Top 10 Film Industry Stories of 2011: #4
Superhero Summer
By David Mumpower
December 29, 2011

Can't touch this.

One of the quirkiest box office trivia tidbits is that the Batman franchise has broken the existing opening weekend record on three different occasions and appears likely to do so again in 2012. Also, the Spider-Man franchise has done so twice and has a similar chance to duplicate the feat in 2012. Currently, four of the top six opening weekend box office performances are held by comic book movies.

Since the first rule of business is to give the customer what they want, the summer of 2011 raised the ante with four different big budget, high profile movies in this genre, all released within weeks of one another. The industry had never seen anything like this before and while none of the movies exploded into the collective consciousness on a par with Batman, Iron Man or Spider-Man, all four provided interesting results in their own way. And in totality, the glut of comic book movies was a great example of herd thinking gutting the weakest while the strong survived.

The first title out of the gate in the comic book movie summer of 2011 was Thor. The relatively unheralded Asgardian was perhaps the riskiest proposition of the four as the character is used more for comic relief than identified as a comic book icon. Still, as a core member of The Avengers, Thor was given a movie in order to function as build-up for the upcoming 2012 blockbuster adaptation of The Avengers directed by Joss Whedon.

Expectations for Thor were low due to the unfamiliarity of the character. What could not have been anticipated is that the movie is the most entertaining of the four in terms of fun factor. Director Kenneth Branagh was a quirky choice given his Shakespearean background, yet he delivered an entertaining action film that didn’t take itself too seriously. Thanks in large part to a tremendous acting performance by Chris Hemsworth, an air of gravitas from Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Anthony Hopkins, and a lot of humor from Kat Dennings, Thor proved to be an instant popcorn classic.

Debuting to $65.7 million, Thor would claim the title of largest opening weekend of the four Tentpole comic book adaptations. It didn’t stop there. Thor dominated the box office among the quartet by delivering the largest final take, $181 million, as well as the largest global box office, $449.3 million. It is also the best reviewed and highest scored among movie goers. Thor was the clear overall winner of Superhero Summer.

In an odd decision, another Marvel property followed quickly after Thor. X-Men: First Class was distributed by Fox while Thor was from Paramount, yet the prospect of one group of Marvel characters in a movie so soon after another felt a bit over the top. Also, the X-Men franchise was trying to overcome the stench of the most recent titles, which is why the decision was made to reboot with a story based in the 1960s.

The combination of new cast of relative unknowns and eroded consumer faith in X-Men as a film brand led to the lowest number of opening weekend tickets sold for the franchise. Still, a $55.1 million debut was a tolerable outcome for a project with such positive buzz. The entire purpose of starting anew was to rebuild confidence in X-Men movies. This mission was accomplished due to the unmistakable quality of X-Men: First Class. With a final domestic take of $146.4 million as well as global box office of $355.4 million, the fifth X-Men movie effectively matched its immediate predecessor while redeeming X-Men as a franchise after the disaster that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

The final Marvel release of the summer was also the final comic book movie of the season. Captain America: The First Avenger was always deemed a major character whose limited overseas box office potential was problematic. After various *ahem* military incursions, the rest of the world has some concerns about the premise of American super-soldiers. Since Captain America is the de facto leader of The Avengers; however, any attempted build up to an Avengers movie would require the introduction of this character.

After careful consideration, Marvel and Paramount once again made the perfect choice of directors. Twenty years ago, industry staple Joe Johnston created another World War II era comic book hero period piece, The Rocketeer. Captain America: The First Avenger was a return to familiar territory for him and he was able to hang up a Mission Accomplished banner by the end of opening weekend. Critics as well as consumers determined that the movie was a welcome retro take on the nature of superheroism.

Captain America nearly matched Thor’s opening weekend with $65.0 million. While it didn’t prove as leggy, the film earned a better than expected $176.7 million domestically with a final global take of $368.8 million. Yes, it did better than expected overseas, which speaks to the genius of making a World War II piece.

With three releases from two competing studios, Marvel Studios somehow went three for three. Their titles combined for worldwide box office of $1.17 billion against production costs of $430 million. Out of the three features, only X-Men contained established characters. In addition, the lead in to The Avengers went perfectly as both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger are well liked titles. Marvel had a best case scenario summer.

DC Comics was not so fortunate. After Jonah Hex bombed out of theaters in 2010, there was a perception within the industry that the other major comic book publication needed a hit. After Batman, there simply has not been another comic book character established as a box office draw. Superman Returns disappointed, the Wonder Woman project was abandoned and everyone was sent back to the drawing board.

Eventually, the determination was made that Green Lantern would be the best choice for their summer of 2011 movie release. This was regrettable. The bejeweled superhero skews very young, which is exactly what made Spider-Man so appealing upon its release a decade ago. Alas, there isn’t much appeal to the character. The backstory of Green Lantern is expansive, a wildly complex multiverse with thousands of alien races. I could go into further detail but you would get bored almost immediately. Suffice to say that little blue aliens hire police to run the universe, all of the best of them are earthlings for whatever reason, and one of the alien police says poozer a lot. Sounds like a huge hit, right?

Audiences were less than enthusiastic about this Star Wars wannabe. After a hopeful $53.2 million debut, word-of-mouth poisoned the well for Green Lantern. On the shoulders of angry reviews, there was nothing but negative buzz going for the attempted franchise launch. Green Lantern quickly destructed at the box office, finishing with only $116.6 million, one of the worst final takes ever for a $50+ million opener.

In fact, the loathsome standard for comic book disappearing acts, Batman & Robin, had a much better final box office multiplier (final domestic take divided by opening weekend take) of 2.5 vs. 2.2. Also, Batman & Robin earned more in terms of actual post-opening weekend dollars than Green Lantern, $64.4 million vs. $63.4 million. Yes, ouch.

Green Lantern wound up with global receipts of $238.3 million, which means that it was in the red when it exited theaters. Its production budget of $200 million was the most expensive of the four comic book movies by a whopping $40 million (or 25% more than any of the others). The one reason why this could be deemed a tolerable result for DC Comics and Warner Bros. is that the less publicized revenue stream for any comic book movie targeted to children is toy sales. Captain America, Thor and Green Lantern have all had their licensed merchandise covering the aisles of Toys R Us this holiday season. The primary difference between the three is that Green Lantern really needs the money to justify the expense of making a bad movie that not enough people went to see in theaters.

What we learned during the Superhero Summer of 2001 is that if a comic book adaptation is done well, audiences will give it a shot independent of the subject matter. If, on the other hand, there is nothing more to the movie than shiny special effects and a dude in spandex tights, word spreads quickly and mercilessly. Also, the 2011 experience serves as a tremendous trial run for 2012 when Spider-Man, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are all released between May and July. This is the deluxe version of 2011’s Superhero Summer.