When it comes to the blockbuster movie business, there is no such thing as guaranteed success. However, one genre that has consistently proven lucrative over the last decade – even in the face of a year like 2017, one of the worst box office years in a quarter century – is comic book adaptations. The one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight in 2008 kicked off a new era of comic book movies defined by better quality movies and gargantuan box office hauls. In fact, a quarter of the top 20 all-time domestic and worldwide grosses are comic book movies released since 2008. But outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, to a lesser extent, the DC Extended Universe, comic book adaptations can still be a pretty big gamble and the genre is littered with the corpses of movies that failed to catch on with audiences.
Here are some of the biggest box office disasters in comic book movie history.
16. Fantastic Four (2015)
Domestic Box Office: $56.1 million
Foreign Box Office: $111.8 million
Budget: $120 million
It’s hard not to feel bad for the Fantastic Four (and especially fans of the series), as Marvel’s “First Family” has yet to have a big screen adaptation worthy of their name. But whereas 2005’s Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer came close in some regards to doing the Fantastic Four justice, the 2015 reboot was so bad that it makes those previous movies look like genre-defining spectacles by comparison.
Like many of the other films on this list, many of Fantastic Four’s problems seem to stem from behind-the-scenes turmoil, with some sources reporting that 20th Century Fox and director Josh Trank butted heads throughout production and that Fox ordered reshoots behind Trank’s back, while other sources claim that it was Trank’s “erratic behavior” on set that led to Fox’s dismissive attitude towards the filmmaker. Whatever happened, it’s clear that none of this turmoil resulted in a quality film being produced, as Fantastic Four is plagued with numerous problems, most prominent of which is that the whole enterprise feels wholly unnecessary.
Evidently, audiences marched right in step with critics on this one, as Fantastic Four had a poor showing at the box office. Although the film managed to earn back its budget and then some with a worldwide haul of $167.9 million, Fox still lost money on this one when you factor in marketing and other costs. It’s unclear what the future holds for the franchise now, but it’s looking like joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe may be the best hope for everyone involved.
15. Green Lantern
Domestic Box Office: $116.6 million
Foreign Box Office: $103.25 million
Budget: $200 million
Looking back on 2011’s Green Lantern, it’s still hard to believe it didn’t turn out much better than it did. The film had a great lead in Ryan Reynolds, talented script writers with proven track records (including Michael Green, who would later work on such acclaimed films as Logan and Blade Runner 2049), and Martin Campbell, the filmmaker responsible for arguably the greatest 007 movie of all time (2006’s Casino Royale) in the director’s chair. Put all those pieces together and 9 times out of 10 you’d have the recipe for a legitimately good blockbuster.
Unfortunately, Green Lantern was much, much worse than the sum of its parts. Over-edited and sporting some of the worst CGI ever seen in a major studio production, Green Lantern was a heartbreaking comic book adaptation that failed to convey why Green Lantern as a character is so beloved among DC’s fanbase. We’d only learn later that studio interference was a near-constant problem during production, which may help explain why Warner Bros. released a movie so bad that even Ryan Reynolds’ charisma couldn’t save it.
Financially, Green Lantern was a total bust, barely earning its $200 million budget back through its worldwide theatrical run. According to Reynolds, the main problem was that no one behind the movie “ever figured out exactly what it was,” and that sentiment can be applied to moviegoers as well, who stayed away in droves. Maybe this explains why GL didn’t get an invite to 2017’s Justice League …
Domestic Box Office: $24.4 million
Foreign Box Office: $32.27 million
Budget: $43 million
A spin-off/sequel to 2003’s Daredevil, Elektra could have been an opportunity to push female-driven action films forward, but is instead remembered as one of the worst comic book movies ever made. Elektra is the definition of a studio-mandated film made with the sole purpose of cashing in on a popular trend. In this case, that trend Fox was chasing was superhero movies but the irony is that Daredevil was neither commercially or critically successful, so it was hard to imagine that an ill-advised spin-off based on a character with even less name recognition was somehow going to set the box office on fire.
Jennifer Garner told reporters at the time that she only did Elektra due to contractual obligations and it shows in her performance, which is arguably one of the worst of her career. Thankfully, Fox gave up on both Daredevil and Elektra after this film’s release, eventually allowing the rights to both characters to revert back to Marvel and paving the way for the considerably better Netflix Daredevil series.
