People have been predicting disaster for comic book films for years, and critics are always ready to claim that certain movies will be the one that bursts the bubble. Comic books offer studios a wide variety of characters and stories to pull from, and studios are eager to adapt as much as they can into film form. Of course, many of these stories are risky, for various reasons. Maybe they feature a character who mainstream audiences aren’t familiar with, or maybe they tell a story that doesn’t fit into the standard superhero movie mold. Maybe a studio takes a chance on a young or indie director, who then takes a chance on a non-A list celebrity to play the lead role.
All of these factors lead critics and general audience members to approach certain movies with caution. Remember, there was a time when making a movie about a comic book property in general was considered a risky move. Of course, not every film pays off. Some movies on this list proved the critics wrong, while others crashed and burned as they were predicted to. The one thing they all have in common is that not a lot of people had faith in them.
15. MISS: HULK
Sometimes, it’s best just to keep things simple, which is a lesson Ang Lee learned the hard way with 2003’s Hulk. When the director was hired, it seemed like Hulk was in good hands. Despite having gone through an arduous script writing process, Lee was a critically acclaimed director, who was riding high off the recent success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
Lee wanted to make a dramatic movie that focused on Bruce Banner’s relationship with his father. He also decided to edit the footage like an actual comic book, with multiple panels appearing on screen together. The final result, however, was uneven. Visually, the comic book effect didn’t always pay off, and the story was overly complex and confusing. While Hulk had a decent opening weekend, it suffered a record breaking drop in its second week and failed to recoup its budget in domestic gross.
14. HIT: IRON MAN
Even though he’s currently one of Marvel’s most famous and recognizable heroes, there was a time when a movie about Iron Man was risky. Like many of Marvel’s properties, the rights for an Iron Man movie bounced from studio to studio, each one bailing before beginning production. It wasn’t until 2005 that Marvel reacquired the rights to Tony Stark and began working on production themselves.
Of course, with “Iron Man” being both their first production and a relatively obscure character for mainstream audiences, Marvel Studios had trouble attracting talent. Even casting Robert Downey Jr seemed like a risk at the time, considering the actor’s run-ins with the law and his spotty past. Of course, Iron Man (2008) went on to be a hit, earning over $300 million at the US box office and turning Robert Downey Jr into one of the most successful actors in the world.
13. MISS: GREEN LANTERN
In 2011, Warner Brothers found themselves in a strange situation. They were in the midst of releasing the massively successful Dark Knight trilogy, yet found themselves quickly losing ground to Marvel. The rival studio was riding the success of Iron Man (2008) and was generating positive buzz for their shared universe of movies. Since Dark Knight existed in a world without superpowers, WB couldn’t build their own universe off the success of those films.
Green Lantern (2011) was supposed to be the first entry in their shared universe. The problem was that the movie itself seemed too interested in setting up future storylines than focusing on its own. Audiences and critics found the plot confusing, and were also turned off by the poor CGI. A weak worldwide box office of $219 million barely made the budget back and forced WB to start over with Man of Steel (2013).
12. HIT: X-MEN
Two movies are credited with launching the modern era of comic book movies: Blade (1998) and X-Men (2000). Blade, a relatively minor character at the time, downplayed its comic book origins, instead marketing itself as a Wesley Snipes/kung fu/vampire movie. X-Men, on the other hand, was a well known comic property, and was released during a time when movies based on comics were considered poison at the box office.
The film made a risky move by hiring Bryan Singer to direct, who wasn’t known for directing action or special effects heavy films. Hugh Jackman, who played Wolverine, was unknown to American audiences at the time, adding another element of risk to the production. Luckily, Singer’s mature approach to the subject matter paid off, showing Hollywood that comics shouldn’t be ignored.
11. MISS: THE PUNISHER: WAR ZONE
Frank Castle has not had good luck at the movies. Dolph Lundgren originally starred in the role in 1989, and Thomas Jane took over in 2004. Neither film did particularly well at the box office, but both went on to become cult hits on home video, so Marvel and Lionsgate decided to try again in 2008 with The Punisher: War Zone.
Directed by Lexi Alexander, the film was a violent and gory take on the character. Thomas Jane was replaced by Ray Stevenson, and rumors circulated about trouble between Lionsgate and Alexander, who apparently did not see eye to eye on the tone of the film. The final result was hit or miss with fans, with many just being happy to finally see an R-rated Punisher movie. The box office, however, was all miss with a meager $10 million worldwide take.
10. HIT: BATMAN
Yes, even Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) wasn’t a surefire hit when it was released. Tim Burton has admitted that he was never a huge comic book fan, but was drawn to Batman based on books like The Dark Knight Returns (1986) by Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen. Audiences, however, weren’t sure if the director of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) was the right guy to bring Batman to life.
Also, at the time of his casting, Michael Keaton was known mostly for silly comedies. This actually led to a huge letter writing campaign to Warner Brothers in protest. Warner Brothers initiated a massive marketing campaign, however, and when the film was released, it was met with both critical acclaim and massive box office success.
9. MISS: JONAH HEX
During the late 2000s, comic book movies were taking the box office by full force. Both Iron Man and The Dark Knight were recent successes, and Warner Brothers thought the time was right to dig deep into their catalogue of characters. Jonah Hex, a disfigured cowboy from the 1800s, had first appeared in All Star Western #10 (1972) by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga. Jonah Hex went into production in 2008, with a script that combined supernatural elements with traditional cowboy action.
The film starred Josh Brolin, Megan Fox, John Malkovich and Michael Fassbender, and was made on a relatively light budget of $47 million. Released in 2010, negative reviews blasted the movie for being confusing, and a general lack of awareness from audience members meant that it only brought it about $10 million, making it an official box office bomb.
