21 Comic-Book Films That Raked In Less Money Than Their Production Budgets, From Least Floppy to Most*
1. Watchmen (2009)
Production Budget: $130 million
Domestic Total Gross: $107,509,799 (83% of budget)
Why did it bomb? We are living in a golden age of comic-based movies, with the huge success of films like the Spider-Man and Dark Knight trilogies encouraging Hollywood to take a chance on adaptations of other comic titles. Watchmen, Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbon’s 1986 deconstruction of the superhero genre, is recognized among comic fans as one of the greatest graphic novels of the 20th century — but “among comic fans” doesn’t cover a whole lot of ticket buyers when you get right down to it. Aside from the challenges of marketing superheroes who are completely unknown to people outside the Comic-Con crowd, there was the delicate balancing act between giving the fans what they wanted (i.e., a faithful adaptation of the incredibly dense 12-issue mini-series) and translating the Watchmen’s forbidding subtext and time-jumping narrative in such a way that everything made sense. In the end, director Zack Snyder delivered a movie that was faithful enough (too faithful, sniffed some critics) to the source material, but also too dark and portentous for moviegoers trained to expect superhero movies that deliver a little humor and hope along with the big fight scenes. After Watchmen fans turned out in droves on opening night, the film’s box-office take fell a staggering 68% in 10 days, highlighting the risks of bankrolling any film that spends more than 20 years in development.
2. Batman and Robin (1997)
Production Budget: $125 million
Domestic Total Gross: $107,325,195 (85% of budget)
Why did it bomb? How does a movie that made more than $100 million at the box office qualify as a flop? When it cost $125 million to make, that’s how. Also, because it’s Batman and Robin. The first Batman movie (total budget: $35 million) scored more than $400 million in 1989 dollars, with follow-ups Batman Returns and Batman Forever coming in just shy of the $300 million mark. So hopes were riding high that director Joel Schumacher would repeat the success of Batman Forever with Batman and Robin, a movie packed with stars (Clooney! Schwarzenegger! Thurman! Silverstone! That guy from Scent of a Woman!), explosions and enough neon to light up the Vegas strip. But as it turned out, a little camp went a long way; Batman fans absolutely hated the overstuffed production, from Mr. Freeze’s incessant “ice to see you” puns, to the strained family-first themes, to the infamous Bat-nipples, to the complete and utter uselessness of Batgirl, Bane and… what was the name of Bruce’s girlfriend again? While merchandising and foreign ticket sales pushed the film into the black, studio heads got the message and rebooted the franchise with Batman Begins.
3. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Production Budget: $78 million
Domestic Total Gross: $66,465,204 (85% of budget)
Why did it bomb? Even if Alan Moore were a household name on par with, say, Stephen King, a movie about his book — a fun title featuring figures from Victorian fiction banding together, Avengers-style, to save the world — might have been a little too obscure for most moviegoers (remember the last time someone tried to turn Alan Quatermain into a film franchise? Exactly). No doubt figuring they had a lock on Moore’s fan base, the producers brought in Sean Connery for extra marquee appeal, and also made sure audiences knew all about the dazzling set pieces, special effects and high-octane explosions. Presumably, these elements were added to keep everyone from noticing the Nautilus-sized holes in the plot (like how a massive submarine could cruise through Venice’s canals undetected, or how a thrilling car chase could take place in an era that had barely discovered internal combustion). Then there was the decision to add a grown-up Tom Sawyer (who never appeared in the original books) as some kind of American government agent, because God forbid the Americans be forced to watch at least one movie that doesn’t have a red-blooded American in it. In the end, it came down to tone: the book was a master study in character development, with plot and shock value taking a back seat to Moore’s exploration of the characters’ motives and desires in a fully realized world where they don’t exist as lines of text in different books. The movie was just… loud.
