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30 Huge Sci-Fi/Superhero Franchises (That Never Got Past The First Film)

With new sequels, prequels and cinematic universe installments hitting the screens every week, it's hard not to feel like IP rules everything around us. Get a franchise, and it’s dollar dollar bills, y’all. If something isn’t part of an ongoing franchise, that’s simply because it’s attempting to be the start of a new one. Even long-dormant and sometimes forgotten films are getting new installments in our modern age, with works like Mad Max: Fury Road, Trainspotting 2 and Split digging through past decades for the next big thing.

But while even auteurs like Call Me By Your Name’s Luca Guadagnino are talking sequels and post-credit scenes, there are always a few films that slip through the cracks sequel-less, though not from lack of trying. These one-and-dones had their moment in the sun, telling a single story and sometimes laying the tracks for future installments while not noticing the train derailing behind them. So let’s raise our blaster pistols, six shooters and power rings to offer a 21-gun salute to these fallen franchises that stumbled out the gate, never recovered, and were mercifully put out to pasture without a second thought, or indeed a second film (unless we’re so out of ideas in 2076 Hollywood decides Krull deserves another shot).

30 GREEN LANTERN (2011)

For those joining us from the Deadpool 2 post-credits scene timeline, you might not be familiar with this film. But in our world, before Ryan Reynolds was the Merc with a Mouth, he was People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, listening to whatever agent was telling him he needed that superhero franchise money.

Green Lantern was meant to be the movie that launched DC’s cinematic universe, helping them catch up with Marvel’s budding franchise while picking up the baton from Nolan’s due-to-conclude Batman series. What it proved to be was the ultimate superhero movie punchline; a bland origin story studio noted to death, too cookie-cutter to even garner a Man of Steel-esque stylistic commendation.

29 SPAWN (1997)

For an actor whose previous work in the superhero genre was two Toxic Avenger sequels and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, landing the lead role of Spawn must have seemed like a godsend to Michael Jai White. He'd get to tackle the iconic indie superhero in a film that promised “cutting edge” CGI.

Well, it’s no wonder White later went his own way in making his best known role, Black Dynamite. Spawn, a character never really well-regarded for his writing, was wildly mishandled by a studio who snapped up the rights before they even knew what they had, thrown together with haste, and saddled with some of the most laughable special effects this side of a Playstation 1.

28 THE GOLDEN COMPASS (2007)

Some films failed at trying to be the next Avengers, or the next Star Wars. The Golden Compass failed for trying to be the next Harry Potter and the next Lord of the Rings and the next The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (it was 2007, we all thought that was the next big thing) all at once.

A stacked cast, an Oscar-nominated director and an audience hungry for high fantasy couldn’t make this slogging adaptation of the His Dark Materials series materialize into any public interest. Though a sequel script was already penned and a third film planned, today all that remains of The Golden Compass is the bitterness some Transformers fans feel that their car-robots got beaten by polar bears for the Best Visual Effects Oscar.

27 FANTASTIC FOUR (2015)

Trying to relaunch the Fantastic Four in a post-Dark Knight world, Fox decided to bring on the grit (and conveniently do so right before the rights expired). They hired Chronicle director Josh Trank to bring his same flair for… perfectly adequate filmmaking to the Fantastic Four.

But when his erratic on-set activities and dismal dailies became too much to bear, Fox wrestled the picture from him, recut it to seemingly extract the entire second act, and tossed its Fantastic Frankenstein’s Monster onto screens hoping enough people would foolishly buy tickets to justify making a second film. But 'twas not to be. At least the film’s failure gave us a great run of tweets from Jeremy Slater, the film’s screenwriter, who took the failure in stride.

26 THE SPIRIT (2008)

When you think of the year 2008, you think of the year superhero cinema changed forever: The Dark Knight. Iron Man. The Spirit? Hollywood was blown away when Sin City, “co-directed” by notable filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and notably not a filmmaker Frank Miller, earned critical and audience acclaim, and executives quickly said “Let’s do that same thing again, but dump that visionary filmmaker and keep the old comic book man grumbling about Reagan and ladies of the evening!”

