14 Not-So-Great* Comic-Book Movies That Somehow Grossed At Least $100 Million at the Box Office**
1. Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Domestic Total Gross: $100,240,551
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 44%
What went wrong? It’s not like genre mash-ups haven’t worked before, and considering some of the talented names behind this movie (Iron Man director Jon Favreau, Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig) it should have been a home run. Plus it’s got cowboys! And aliens! Throw in some transforming robots and fart jokes and it would have been every 10-year-old kid’s dream come true. But they didn’t make this movie for 10-year-old kids, they made it for… well, damned if I know. One minute, it’s a plays-it-straight Western that isn’t quite as majestic as the best John Ford films you can think of; the next, it’s a comic-book shoot-’em-up that isn’t quite as fun or irreverent as one of Favreau’s Iron Man flicks. And when the aliens that take up exactly half of your movie title make the aliens from Independence Day look like fleshed-out antagonists with plausible motives… well, you’ve got a problem.
Best critic’s line: “Cowboys & Aliens could have been the tangelo of genre-blenders. Instead, it’s more like the Jimmy Dean Chocolate Chip Pancake & Sausage on a Stick.” (Richard Corliss, Time)
2. Daredevil (2003)
Domestic Total Gross: $102,543,518
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 45%
What went wrong? Let’s just come right out and say it: Ben Affleck is not the reason why Daredevil failed to achieve the box-office successes of the first Spider-Man and X-Men films. Colin Farrell clearly had a great time playing the villainous Bullseye, Michael Clarke Duncan was an inspired choice for Kingpin, and the special effects they used to visualize Daredevil’s “radar-sense” were actually pretty neat. So what went wrong? Let’s start with the script, which turned the morally principled defender of Hell’s Kitchen into a bloodthirsty jerk who chases perps in front of oncoming subway trains. Or the way Elektra’s story arc was radically compressed compared to its comic-book origins, giving us a woman out to avenge her father’s death — after she had oh-so-coincidentally spent years perfecting her martial-arts skills. Bleh.
Best critic’s line: “The dialogue is dreadful, a stale sort of hokum that wouldn’t make the cut at Marvel Comics.” (John Anderson, Newsday) [Chosen because the writer was clearly not acquainted with some of the more crap-encrusted output from Marvel Comics circa 2003. See also: Marville]
3. 300: Rise of An Empire (2014)
Domestic Total Gross: $105,891,155
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 42%
What went wrong? The 2007 film adaptation of Frank Miller’s Greek epic 300 grossed more than $450 million on a budget of $65 million, making a sequel all but inevitable. Absent the star power of Gerard Butler’s nipples or director Zack Snyder’s (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) vision, the makers of Rise of an Empire relied heavily on gore… lots and lots of gore. In 3-D, even. Which is not to say that original 300 was a tea party, but there was at least the semblance of a story to go with the gore, certainly compared to Rise of an Empire, where they just inserted shots of bare-chested soldiers pontificating about this or that to break up the many scenes of blood and viscera spurting from every conceivable angle. Come for the violent sex and the sexy violence; stay for the barely veiled xenophobia and OH GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY JUST CUT OFF HIS—-
Best critic’s line: “Every chest [is] shaved and oiled and criss-crossed with leather straps until even the Oracle of Delphi could not tell if they were going to invade Persia or just that bar down by the docks.” (Stephen Whitty, Newark Star-Ledger)
4. Batman & Robin (1997)
Domestic Total Gross: $107,325,195
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 13%
What went wrong? It might be better to ask what didn’t go wrong with this movie. Reviled as the movie that killed the Batman film franchise (until Nolan rebooted it almost a decade later), Batman & Robin took the creeping campiness of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and dialed it all the way up to levels Adam West never dared to dream. The story made no sense. There were far too many subplots and characters. The costumes and set designs were hysterically over the top. Schwarzenegger, O’Donnell and Silverstone were horribly miscast. The only thing the fight scenes (including one featuring evil hockey players and retractable skate blades in Batman’s bat-boots) were lacking to make them identical to the TV show’s famous fight scenes was title cards saying “OOF!” and “POW!” in between punches. In short: a complete and utter mess from start to finish. So why did it make so much money? Probably because so many Batman fans had to see the carnage for themselves.
Best critic’s line: “The movie slows down only for the protracted illness of Alfred the butler, which will make even the kindest member of the audience wish he’d just hurry up and die already.” (Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle)
5. Ghost Rider (2007)
Domestic Total Gross: $115,802,596
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 26%
What went wrong? True, in 2007 Nicolas Cage might have been a little long in the tooth for the role a motorcycle stunt rider who sells his soul to the devil, but that’s not what kills this film. This was a movie based on a Marvel character who packs a hell of a visual punch (it’s hard to beat a guy on a flaming motorcycle with a flaming skull for a head), but offers little in the way of memorable stories or arch-villains. As if to prove the point, the big baddie in this film is named Blackheart (a wonderfully generic name that, as the Nostalgia Critic pointed out, might as well have been called “Evil Guy”). Cage appears to be giving it his all in his performance (or he’s phoning in an ironic performance as a commentary on his usual over-the-top antics; it’s hard to tell), but it’s not enough to make up for the paint-by-numbers storyline and Hallmark-level dialogue (“He may have my soul, but he doesn’t have my spirit”). The film made enough to generate a sequel that made… well, far less than $100 million, let’s put it that way.