4. Constantine (2005)
Production Budget: $100 million
Domestic Total Gross: $75,976,178 (76% of budget)
Why did it bomb? Fun fact: When John Constantine first appeared in DC’s Swamp Thing, the artists deliberately chose pop singer Sting as their model. So naturally, the only person who could portray him in his first feature film outing was… Keanu Reeves? And he’s not a British dabbler in black magic who acts like a carefree, smirking bastard while saving the world, but a brooding L.A. guy who can see the half-angels and half-demons that walk among us and fights demons to curry favor with Heaven because he once tried to kill himself and doesn’t want to end up in Hell? Whoa. You have to wonder why the producers even bothered paying DC for the rights to the character, given how far removed the final product is from the source material. The comic (dis)connection aside, Constantine fell prey to the same issues that has vexed other, similar supernatural thrillers in recent years: too reliant on special effects, too many clichéd renderings of angels and demons, and too little time spent explaining how one person’s efforts in one small corner of the world makes a whole lot of difference in the eternal battle between good and evil.
5. Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Production Budget: $163 million
Domestic Total Gross: $100,240,551 (61% of budget)
Why did it bomb? Hands up, now — how many of you even knew this one was based on a comic? Universal Pictures and DreamWorks bought the film rights to Scott Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel before it was even published, perhaps because they sensed a Western/sci-fi hybrid would be a can’t-miss in this age of mash-ups and genre-bending. And it certainly looked like a decent enough movie, with Iron Man director Jon Favreau at the helm and mega-stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford facing off against an army of aliens in a frontier town. The critics were mostly positive — Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs up, praising Favreau as someone who “actually develops his characters and gives them things to do, instead of posing them in front of special effects” — but it wasn’t a good sign when C&A tied for first place on its opening weekend with The Smurfs, a movie that (God help us) went on to gross almost $600 million and spawn a 2013 sequel while C&A barely recovered its costs. Maybe it was the cheesy B-movie title, maybe it was too weird an idea for the true-blue Western fans and the sci-fi fans to rally behind, or maybe it was the generic nature of the straight-from-video-game-central-casting alien invaders. Or maybe all of the above — whatever it was, don’t expect a sequel anytime soon.
6. Green Lantern (2011)
Production Budget: $200 million
Domestic Total Gross: $116,601,172 (58% of budget)
Why did it bomb? A tip for aspiring filmmakers: if you end up spending more than $200 million making a movie, make goddamn sure it’s a movie that’s worth $200 million. Warner Bros. took a big risk greenlighting (ha!) this project, as it was doubtful anyone outside the usual comic club would show up for a movie starring someone from the Justice League’s B-list. Superman, Batman and Spider-Man are names that everyone knows; Green Lantern, not so much. But heck, people loved Iron Man, right? Alas, Green Lantern didn’t have Robert Downey, Jr., in it. It also had the bad luck of coming out the same year as Marvel’s Thor, Captain America and X-Men: First Class, all of which generated more buzz among critics and fans, and Green Hornet, another film about a green-tinged hero that fizzled at the box office. But the filmmakers can’t blame a glut of superhero films for Green Lantern’s script, a bog-standard “origin/personal crisis/big fight scene” affair that tried to cram in as much of the Green Lantern mythos as possible while also trying to say something about responsibility, or facing your fears, or something. In the end, the whole “guy gets magic ring, fights big yellow fear monster” was just a little too comic-bookish for the large public to accept, and a lot of disappointed kids got discounted Green Lantern action figures in their stockings that Christmas (“with Power Slinger Cosmic Claw!”).
7. Elektra (2005)
Production Budget: $43 million
Domestic Total Gross: $24,409,722 (53% of budget)
Why did it bomb? 2003’s Daredevil was no great shakes artistically speaking, but it did well enough at the box office to keep talk of sequels alive. What moviegoers got instead was a spinoff in which Jennifer Garner reprised her role as Elektra, the morally conflicted assassin whose martial-arts training apparently included raising the dead and astral projection. All right, then. As I noted in a previous list about not-so-great movies about female superheroes, Garner was clearly out of her depth trying to find her character, but the real problem with the film was that it couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a superhero flick, a martial-arts film or a satire of both. A lack of bankable villains, ninjas that disappear in a puff of smoke and a climactic battle scene in which Garner looks like she’s taking her frustrations out on her laundry didn’t help much, either.
8. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Production Budget: $60 million
Domestic Total Gross: $31,524,275 (53% of budget)
Why did it bomb? So who should shoulder the blame for this one? The studio heads, for pouring $60 million into a modest script about a slacker guitarist and his search for love in a Canadian city? Michael Cera, for falling back on his stuttering, sensitive-guy shtick one time too often? The marketers, who put out a poster of Cera bent over a bass guitar that failed to show his face, much less convey any sense of what the movie was about? The city of Toronto, for not being a glamorous enough setting for American audiences? Maybe the real culprit was too much ambition: cartoonist Bryan O’Malley’s series of black-and-white comic novels has won several industry awards and enjoys a sizable cult following, but transferring its manga and video-game aesthetics to the big screen took something away from the uniqueness of the books’ visual impact. Or to put it another way: sometimes things that look cool in a comic don’t always work out on the screen. The critics were kind — Rotten Tomatoes rated it 81% based on 243 reviews, calling it “fast, funny and inventive” — but mainstream audiences mostly stayed away, choosing to park themselves in front of easier-to-categorize movies like The Expendables and Eat Pray Love. Put it this way: given the cost of a movie ticket these days, most moviegoers want to know what they’re getting, and a poster showing a bunch of aging ’80s action stars or Julia Roberts eating (while, one assumes, also praying and loving) makes it pretty clear what you’re going to get.
9. Priest (2011)
Production Budget: $60 million
Domestic Total Gross: $29,136,626 (49% of budget)
Why did it bomb? Remember Legion? Little blink-and-you-missed-it film in 2010 about humans caught in a war between heaven and hell? No? Okay, remember that one scene with the old lady who scampers up a wall like a spider? Right, now you remember. That film was made by the same director and star of Priest, a dark romp based on a Korean comic about a priest who fights vampires in an alternate world where humans and vampires have warred for centuries. While you might think there’s no way a good vampire thriller could go wrong in this day and age, the fact is… well, what has been done with vampires that hasn’t been done before? Didn’t Underworld and 30 Days of Night and a dozen other movies and TV shows about vampires and/or depressing futures cover this ground already? “Dull,” “derivative” and “clichéd” were some of the kinder words used by critics who did their part to keep audiences away from the carnage (literally and figuratively).
10. Surrogates (2009)
Production Budget: $80 million
Domestic Total Gross: $38,577,772 (48% of budget)
Why did it bomb? As I noted in a previous list about comic-book movies based on less-famous comic titles, Surrogates was based on The Surrogates, a 2005 title about a world where humans use robotic duplicates of themselves to interact with each other while they experience life from the comfort of their homes. Not that most moviegoers knew this, as the movie was pitched to them as a sci-fi thriller starring Bruce Willis doing what Bruce Willis would do in a world full of robots. It’s unlikely that adding “based on a comic book!” to the posters would have helped goose attendance figures; still, the fault lies with the movie’s marketing, which put the emphasis on the supposed way-coolness of robot avatars (as if robots and avatars were things that moviegoers hadn’t seen umpteen times before), and with the screenwriters, who shoved the book’s explorations of identity and existence aside to insert more of the bang-bang boom-boom stuff (see also: “been there, done that”).
11. Howard the Duck (1986)
Production Budget: $37 million
Domestic Total Gross: $16,295,774 (44% of budget)
Why did it bomb? The better question might be, How in God’s name did anyone believe this movie would succeed? Steve Gerber’s satirical mallard was a cult favorite in the ’70s (he even ran for president in ’76), but the character was a very odd choice to headline Marvel’s first attempt at a feature film since the Captain America serials of the 1940s. Blame George Lucas, who was a big Howard the Duck fan and was the first to consider adapting the comic, and Universal, which optioned the film solely out of fear of passing on a George Lucas project, which the studio had done before “a long time ago” (if you get my drift). First mistake: opting for a live-action film using 1980s technology, which meant little people wearing hugely freakish-looking duck suits. Second mistake: making Howard more relatable by taking the edge off his more obnoxious qualities. Third mistake: inserting a scene in which Howard starts to jokingly hit on his human friend, inserting the hideous image of hot duck-on-girl action into moviegoers’ minds. Fourth mistake: assuming two hours of lame duck puns (he reads Rolling Egg and Playduck, hyuk hyuk!) was funny after the first two minutes. Fifth mistake… eh, you get the idea. Response to the film was so bad that Universal president Frank Price was asked to resign after its release (which he did), but strangely no one threatened to tar and feather Lucas — which would have been appropriate, hilarious and ironic all at the same time.