Perhaps putting unknown actor Gabriel Macht behind the mask of unknown-to-anyone-but-hardcore-nerds The Spirit was a bad call. Perhaps trusting a man who proved with The Dark Knight Strikes Again that he couldn’t even catch lightning in a bottle twice in his primary medium was a bad call. Who can say?

25 POWER RANGERS (2017)

Plenty of entries on this list are “gritty” reboots desperate to fast-track a franchise to the detriment of the story. But while the horrendous marketing and “edgy” art direction would suggest more of the same, the recent Power Rangers actually proved to be one of the most surprising and earnest action films of 2017.

From its inclusive cast to its surprisingly well-crafted action, Power Rangers deserved better than the lukewarm reception it got. The hope was that overseas box office could make up for a dismal domestic gross, but even the Asian markets seemingly didn’t click with this clever retooling.

24 THE LAST WITCH HUNTER (2015)

What happens when one of the world’s biggest action stars, known for wanting creative control, also has a passion for Dungeons & Dragons? You wind up with the passion/vanity project not even hardcore Riddick fans can justify: The Last Witch Hunter.

It’s unclear who the audience was for The Last Witch Hunter besides Diesel himself, but perhaps the studio thought there was some niche market for the franchise where they could keep pumping out under-seen sequels a la Underworld or Resident Evil. There has to be some explanation as to why Summit banked so hard on this “sword and sorcery in the streets of New York” saga. Unsurprisingly, this was the first and last Last Witch Hunter.

23 SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (2004)

While hits like Avatar and Alice in Wonderland have used the “digital backlot” technique to great success, no one could even conceive of an entirely CGI-set film before 2004-2005, when four heavy hitters came out swinging with their all-digital sets: Casshern, Immortal, Sin City and of course Sky Captain, all of which went on to spawn huge franchises…

Whats that? But Sky Captain was supposed to be so big! People don’t want throwbacks to '40s film serials? The bulk of this list is proof of that? But this had Jude Law, Angelina Jolie and a reanimated Lawrence Olivier! And so much dry map talk! Sky Captain’s effects left an undeniable impact behind the camera, but failed to make an impression on audiences.

22 SUPER MARIO BROS. (1993)

Despite being a notorious bomb whose own cast admitted to drinking between takes just to get through the production, there’s a good chance you saw this movie constantly if you were of a certain age. If so, you’re surely haunted by the tease at the end of the film where Daisy tells Mario and Luigi “You’re never gonna believe this,” but no sequel ever came about to tell you what she meant.

Screenwriter Parker Bennet subsequently claimed the tease was more an homage to Back to the Future than a plan for a sequel. Yet undeniably the studio had high hopes for the series, hopes that were dashed when the film earned less than half its budget.

21 CONSTANTINE (2005)

Much like the failed NBC TV series, the film version of the Hellblazer comics has its advocates out there. But when the highest praise one can offer is “It’s a good movie if you just don’t think of it as a John Constantine movie,” maybe you see where things went wrong.

The film suffered from being compared to Reeves’ The Matrix and the previous year’s theological thriller Hellboy, and the general consensus on the film has improved since its dismal debut. While the director tossed out the idea of a sequel in 2011, it seems the general public has moved on to Matt Ryan’s TV Constantine, leaving the Reeves version to the realm of the apocryphal.

20 VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)

When Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element polarized audiences, the consensus was that the public just wasn’t ready for something so visionary. But in a year where Thor: Ragnarok, The Shape of Water and even Okja found big audiences in the US, no such “misunderstood masterpiece” argument could be made.

Instead, the blame falls squarely at the feet of casting. This dazzling display of visual delights soars any time it ignores its two main characters, played by Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan. The two had zero chemistry, zero sense of what kind of movie they were in, and seemingly zero directorial oversight. Intended to be the first in a series of Valerian adaptations, audiences decided to leave the beloved space hero on the comic book page.

