Spin-offs of major franchises have often gotten a bad reputation, and for good reason. But a recent run of solid spin-offs leads us to believe they may be of some benefit after all…
We all know that sequels are rarely better than the original films. Prequels and reboots have an even worse reputation. But by far the type of sequel that seems to have the very worst reputation is the spin-off. These have traditionally been Disney direct-to VHS releases, without any of the original cast or creative minds behind them. Like prequels and reboots, they are seen as an easy way for Hollywood to make an extra buck off of fans who loved the original film.
But oddly, spin-offs have been experiencing a bit of a renaissance over the last decade or so. Not only are there suddenly many examples of solid spin-off movies made by major Hollywood studios with big-time star power, in some of those cases the spin-off movies are better than the original film(s) they are based off of. Let that sink in for a minute. How is that even possible?
You would think that in order for a spin-off to exist, the original film would have to be very popular and have been well-received. Otherwise, the studio would not have bothered with a spin-off. But in the case of many recent spin-offs, the appeal of that original film (or films), and appreciation of a new direction to explore that universe has led to a renewed popularity. And these new films aren’t just interesting side stories. Many of them are now forming the foundation of an entirely new franchise.
Consider films like Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw, Bumble Bee, Deadpool, Creed, or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Each of those films is a spin-off, and either already has spawned a direct sequel, or will do so in the next few years. In the case of Bumble Bee, Deadpool, or Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse you could make a very convincing argument about how those films are better than the original film they are spun-off of (ditto for Logan). Even major recent spin-offs which aren’t necessarily better than their predecessors are still damn good (Rogue One, Venom, The Lego Batman Movie, Finding Dory).
So what is happening that is changing the approach to these types of films? Why is Hollywood throwing money at projects which previously may have had the same reputation as The Scorpion King, or Evan Almighty? I think in all cases the answer is the MCU. The success of the MCU has allowed more open-mindedness from studios when exploring spin-off projects because of the success of the Marvel films. But just as important is the possibility that the MCU has opened up audiences to be more receptive to spin-off films, especially if the studio buys into them from the get-go in order to provide them with the same focus and support as the original film(s).
In other words, Marvel provided a blueprint for other studios to follow. Because the Marvel films were perceived as high quality despite many of them being spin-offs, audiences didn’t associate the stigma of the spin-off film as they might have in the past. But what the MCU does best above all is give a solid reason for their spin-off movies to exist in the first place. They don’t just feel like an excuse to make another superhero movie. They are all part of a meticulously planned overarching story. They are necessary for best comprehension of the entire franchise.
Other more recent spin-offs don’t have the same sort of merit, necessarily. Movies like Bumble Bee or Logan seem unnecessary at first glimpse, especially given the amount of time and effort those main characters had been explored in the original films. But our collective love of those characters is what makes us interested in them, and is what makes us interested in these spin-offs. Furthermore, by disconnecting the popular character from the main storyline of the main franchise, the filmmakers have more freedom to tell a different type of story.
Unburdened by the expectations of the original franchise, spin-offs provide more opportunity for a character to grow. For one, they don’t have to share screen time with other popular characters/actors. Their spin-off films can cater to their personalities and tendencies directly. That means they can explore new places instead of living within the confines that have been established in the franchise already. In cases like Logan, the character is unburdened by the expectations of establishing the character as seen in films like X-Man Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine.
At other times, a spin-off gets to work like a reboot. Movies like Creed and Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse allow the franchise to reestablish itself after previous missteps with sequels. Because the new films are approached as a spin-off, they don’t necessarily create connotations of the bad experiences audiences may have had with the problematic entries in the original series. More importantly, they can riff off of the good experiences. Spin-offs are a prime opportunity to utilize nostalgia in order to win over the hearts of dedicated fans. Rogue One and Solo both come to mind as films which harken back to the beloved original Star Wars trilogy without the added baggage of later installments.
Movies like Hobbs & Shaw have become somewhat more popular because of the sheer size of the franchise they have been spun off of. This is a film that focuses on two characters who are essentially supporting characters from the original franchise. As studios keep churning out more and more sequels to a mega-franchise, this will result in new characters being added into the fold. There is only so much time a character can be given during a feature film, and if later installments have more characters sharing the screen time some of them will inevitably get the short end of the stick.
When this happens the options are to either kill off some characters in order to give others more screen time, or write them out of the story in another way. The Fast & Furious franchise chose a spin-off film for Hobbs and Shaw so that they would not have to fight for screen time in F9. It is kind of the opposite of the MCU approach of having individual films devoted to certain characters and then later bringing them together in an “event-film” crossover. So, yet again here is another opportunity where a spin-off could make sense in today’s modern movie environment.
Likewise, both the Star Wars franchise and the Harry Potter franchise have found yet another niche to exploit with their spin-off films. For both of those franchises the main story arc which made the franchise popular in the first place has concluded. It would be possible to add more sequels to these original storylines, but doing so when the stories have been officially concluded already makes those later sequels feel unnecessary, and you risk upsetting devoted fans.
The solution in the case of both of those franchises was to turn to spin-offs for new feature films. For the Harry Potter franchise the spin-off was also a prequel, which allowed recasting some popular characters, but it also meant focusing on a new set of protagonists. With Star Wars the spin-offs we have seen so far have also been prequels. So in both of these cases spin-offs are an opportunity for a franchise to fill in some of the holes of its story, thus catering to existing fans while being able to make films with new casts and creative talents which could appeal to new fans.
I’m not yet ready to say that the spin-off has shed its image as a shameless money grab, but at the very least we can agree that most modern examples in mainstream cinema are examples of studios making more effort than they had in the past. Similarly, you can say that the state of the film industry has evolved to a point where the spin-off can make sense in certain situations where another sequel or prequel would not have worked as well.
Finally, you can look at all of these examples of well-received and profitable spin-offs and notice how they all used different methodologies and approaches to their connections with the original franchise. With more big-budget spin-offs in production and on their way to theaters in the coming years, it isn’t a short-lived trend. As long as they are able to maintain high quality, and profitability, there is no reason for studios to stop making them. With enough time, and success, we may even look back at the spin-off’s formative years as growing pains…