12. Mystery Men (1999)
Production Budget: $68 million
Domestic Total Gross: $29,762,011
Why did it bomb? On paper, it probably looked like it couldn’t fail. Take some of the funniest people in Hollywood, pair them with some great actors eager to camp it up, turn them into a group of loser superheroes that succeed despite themselves, throw in a few great lines (“We’ve got a date with destiny, and it looks like she ordered the lobster!”) and some positive believe-in-yourself messaging, and watch the money roll in. For crying out loud, they even put Smash Mouth’s “All-Star” on the soundtrack! It’s exactly what the kids of 1999 wanted! Alas, the film, loosely based on Bob Burden’s indie Flaming Carrot comic, opened on the same day as The Sixth Sense, and it got a bit lost in all the hubbub surrounding that particular film. It also didn’t help that most moviegoers (typically not the biggest fans of superhero parodies) saw the huge cast and silly-on-purpose costumes and thought, “Meh, looks like an SNL sketch that goes on for too long.” Then there was that whole “power of super-flatulence” thing…
13. Catwoman (2004)
Production Budget: $100 million
Domestic Total Gross: $40,202,379 (40% of budget)
Why did it bomb? My best guess: because the filmmakers did everything in their power to piss off anyone who remotely cared about the character. Halle Berry’s Catwoman shares nothing with her DC counterpart except her name and a fetching physique; where the Catwoman in the comics is a wily, fiercely independent cat burglar with a heart of gold and a sordid past that says plenty about the plight of women in our society, Berry’s character is a mousey victim of an evil cosmetics executive brought back from the dead by a cat god so that she can avenge all dead cats. Or something. And the script! “Game over!” “Guess what? It’s overtime.” Oy. The film was so far removed from any previous version of Catwoman that fans could only laugh at how inept the whole thing was, while critics relished the opportunity to hurl as many “it’s a cat-astrophe!” puns as they could.
14. Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
Production Budget: $39 million
Domestic Total Gross: $14,271,015 (37% of budget)
Why did it bomb? I have to admit, I kind of liked this movie; the boy-band spoof at the beginning was a hoot and a half. And while the plot wasn’t exactly Citizen Kane (in a nutshell: all-girl band rockets to fame and fortune, uncovers diabolical mind-control plot that serves as a satirical commentary on the entertainment industry’s role in a consumerist society), it wasn’t a movie that made me want to throw away my DVD player, unlike other comic films I could mention, Catwoman. And let’s be honest, Tara Reid was born to play the role of the pleasant-looking but cognitively challenged Melody. But regardless of whether it was ironically intended, the wall-to-wall product placement (in one scene, a shower stall is plastered with the McDonald’s logo for no reason whatsoever) muffled the movie’s message about how consumerism can be a bad thing. And the music? It wasn’t all that great, which is a slight drawback for a movie about musicians.
