It’s no great revelation to state that comic book movies are the dominant force in Hollywood these days. Heck, they’re arguably the dominant force in American culture.
But with the billions of dollars thrown at these CGI slugfests each year, the state of the superhero film is constantly analyzed by industry watchers. Will the past decade of dominance by capes and catastrophe films ever end? A look at the box office of comic adaptations from 2014 (because we all know money is the only thing that talks in Hollywood) provides some clues as to the health of the four-color tent poll industry.
Make America Marvel’s
While 2014 was seen as an anemic one across the domestic box office, Marvel Studios provided one of the year’s rare highlights. The studio’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” gave a surge to sagging numbers on its way to more than $332 million in North American ticket sales and the #1 spot of the year. Meanwhile, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” came in third with around $259 million (the latest installment of the “Hunger Games” series was in between them).
The performance is doubtlessly a feather in Marvel’s cap, though it’s important to note that despite their strong showing, even the powerhouse studio was still affected by the box office lag. Compare either of their 2014 hits to their past work, and Marvel’s year doesn’t look quite as dynamite. For example, “Iron Man 3” earned over $400 million in 2013 and wasn’t even the #1 movie in the country for that year. Still, Marvel continues to top the box office, and their universe-building format is the envy of all the other major Hollywood studios.
A bigger question may be whether the Marvel brand extends far out beyond Marvel Studios output. Close to home, Marvel’s parent Disney released the loose comic adaptation “Big Hero 6” which brought in an impressive $191 million for a 12th place finish. However, that performance may not be as tied to Marvel’s fortunes as it seems at first blush since Disney’s animation studio has been on its own upswing in recent years. Sure, “Big Hero 6” didn’t score anywhere near last year’s box office numbers for “Frozen” ($400 million), but it has already outpaced the previous Disney Studio success with “Wreck-In Ralph” ($189 million).
It was a mixed bag of a year for other studios’ licenses of the House of Ideas’ characters. On the upside, Fox’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” earned nearly $234 million, domestically. That was a marked improvement on the franchise’s soft reboot “First Class” which scored $146 million, as well as an increase from last year’s “The Wolverine” ($132 million) to make it the biggest X-Men movie yet. Whether this is due to renewed excitement about the franchises direction or the return of original helmer Bryan Singer, the numbers bode well for the incoming “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
However, returns were soft for beleaguered Sony Pictures’ “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Though it brought in $202 million in the U.S. (and even more from its overseas performance), the second Marc Webb take on the webslinger fell prey to the classic Hollywood trap of broken expectations. “Amazing 2” earned a weak rating from many analysts as it was the lowest performing entry in the five-film run. Where that leaves Spidey’s film future is anybody’s guess at this point, especially as the recent leaks from the Sony Pictures hack show a studio in disarray with regard to the future of what was once its most lucrative franchise.
DC Takes The Year Off…Or Does It?
With all the Marvel moves, 2014 looked at the outset like another year where DC Comics wouldn’t see any counterpoint on screen. And sure, Warner Bros’ closely watched “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” only truly began filming this year and won’t be seen until 2016. That makes it hard to make any kind of comparisons between the traditional funnybook rivals when it comes to Hollywood. But in its own way, DC did make a splash at the box office in 2014 with “The LEGO Movie.”
The Warner-produced animated comedy came in fourth overall at the box office with $257 million — barely behind “The Winter Soldier.” And while the work of writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (to say nothing of the immense popularity of the building block toy) can take most of the credit for the film’s success, one of the best reviewed elements of the film was Will Arnett’s portrayal of the vain LEGO Batman. The performance of the mini Dark Knight was so well received that Warners is looking to expand the animated franchise to include solo LEGO Batman movies — building a new lateral plank for the DC franchise.
Beyond that, DC and Warner Animation continue to dominate the home video market with their original animated offerings. The studio released three DC Universe original animated movies this year with “Justice League: War,” “Son of Batman” and “Batman: Assault on Arkham.” And with the former two being part of the new interconnected DC DVD Universe heavily inspired by the New 52 comics, both films performed slightly higher than the last wave of DC animated movies with “Son of Batman” earning over $5 million in combined DVD and Blu-ray sales. “Assault on Arkham” faired less well, but remained within the range of past DC releases at nearly $4 million and still has time to capitalize on its connection to the popular “Arkham” video games before more DC videos arrive.
And even without DC in theaters this year, the box office was rife with non-Marvel franchises that fit the superhero mold. Coming in fifth overall on the year was Paramount’s latest Michael Bay extravaganza in “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” The kind-of-a-reboot of the Hasbro universe earned $245 million domestically and was a major hit overseas — proving that while people love to complain about the “style over substance” explosions of Bay’s work, they also remain happy to pay to see it.
Paramout also scored with its now in house franchise “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” With $191 million domestic box office, the latest adaptation of the Kevin Eastman/Peter Laird-created, Viacom-owned property exceeded the expectations of Hollywood and earned itself a sequel. Even without a capes property to call its own, it looks as though the studio will be able to compete with Marvel and DC for fan eyeballs in the years to come.
The Death of the Indie Comic Film?
One area of the comic book box office where the bottom truly fell out in 2014 was movies based on non-superhero stories. Eight years back, Hollywood was convinced that Frank Miller’s mix of macho leading men and stylized violence were going to be as important for the future of comic movies as they were for the comics medium. But looking back on this year, that prophecy has faltered.
“300: Rise of An Empire,” the Warner Bros. sequel to Zack Snyder’s breakout hit, brought in only $106 million with its spring release. The original adaptation of Miller’s Dark Horse graphic novel earned twice as much in 2007, on a smaller budget. While it can be argued that the sequel had neither its original star or Snyder at the lead to stoke interest, it appears the franchise may be dead in theaters.
Similarly, Robert Rodriguez and Miller’s take on “Sin City: A Dame To Kill For” was DOA for the Weinstein Company. The film earned only $13 million at the box office, which is a far cry from the $74 million the original brought in nine years ago. Perhaps with “Sin City” and “300” both, the studios just waited too long to strike with these once hot properties. Either way, it appears that after a lackluster appearance from his own directorial debut “The Spirit” and an arguable lessening of his status amongst die hard comics readers, Miller is out of favor in tinseltown. But with Snyder expected to pull heavily from the artist’s work in “Batman v Superman,” another act may be in the offing.
Rounding out the comic book disappointments to hit this year was “Hercules” — a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicle that represented the culmination of occasional publisher Radical Entertainment’s ambition to turn comic books into blockbuster franchises. The film earned $72 million domestically, landing it in 39th place below films including “Let’s Be Cops” and “Dumb and Dumber To.” Unless another “drawn as a storyboard” comics project comes along to ignite the box office soon, the practice of publishing solely to earn Hollywood interest may be well and truly over.
On the slight upside, European graphic novel adaptation “Snowpiercer” earned over $4 million at the domestic box office despite a limited release and a simultaneous appearance on Video On Demand. With Captain America himself Chris Evans anchoring the sci-fi South Korean import, the film earned strong reviews and proved that there is a space in film for comic book stories that don’t fit the traditional “world is about to end” mold.
In that light, perhaps the most successful “comic book” movie of the year was Alejandro GonzÃ¡lez IñÃ¡rritu’s “Birdman.” The film has scored $22 million in the U.S. already and may receive another bump if it nabs a few Academy Award nominations. While the movie is in part a criticism against the ubiquity of superhero films currently dominating American film, it also proves that smaller personal works still have the power to connect to audiences in this franchise-driven age. That might be a lesson all the studios take to heart as they sally forth with their planned slates of comic book tent polls to come.
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