Sequels? Prequels? Now, spin-offs

Perennial box office champions like 'Harry Potter,' 'Star Wars,' and the Marvel films are all embracing the strategy of focusing a new movie on a different character in their fictional universe rather than going forward or backward with the same protagonist.

Disney/AP
Iron Man and Captain America in 'The Avengers.'

Forget sequels. A new form of storytelling is increasingly taking hold in Hollywood: the spinoff, in which many movies take place in the same fictional universe.

Marvel Studios, with its cast of characters adapted from comic books, has taken the form to new heights. Marvel’s formula for success has been to focus on one superhero and then have that hero appear as a supporting role in other superhero films. Consider its Avengers team. Audiences were gradually introduced to members of the gang through earlier films, such as “Hulk” (2003) and “Iron Man” (2008). Then they all swooped into the same screen and fought evil together in “The Avengers” (2012). 

But Marvel isn’t done yet. The characters in the Aug. 1 movie “Guardians of the Galaxy” (an alliance of misfits that includes a talking raccoon) are scheduled to appear in an upcoming “Avengers” movie for a massive hero meet-up, according to “Guardians” director James Gunn. 

This is happening in other fantasy universes, too. In the “X-Men” franchise, featuring a team of mutant superheroes, Wolverine got two spinoffs before joining back up with the group for the May release of “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” 

What’s going on? Has Hollywood run out of ideas for new movies? Paul Levinson, author and professor of communications and media at Fordham University in Bronx, N.Y., notes that this method of teasing out a story within a story has a long tradition in both literature and television. It was a favorite tactic of Shakespeare, for instance. More recently, Orson Scott Card’s acclaimed 1999 science-fiction novel “Ender’s Shadow” was a spinoff of his earlier work “Ender’s Game” published in 1985. Many popular TV series have spawned multiple spinoffs as well.

Hollywood is just taking it to blockbuster levels – and fans don’t seem to mind one bit. 

Disney has confirmed there will be spinoffs about individual “Star Wars” characters as well as the upcoming main entry in the franchise, “Star Wars: Episode VII.” 

Meanwhile, “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling is writing the screenplay for a movie, set to launch a series, that will be titled “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” It will take place in Harry’s world but center on a zoologist living decades earlier than the boy wizard.

Whatever the medium, Professor Levinson thinks focusing on another character or time period in a fictional universe can revitalize a series, if done right.

“It’s very limiting to have to write a sequel or prequel,” he says. “It’s easier to go sideways.”

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