Elektra had a production budget of approximately $43 million, which is pretty modest for a superhero flick but still ended up being too expensive when the film only managed to pull in less than $57 million worldwide.
13. Cowboys & Aliens
Domestic Box Office: $100.2 million
Foreign Box Office: $74.58 million
Budget: $163 million
On paper, a sci-fi western starring both Indiana Jones and James Bond sounds like a winning formula, but 2011’s Cowyboys & Aliens failed to make a lasting impression on movie fans or the box office. Part of the blame can go to the disconnect between the film’s title and its tone/subject matter. While the name “Cowboys & Aliens” would seem to indicate a ridiculous genre mashup not unlike the ones Edgar Wright is known for making, director Jon Favreau’s adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel is instead a grim, deadly serious action film with little in the way of humor.
Toss in the fact that Favreau was working with relatively obscure source material (admit it: when you first heard they were making a Cowboys & Aliens movie, you probably didn’t know it was based on an existing property) and it’s not hard to see why Cowboys & Aliens barely earned back its $163 million budget, even with names like Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford on the poster.
12. The Rocketeer
Domestic Box Office: $46.7 million
Foreign Box Office: N/A
Budget: $35 million
While its fanbase is certainly much smaller, Joe Johnston’s nostalgic 1930s-era superhero flick The Rocketeer is held in the same regard as the biggest superhero film of its era, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). But while Batman was an extremely successful blockbuster, The Rocketeer had to settle for earning cult status years later, as it was a theatrical flop for Disney. Much of this can be attributed to The Rocketeer being an all-around tough sell to audiences.
It had a great cast that included the likes of Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, and Timothy Dalton, but no bankable stars, obscure source material, and a relatively small budget that prevented it from truly delivering on the thrills that audiences would have expected from a film featuring a hero with a jetpack on its poster. So even though The Rocketeer is now regarded as an awesome movie featuring a couple of young heroes taking on mobsters and Nazis, it unfortunately finds itself grouped in with other comic book movie bombs, having only earned $46.7 million on a $35 million production budget.
11. Howard the Duck
Domestic Box Office: $16.29 million
Foreign Box Office: $21.66 million
Budget: $37 million
Based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name, Howard The Duck bombed so hard in the United States that it was marketed completely different overseas, with the title character nearly being erased from advertising. The title was changed to “Howard: A New Breed of Hero” and the posters all but eliminated him, instead focusing on the brand recognition that came with executive producer George Lucas’ name.
Needless to say, the ploy didn’t work and nothing could save one of the worst-reviewed movies of 1986 from just barely recouping its (for the time) expensive $37 million production budget However, much like other cinematic travesties such as Troll 2 and The Room, Howard the Duck has become a cult classic largely on the strength of its overall crumminess.
10. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)
Domestic Box Office: $15.68 million
Foreign Box Office: N/A
Budget: $17 million
Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978) is widely regarded as one of the best superhero movies ever made even to this day, and even Richard Lester’s follow-ups Superman II (1981) and Superman III (1983) proved successful, even if they paled in comparison to Donner’s original. The same can’t be said for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a movie so bad that it essentially killed Superman live-action movies for nearly 20 years before Bryan Singer decided to revive the franchise with the aptly named Superman Returns in 2006.
The major problem with Superman IV is that it lacked the life and soul that made Donner’s original so memorable and affecting, but it was also weighed down with ridiculous plot developments and terrible special effects. The fact that the core cast of Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, and Margot Kidder all signed onto this movie is really quite astounding in retrospect, given that the finished product resembles a direct-to-video release.
Unlike the cast, audiences were able to read the tea leaves and stayed away from Superman IV. The film filed to earn its budget back, which really quite astonishing considering it only cost $17 million to make in the first place.
9. Steel (1997)
Domestic Box Office: $1.7 million
Foreign Box Office: N/A
Budget: $16 million
Released at the height of the basketball player-turned-actor era (what up Space Jam?), 1997’s Steel cast Shaquille O’Neal as DC superhero John Henry Irons, a.k.a. Steel, and was both a critical and box office bomb. Shaq’s lead performance earned the basketball superstar a Razzie Award nomination and the film itself was received as a slow, meandering B-movie that was nowhere near as exciting as a superhero movie should be.
