With five major releases on the schedule, it initially looked like the Summer 2011 box office would be bustling with comic book adaptations. With Thor, X-Men: First Classand now Green Lantern tallying decent but ultimately unremarkable numbers, that expectation was a bit off. While comic book movies continue to pack a potent punch for genre fare, it's becoming more difficult to generate a transcendent hit like Batman Begins or Iron Man, much less a box office sensation like The Dark Knight or Spider-Man.
It may seem unfair to compare this Summer's adaptations to heavy hitters like Batman and Spider-Man, but those past successes have fueled the rush to get as many comic book characters to the big screen as possible. Thor, for example, was the latest one in a long line to officially usher in the summer movie season. It missed the mark compared to its predecessors, though, and is now poised to finish with around $180 million. That's a far cry from Iron Man's $318.4 million, and it could even finish behind X-Men Origins: Wolverine's $179.9 million, which had an entirely redundant plot and lacked 3D ticket premiums.
X-Men: First Class has also fallen short of its standard-bearers. It has lagged way behind both of the X-Men sequels and the Wolverine prequel. What's most disconcerting, though, is that with $123.4 million so far it continues to slightly trail the original X-Men, even with 11 years of ticket price inflation.
It can be argued that with such a crowded market, there's going to be some cannibalization among comic book movies. Even then, though, Thor and First Class have combined for just under $300 million, or less than what Iron Man had grossed through the same point three years ago.
Each of these movies has saved some face overseas, where comic book adaptations have remained consistent thanks in no small part to the rapidly expanding nature of the market. Thor has accumulated around $260 million and, with an opening in Japan still to come next month, it will almost certainly finish above the first Iron Man's $266 million foreign gross. X-Men: First Class had earned $134 million through Tuesday and appears on course to finish with around $200 million. That would make it the second highest-grossing entry in the series behind X-Men: The Last Stand.
Both Thor and X-Men: First Class will likely generate enough coin to warrant sequels. Still, major comic book adaptations are not green-lit with the intention of just getting by. They're meant to be cash cows to prop up a studio's other fare with less immediate brand recognition.
The situation is more dire for Green Lantern. The movie marked distributor Warner Bros.' first attempt at launching another major DC Comics franchise after Superman and Batman. Its $53.2 million opening this past weekend was okay but wasn't close to what's needed for a movie with a reported production and marketing cost of around $300 million. It's likely to end up below $150 million domestically, which would be tolerable if it were poised for strong foreign earnings.
Unfortunately, Green Lantern failed to light up the foreign box office this past weekend: its openings in the United Kingdom and Russia were way off from Thor and X-Men, and it barely registered in South Korea. It's still very early, of course, but these initial results indicate that Green Lantern will struggle to reach $200 million overseas. In the best case scenario right now, the movie ends up with $350 million worldwide, which just doesn't cut it for an intended blockbuster.
Other than Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern, there was technically another comic book adaptation in the mix. With a disorienting marketing campaign focused on a barely recognizable brand, the long-delayed Priest mustered a pathetic $29 million. Overseas numbers should be this movie's salvation, though it's only at $46 million with Japan and Australia still on the horizon.
Now, it's up to the summer's final two comic book adaptations to save the day, but it's becoming less and less likely that either will reach blockbuster levels. Captain America: The First Avenger seems like a recipe for success: the character is immediately recognizable and facing off against Nazis during the Second World War usually yields strong interest (Saving Private Ryan, Inglourious Basterds).
However, there are a few big question marks. First, Captain America's opening in the shadow of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which is looking more and more like the kind of movie that crushes everything around it. Also, period comic book adaptations have a spotty record (The Rocketeer, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Watchmen and X-Men: First Class all come to mind). Finally, mainstream recognition doesn't always guarantee blockbuster success: The Hulk is one of the most well-known comic book characters, but both recent movie incarnations have failed to break out of the $130 million range.
A week after Captain America, Iron Man director Jon Favreau shoots for another comic book hit with Cowboys & Aliens. The movie has a straight-forward premise that's articulated clearly in its fun title, and it has a cast made up of geek favorites like Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. Unfortunately, though, it seems to have thrown away most of its strong early buzz with an underwhelming marketing campaign that makes the movie look less appealing each time new material is revealed. Also, it's Western setting means it has a serious uphill battle overseas, and it will almost certainly end up below the other comic book adaptations in foreign markets.
Both Captain America: The First Avenger and Cowboys & Aliens seem destined to be mildly successful, though that puts them squarely in the same range as Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern. Looking ahead to 2012, the release schedule is loaded with safer franchise fare like The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers along with the Spider-Man reboot, clearly indicating that studios were taking a wait-and-see approach before greenlighting adaptations of other characters like The Flash, Ant-Man or even Aquaman. Their immediate prospects are now looking dim: without any true blockbusters (north of $200 million domestic, $500 million worldwide), this is starting to look like the year that studios decide to stop pouring money in to B-level comic books with the hopes of generating A-level results.