the earlier films or on its own, it features dull action, half-assed special effects, and only a few game turns (Jackman’s solid as usual, Danny Huston and Liev Schreiber are reasonable value as the bad guys) to save the day. And given that the film features not one, not two, but three shots of a character falling to their knees and screaming at the sky, it’s a wonder that anyone’s letting Hood direct again. [D-]
Just about saving “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” from being the worst Marvel spin-off to date (though, as we will see, not the worst superhero spin-off…), we can’t really imagine what was going through Fox‘s heads when they greenlit “Elektra,” given that not many people had liked “Daredevil” with the film failing to take more than $200 million worldwide, and that Jennifer Garner had delivered a flat, dull performance in the 2003 film. Oh, and her character also died. But hoping for a second wind, greenlight it they did, and the result was a hot ninja mess that somehow managed to be worse than its predecessor. Resurrected by martial arts artist Terence Stamp because… um… Anyway, Elektra is resurrected to become a deadly ninja assassin — which was what we thought she was in the first place — but balks when discovering her latest targets are the hunky neighbor (Goran Visnjic) and his daughter, who she just befriended. As such, she then has to defend them from a band of superpowered assassins, including, no joke, a guy who can make animals come out of his tattoos. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s basically every hitman/woman movie you’ve ever seen, with a few superheroics chucked in, along with a particularly insipid romance and a central performance from Garner that’s so bad you forget that you ever liked her in anything else. Director Rob Bowman (who was behind the somewhat unsung actioner “Reign of Fire“) never seems especially interested in what’s going on, and neither do any of his cast, crew or, indeed, audience. [D-]
In development for well over a decade (it was originally intended for Michelle Pfeiffer’s incarnation of the character), 2004’s “Catwoman” seemed to prove that Warner Bros. had learned nothing from the debacle of “Batman & Robin” six years earlier. A campy, disastrously written and performed mess, it’s by some distance the low watermark of the superhero genre, and given some of the other films that have come along, that’s quite an achievement. Disregarding any real continuity to Batman (probably a good thing, given that Christopher Nolan‘s “Batman Begins” was a year away), this sees timid Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) murdered by her employer, a beauty company with a product with terrible side effects, and reborn as a Catwoman, using her powers to wreak vengeance for her own death. Berry is as flat and awkward as she can be in her less shining moments, and no one else in the cast, from Benjamin Bratt‘s deathly dull love interest to Sharon Stone‘s hammy villainess, acquits themselves particularly well either. But one finds it too hard to blame any of them given the forehead-slapping stupidity of the script (which takes the title literally by making Berry behave as much like a cat as possible without it turning into some kind of spin-off of “The Shaggy Dog“). It doesn’t help that director Pitof, a former VFX whiz, directs the film like a child who grew up seeing only Joel Schumacher movies, with a gaudy look, terrible effects (Berry morphing into an X-Box approximation of herself every time she has to do any action), and a dreadful sense of pacing. The character has now been redeemed thanks to Anne Hathaway‘s excellent performance in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but even so, the concept of another “Catwoman” movie still sends shudders just because of the memories of this train wreck. [F]
“Alien vs. Predator” (2004)
Brand equity and studio logic dictates that a brand cannot sit on the shelf collecting dust. So what to do when you have two sagging, ostensibly defunct brands? The geniuses at 20th Century Fox decided to take two disparate franchises and mash them together in what amounted to a battle of the titans monster fight called “Alien vs. Predator.” The concept? Simple: take the xenomorphs from the Ridley Scott/James Cameron ‘Alien‘ franchise (which had been effectively defanged and devalued by the lesser “Alien 3” and “Alien Resurrection“) and make them face off against the alien trophy hunters from the ‘Predators‘ series (the latter of which stalled after the rather generic and unsuccesful “Predator 2“). The seeds of this team-up had already been sown in “Predator 2,’ when director Stephen Hopkins teased fanboys by including a xenomorph skeleton in the alien predators trophy room and by various comic books and video games that foreshadowed the film. But cinematically speaking, the two franchises were effectively dead in the water, so Fox looked at this moment of potential brand synergy and jumped at it. And in doing so perhaps learned a thing or two about tarninshing family jewels. While both installments of the ‘AVP’ series were cheap and earned money, what they ultimately did was almost ruin the brands for good and delayed the revivals of both. While Lance Henriksen did reprise his role in these films (he was the creator of the android lifeforms who created Bishop in his likeness), Paul W.S. Anderson‘s film (and the even worse follow-up) was so bad, none of it is now considered canon and essentially now exists in an alternate universe that doesn’t affect either franchises’ history or storylines. In fact, if you’re still frustrated by Ridley Scott‘s muddled and uneven return to the series with its origins prequel “Prometheus,” just think: at one point during the aughts, Scott was considering an “Alien 5” with Sigourney Weaver that would be set on Earth. When “Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem” stole that idea, Scott washed his hands of the whole series with disgust and it took him another five years to even consider “Prometheus.” Could it have been the crown jewel in the series? We’ll never know (though give it 10-15 years or so and you might just see a reboot with a younger actress playing Ellen Ripley). [F]
(Dis)Honorable Mentions: While Hollywood history isn’t exactly overflowing with these examples, there are other films we didn’t quite have the room and/or willpower for. The superhero spin-off was pioneered by the dreadful “Supergirl” with Helen Slater, which is only worth it to witness Peter O’Toole, Faye Dunaway and Peter Cook slumming it badly. Meanwhile, the ‘vs.’ approach was also taken by New Line in-the-sort-of-entertaining “Freddie vs. Jason,” while the “Barber Shop” series got “Beauty Shop,” a female-centric spin-off starring Queen Latifah.
What’s clear at this point is that some studios are worse offenders than others. At the top of the heap is Universal, behind “Get Him to the Greek,” “Evan Almighty,” and “The Scorpion King,” plus “Pitch Black” spin-off “The Chronicles of Riddick” and endless DTV “American Pie” spin-offs too. They’re also behind this year’s “This is 40,” but let’s keep our fingers crossed that we’re not getting a Rihanna-centric “Battleship” spin-off at this point. Fox have shown they’re keen to spin off their superhero franchises (particularly if you count “X-Men: First Class“), while Warner Bros. were behind “U.S. Marshals” and “Catwoman.” Hopefully, all involved will think more seriously about going back to the spin-off well in future. What about you? Are you reluctant to go and see films like these? Or would you welcome the opportunity to see your favorite character get their own movie? Who would you like to star in spin-off movies in future? Let us know in the comments below.