With the newly relaunched Superman franchise, it seems like making a profitable superhero movie is down to a science: snaffle a recent plotline from the comics, attach a big-name writer and/or director, and for a little extra spice, have an actor like Samuel L. Jackson show up after the credits. Like all sciences, it took a lot of trial and error to achieve this level of accuracy, and there’s been much more error than film producers and comics companies have preferred. Here are ten comic book movies that have either been commercial failures, critical flops — or both.
SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006)
Despite being the flagship character for DC Comics, clean-cut, omnipotent, boy scout Superman has rarely been as popular as his dark, gadget-dependent co-star Batman, and while the Christopher Reeve films of the '70s are rightly regarded as classics (well, except that one with the radioactive guy), they were long since surpassed by the Michael Keaton and Christian Bale Batmen flicks. "Superman Returns" did its best to recapture the '70s Superman, even insisting on casting a relative unknown for the lead role, just like how Reeve was selected. When soap actor and model Brandon Routh was picked, it was widely believed it was due to his uncanny resemblance to the late actor. If that wasn’t enough to tickle people’s nostalgia neurons, Warner Brothers went so far as to digitally recreate Marlon Brando’s performance as Superman’s father Jor-El (albeit in crystal form). In the end, it turned out that constantly reminding audiences and critics about an older, better movie was not the best way to publicize your newer movie, and while reaction was generally favorable, the box office fell well short of what was expected.
GREEN LANTERN (2011)
A movie about cosmic supercop Green Lantern could never have the same built-in fanbase as another Batman film, so when WB bought the rights they hoped cult filmmaker Kevin Smith would be up to the challenge. Smith turned down the project, feeling other writers would be more suitable, but he couldn’t have been more wrong, as "Green Lantern" slogged its way through ten years of development hell and a half-dozen different scripts (including a Robert Smigel-penned comedy with Jack Black as the lead). The script that WB ended up using was roughly based on Denny O’Neill and Geoff Johns’ contributions, starring blandly handsome nonentity Ryan Reynolds and resulting in a film that was both commercially and critically less than “eh.”
CAPTAIN AMERICA (1992)
Today’s Captain America is pretty much based on the modern Ultimate Marvel character, but the '92 incarnation was due to Marvel seeing how much money DC made on 1989’s "Batman" and subsequently ordering schlock merchant Menachem Golan to make with a superhero movie tout suite. Golan brought on infamous director Albert Pyun (described by some as the “Ed Wood of the Eighties”) to film a script where an unfrozen Steve Rogers must defend an environmentalist president from the mafia, the military-industrial complex, and the Red Skull (who, for some reason, was now Italian). Pyun delivered the film in 1990 when it was originally intended to be released as part of Cappy’s 50-year anniversary, but the release date slipped back further and further until sneaking shamefully onto VHS in 1992. The movie received universally bad reviews, but it wasn’t the first time Captain America was embarrassed by a cheap straight-to-TV treatment.
CAPTAIN AMERICA (1979)
Just look at that helmet. CBS and Marvel were pretty close during the '70s, but towards the end of the decade, "Wonder Woman" was coming to a close and "The Incredible Hulk" was all they had in terms of comic-book superhero action. So the time was apparently right for a Captain America TV movie … except not quite the one you might have expected. For whatever reason (presumably drugs), the classic plotline was thrown out and the new Steve Rogers was a hippie-like former Marine living out of a van and sketching superhero versions of his murdered father’s career as a government agent. This oddly meta version of Steve Rogers (played by former USC quarterback Reb Brown, later the star of cult classics like "Yor," "The Hunter from the Future" and "Space Mutiny") is soon entangled in his dad’s secret super-crime-fighting past after an attempted murder leads to him being injected with an experimental “super-steroid.” Then he is given a motorcycle with a hang-glider on it, a goofy plastic shield, and a truly humiliating helmet that he never takes off. At the time, these movies were received positively because virtually everything in 1979 was already dumb garbage, but today it’s impossible not to notice the incredibly cheap sets, stilted writing and acting, and overall goofiness of the core concept.
FANTASTIC FOUR (1994, unreleased)
Technically, 1994’s "Fantastic Four" wasn’t a flop since it never saw an official release, but the story of its production (and the film itself) is too bizarre not to mention. In 1986, German producer Bernd Eichinger bought the rights to a Fantastic Four movie from Marvel dirt cheap, then sat on it for seven years before asking for a contract extension which was justifiably refused. A loophole allowed Eichinger to keep the rights if he actually released a film, so he brought in budget-movie king Roger Corman to shoot something that would legally qualify as a movie. While FF94 manages to satisfy the contractual loophole (after all, it is technically a movie), it may be the worst use of a million dollars in history, featuring no-name actors, cardboard sets, and special effects considerably less sophisticated than episodes of "Power Rangers." Marvel exec and film producer Avi Arad personally purchased all official film footage of FF94 just to destroy it, but by then there were too many bootlegs to hunt down, and the film is currently available in its entirety on YouTube.
