This year has been a very good one for fans of comic book movies. The genre seemed unstoppable at the box office and destined to be a force to recon with for the foreseeable future. Then December came around and a lot of comic movie fans started scratching Lionsgate off of their Christmas lists. Because two comic adaptations from the studio might just kill the comic book genre altogether.
Punisher: War Zone and The Spirit share more in common than just a studio. Both are films based on iconic comic book characters, characters that changed the medium when they were introduced. Both movies offer the characters returning to celluloid (The Punisher starred in two previous motion pictures, and the Spirit was the focus of a TV movie in the late 1980s). Both films were released within weeks of one another, and both have the makings of being two of the biggest flops in cinematic history.
Punisher: War Zone was released on December 5th and only ranked a 22% fresh over at Rotten Tomatoes. It opened in a paltry 8th position, grossing only $4,271,451 in its opening weekend. It was out of theaters 3 weeks later, with only $8,816,788 in tickets sales, earning back only a quarter of its $35 Million estimated production budget.
Punisher: War Zone left theaters just as The Spirit was entering them. Frank Miller’s adaptation of the classic Will Eisner hero fared even worse with the critics over at Rotten Tomatoes, earning only a 16% fresh ranking.
The film opened on Christmas day, and, like War Zone,it opened in the lower part of the top 10, at number 9, in its opening weekend. It earned $6,510,000 for the the post-holiday weekend and $10.352,000 for the five-day period. Budget estimates for the film are not available, but logic dictates that it has to be close to Sin City‘s $40 Million budget. Earning 25% of your production costs back in one weekend is as good as what Punisher: War Zone did in its entire run, but The Spirit is still unlikely to make a profit.
There is one thing that is certain. Two high-profile comic book films tanking at the box office in such quick succession could be damaging to the genre’s future.
This might seem outrageous to some. After all, films adapting or inspired by comic books made close to $3 Billion dollars worldwide up to this point. But Hollywood is very much a “what have you done for me lately” kind of town. The Dark Knight came out months ago, it’s ancient history. The studios might look at the performance of Punisher: War Zone and The Spirit and think it indicates a change in the tastes of the moviegoing audience.
Comic fans might say there are mitigating factors. War Zone was the third time to the well for the Punisher character. It could have been three strikes and you’re out. And The Spirit was released the same day as four other highly anticipated films–Marley and Me, Bedtime Stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Valkyrie. Some movie had to lose in that scenario.
On top of that, both films were directed by relatively unknown and inexperience directors and neither had a big-name star in the lead. Add that to the bad reviews, and there are valid reasons why people stayed away other than they were just tired of comic book movies.
The effect these flops have on the genre will not be seen right away. Watchmen, barring any legal injunction, will be hitting screens in March. X-Men Origins: Wolverine will arrive two months later. Pre-production has begun on a sequel to Iron Man and you know Warner Brothers will have one for The Dark Knight as well. So there will be comic movies coming for the next couple years at least.
But it will be interesting to see if studios are willing to take a chance on lesser known comic properties. There is also a chance that some of the comic films in development might be sent into turnaround. In a perfect world, you’d have the studios look at Punisher: War Zone and The Spirit and figure out their mistakes to make a better comic book movie. But it is far more likely that they could move away from the genre entirely.