There have already been two major franchise spin-offs this year: the happily loopy “Penguins of Madagascar” and the highly, semi-deservedly profitable “Annabelle.”There are more to come, including a prequel for the “Despicable Me” Minions. We live in a culture that leaves no stone unturned, demanding franchises be exhausted until nothing is left to the viewers’ imagination. But spinoffs are nothing new, which doesn’t mean they’re good (or bad). Here are other times execs tried to bleed product until they could bleed no more:
‘The Return of Frank James’ (1940)
From: ‘Jesse James’ (1939)
Here’s the problem with big hits that end with their protagonist’s death: If they’re hits audiences may require more. 1939’s “Jesse James” was one of the films that revived the Western in Hollywood after almost a decade of them largely being regulated to B-studios. Technically this is a sequel, continuing a true (albeit highly fabricated) story. But it’s also one that promotes to the forefront a supporting character: Henry Fonda’s equally fearsome brother, seeking revenge on Jesse’s murderers.
From: ‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978), ‘Superman II’ (1980), ‘Superman III’ (1983)
By 1985 the “Superman” franchise was already ear-deep in self-parody, with the noticeably downsized “Superman IV” still en route. That didn’t put the brakes on a gargantuan movie for Kal-El’s female counterpart (Helen Slater), which made up for the lack of even a Christopher Reeve cameo by stacking the deck with overqualified thespians like Faye Dunaway, Peter O’Toole and Mia Farrow. It didn’t work: Its box office was so dismal that the franchise rights were sold to little Canon Films, who would kill Superman dead (for awhile).
U.S. Marshals (1998)
From: “The Fugitive” (1993)
What happens when the lowly supporting star upstages the mega-star? That’s what happened to poor Harrison Ford in “The Fugitive,” who watched as his vehicle was commandeered by seasoned character actor Tommy Lee Jones. He scored an Oscar, and five years later his own film, in which he goes after another wrongly accused man: future jailed tax evader Wesley Snipes. But Jones only has the patience for one franchise: “Men in Black.”
‘The Scorpion King’ (2002)
From: ‘The Mummy Returns’ (2001)
Given the hammy and sometimes soulful charisma he would soon reveal, it’s odd that Dwayne Johnson’s blockbuster debut was a wordless (but growl-heavy) cameo in “The Mummy Returns.” Alas, it was really a setup for his character’s very own film, which unleashed more silly Egyptian menace upon multiplexes. Also alas, all the spinoff got was two DTV sequels, neither starring the one once called “The Rock.”
‘Beauty Shop’ (2005)
From: ‘Barbershop’ (2002), ‘Barbershop: Back in Business’ (2004)
The Ice Cub-led “Barbershop” was the kind of modest surprise hit that lends itself easily to sequels, spin-offs, even TV shows. It got all three, with the sequel’s Queen Latifah moving into her own salon, albeit one staffed with Alicia Silverstone and Andie MacDowell.
‘American Pie’ DTV sequels (2005-2009)
From: “American Pie” (1999), ‘American Pie II’ (2001), ‘American Wedding’ (2003)
The original “American Pie” nimbly balanced the raunch with the heart. If it had been nudged either way, even a little, it could have turned stupid or maudlin. While the official, theatrically-released, Jason Biggs-led films themselves turned sappier, there was a line of direct-to-video sequels — with subtitles like “The Naked Mile” and “Beta House” — that went pure filth, ones that stole the series name (plus Eugene Levy) but were otherwise indistinguishable from tasteless trash-fests from the ’80s.
‘Get Him to the Greek’ (2010)
From: ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ (2008)
Not only was “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” a case where the supporting guy — recovering druggie English rocker Aldous Snow — stole the movie from the hero, it was also one where a relative nobody made a startling breakthrough. Of course, Russell Brand is not a nobody, except to Americans circa 2008. But the shock of a new talent was so big that Brand scored short-lived superstardom in the States, with a rash of movies that included this very funny — and, being an Apatow production, too long — vehicle that, confusingly, also featured Jonah Hill, but in a different role.
‘The Bourne Legacy’ (2012)
From: ‘The Bourne Identity’ (2001), ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ (2004), ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ (2007)
“There was never just one” went the tagline to this spin-off, made only because franchise star Matt Damon was temporarily unwilling to return. In fact, what was Jeremy Renner’s character’s name? It’s not clear if this side project will ever return, which is a shame: Renner, as ever, is good at playing a steely hero, and while this can’t touch the Damon “Bourne”s, his is a fun, cynical world, well worth further exploration.