19 MYSTERY MEN (1999)

Strangely, even though seemingly every other film genre got revolutionized in 1999, there was only one superhero movie in that entire momentous year. That honor falls upon the far-ahead of its time Mystery Men, a film that doesn't work, but worked out better than it had any right to.

The strange thing about Mystery Men is its genesis. Rather than being intended as some extremely self-aware riff on stagnant superhero cinema, the rights to Mystery Men were acquired like so many others in the ‘90s, in a mad dash to get the next Batman as cheaply as possible. It failed to connect with audiences, but it did grace us with the internet’s national anthem, so it wasn’t a total wash.

18 WILD WILD WEST (1999)

Sure, 1999 may have been light on superheroes, but it brought us a hero by a different name: West. Jim West, desperado, rough rider, no ya don’t want… sorry. Say what you will, that song was a stone cold jam in the Big Willie days.

The infamous Wild Wild West, a steampunk adaptation of a 1960s show, managed to pierce the seemingly bulletproof career of Will Smith, and did so with a gatling gun. A notorious bomb, Wild Wild West won the Razzie for Worst Picture, though a fellow nominee was the revolutionary Blair Witch Project, so time hasn’t been totally kind to that year’s idea of “bad.” Hopes that WWW would be another Mission Impossible were toppled like a giant mechanical spider.

17 THE MUMMY (2017)

Universal had one of the original cinematic universes after it decided to have studio staples Abbott and Costello encounter several of their iconic movie monsters, but in the era of the modern blockbuster, any attempt to unite the Universal Monsters has been undead on arrival.

A whole entry could be devoted to Van Helsing, the admirable attempt at a multi-media franchise nobody asked for, but the more egregious attempt to grift audiences came when Universal announced its “Dark Universe”. The cast for the following entries in the series, including a Johnny Depp Invisible Man and a Bill Condon directed Bride of Frankenstein, were all announced before Tom Cruise’s Mummy even hit screens, and were promptly cancelled as soon as the credits rolled.

16 JONAH HEX (2010)

You guys remember that short window of time where Megan Fox was foisted into everything, reason be darned? That’s perhaps the only reason one might remember Jonah Hex, a film that showed not even Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 stand-out Josh Brolin could make any comic book hero work.

Sure, in the comics Jonah Hex is cool as hell, and with a stacked cast including Michael Fassbender and John Malkovich, it seemed like we were in for some top shelf entertainment. But even the DC comics logo couldn’t convince modern audiences to flock to a western, and elements like a “super weapon” invented by Eli Whitney might have been a bridge too far even for those willing to give it a chance.

15 THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010)

The collective internet is kind of like the little kid in AI: Artificial Intelligence. When it loves something, that love is the most passionate, powerful and awe-inspiring thing. And if you even slightly interfere with that love in any way, it will destroy you with a cold, mechanical fury.

So, M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the beloved Nickelodeon children’s series Avatar: The Last Airbender was never going to please the internet. The problem is it also didn’t remotely entertain anyone else. A truly dismal film from an often unfairly lambasted director, Shyamalan took his lumps on this one, and quite frankly deserved every one. Then again, if Split is any indication, he could whip out a surprise Airbender sequel in 2027.

14 THE SHADOW (1994)

Too much credit cannot be given to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman for defining blockbuster cinema for the next few decades. Its carefully crafted atmosphere, heightened realism and serious artistic attention gave audiences what they never knew they craved, and studios were quick to take the wrong lessons and simply chuck comic strip characters in art deco settings.

If that aesthetic worked for any of those slapped-together super-slogs (the less said about The Phantom, the better), it’s The Shadow. While Alec Baldwin is undeniably miscast as Lamont Cranston -- his Tibetan flashbacks now feeling more like an SNL sketch than an origin story -- the film does have a certain stylistic charm. Unfortunately, that charm just didn’t translate to ticket or merchandise sales.

