Is The Bubble Bursting On Superhero Films?

It seemed not too long ago that any kind of film dealing with superheroes made oodles of money and if the profits weren’t as astronomic as say The Dark Knight or Spider-Man then they were at least respectable.

But lately this hasn’t been the case which has been seen so far with this summer’s slate of box office superheroic offerings.  Three comic book-based films have been released Thor, X-Men: First Class (XFC) and Green Lantern. Their box office take has been interpreted by industry experts and insiders from either being merely respectable to disappointing.

Thor’s opening weekend take was $65 million and to date its total domestic earnings are just under $180 million and considering that the film has dropped out of the top ten and the upcoming slew of films one has to wonder if it will reach over $200 million. While certainly nothing to sneeze at (especially if its foreign earnings are accounted, bringing its totals to over $400 million to date) Thor has earned less than the original Iron Man.

As for XFC, the feeling is that while its highly regarded with great reviews, its domestic box office earnings after nearly a month in release is only in the $120 million dollar range. It opened on June 3 with $55 million which was the weakest among the X-Men films including X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

But perhaps the biggest and most surprising disappointing earner has to be Green Lantern.  With a budget in the $150-$200 million range and a dearth of publicity and the anticipation that it would be one of Warner Bros.’ tent pole films this summer, the film earned $53 million in its opening weekend.  Add to that its overseas take has been notably underwhelming (earning in its first week less than $20 million). With upcoming potential box office champs like Cars 2, the third Transformers  flick and the final Harry Potter it’s hard to see how it can remain competitive.

The same concern about the upcoming competition must be applied to the final summer superhero film to come Captain America: The First Avenger. By releasing it on July 22, Paramount, its studio, probably hopes to avoid the competition. But given that by late July the box office starts to simmer down and that it misses an obvious patriotic July 4 weekend release it does suggest a certain lack of confidence in its money-making potential and its ability to compete with the heavyweights. Maybe if Bin Laden had been killed around now that might helped build up enthusiasm among movie goers to Captain America.

Now there are plenty of explanations to go around for the underwhelming numbers. The most obvious one is that there are too many similar films competing at the same time which goes to the old supply and demand rule. That is something that studios have to seriously consider when planning release dates. Maybe if this summer’s films had been spaced further apart the results would’ve been different. This is something that must be frustrating for Marvel Studios since its Thor had to directly compete with XFC, which was released by Fox meaning that the Marvel’s characters had to face off against each other in theaters.

Another is that these films are based on second-tier comic book characters. However, the fact that although they’re  based on relatively unknown characters (outside of the comic book fan world)  and still made that much money is nothing to sneeze at. Just look at the fact that films released last year based on obscure characters (Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and Jonah Hex) either underperformed or were box office disasters and that was despite the fever pitch Internet chatter that the first two film properties generated.

In the past decade not every film based on a comic book hero has been a Dark Knight-type box office champion. The Punisher films are considered to be disappointments. Ghost Rider didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Both Hulk films merely did OK and he is a more recognizable character than say Green Lantern. Daredevil’s box office earnings barely made over $100 million. And Superman Returns, despite a massive marketing push by Warner Bros., just cracked the $200 million mark. But it’s usually a safe bet that a film based on a popular hero is a healthy return for the investment. Examples of that are the recent Batman films, and the Spider-Man and X-Men trilogies.

The other explanation for the so so box office is of course the quality of the films. Many of the above mentioned films weren’t well regarded by fans and critics alike. In the case of Kick Ass, despite favorable reviews, almost no one has heard of the character so it was difficult to generate the buzz that someone more well known would guarantee. With XFC, its earnings may unfortunately be due to ill timing and franchise burnout. The previous mutant offerings (X-Men: The Last Stand and the Wolverine film) have been derided by fans and critics and soured many to the X-Men franchise. While XFC is a step to rectify past blunders it may be too early to have an X-Men film out. Perhaps Fox should’ve let the franchise rest a while to build up demand (one problem with letting franchises based on Marvel Comic characters rest is that Disney now owns the comic book company and many studios that have certain Marvel properties must make films or else lose the rights to Disney. They will only let them go if they no longer deem them profitable) . Maybe the film lacked, aside from Magneto and Professor X, recognizable and popular characters like Wolverine and Storm.  Still what this summer’s superhero flicks have earned despite their handicaps is impressive in some ways and can’t be considered outright flops. So it really just serves as a caution for studios and a reminder that there are only so many comic book fans that can support a market for superhero films.

But next year will be the critical test to see if the bubble has burst. Why? Because the heavyweights are coming back. A new Batman film, reboots for Spider-Man and Superman and perhaps the biggest test, The  Avengers film featuring Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America. If these films have disappointing sales then it can truly said that the bubble has burst.

J.L. Soto

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