15-16. Judge Dredd (1995)/Dredd (2012)
Production Budget: $90 million (Judge Dredd)/$50 million (Dredd)
Domestic Total Gross: $34,693,481 (39% of budget)/$13,414,714 (27% of budget)
Why did they bomb? It’s hard to imagine a comic character less suited for a film career than Judge Dredd, the humorless law enforcer of Mega City One who first appeared in Britain’s 2000 AD in 1977. Conceived as an ironic commentary on our fascist tendencies and love of “tough cop” types, Dredd’s full face is never shown in the comics because, as creator John Wagner once said, “It sums up the facelessness of justice.” That Sylvester Stallone chose to doff Dredd’s trademark helmet is just one of the first film’s many deviations from the source material that Dredd fans (Dreddheads?) hated; the presence of Rob Schneider as Dredd’s annoying sidekick was another, along with a potential love interest for Dredd (sacrilege!). Later, Wagner summed up his feelings about the film as “the story had nothing to do with Judge Dredd, and Judge Dredd wasn’t really Judge Dredd.” On the other hand, Wagner had quite a bit of praise for 2012’s Dredd, calling it “a true representation of Judge Dredd” and singling out Karl Urban’s performance as the gravel-voiced enforcer. The critics agreed, with many praising the grim, gritty and ultra-violent tone that was missing from the earlier film. So why did it fail to earn back its $50 million budget, with only $36 million in box-office receipts worldwide? Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo perhaps said it best: “Dredd’s awful performance is the latest example of how the Comic-Con/online fanboy crowd just doesn’t make up a large portion of the moviegoers in this country… [T]he fanboy audience was very aware of this movie ahead of release, and anticipation seemed to be pretty high among this group as well. Ultimately, though, it’s just not a big enough group to drive strong business.”
17. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Production Budget: $35 million
Domestic Total Gross: $8,050,977 (23% of budget)
Why did it bomb? Marvel’s skull-sporting vigilante hasn’t had much luck finding fans outside the comic shop; his first big-screen outing in 1989 ended up going direct to video in the U.S., while 2004’s The Punisher (the one with Tom Jane and John Travolta) barely broke even at the box office. War Zone started out as a sequel to the 2004 film, but it turned into something altogether different after Jane pulled out and the script went through rewrites, ramping up the violence and mayhem enough to earn War Zone an R rating, a first for a Marvel movie. Dark, relentless and lacking an outsized villain like Travolta’s Howard Saint, War Zone was torn to pieces by critics who called it uninspired, disgusting and a punishment in itself to watch. Oddly enough, the film’s notoriety as a well-made bad movie has won it some cult appeal; comedian Patton Oswalt defended the film in a blog post, writing that the over-the-top mayhem and carnage “is contained in one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve seen this year.” So at least there’s that.
18. Jonah Hex (2010)
Production Budget: $47 million
Domestic Total Gross: $10,547,117 (22% of budget)
Why did it bomb? Jonah Hex is one of those characters that you’d think would be impossible to screw up: he comes with a great backstory, sports a distinctive look that elicits both fear and sympathy, and has the kind of strong, silent presence that would make him the perfect role for, say, a younger Clint Eastwood. But screw it up Warner Bros. did, mostly with a script that gave Hex (a pointedly non-superpowered character in DC’s stable) the never-before-seen supernatural ability to communicate with the recently dead. Then there was the questionable decision to take the remorseless bounty hunter out of his Old West setting and plop him in the middle of a daft plot about a stolen superweapon and a plan to destroy Washington, D.C. — a decision almost as bad as casting the theatrically challenged Megan Fox as Hex’s ass-kicking sidekick/prostitute love interest. At only 81 minutes, the best you can say about Jonah Hex is that at least it doesn’t waste a lot of your time.
19. Son of the Mask (2005)
Production Budget: $84 million
Domestic Total Gross: $17,018,422 (20% of budget)
Why did it bomb? 1994’s The Mask made $120 million on a $23 million budget and grossed more than $350 million worldwide, so it’s little wonder someone ordered up a sequel. But Son of the Mask didn’t arrive until 2005, by which time Jim Carrey had no interest in reprising his role as the rubber-faced, reality-bending anti-hero, and any semblance of a plot in Son of the Mask was thrown into the wood chipper to make room for an avalanche of CGI effects that turned a baby and a cute dog into camera-mugging horrors. Then there was the decision to completely erase the anarchic undertones of the Dark Horse comic or the edgy, salute-to-Tex-Avery humor of the original Mask movie, resulting in a family-friendly mess in which Jamie Kennedy’s character teaches Odin and Loki the importance of family (cue the audience soundtrack going “awwww”). The critics were unanimous in their hatred (“Parents who let their kids see this stinker should be brought up on abuse charges,” wrote one), and Son of the Mask earned the most Razzies that year, including one for Worst Remake or Sequel.