13 STEEL (1997)

There are two notable films entitled Steel. One is from 1933 in Italy, where its documentary-like qualities helped usher in the Italian neo-realism movement. The other is from 1997, where the mechanical acting of Shaquille O’Neal both in and out of his metal suit helped America realize Kazaam might be the high-point of Shaq’s dramatic skill set.

On paper, and especially on the comic book page, Steel seemed like a good idea. No less than super-producer Quincy Jones wanted to get the popular supporting character on the big screen in a solo film. Yet pinning the future of your entire franchise to the hope that people would want to see a center for the Lakers recite lines isn’t the smartest bet.

12 KRULL (1983)

A whole article could be written just about bad attempts to replicate the success of Star Wars; from Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars to current Star Wars owner Disney’s own The Black Hole. But if any film seemed poised to actually capture that Star Wars magic, it was Krull.

The tale of Prince Colwyn, the Black Fortress and of course his magical Glaive, Krull is a bizarre collision of everything from Star Wars to Conan the Barbarian to Clash of the Titans and even Zardoz. This confluences of influences and coincidence dropped Krull in an oddly crowded market of misshapen movie mixtapes, and its nonsensical story, while earning the film cult status, also meant nobody was asking for more.

11 BATTLESHIP (2012)

We’re gonna tell you something now that will sound absurd, but stick with us: Battleship ain’t that bad. Seriously. It’s not great, but it’s the kind of trashy fun that, were it released today with, say, The Rock as its lead, it would coast to a cool couple hundred million.

Unfortunately, Battleship docked in theaters in the middle of Michael Bay backlash, when blockbusters like Skyfall, The Avengers and Hunger Games were garnering Oscar buzz, and when the very idea of a board game based movie caused critics to turn up their nose. Peter Berg has since proved himself a director of note with films like Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, but his little boat movie just couldn’t weather that perfect storm.

10 AFTER EARTH (2013)

Wild Wild West was thought to be the worst it could ever get for the World’s Biggest Star Will Smith. The Last Airbender was believed to be the lowest the career of “The Next Hitchcock” M. Night Shyamalan could sink. Then the two teamed up and bet it all on the electrifying energy of…Jaden Smith.

After Earth was expected to be huge. Few films preemptively produced as much world-building merch, from prequel comics and “in-universe” texts to protagonist Kitai’s journal. But don’t let the fact that people are still, in the year of our Lord 2018, still updating the After Earth wiki fool you: this film was not well-received.

9 THE LONE RANGER (2013)

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Disney takes a big financial risk on a new swashbuckling action-adventure film. There’s behind-the-scenes drama. The reviews only harp on about the behind-the-scenes mess, leading to terrible box office returns. If you said Lone Ranger, you’re right. If you said Solo, you’re also right. If you said John Carter…you get the point.

The Lone Ranger is painfully overlong, and the much-maligned Depp does a bit too much mugging to the camera for anyone’s taste. Yet, the film does contain an absolutely riveting final train chase and some delightful practical effects. Disney saw the positives and banked on a huge future for the franchise. The problem is nobody wound up seeing the film.

8 THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (2015)

It’s never a good sign when a film takes more than 20 years to happen. Since 1993, countless names have been attached to adapt the 1960s spy series, ranging from Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney to Quentin Tarantino and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Finally, Guy Ritchie took the reins and locked down Superman and The Lone Ranger to lead the international espionage story. Originally meant to be released in February, where it could have possibly pulled some Kingsman numbers, Warner Bros. foolishly pushed the film to August. Met with mixed reviews and little public familiarity with the property, this simple little spy thriller self-destructed at the box-office.

7 THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES (2013)

We could devote an entire piece just to “Failed Young Adult Novel Adaptations Trying To Be The Next Harry Potter” and probably run out of room on our server. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, I Am Number Four, Beautiful Creatures; every one a one-and-done. Yet, Mortal Instruments’ persistence is what stands out.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones producers, confident they were the next big thing, made so much merchandise that it could still be found in Toys R Us liquidations sales half a decade later. Even after the film bombed, they tried to justify a sequel based on “increased book sales and soundtrack revenue.” A later TV adaptation managed to squeeze out three seasons, but interest in the film remains bone dry.