Weapons engineer John Henry "Steel" Irons is one of the most prominent (if not THE most prominent) African-American superheroes in the DC Universe, even filling in as “Man of Steel” shortly after the “death” of Superman in 1993. Legendary music producer Quincy Jones was such a fan of the character that he decided to produce a Steel movie, bankrolling the effort to the tune of $16 million and bringing in veteran screenwriter Kenneth Johnson. Johnson had been uninterested in doing a superhero movie, and only came on after Jones described Steel as “[not a] superhero, because he doesn’t fly or anything like that …. Let’s just call him a ‘super human being.’” However, Steel absolutely can fly, he flies all the damn time, but Johnson and co-producer Joel Simon decided to recast Steel as a “blue-collar Batman,” removing the cape, tuning down some of his high-tech abilities, and perhaps most grievously — casting Shaquille O’Neal as the crime-fighting scientific genius. Filming with Shaq was complicated by his basketball schedule, and his oddly quizzical and confused acting expressions during action scenes didn’t really help sell the character. "Steel" made back just over $1.7 million of its $16 million budget, and the character’s comic series folded the year after.
JUDGE DREDD (1995)
Casting Sly Stallone as classic British comic book hero Judge Dredd was almost perfect, as both are stern, lantern-jawed musclemen. But even more promising, the film was directed by longtime Dredd fan Danny Cannon, and the visual design was relentlessly faithful to the look of the comic — going so far as to hire Gianni Versace to accurately reproduce the Judge uniforms. So what happened? Well, for one thing, the comic’s tricky British blend of pop-culture satire and graphic violence ended up translating into a fairly standard action sci-fi film with all sorts of hacky jokes shoehorned in, hackiest among them being the presence of Rob Schneider. For another, there’s the possibility that Cannon was actually too much of a fan, as he attempted to shovel too many Judge Dredd references and characters from the comic’s 20-year run into a 90-minute film. In the end, though, it’s hard to ignore the big, sweaty Italian elephant in the room: Stallone wears the character like a cheap undersized suit, alternates between mumbling and 120-decibel hollering (“I! AM! DA LAW!!!”), and in what to many Dredd fans was an unforgivable sin, spends much of the movie not wearing his iconic helmet. It's no wonder 2012’s "Dredd" (which locked the upper half of Karl “Bones” Urban’s head in a bucket for the entire film) was so much more popular among the comic-store set.
For a film expected to be not much more than Halle Berry wearing a leather bra and doing stuff, "Catwoman" still manages to be an incredible disappointment. Bizarrely, "Catwoman" takes place in a completely Batman-free world, and it's strangely hard to imagine a crazy lady dressing up as a cat without a crazy man dressing up as a bat for inspiration. The plot, such as it is, follows artist “Patience Phillips,” who is drowned by the cosmetics company she works for after discovering their skin cream will turn you into a mummy or a statue. She is brought back to life by a tabby representing the Egyptian cat-goddess Bast, granting her the feline powers of above-average martial arts prowess and dressing like an idiot. The climactic action scene is a battle between Catwoman and evil CEO Sharon Stone, a choreographed fight between two Hollywood sex symbols that manages to be as exciting and erotic as a glass-blowing documentary. Amazingly, this movie manages to be the lowest point of every actor involved, from leads Berry and Stone to romantic interest Benjamin Bratt, and even the comic relief Alex Borstein, who presumably once thought being associated with an obnoxiously racist Asian stereotype on "MadTV" was the worst thing anyone could say about her career.
THE SPIRIT (2008)
"The Spirit" was basically a spiritual sequel to the gorgeous Frank Miller/Robert Rodriguez-helmed adaptation of Miller’s "Sin City," but lacked Rodriguez’s directorial experience and/or general sense of where the line was between fantastic tongue-in-cheek melodrama and sheer gibbering insanity. While the original Will Eisner-written adventures of "The Spirit" were witty, clever detective stories pitting ostensibly dead cop Denny Colt against a variety of punnily named crime bosses and femme fatales, Miller’s "The Spirit" is an overheated noir, fedora-sporting guy leaping across rooftops to do battle with the villainous Octopus (an underworld overlord in the comics so subtle and powerful his face is never seen). Octopus is portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson as a supervillain so cartoonishly evil that he straight-up melts a kitten while dressed as a Nazi. All of this is filmed in a manner vaguely similar to Sin City’s style, except in a sort of limited color palette (based on the Spirit’s trademark blue suit and domino mask) that really only makes you wish you were watching "Sin City" instead. Fortunately, "The Spirit" flopped so painfully at the box office that it completely destroyed Miller’s dreams of producing a whole series of unwatchable, crazy superhero movies.