20. Tank Girl (1995)
Production Budget: $25 million
Domestic Total Gross: $4,064,495 (16% of budget)
Why did it bomb? As badly as Stallone’s Judge Dredd did at the box office, at least he can take pride in not having starred in the worst-performing comic-based movie that came out in 1995. Heck, he wasn’t even in the worst-performing movie based on a British cult comic and set in a dystopian future that came out that year. No, that dubious honor belongs to Lori Petty, who bears no blame for Tank Girl’s miserable performance at the box office. Nor should anyone blame Rachel Talalay, the producer who set out to make “the ultimate grrrrl movie” after receiving a copy of Jamie Hewlett’s and Alan Martin’s anarchic comic from her stepdaughter. The blame probably lies with studio executives that greenlit a $25 million budget for a movie based on a comic that hardly anyone had heard of, and then interfered mightily in the script to ensure the few moviegoers that had heard of Tank Girl were plenty pissed with the end result. For instance, in the book the Ripper characters are merely mutated kangaroos that can talk, while in the film they were turned into genetically modified super-soldiers with spliced kangaroo DNA that… wait, why am I even trying to explain how a film featuring mutant kangaroo super-soldiers failed to make money? It also didn’t help that the film, in trying to capture the multimedia feel of the book, used all manners of animation, still-graphics montages, animatronic makeup, prosthetics, song-and-dance routines, fake backdrops, holography, title cards, matte drawings and other techniques that don’t come cheap. Let’s just hope Ms. Petty bought something nice with her paycheque.
21. Steel (1997)
Production Budget: $16 million
Domestic Total Gross: $1,710,972 (11% of budget)
Why did it bomb? Good gravy, where to begin. Let’s start with the fact it was a movie based on John Henry Irons, an armor-clad character with a big hammer from the inner city (think Thor meets Iron Man meets Luke Cage) who had debuted only four years earlier in DC’s Superman comics. The producers backing the film purposely played down the superhero/fantasy elements, choosing to make a family-friendly film about a “super human being” that young black kids could believe in — a laudable goal, perhaps, but not the most surefire way to make money in Hollywood. The star of the show was Shaquille O’Neal, the pro basketball player who had previously set the acting world on fire with his tour de force performance as the genie in Kazaam. The costumer designers, taking the “blue-collar Batman” order to heart, produced a suit of armor that replaced comic-book Steel’s full face mask with one that exposed O’Neal’s lower face (an obvious design flaw for an armored hero going up against bullet-spraying opponents). In place of a memorable villain like the Joker or Magneto, former Brat Packer Judd Nelson was hired to ham it up as a crooked arms dealer who’s so evil he even sells his super-weapons to street criminals over the Internet! And the script? Well, they say seeing is believing:
— “Well, dip me in shit and roll me in breadcrumbs.”
— “Never underestimate your enemy and keep your gold out of sight. Eat the hot dog, don’t be one.”
— “It’s hammer time!”
— “Lookit here, boy! You ain’t Superman! And you damn sure ain’t gettin’ paid!”
— “I did the ironwork myself; I especially like the shaft.” (One of those wink-wink moments, since the character who said this is played by Richard Roundtree, who played Shaft in the classic 1971 film)
No surprise, the critics were merciless — “Why does Shaq hate us so much?” asked one — and audience numbers dropped an incredible 78 per cent between opening weekend and the following weekend. The moral: If you ever want to make a morally uplifting movie about a black guy putting on armor to save his neighborhood, at least make sure the damn suit doesn’t move like rubber when he walks.
* All figures are from Box Office Mojo and were accurate at time of writing. The Domestic Total Gross numbers reflect the amount of money made by the films in the domestic market (i.e. United States and Canada); worldwide totals and DVD/digital sales were not included.