Thursday, April 11, 2019

Riske Business: Superhero Movies I Thought Would Be Huge But Weren't

by Adam Riske
Celebrate the Hellboy reboot by reminiscing about former failed superhero properties.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Still the only Christopher Reeve Superman movie I’ve seen in theaters, I knew even at five years old that Superman IV wasn’t what the people wanted. Audiences roundly rejected Cannon’s big swing, as Superman IV opened in fourth place with $5.7M during its opening weekend behind the 1-2 punch of RoboCop and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (re-release) in their second weekends and the debut of the Mark Harmon comedy Summer School in third place. The Quest for Peace finished its run with only $15.7M at the box office, which is pathetic and makes me want to take a bath. This gross proved without a doubt that Mark Harmon’s smile is a more formidable foe than Nuclear Man. America made the right call.

The Rocketeer (1991)
Even though it’s awesome and had a gangbusters marketing campaign (That Disney Adventures article! That 3-D comic book!), The Rocketeer bombed in theaters opening in only fourth place behind week two of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (COSTNER!), week three of City Slickers (CRYSTAL!) and the debut of Dying Young. That’s how much of a moment Julia Roberts was having in June 1991. Her movie about dying young co-starring soggy Pop Tart Campbell Scott was the more appealing option to moviegoers. Poor Rocketeer. The film finished with only $46.7M and that was all she wrote. I remember being on a Disney World vacation in 1991 and at Pleasure Island (now Disney Springs) there were Rocketeer posters everywhere and I was stunned people had anything else on their mind. I miss Pleasure Island. They had a cool '70s dance club (8TRAX) and an improv club called Comedy Warehouse where every joke seemed to be about how Disney employees are fake nice and just wanted to smoke cigarettes when you’re not looking. These guys were hacks like Wuhl.

The Shadow (1994)
This is the movie that posed the question “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” but audiences were all “Who cares what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” I was surprised. I thought Alec Baldwin and his hairiest chest were going to have a summer hit, but alas they did not. The Shadow opened at #2 but with a low $11.7M, runner-up to cultural behemoth The Lion King, and finished with only $32.1M (AND I’M ROUNDING UP). If I were Universal, I would have pushed the Taylor Dayne single harder; that song soars. The Shadow always reminded me of having little league practice in June after school let out and all you want to do is have fun with your friends and baseball was still going and you were like “C’mon baseball, give it a rest! I want to eat Freeze Pops and see Wolf.” The Shadow felt like a chore to 12-year-old me is what I’m trying to say.

Tank Girl (1995)
This was like if Barq’s Root Beer had a baby with Woodstock ‘94. I remember wanting to see Tank Girl (I still haven’t seen it, even though it has a great trailer) back in ‘95, but then it bombed, and I wasn’t going to be associated with a failure. It was bad for my rep, and unlike Elsie Fisher I was popular in eighth grade. Audiences said “No Tanks,” as the film opened with only $2.0M at #10 and finished with $4.1M. What could have possibly been out that pushed Tank Girl’s rookie run to #10? Tommy Boy (#1) in its opening weekend...okay, I get that, Outbreak (#2) in its fourth weekend because parents always running to some bullshit, week 2 of Major Payne (#3), which is odd because the people who want to see Major Payne go see that movie right away. Who’s hanging back on Major Payne? Then Dolores Claiborne, Forrest Gump, Muriel’s Wedding, Circle of Friends, Man of the House and Pulp Fiction. Tank Girl did open ahead of fellow debut Born to be Wild (do you think they’ll play the song?), about a teenager and an ape going on a road trip, so I guess Lori Petty has that to hang her hat on. I wonder how Tank Girl did in Racine? She was traded there, you know.

Judge Dredd (1995)
I’ll say it: this is the better Judge Dredd movie. I’d say don’t @ me, but you should because it will mean comments and that’s the fuel I need to survive. Judge Dredd should have been a summer smash if not for that stupid costume and that stupid mask. He looks so stupid! OMG! Did they do a screen test...even a mirror test? Judge Dredd opened at #5 in a crowded late June marketplace (I can’t believe I just wrote that) with $12.3M, behind the debut of Apollo 13, the second weekend of Pocahontas, the third weekend of Batman Forever (KIDMAN! SEAL! KILMER LIPS!), and the debut of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, finishing with only $34.7M and scuttling the blockbuster career (he went onto TV) of the awesomely-named director Danny Cannon, which are words that sound like a command on Dredd’s gun.