8. HIT: DEADPOOL
When Deadpool was finally released to theaters in 2016, it seemed like a miracle. The fact that it was able to earn over $360 million in the U.S. off a budget of just $58 million was even more amazing. After Reynolds’ highly unpopular depiction of Wade Wilson in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), it seemed like the merc’s chances of Hollywood fame were slim to none.
Fox had attempted to put Deadpool into production in 2010, but balked based on the film’s R-rated tone. Also, a string of failures made it seem like Ryan Reynolds’ leading man days were over. It was only after test footage leaked online that Fox agreed to move ahead. Based on the (relatively) tiny budget and February release date, it seemed like the studio had little faith in Wade Wilson. Luckily, audiences embraced Reynolds’ comic book accurate depiction of the merc with a mouth.
7. MISS: FANTASTIC FOUR
It’s become such a notable failure that it’s hard to remember that there was a time when people were hopeful that Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four (2015) could redeem Marvel’s first family. The film rebooted the series from Tim Story’s two previous entries, which were successful but not beloved. Trank had impressed audiences with Chronicle (2012), so fans were hoping to see a film that took the source material a little more seriously.
The final product, however, was a brooding, oddly paced film that featured almost no action at all. Stories circulated about a troubled production, massive reshoots being forced on Trank and heavy studio interference. Regardless of the reasons, audiences shunned the film and it failed to recoup its production and marketing costs, killing any hope of seeing more Fantastic Four films in the near future.
6. HIT: SIN CITY
Frank Miller’s noir crime series “Sin City” seemed like a good fit for Hollywood, but Miller was reluctant to sign away the rights. It wasn’t until Robert Rodriguez showed him test footage that looked just like the comic that Miller agreed. The movie went into production, but it’s unusual filming style worried many. The film was shot almost entirely on green screen, and many actors who appeared in the same scenes often filmed them separately.
Also, instead of telling one cohesive story, the film adapted several individual stories that were only loosely connected. Also, no screenwriter was credited on the film, because Rodriguez used the original graphic novels as his script, with only minor changes made. The unusual method worked, and “Sin City” (2005) took home over $150 million worldwide at the box office.
5. MISS: THE SPIRIT
With the success of Sin City (2005) and 300 (2006), it seemed like movies that looked like Frank Miller comics were the next big thing. Miller was given the opportunity to direct his own with The Spirit (2008), based on the Will Eisner comic strip that first appeared in 1940. The film was shot with the same technique as Sin City and 300, with a heavily stylized noir appearance.
Unfortunately, lightning didn’t strike a third time for Miller. The Spirit received mostly negative reviews, with many criticizing Miller’s storytelling skills. The film had a budget of $60 million, but was only able to bring in about $38 million worldwide. Since then, Miller’s only directing credit was a for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014), which failed to live up to the original film’s success.
4. HIT: WONDER WOMAN
Having first appeared back in 1941 in All Star Comics #8 by William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter, Wonder Woman has gone on to become one of the most iconic characters in pop culture. Warner Brothers had attempted to get a Wonder Woman movie into production since the mid ’90s, but not even Joss Whedon could launch the property.
It wasn’t until her appearance in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) that WB could get the film into production with Patty Jenkins directing. Unfortunately, the reaction to “Batman V Superman” wasn’t the best, and many fans worried that Wonder Woman would have the same bleak tone. A seemingly weak marketing campaign made others worried that WB didn’t have a lot of faith in the film. After bringing in almost $800 million, it’s pretty safe to say that Wonder Woman proved the worriers wrong.
3. MISS: SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE
After making audiences believe that a man could fly in 1978, the Superman films had fallen apart by the mid ’80s. Superman III (1983) was an awkward combination of slapstick comedy and superhero action, and Supergirl (1984) was a flop. The rights to the film series were sold to Cannon Films, which produced Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987).
The production was plagued with budget issues, and reportedly ran out of money midway through. Cheap special effects and a bizarre story about nuclear disarmament and cloning Superman’s hair led to disaster. The film only brought in about $15 million domestically, a far cry from the original film’s $130 million take. It would be nearly 20 years before Superman returned to the big screen with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which wisely ignored this film’s story completely.
2. HIT: BLADE
As previously mentioned, the ’90s weren’t a good era for superhero movies, with movies like Batman and Robin (1997) nearly killing the genre. First appearing in Tomb of Dracula #10 (1973) by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, Blade was a relatively minor comic book character at the time. If Batman was struggling at the box office, what hope did this guy have?
The film didn’t look like a comic book movie, replacing the colorful costumes with black leather and sunglasses. Also, it was rated R, meaning that young fans who knew of the character from his appearances in the comics or Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994) couldn’t get in. Luckily, there were plenty of grown ups who thought the idea of “Wesley Snipes using kung fu to kill vampires” was an awesome idea, and Blade (1998) not only became a success, but also saved an entire genre.
1. MISS: CATWOMAN
Like Superman, the Batman franchise had fallen from grace at the box office. After Batman and Robin (1997), the caped crusader disappeared from theaters for nearly a decade. Warner Brothers’ attempt to expand the franchise with Catwoman (2004) resulted in one of the strangest (and least successful) superhero adaptations ever.
Originally meant to spin off from Batman Returns (1992) and star Michelle Pfeiffer, years of rewrites somehow resulted in a story about a woman named Patience Phillips who is killed and resurrected with Egyptian cat powers. The final product had almost no connection to the popular comic book character, and was widely panned by critics. The film only made about $82 million on a $100 million budget, and even star Halle Berry has referred to it as a “god awful movie” (among other, less polite comments).
Will Justice League join the ranks of surprise hits, or will it be a huge swing and a miss for Warner Brothers? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
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