In the last ten days I’ve seen two new movies spun off from existing fictional universes, but not part of the main story line.  Their success bodes well for the willingness of audiences to welcome independent stories in a common setting—offshoots from the main trunk, you might say.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts posterI found “Fantastic Beasts” unexpectedly enjoyable and rather touching—possibly because I came to it with low expectations.  It is, of course, set in the same world as Harry Potter, but focuses on different characters in a different time period (the 1920s).

The Potterverse, to my mind, is not all that compelling in itself.  The HP novels and movies are enjoyable, but that’s mostly because of the events and characters.  There are too many oddities in the worldbuilding of the Harry Potter stories to make that milieu a preferred destination, to my mind.  (Why does the entire wizard culture revolve around a prep school, and do wizards have no purpose other than to protect their own secrecy?).  So “Fantastic Beasts” didn’t exercise a strong appeal just because it was set in the Potterverse.

But I really liked the characters in this one.  For one thing, they were grown-ups, with adult concerns.  There’s nothing wrong with young adult stories, but after a while one yearns for adult companionship.

In particular, the likable Muggle Jacob Kowalski steals the show.  (The HP books are sadly lacking in sympathetic Muggle characters.)  And I was pleased that Queenie, who first appears to be a traditional dizzy blonde, turns out to be loving and sympathetic and competent.  Both the romances in the story were as pleasing as they were unexpected.

Rogue One

Rogue One posterThe newest Star Wars film is not only set in that same galaxy far, far away, but also tied in very closely with the plot of the original Episode IV, “A New Hope.”  Nonetheless, it’s characterized as a “standalone” Star Wars movie.  The characters are almost entirely new (though some familiar faces appear in cameos), and the plot is distinct from that of “A New Hope” right up to the point at which they tie together.

The movie is good, though I’m not quite sure of its long-term pulling power.  I found the character chemistry a bit more uneven than in the iconic original.  One doesn’t become quite as invested in these new characters, for a variety of reasons.  They have dramatic backstories, but for some reason those backstories didn’t seem to emerge on the screen quite as compellingly.  The plot zigs and zags extensively before it straightens out into the crucial track where it needs to connect with Episode IV – at which point it does become pretty gripping.  (Since the movie has only been out for a few days, I’m striving valiantly to avoid spoilers, which is why my observations are intentionally vague.)

The Reception

Both films seem to be doing well at the box office, and with viewers.  “Fantastic Beasts” has had a successful few weeks, and “Rogue One” had a boffo opening this weekend, as reported in the New York Times and Variety.  The Star Wars picture is getting highly favorable audience reviews—currently 84% on Rotten Tomatoes.

TV Tropes refers to this kind of independent offshoot with the term “Metaplot”—multiple independent works coexisting in the created universe other than sequels or prequels, while there is still an overall story arc that affects the plots of those separate stories.  The phenomenon is common in written works, including those science fiction “future histories” with works separated by long distances in time or space.  It’s becoming more common in the movies too.  For example, Erich Schwartzel in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 15) mentions the parallels in the Marvel Cineverse.


Dragonflight cover artIf we like the “look and feel” of a given universe, we may be glad to revisit that locale, even in the absence of familiar characters and storylines.  For example, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern has flourished through innumerable sequels, prequels, side stories, and odd departures of all sorts (Dolphins of Pern, Renegades of Pern, The Masterharper of Pern . . .).  People like to spend time on Pern.

Still, this attachment to a location or milieu only takes us so far.  When the original Pern plotline was concluded, and the new batches of characters were not quite as engaging as the first four, I confess that I gradually lost interest.  A well-loved setting can draw a viewer or reader in—but it still takes compelling characters and plots to please the audience in the long run.

That’s the primary lesson I’d take from the success of “Fantastic Beasts” and “Rogue One” so far.  Viewers and readers today seem to be more willing than in the past to invest in expanding universes as well as long story arcs—contrary to what one might call the “ADHD hypothesis” that no one today has an attention span longer than 140 characters.  This is good news for writers who are into worldbuilding.  But building a world people want to visit isn’t enough by itself.  We still need to tell a good story—no matter where it may be set.

4 thoughts on “Offshoots

  1. **************************SPOILER ALERT (?)********************************************

    For what it’s worth, I think “Rouge One” also boasts the franchise’s first truly morally ambiguous protagonist (Cassian Andor). I joked with some friends that this was the first Star Wars film to feature a human. To my mind, no other Star Wars hero flirts with the line between the light and the dark side so well (or so poorly). Han may be an outlaw, but (to Thomas Aquinas’ chagrin) he’s a virtuous thief. To my mind, “Rogue One” not only revisits the Star Wars Universe but complicates and expands it by presenting us with heroes who do not fit neatly into the typically morally myopic vision presented by Lucas. Rogue One makes the star wars universe a slightly messier place. In doing so, it makes this universe a little more like our own.

    This may be good or bad news.

    Or good news for people who love bad news.


    • It’s true that Cassian has to cope with some tricky choices. (ducks spoilers) That’s not a bad thing.

      I’m not sure I’d call the preceding stories’ vision myopic, though. One of the things I enjoyed about the prequel trilogy (yes, I’m one of the six people in the entire world who liked it) was that it gave a convincing picture of how someone who starts out with good intentions, albeit flawed, can gradually let them twist his character to ruin. Within the limitations of the medium, of course: a movie can’t match the depth of self-reflection and character development you can find in a book.


  2. I took my four teenage daughters to Rouge One last night. None of them are particularly dialed into Star Wars, but a few have seen a prior movie or two. I’ve seen four of them (swore I’d never go to another one after Clone Wars). Three of my kids enjoy various Sci Fi flicks from time to time. We all thought the trailer looked interesting, so we gave it a shot.

    The consensus coming out was that it was underwhelming at best. In particular, the dialog often seemed stilted and expository. And their tactical sense as soldiers was nil (to be gentle), which is not just a nitpick; the extra stupid behavior was needed to perpetuate the plot.

    I suppose the writers did what they could given that it had to feather into the follow on movie plots (which they did do effectively), but as you alluded to, it was hard to get emotionally invested. I did think Jyn was more dynamic than most SW characters, at least at first. Once she took up the cause and charged toward the final climatic fight, it felt too much like a rerun of another Marvel or Bruce Willis movie.

    I’ve been wanting to see “Arrival”. Hopefully that will be a bit more engaging…


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