The one saving grace is Shaq’s co-star Annabeth Gish, who received praise for her performance as John Henry Irons’ wheelchair-bound ally Susan Sparks. In an interesting twist, Steel premiered only a couple of days after Spawn, meaning that Shaq just missed out on the opportunity of being the first African-American man to star as a major superhero in a live-action film.
You would think that Shaq’s name alone would be enough to carry Steel to a decent box office run, but the film failed miserably, managing to gross only $1.7 million all told — more than $14 million shy of its $16 million budget!
8. Dredd (2012)
Domestic Box Office: $13.4 million
Foreign Box Office: $22.2 million
Budget: $50 million
It hurts to see this one so high up on the list of box office flops. Based on the Judge Dredd comics, 2012’s Dredd is arguably one of the best comic book movies of the last decade; not surprising considering Ex Machina and Annihilation director Alex Garland wrote the screenplay (and if Karl Urban is to be believed, pretty much directed the film too). Bombastically violent and darkly humorous, Dredd should have been the start of a successful run of movies but it bombed spectacularly despite overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics.
Really, Dredd’s failure can be attributed to a wide range of factors: it was a reboot no one really wanted, had a hard R-rating years before films like Deadpool and Logan came along and proved that R-rated comic book films could succeed, and starred a faceless character played by a relatively unknown actor (Urban’s been in some huge franchises but he’s far from a household name). The only silver lining is that Dredd is already widely regarded as a cult classic, but fans of the film probably would have preferred it to not have fallen nearly $15 million short of its $50 million production budget, if only to have gotten a sequel.
7. Catwoman (2004)
Domestic Box Office: $40.2 million
Foreign Box Office: $41.9 million
Budget: $100 million
Yikes. The 2000s gave us all sorts of bad superhero movies but it’s unfortunate that two of the worst were female-driven, with both Elektra and Catwoman seemingly providing studios with ample evidence that these types of movies didn’t work. Or, you know, maybe it was just because they were awful movies? Anyway, Catwoman was released in 2004 and starred Halle Berry as the femme fatale. Berry was only a couple of years removed from her historic Oscar win and had already proven she could successfully play a superhero with her performance as Storm in the X-Men movies, so Catwoman seemed like it would be a purrfect (I’m so sorry) fit.
Unfortunately, Berry’s performance was about as far from Michelle Pfeiffer’s incredible portrayal of the character from 1992’s Batman Returns, as Berry’s version lacked the seductive nature of Pfeiffer’s and instead was over-the-top and hyper-sexualized. That being said, Berry’s performance could have actually worked if the movie around her was actually watchable, but Catwoman is a soulless, over-edited, boring affair that is simply a mess. Audiences were clearly able to sniff out this stinker from a mile away, as Catwoman proved to be a dud at the box office, earning only $82.1 million worldwide against a whopping $100 million budget.
6. The Spirit (2008)
Domestic Box Office: $19.8 million
Foreign Box Office: $19.2 million
Budget: $60 million
The Spirit represents Frank Miller’s first outing as a solo director and it shows in the finished product. Having written some of the greatest graphic novels of all time, including The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, and Sin City, Miller tried to translate his storytelling prowess from the page to the silver screen but fell well short of expectations.
Sporting impressive visuals and an all-star cast including Gabriel Macht in the title role, as well as Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, and Sarah Paulson in supporting roles, The Spirit had all the elements to be a great comic book adaptation, but simply failed to execute on the level of plot. It also doesn’t help that the film is campy beyond belief, though depending on your preferences for that sort of thing there’s a good chance you may appreciate what this film accomplishes in terms of being outrageously, entertainingly bad.
Unsurprisingly, The Spirit was a ghost at the box office, taking in $39 million worldwide – a death knell for any hopes of a sequel considering the film cost $60 million to make.
5. Supergirl (1984)
Domestic Box Office: $14.29 million
Foreign Box Office: N/A
Budget: $35 million
Long before The CW’s Supergirl TV show and Melissa Benoist earned favorable reviews from critics and fans alike, Columbia Pictures’ UK division brought Superman’s Kryptonian cousin to the big screen with 1984’s Supergirl, which was framed as a spin-off of the live-action Superman series starring Christopher Reeve.