6 SGT. KABUKIMAN N.Y.P.D. (1990)

The saga of Troma Entertainment, the most successful cult movie company that never should have worked, is full of ups and downs, but this 1990 superhero film is by far its greatest folly. The Toxic Avenger, Troma’s most recognizable film, was a hit in the US but even bigger in Japan. While there to film Toxic Avenger 2, Troma’s auteur Lloyd Kaufman was approached by the Namco company to produced a Kabuki themed superhero, for which they offered $1.5 million.

Had Kaufman abided by the company’s request for a family-friendly film, we could have seen a wave of sequels and animated series overseas. Instead, Kaufman’s penchant for risqué content won out, and the film failed to even reach screens for six years.

5 THE ROCKETEER (1991)

The Rocketeer was greenlit, legend has it, after Michael Eisner saw Burton’s Batman and loudly howled “You people want Art Deco? I’ll give ya all the Art Deco you can handle!” Joining the long list of superhero movies, and seemingly even longer list of movies about that zany Howard Hughes fella (seriously, there are too many), The Rocketeer was expected to be the net big thing.

In a world of Bioshock, Agent Carter and DC Bombshells, a movie like The Rocketeer would thrive. Sadly, 1991 was the time of Sonic the Hedgehog, Ren & Stimpy and a year shy of Spawn. People didn’t want throwbacks, they wanted cool, edgy, and new, so the glossy, gorgeous, and genuinely fun Rocketeer crashed and burned.

4 HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)

Here it is. The first ever theatrically released film based on a Marvel comics character. Before Iron Man, before Spider-Man, there was a vision from the man behind Star Wars to bring one of his favorite characters to the big screen in animated form.

Perhaps, as Lucas intended, an animated Howard the Duck might have been a hit. But contractual obligations landed us with a bizarre live action entity, complete with a horrendous duck costume, some inter-species bedroom antics and later-convicted criminal Jeffrey Jones. You know, all the stuff that makes for a hit family film. An infamous bomb, Howard at least made a return to the screen in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

3 DOCTOR MORDRID (1992)

There was a time where Marvel was so misguided, it sold off the film rights to its iconic characters for a pittance to anyone who would take them. Everyone knows about how B-movie maestro Roger Corman got the rights to the Fantastic Four, but few know that Full Moon Features -- producers of the Puppet Master series -- once held the rights to Doctor Strange.

That’s because Full Moon Features let the rights run out before production began, and then simply decided to recycle all the work they had done into a film for a “totally original” wizard character named Doctor Mordrid. Though director Charles Band and actor Jeffrey Combs made magic happen with Re-Animator, they couldn’t catch lightning in a bottle twice with this sad knockoff.

2 FLASH GORDON (1980)

The Baby Boomers have a lot to atone for in their time on earth, but perhaps the greatest of all questions they’ll need to answer is why they let madman Dino De Laurentiis have free reign in Hollywood for decades. From the audacity of remaking King Kong to thinking the Eraserhead guy could make the next Star Wars with Dune, few De Laurentiis ideas have aged well.

The best example of what is both loved and loathed about De Laurentiis can be found in Flash Gordon, a blatant attempt to rip-off Star Wars by rebooting the very thing Star Wars ripped off. Though it performed well in its day (it was the '80s), no franchise ever sprung from the bizarre cult film.

1 DICK TRACY (1990)

If ever there was a surefire franchise, this was it. Hollywood hitmaker Warren Beatty pulled out all the stops for this passion project, getting his celebrity friends to fill the rogues gallery, his girlfriend Madonna to play the femme fatale, and collecting what is to date the most Oscars ever won by a comic book movie, including one for Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim.

So why was there never a sequel to the hit film? Well, a legal dispute between Beatty and the Tribune Content Agency stalled plans, and by the time the suit concluded in 2013, public interest had completely dissipated. Yet, Beatty still clings to the rights, even creating an almost-unseen Dick Tracy TV Special in 2008 solely to retain the film rights.

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