Has the Superhero Boom Gone Bust?

June 28, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

As amazing as it is to consider, box office receipts of $125 million in 12 days are viewed as disappointing. I'm sure the executives at Warner Brothers aren't in mourning, but there is no doubt that Batman Begins has underperformed. Expectations were that it would take in at least $150 million during that period. And, although a final tally in excess of $200 million seems inevitable, $250 is probably the upper limit, and $300 million is out of reach. For purposes of comparison, the 1989 Batman made a domestic total of about $250 million. Since ticket prices are roughly double today what they were in 1989, that means Batman totaled between 400 and 500 million 2005 dollars.

The reason is clear enough: while audience and critical reaction to the new Batman film has been favorable, the level of excitement isn't close to what it was 16 years ago. As event movies go, this superhero can't scale to the heights he once could. And that raises the question of whether audiences are becoming tired of superheroes.

The most recent superhero boom started with the success of X-Men, which, while not exploding the roof off the box office, did well enough to convince studio heads that there was money to be made by turning comic books into motion pictures. The stunning amount of greenbacks raked in by Spider-Man seemed to confirm this. Ultimately, however, those two films (and their respective sequels) were the only truly successful, post-1995 superhero movies. Disappointments and outright failures included Hulk, Hellboy, Daredevil, Elektra, The Punisher, and at least the most recent installment of the Blade series.

In the wake of the Batman Begins "disappointment," the release of Fantastic Four takes on greater prominence. It's Marvel's attempt to start a third franchise, and it's based on a comic book that over the years has been almost as popular as Spider-Man. Industry expectations are that Fantastic Four won't make Spider-Man numbers, but it should track close to the first X-Men movie. Anything significantly lower, and there won't be a second Fantastic Four. And, in that eventuality, the question mark surrounding cinematic superheroes will grow larger. We may not know the final answer until next year, when the most popular screen superhero of all time returns. If Superman can't blow up the box office, then no one may be able to.

If the superhero surge is weakening, Hollywood has itself to blame. Not only has the market been flooded by superhero movies, but a majority of them have been substandard. Although I adored Hulk, it's apparent that Ang Lee's vision of the green giant didn't mesh with the kind of formula-driven, brain-dead drivel that audiences were expecting. Most of the other films have simply been lackluster. It's mystifying why filmmakers would tackle a spin-off from a dud like Daredevil. Elektra was pretty much a disaster, but you didn't need a crystal ball to see that one coming.

I like superhero movies, but I wish there weren't as many of them. They get tiring after a while. Since there are only so many ways in which good can triumph over evil, there's a real threat not only of devaluation, but of monotony. In Batman Begins, it was the Caped Crusader's inner struggle that caused the movie to work. His battles with the villains were of secondary interest. Likewise, in Spider-Man 2, the romance between Peter Parker and Mary Jane was more compelling than the struggle between Doc Ock and the webslinger.

Most of the time, watching the box office returns is a dull and fruitless endeavor. In the case of upcoming superhero movies, it may not only show a trend, but point the way for other comic book protagonists aching to get their chance on the silver screen.