While Supergirl holds the distinction of being the first superhero film to feature a female character in the title role, that’s about the film’s only redeeming quality, as it’s routinely brought up in discussions of the worst superhero movies ever made. Supergirl’s cheesy dialogue and poor characterization are even more unfortunate in retrospect when you consider how stacked the film’s cast is, with veterans such as Faye Dunaway, Mia Farrow, and Peter O’Toole all appearing in this clunker.
Embarrassingly, Supergirl lost over $20 million (and that’s not even counting costs not associated with its budget), earning just over $14 million at the box office on a $35 million budget.
4. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Domestic Box Office: $8.05 million
Foreign Box Office: $2.049 million
Budget: $35 million
The Punisher has received no less than three reboots since Thomas Jane played the lethal Marvel vigilante in the 2004 film The Punisher, but no interpretation has been as ridiculously, gratuitously violent or dementedly entertaining as Punisher: War Zone. Roger Ebert described the film as “one of the best-made bad movies” he’d ever seen and that’s a pretty accurate description, as War Zone is over-the-top in the most delightful way possible.
Sporting neon-saturated cinematography, well-choreographed action scenes, and some hilarious, glorious dialogue, War Zone has justifiably attained cult status. Unfortunately, no one gave the film a shot when it was released, earning just shy of $11 million on a $35 million budget, which stunted director Lexi Alexander’s filmmaking career just as it was getting started (though she has been able to direct episodes of superhero shows like Arrow and Supergirl).
3. Tank Girl (1995)
Domestic Box Office: $4.06 million
Foreign Box Office: N/A
Budget: $25 million
Based on the popular 1988 British comic book of the same name by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett, Tank Girl was ahead of its time in some ways, featuring many feminist themes that still resonate to this day. Unfortunately, the comic’s popularity didn’t translate in the jump to the big screen, as Tank Girl only earned back $6 million of the surprisingly generous $25 million budget given by Trilogy Entertainment Group and United Artists.
The worst part about Tank Girl’s failure is that it helped fuel the narrative that there was no market for female-driven action films – a notion we would have to wait 22 years to see thoroughly dismantled by 2017’s Wonder Woman. At least both stars Lori Petty and Naomi Watts were able to move on and have successful careers after this flop.
2. Jonah Hex (2010)
Domestic Box Office: $10.5 million
Foreign Box Office: $0.35 million
Budget: $47 million
Any movie starring Josh Brolin, John Malkovich and even Megan Fox should attain a baseline level of quality, but Jonah Hex is such a bad movie that its only real redeeming quality is its mercifully short 81-minute run time. Josh Brolin plays the title character, a badly-scarred bounty hunter type in the Old West who ends up doing battle with a disgruntled Confederate colonel (Malkovich). Brolin does what he can to try and elevate the material, but it proves to be an impossible task in a film that introduces subplots seemingly at whim and then drops them almost as quickly (the acid-spitting snake man is a particular highlight).
Unsurprisingly, Jonah Hex was plagued with behind-the-scenes production problems and it’s really a small miracle that it even made it to the screen. That being said, Warner Bros. probably regrets ever unleashing it upon the world, as the film’s box office receipts came in more than $36 million under budget making Jonah Hex one of the biggest comic book movie flops ever made.
1. R.I.P.D. (2013)
Domestic Box Office: $33.6 million
Foreign Box Office: $44.7 million
Budget: $130 million
Believe it or not, the 2013 misfire R.I.P.D. starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges wasn’t just based on some screenwriter’s fever dream; there’s an actual R.I.P.D. comic book series published by Dark Horse. Having not read the comic, we can’t comment on its overall quality but if the film adaptation reflects it in anyway, it’s something we never, ever want to have the displeasure of sifting through. R.I.P.D. is a disaster from top to bottom and we’re not just talking about its financial failure. The film tries to mash up elements of Constantine and Men in Black into a fun action movie about a dead guy (Ryan Reynolds) who comes “back to life” to hunt down souls who refuse to move onto the afterlife, but is so poorly executed it ends up being much worse than the sum of its parts.
With a hard-to-sell premise and poor reviews, it’s no wonder R.I.P.D. is now one of the biggest box office bombs in movie history. Made for a hefty $150 million, the film ended its theatrical run with only $78.3 million in ticket sales – more than $50 million under budget! At least Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges have had no problem getting roles ever since being involved in this gargantuan flop.