Best critic’s line: “In one scene, Nicolas Cage appears to be wearing Ricardo Montalban’s fake chest from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which really should be hanging in the Smithsonian where it belongs.” (Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle)
6. Green Lantern (2011)
Domestic Total Gross: $116,601,172
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 26%
What went wrong? After the smashing success of Nolan’s first two Batman films and the somewhat okay reception to Singer’s Superman Returns, DC decided the time was right to… whistle right past Wonder Woman and greenlight (pun!) a movie starring that guy with a magic ring. (Seriously, people, what the hell?) That’s not to say Green Lantern bombed because he’s a B-lister; Iron Man did very well at the box office despite his own lack of fame among the non-geeks of the world. But to quote a better writer than the four(!) credited screenwriters on this movie, “There’s no there there.” Ryan Reynolds’ Hal Jordan is all surface, it takes forever to get him into the union suit and meet the other members of the Green Lantern Corps, the off-Earth settings look as soulless as the computers that generated them, and the supposedly wise and all-seeing Guardians apparently weren’t wise enough to put a damn lock on the cell door for the universe’s biggest evil. Plus, if your job is to get millions of comic geeks to show up for a movie, it’s probably not a good idea to give them a main character who’s basically already a superhero (handsome, incorrigible ladies’ man, ultimate he-man job as test pilot) even before he stumbles across a magic ring. There’s a reason why Peter Parker wasn’t the captain of his high school football team, people.
Best critic’s line: “Hal claims that a Lantern’s only enemy is fear itself. The thought of a sequel to this shamelessly soulless Hollywood product scares me plenty.” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone)
7. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Domestic Total Gross: $131,921,738
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 37%
What went wrong? Three words: Giant. Fucking. Cloud. Plus the fact the immense anger I felt seeing that goddamn thing is literally the only thing I can remember about this movie. The Silver Surfer shows up on Earth and… we capture him? Or something? And the heroes team up with Doctor Doom to save the day (or not)? And Sue and Reed get married, or they try to get married but something stops them? I’m not kidding; I’m a big fan of the Fab Four, and I seriously cannot remember one significant plot point in this movie that doesn’t involve the phrase “giant space cloud.” The next director who casts the Silver Surfer and doesn’t give us a giant in a tuning-fork helmet as the villain is getting shot in the head.
Best critic’s line: “It’s not egregiously awful like the first film. Just plain awful in that formula way that kills your spirit and all hope for summer movies.” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone)
8. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Domestic Total Gross: $179,883,157
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 38%
What went wrong? Why they tacked “X-Men Origins” on to the start of the title is anyone’s guess; maybe the plan was to come out with a series of films focusing on the origins of all the X-Men characters from the first X-Men trilogy. What they did instead was pretend this film never happened and try again with The Wolverine in 2013. Like Cowboys & Aliens, this was another example of how you can have decent filmmakers, a solid cast and respectable production values and still produce a movie that’s a failure. The story is just a series of action sequences that our immortal hero walks, flies, jumps, and snikts his way through until he develops amnesia and walks away. No lessons learned, no moments of joy, no acknowledgement that there might be a bright side to having virtual immortality… nope, just a series of nagging questions like: so why did the gal who could mind-control anyone she touched go along with the evil general’s plan when she could have, you know, just touch the guy and make him do whatever she wanted?
Best critic’s line: “I have been powerfully impressed by film versions of Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, Iron Man and the Iron Giant. I wouldn’t even walk across the street to meet Wolverine.” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Domestic Total Gross: $135,265,91
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 44%
What went wrong? Let’s be honest: no one was expecting Shakespeare from a kids’ movie about four ninja-trained turtles eating pizza and living in a sewer. But even as a kids’ film, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a strange beast, teaming up a yellow jumpsuit-less April O’Neil and vigilante Casey Jones with our titular turtles for a “bodacious” adventure fighting the evil Shredder. The production design can be best described as Early American Dark with a side order of Dark (probably to cover up just how non-lifelike the Turtle costumes really were), and the why-the-hell-not sense of fun in the first half-hour quickly dissipates as the movie realizes it has to deliver some kind of plot. The end result is an uneven film that relies more on catchphrases and slapstick fight sequences than it should; even kids deserve better than this. The belief there wasn’t enough material to justify a feature-length running time is supported by two quickie sequels, each one exponentially worse than the one before.
Best critic’s line: “Created for the screen by Muppet master Jim Henson, they’re certainly fun to look at. They would have been even more fun had someone bothered to give them personalities.” (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly)
10. Fantastic Four (2005)
Domestic Total Gross: $154,696,080
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 27%
What went wrong? After the successes of films starring Spider-Man and the X-Men, a movie featuring Marvel’s first family was only a matter of time… but they probably should have put waited a bit longer. Michael Chiklis and Chris Evans (as the Thing and Human Torch) put in respectable performances, but everything else about this movie is a bland mess. Jessica Alba is horribly miscast, Ioan Gruffud’s Reed Richards is not a convincing super-genius by any stretch (pun!) and the less said about Julian McMahon’s Doctor Doom the better. Really, people, let’s give Doom a rest. You want a kick-ass Fantastic Four movie? Negative Zone. Annihilus. Blastaar. Boom, $200-million opening weekend.
