“Superhero fatigue” killed the Green Lantern movie. Or at least that seems to be the media’s conventional wisdom. Just do a quick Google search, and you’ll find a dozen articles from Time to TheWrap.com about how Green Lantern bombed because audiences are sick and tired of superheroes. How else could the flop be explained? It seems a lot simpler to me; Green Lantern suffered from being a bad movie. Simple as that. Nothing more to read into it. People aren’t sick of superhero flicks. Make a good one, and they’ll go see it. Make a bad one and they stay home. Makes sense, right? Well I didn’t want to stand that ground without some solid foundations, so I crunched the numbers on 32 superhero movies of the modern era, to make my point. Was I proved right? Well…yes and no.
First of all, this idea of “superhero fatigue” is malarkey. It’s just an easy narrative to follow for media pundits with a deadline, but it’s nothing new. Three years ago, The Spirit and Punisher: War Zone were the one-two punch that was going to flatten superhero movies for good. It was a silly conclusion then, and it’s silly now. Thor alone is evidence of that. Nobody is much talking about it, but Thor is an unqualified hit. Still in release, it’s already #8 on my list for worldwide gross. That’s better than Batman Begins. If there were truly some kind of “fatigue”, no way would Thor, a B-List property, have been able to break through as it did. Even X-Men: First Class, which performed somewhat below expectations, has become profitable. If anything, these films may be cannibalizing each others’ audience. But the audience is there. “Fatigue” just makes for a sexy headline.
Surely, it’s all about the quality of the film, right? I thought I’d see an almost perfect correlation between box office gross and how well the movie was received by fans and critics. Nope. Take the two recent Hulk films for example. Here you have movies made around the same character, with similar budgets, and neither with a marquee star. The first film was shredded by fanboys and critics alike, while the second was seen as enjoyable, if unremarkable, by both groups. And yet- they did nearly identical box office. It’s uncanny. It seems that people either want to see a Hulk movie or they don’t, and it doesn’t make much difference if the movie is good or bad. In other words, brand makes a big difference. Another case in point- Superman Returns. This is a movie that is pretty universally loathed by comic fans, and yet it’s still in the top ten grossing superhero movies of the last thirteen years. The reason? Superman is a household name. This is what makes Iron Man‘s box office so impressive. The top ten grossing pictures are all either Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man films, plus two X-Men movies which were sequels to a well received debut film. The fact that Iron Man, as a B-List, not widely known character, managed to break into that company with his debut film is a testament to the film, the director and its star, Robert Downey Jr. But it’s an exceptional case. It seems unfair to hold other debut movies of relatively unknown characters to that standard.
So, is Green Lantern‘s failure simply a combination of a subpar film that doesn’t have name recognition to fall back on? Seems it’s a little more complicated than that too. Let’s look at Fantastic Four. This is a pretty comparable film to Green Lantern in many ways—it’s a debut film centered on superhero characters that aren’t very well known outside of geek circles, with no major star for a box office draw. It too was panned by critics and widely considered disappointing by fans. Therefore, we would expect GL and FF to have produced similar box office numbers. Not so. Not even close. Fantastic Four drew in almost $155 million in domestic gross, whereas GL may not even break $100 million. The difference could be the advantages that Fantastic Four had around the margins. First, while it was a debut film, it opened barely a year after Marvel’s extremely well-received Spider-Man 2. Fans of Marvel Comics may have felt things were on a roll and were especially excited to see Fantastic Four. DC fans, by contrast, haven’t had much to be excited about since 2008’s Dark Knight. While Fantastic Four didn’t exactly have a bankable star, it did cast Jessica Alba at the height of her fanboy fame, and Michael Chiklis, who most fans considered a ringer for the iconic Ben Grimm. It’s hard to say for certain why Fantastic Four was more successful than Green Lantern. These marginal factors are subjective. But FF had one empirical thing in its favor. It had a reasonable budget. And that leads us to what may be the most troubling statistic for Green Lantern: Profitability.
Fantastic Four showed a 278% return on investment. That’s good for 5th on our list, even beating out Iron Man 2. But Green Lantern is -36% in the red. That represents a worse investment than Catwoman. In fact, the only film on our list to show a worse return than GL is Punisher: War Zone, a movie that was basically abandoned by its studio as soon as it was shot. The argument can be made then, that Green Lantern is the worst performing superhero movie of the modern era. All the more astonishing that Warner Brothers is reportedly plowing ahead with work on the sequel. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad idea. A Green Lantern film can work. And if they learn from their mistakes, they can make a movie that fans will enjoy and that will at least break even. But with this movie’s numbers, they’ve got an uphill battle before them.
So if superhero fatigue doesn’t exist, what accounts for the failure of Green Lantern? No bankable star? Too high a budget to recoup? An unknown property? A bad final product? The evidence shows that any single one of these factors can be overcome. However Green Lantern had to overcome them all. In the end, that was too high a leap even for someone with a Lantern’s power battery at hand.
Data courtesy of the-numbers.com *still in release **budget numbers are not available, but it is widely estimated to be around $40 million.