Is The Bubble Expanding On Superhero Films?

Last year, there was a lot of speculation about the lasting power of superhero films. Many believed that they were on the way out due the way they underperformed in the box office in 2011.

There were three films in 2011 based on Marvel Comics characters (Thor, X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger) while DC Comics’ Green Lantern was also released as a film. While the Marvel films did respectably in the box office they weren’t supersized hits like The Dark Knight or the first Iron Man movie. Still they were well-received by fans and critics and did well enough to warrant sequels.

Green Lantern however, was a different story. As everyone knows, the film was a huge disappointment to many fans and didn’t make a lot of money. According to Box Office Mojo, the big-budgeted Green Lantern only earned $116 million with a worldwide total of $222 million domestically.

Many factors went into account for the disappointing box office sales in 2011. Some blamed the lack of popularity of some characters. The general public may know who Batman is, but brining up Green Lantern would raise eyebrows. With X-Men: First Class, many said that it may have made more money if it featured more well-known mutant characters and if the franchise didn’t have the stigma of recent inferior entries. Others pointed to a general burnout for such films and inferior 3D conversions (which thanks to bad word-of-mouth would dampen sales). Unless the film was phenomenal many would rather wait for DVD.

With that, while this year’s crop of films had fairly positive buzz late last year, there were concerns when 2012 began as to how good this year’s superhero films would turn out. Nerves weren’t helped by the failure of Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance but the superhero genre showed earlier this year that it had some life left with the success of Chronicle. There seemed to be cautious hope that The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises would do well. The heavy-hitting properties starring the companies’ flagship heroes were to affirm the popularity of superhero films.

Of course, the release of The Avengers changed everyone’s perceptions about superhero films. It featured characters that were seeded years earlier, so that lesser-known heroes like Hawkeye were paired up with superstars like Iron Man. But more importantly the film was well made and able to generate a super-frenzied buzz before its release. To date The Avengers has made $598 million domestically and nearly a staggering $1.5 billion worldwide according to Box Office Mojo.

Seemingly overnight, upcoming superhero films are now highly anticipated regardless of past hesitations. For example, while many fans decried Bane’s voice in early trailers for The Dark Knight Rises, adjustments were made to alleviate those concerns, even though the jury is still out on Catwoman. The final Christopher Nolan Batman film will undoubtedly do well. It may not perform as well as The Avengers but count on it being one of the year’s biggest hits.

The Amazing Spider-Man is also poised to do well. There are many detractors about the validity of a reboot so soon after Sam Raimi’s trilogy but many are impressed by what’s being shown on clips and trailers and it has a major marketing push behind it (plus this year being Spidey’s 50th anniversary can’t hurt). The film will probably finish behind The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises in terms of sales. Another factor that could help the new Spider-Man film is that it is coming in a bit of a lull between the other two superhero films. Currently, other films are topping the charts but don’t seem to have the staying power that The Avengers had and The Dark Knight Rises will probably dominate the box office for the remainder of the summer.

If one or both of the upcoming superhero films reaches blockbuster status expect the floodgates to open even further for future superhero films. Apparently stunned by the spectacular success of The Avengers, DC Entertainment announced that a Justice League film is in development. Anticipation seems to be growing over next year’s slate of superhero epics–Iron Man 3, The Man Of Steel, Thor 2 and The Wolverine. Furthermore, Marvel has announced that there will be follow ups to The Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men: First Class (with new stars like Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence reprising their roles) in 2014, as well as a new Captain America film, and another unannounced Marvel film. There are plans to bring back to the silver screen Daredevil and the Fantastic Four as well as big-screen debuts for Black Panther, Ant-Man, Wonder Woman, Lobo, and the Flash. Even Kick-Ass which only did respectably in theaters is getting a sequel.

At this point, it’s too early to say where all this will go, but two things are certain: 1) we’re in the Golden Age of Superhero Films and 2) despite some failures they are now a well-established movie genre that will stay for some time to come.

José Soto

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