Best critic’s line: “Are these people complete idiots? The entire nature of their existence has radically changed, and they’re about as excited as if they got a makeover on Oprah.” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
11. Batman Forever (1995)
Domestic Total Gross: $184,031,112
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 41%
What went wrong? Tim Burton’s Batman Returns made a respectable amount of money, but not as much as his previous Batman, and the suits at Warner wanted a more kid-friendly (read: “merchandisable”) film for their third Batman film. Enter Joel Schumacher, who was enlisted to give the franchise a lighter tone… which he most certainly did. Batman Forever didn’t go to the ultra-campy lengths of 1997’s Batman and Robin, but there were more than a few problems with the film, not least of which were Tommy Lee Jones’s and Jim Carrey’s over-the-top performances and a daft plotline that involved Carrey’s Riddler stealing the brainwaves of Gothamites to make himself smarter. I imagine he didn’t have to suck too many brainwaves to turn into someone smart enough to give this movie a pass.
Best critic’s line: “One does have to question the logic behind adding nipples to the hard-rubber batsuit. Whose idea was that supposed to be anyway, Alfred’s?” (Brian Lowry, Variety)
12. Men in Black II (2002)
Domestic Total Gross: $190,418,803
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 39%
What went wrong? Based on an obscure comic about a secret organization protecting Earth from the scum of the galaxy, 1997’s Men in Black was a sleeper hit that earned almost $600 million worldwide. Critics and audiences alike loved it because, to quote the Rotten Tomatoes site, it had “a smart script, spectacular set pieces, and charismatic performances from its leads [Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith].” So how could a sequel that pretty much copied every plotline and beat of the original film fail? Wait, I think I just answered my own question. It earned enough money to stay in the black (pun!), but a sense of “didn’t we see this before?” mixed with “okay, now we’re just dumbing it down for the Happy Meal toy tie-ins” soured most audiences on a second helping.
Best critic’s line: “Some motion pictures portray ultimate passion; others create ultimate thrills. Men in Black II achieves ultimate insignificance.” (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly)
13. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Domestic Total Gross: $234,362,462
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 57%
What went wrong? The third X-Men outing was definitely the weakest link in the trilogy; despite having a storyline adapted from one of the more inventive X-Men titles in recent years (corporation finds a “cure” for the mutant gene, mutants struggle with choosing to be “normal” or keeping their powers), the film showed less heart than the previous two, with Rush Hour director Brett Ratner piling on the explosions and visual-effects spectacles in place of character development (though to be fair, Ellen Page’s Shadowcat scenes were pretty cool). Critics didn’t hate the film, but they couldn’t bring themselves to out-and-out love it, either: “uninspired” and “autopilot” were some of the words they used in describing it. Let’s just say it could have been worse, and it could have been better.
Best critic’s line: “Characters spend countless moments coming or going, or talking about whether it’s the right time to be coming or going. Apparently the gene for decisiveness died out in a world of 500 cable channels.” (Michael Booth, Denver Post)
14. Man of Steel (2013)
Domestic Total Gross: $291,045,518
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 56%
What went wrong? The much-anticipated Man of Steel earned almost $300 million domestically and another $377 million in foreign markets — a pretty decent return on investment, even for a movie with a hefty $225-million budget. So clearly a lot of people went to see it. But did they like it? If Internet forums are anything to go by, Superman fans were just as sharply divided in their opinions as the critics; some praised the high stakes and focus on character that was missing in Superman Returns, while others (including a few high-profile comic writers) damned the movie’s darker moments and rampant destruction as antithetical to everything Superman represents. It also didn’t help that the filmmakers apparently skipped their film studies class on subtlety, pounding the “CHRIST FIGURE” button every chance they got… when they weren’t busy cramming yet another product placement into the shot (who knew tiny Smallville was home to so many national brand-name retailers?). In the end, it boiled down to a matter of tone: either you liked it or you didn’t. And me, I had to go with the people who didn’t. The actors did a fine enough job and the visuals were impressive, but there were more than a few massive plot holes to fall into, and there’s very little joy or wonder to be found amid the rubble.
Best critic’s line: “It’s Fight Club cum sci-fi as Zod and Kal-El duke it out on the streets of Smallville, then do it again, just like barroom brawlers, during an interminable climax set against a background of a Manhattan seized by the usual chaos of fireballs, shattering glass, flying trucks and toppling towers. ‘You know they say it’s all downhill after the first kiss,’ Lois tells her inamorato early on. She doesn’t know the meaning of downhill.” (Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal)
* As determined by RottenTomatoes.com, where film critics’ reviews and moviegoers’ scores are tabulated to determined how “fresh” a movie is; anything scoring below 60% is considered “rotten.”
** As determined by Box Office Mojo; all dollar figures are U.S. domestic total gross and accurate as of posting date.