Barb Wire (1996)
Another female-centric superhero star vehicle that has a cool trailer and yet I’ve never seen it. Maybe I’ll double feature it one night with Tank Girl. I remember thinking Pamela Anderson was going to cross over from TV and translate with film audiences, but...yeah, that didn’t happen, did it? She was all “Don’t call me babe” and society was like “I won’t call you bankable either, hehehe.” Imaginary people are the worst. Barb Wire kicked off the Summer Movie Season in 1996, opening at #12 with $1.8M on its way to a final gross of $3.8M. Gulp. It did worse than fellow debuts The Craft (#1), The Great White Hype (#5), Last Dance (#6), and The Pallbearer (#9). Goop.

Spawn (1997)
I was excited for Spawn in 1997. The poster was aces, the trailer was cool, Roger Ebert loved it and it felt like a cross-section of everything I was into at the time like laser tag, PlayStation 1, visual effects, alternative music, graphing calculators, Martin Sheen, etc. Then I saw Spawn and, like everyone else, thought that we just couldn’t in our power turn this into a hit. The film opened well with $19.7M at #2 behind the second weekend of the most 1997 movie ever, Air Force One, but declined steadily and topped out at $54.9M due to poor word of mouth. I remember when Spawn came out on video there was an R-rated version and I thought more edge was going to somehow fix the movie. When I rented it, my dad asked, “I thought you said you didn’t like this?” and I had to defend Spawn. That’s a weird place to be. Even now I would totally re-watch Spawn and I have no idea why.

Hulk (2003)
After the massive success of Spider-Man the summer before, Hulk was expected to be another pre-MCU Marvel hit. It had the pedigree: Ang Lee coming off Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, rising star Eric Bana, newly minted Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly, Josh “we failed him and now he’s in faith movies” Lucas... Hulk opened at #1 with a mighty $62.1M, but then finished with only $132.2M as its final gross. Do you know how fucking bad your movie must be to have a multiplier under 2x? It’s no surprise since this movie pleases no one except Nick Nolte’s enablers. I saw it opening night with a full audience and by an hour in I swear I saw people getting palm readings, doing their taxes, reading The Bible...just doing anything to avoid making eye contact with this bore. I’m having PTSD writing this right now remembering how bad Hulk was. OMG, it was so bad. So, so bad.

What superhero movies did you think would be huge but weren’t?


  1. The betrayal and hurt you have caused me, Adam, goes deeper than Karl Urban's scowl from the superior DREDD movie.

    1. Haha. Dredd is The Raid but not as good. Judge Dredd is a beautiful disaster.

  2. I remember going to see Jumanji in like January '95, and there was a huge cardboard cutout of Billy Zane in the Phantom. I thought it was the best thing ever. America at large did not agree. Also, I never saw it either. So theres that.

    And The Rocketeer is hands down the best Disney movie of the 90s. Come at me.

    1. The Phantom is a lot of fun. I didn't include it here because I had a sense it wasn't going to make a lot of money when it was released.

      If you liked The Rocketeer, you should really see The Phantom. It has a similar vibe.

    2. After Zane doing Demon Knight the year earlier I was absolutely on board for The Phantom when it came out.

    3. Is there not a scene where the Phantom conjures up a titty bar out of nowhere?

  3. Hulk's multiplier is 2.1....still god awful. I remember renting Barb Wire at Pick n Save grocery store (yup you could rent VHS movies at the grocery store) and watching it with my mom, lol. Not a movie to watch as a teen with mom.

  4. How in the world did 90s audiences not want to "SLAM EVIL!" with Billy Zane? C'mon people get your priorities straight.

  5. I can't honestly say I thought it was going to be big, but I remember seeing ads in comic books for The Meteor Man back in '93 and not expecting it to do as poorly as it did (made $8 million on a budget of $30 million).

    I do have a soft spot for songs that have the movie name in the title, and this brought us "Ain't Nobody Bad (Like Meteor Man)" so there's that at least.

  6. Ouf. I saw Hulk is now available on Netflix recently and was going to watch it, but am now reconsidering? I watched it back when it came out (spread over 3 days, on my laptop) and don't remember anything about it. But Ang Lee? I think I'll rewatch it just so I can finally listen to the Blank Cheque episode.

    1. I think HULK plays much better now than it did when it came out. The mass of superhero movies that range from pleasantly predictable (even when great) to dark and gritty end up creating space for this movie to feel like a cool middle alternative.

  7. Adam, did you know Taylor Dane's "Original Sin" song from The Shadow was written by Jim Steinman, the guy behind most of Meat Loaf's hits, "Total Eclipse of the Heart," "Holding Out for a Hero," and "Making Love (Out of Nothing at All)," not to mention several of the Streets of Fire songs? Probably, but it bears noting!