We sift through the ashes of box office bombs in the superhero category. What went wrong, what could have been fixed, and isn’t it fun to laugh at them?

Hollywood converted almost entirely to a superhero comic book adaptation machine over the last couple decades. Now add Ted Sturgeon’s law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Thus, we should expect some super-bombs at the box office. Maybe the cynical Sturgeon overstated the case, though. Probably only 50% of superhero movies are outright crap, because of the pizza factor.

the_pizza_factor

Superhero movies rarely get to the level of being unwatchable. If nothing else, there’s still campy entertainment value. If you go to every superhero movie expecting life-changing levels of awesome, it’s your own fault. There’s a formula to them which produces results almost guaranteed to fall into at least a baseline mediocre territory.

So when a comic adaptation bombs at a really meteoric level, it’s worth asking how that happened. Lest we forget, they are also adaptations, just like adapting a novel to film – which was the majority of movies before they switched to comics. Things can go wrong with translation, and we see a lot of that in the following notorious stinkers. Your Present Author will attempt to explain why with my characteristic nitpicky analysis.


Catwoman (2004)

You know it’s coming, so why not put it up front? Halle Berry famously dumped on the role of Catwoman herself, showing up in person to collect her Golden Raspberry award. Sorry, but Halle Berry was the last thing wrong with this movie! Here’s the hilarious vintage Nostalgia Critic review to help with analysis:

Now then: The script sucked hairballs. The costume design was brain-damaged – a leather gimp suit that even a Gorean kajira would be embarrassed to wear. And for a $100 million budget, the CGI looks like a cutscene from any middling video game of the time. As explained in Catwoman‘s development-hell backstory, the script got drawered in the 1990s, then hastily yanked out and developed after another project fell through. It was half-baked with no story, no development, and nobody who cared except Halle Berry. All Catwoman proved is that movies need some other motivation besides “keep the camera pointed at her ass.”


Fantastic Four (2015) + every other Fantastic Four movie…

We all know that the 2015 Fantastic Four was the most notorious flop of the lot, with the famous stories about the production boondoggle on 20th Century Fox’s dime. Here’s a respectful JoBlo post-mortem:

Honestly, look at the record for every Fantastic Four film. They’re just blah overall, and the reason why is hinted at several times in JoBlo’s video: The X-Men! The Fantastic Four date from Marvel’s inception, old school golden age heroes. I swear upon my earliest comic book purchases, it is painful to write this, but… sometimes a title just outlives its usefulness. When you say “Marvel band of crime-fighting mutants,” all you need to say after that is “X-Men.” In the shadow of X-Men, the Fantastic Four will always be doomed to be “X-Men light,” or even “Guardians of the Galaxy light,” or “Avengers light.” In the Marvel cinematic universe crammed with ensemble cast groups, there’s no room for the Fantastic Four to claim their own ground.


Green Lantern (2011)

I just mentioned golden age heroes who have outlived their prime, so here’s the second verse – same as the first! Green Lantern was the DC movie that everyone thought they wanted without thinking things through. Here’s the less-hilarious, less-vintage Nostalgia Critic review:

Besdies the million other problems with this particular movie, Green Lantern’s biggest problem is the built-in handicap of its gimmick. I have this theory I call the “Imagination Ceiling.” It’s where you have a character whose powers are only limited by imagination: A god, a genie, a dream creature. These characters are difficult to write, because if they can just summon fireballs or ride dragons or warp reality inside-out, they end the story fast. They’re also hard to make work because whatever you think of for the character to do will not be as awesome as the audience expected. Dude, you can do anything, so you summon a motorcycle? Weak! Characters who expose the limitations of the author’s own imagination are a miserable disappointment. It takes a really wild mind to make imagination ceiling characters work well. Unless the Green Lantern gets David Lynch or Tim Burton or somebody to write him next, he’s never getting his due.


Punisher War Zone (2008)

This is a tough call, because while the movie has some clear fans, it was dead on arrival at the box office. Punisher: War Zone has legions of reviewers singing its praises, so what’s wrong with it? This time we turn to an underspoken JoBlo for answers:

Probably the best we can answer to why this movie bombed is that it was the wrong time in history. It took over-the-top violence beyond mere John Woo, beyond Michael Bay, even a bit past Eli Roth territory, when people weren’t ready for that in a comic book movie. It’s a fun dude movie and has a cult following – the trouble was, $35 million is about seven times as much money as you should sink into an R-rated dude movie with a cult following.


The Rocketeer (1991)

Sometimes, to quote Star Trek, you can make no mistakes and still lose. There are so many reasons The Rocketeer should have worked that we have to conclude this was a fluke. If we time traveled this movie a decade forward or backward and released it fresh, I guarantee it would have done better. Let’s let Oliver Harper have the retrospective:

Disney insisted on marketing this movie as “Disney‘s The Rocketeer.” Disney was just coming out of a face-planting dork age of gargantuan proportions, just barely beginning to redeem itself with The Little Mermaid (1989) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). The Rocketeer sounded like the relapse we were all dreading, to the goofy, village idiot Disney of The Black Cauldron (1985) and The Devil and Max Devlin (1981). The publicity really sucked, nobody mentioned this was based on a comic book series. Plus, it reeked of a desperate attempt to copy Indiana Jones or the far less successful Dick Tracy (1990), which had just disappeared from the box office a year earlier with hardly a smear to wipe away. The Rocketeer was too late for Generation X to trust it and too early for Millennials to come along.


Batman & Robin (1997)

And finally, the movie that should have had everything going for it, and yet Batman & Robin snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a decisive retreat up its own backside. At least Nostalgia Critic got to this one in his prime:

Three words tell you why this movie failed: Goofy, GOOFY, GOOOFY! Director Joel Schumacher had the world’s worst notion in steering this film back towards the 1960s TV series, making it millions of times campier than it had to be, when audiences wanted just the opposite. After the triumphant grace of Tim Burton’s two entries in the franchise, the studio took what should have been a winning franchise and ran it right through the ground.


What_did_we_learn

What did we learn, Palmer? We learned that superhero movies look deceptively easy to pull off, and yet can go wrong in ways other movies don’t. You can mistranslate a property that comes with a built-in audience who have expectations from the comic. You can hit at the wrong time with the wrong attitude. You can both oversell and undersell a property. Or you can cynically throw together a last minute product and put it out there with the attitude that we screwhead geeks will pay to see any butt in leather.

Going forward, recent comic book films seem to have learned their lessons – knock on wood – but the times are changing still, so the finicky audience hivemind can turn on a dime making yesterday’s formula for success be tomorrow’s box office poison.

 

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.