We live in the era of the comic book movie, where superheroes rule the box office. It seems that with each new entry from Marvel or DC (and the stray independent comic flick) the intense need for competitions sets in: will it have a record-breaking opening? Will it have legs? Can we make a franchise out of this? These pressures can often be so great that even if a film does reasonably well, it’s still considered a flop. It’s all based on expectations.
Its unfortunate that many moviegoers are just as obsessed with box office numbers as studio heads are. Just because a film makes a killing, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. And vice versa. Films like The Thing and Blade Runner were flops upon their release, but are now rightfully regarded as classics. Superhero movies are no different; a few just fall through the cracks and don’t get the audience they deserve.
Some are legitimately great films that just didn’t get proper promotion, some are films that may not have lit the world on fire but are quite enjoyable, and others fall in the “so bad its good” category — so woefully incoherent that they need to be seen to be believed.
Without further ado, let’s look at 15 Superhero Movie Flops You Need To See.
15. The Punisher (1989)
Before Jon Bernthal, Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson, there was Dolph Lundgren. That’s right: Ivan Drago himself was the first cinematic interpretation of Frank Castle in this standard issue Reagan-era action flick from 1989. He’s a cop who goes off the deep end after the mob kills his family. Presumed dead and living in the New York City sewers, Castle wages his one man war on crime, befriended by a homeless friend named Shake (who likes to speak in rhymes…we’d explain but we don’t have enough time) and his ex-partner (Louis Gossett Junior).
We’re not going to claim The Punisher is Citizen Kane: they didn’t even get his costume right (where’s the skull?), and the Sydney, Australia location shooting doesn’t look anything like the Big Apple. But for a guilty pleasure shoot ’em up (with a surprisingly charismatic Lundgren) you could do much worse for a straight-to-video movie. It has its moments.
14. Swamp Thing (1982)
Under Alan Moore’s direction, Swamp Thing was one of the most groundbreaking, intellectual comic series of the ’80s. He took the sentient plant-life character from its humble horror comic roots and used the character to pontificate on the discord between man and nature.
So when Swamp Thing hit theaters in 1982, fans were eager to see Moore’s vision on the big screen. Nope! Directed by horror icon Wes Craven, Swamp Thing was essentially The Creature of the Black Lagoon for the ’80s. Forget about subtlety or lofty messages. It boiled the character down to its basest elements: Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) turns into a walking plant after an experiment gone awry, and must face off with arch-villain Arcane (Louis Jordan) to protect the woman he’s fallen for (Adrienne Barbeau).
But Craven’s only attempt at a family friendly action flick is just weird enough to stay compelling. He adds in a dash of his patented horror atmospherics and practical effects to the proceedings, utilizing the bayou backdrop to great effect. Nonetheless, it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, instead finding its audience on cable and VHS. It’s a must-see for Craven die-hards and Swamp Thing fanatics alike.
13. Fantastic Four (2015)
The problems of Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four are well documented: a director at odds with studio heads resulted in massive reshoots, and Trank was trashed in the press. The fact that it massively tanked at the box office should be no surprise.
While the general consensus is that it just sucks, there are elements of a good film trying to emerge from the muck. The first hour shows promise, focusing on the sci-fi element of Marvel’s first family, and their sense of camaraderie and purpose, before moving into the much discussed “body horror” sequences. Many fans thought this was out of tone with the original series. Fair enough. But at least it was trying to do something different.
If anything, the film goes off the rails in the final act, when the conventional comic book plot shoehorned its way through, along with some seriously sub-par visual effects (Dr. Doom being the most glaring travesty). Trank’s infamous tweet about the film’s reception stated: “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” Unless we get a directors cut, we’ll never know what might have been, but it’s still worth a look to see the few flashes of brilliance.
12. The Fantastic Four (1994)
Let’s face it. There has never been a great Fantastic Four movie. All three 20th Century Fox adaptations have fallen short. But nothing compares to the Roger Corman produced deuce from the ’90s. It all got started when producer Bernd Eichinger bought the rights for an apparent steal. But concerns over budget lead to several studios passing on the project. Realizing his rights to the property would soon lapse, he teamed up with B-movie king Corman and made The Fantastic Four for just over a million bucks.
And boy does it show! The effects for Mr. Fantastic’s stretching abilities are laughable and the Human Torch’s flammable capabilities were so hard to achieve he’s actually a cartoon at times, although its worth noting that The Thing looks better here than in any other film! The overacting is unintentionally hilarious, and the whackadoo plot is one hot mess, from making romantic power couple Reed and Sue Richards foster siblings (ewwwww) to a sickeningly sweet romantic subplot with The Thing and his girlfriend Alicia.
But as amazingly inept as it is, Fantastic Four has a magical charm only the most magnificent terrible movies exude. Adding to its mystique is the fact it was never actually released. Eichinger never intended it to be, yet he never informed the cast and crew. Not cool. He allegedly even burned the negative. Don’t fret, dear reader, it can be seen in all its glory on YouTube.
11. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
While War Zone didn’t made any critics’ top 10 list upon its 2008 release, it’s one hell of a guilty pleasure that features some decidedly awesome Frank Castle moments (how can you not love a film where a bad guy gets killed by an RPG while doing Parkour?), and a solid performance from Ray Stevenson as the grizzled vigilante facing off against arch-villains Jigsaw (Dominic West) and Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson).
Stevenson offers an intriguing take on the character, with moments of surprising vulnerability. West and Hutchinson on the other hand chew the scenery like rabid dogs, adding to the film’s manic quality. And then there’s the cinematography, with some truly unusual, eyeball-frying lighting choices that give it a comic book visual kick.
War Zone really delivers in over-the-top blood and guts. It’s the most violent movie ever made with a Marvel character (with the possible exception of Deadpool). It’s also the first Punisher movie that feels like the comic character, not just a basic action movie with his name slapped on the title. While Jon Bernthal’s run on Daredevil is the definitive live action Frank Castle, Stevenson is a close second.
10. Defendor (2009)
Woody Harrelson stars in this working class superhero indie flick, playing Arthur Poppington, who decides to fight the criminal elements that endanger his fair city under the name Defendor. The problem is, Arthur has no superpowers to speak of, just the desire to make a difference. The main target of his ire is Captain Industry, a nebulous villain that becomes his main obsession.
Even though he’s clearly disturbed, Poppington’s heart is in the right place. Armed with a mask and a mission, he sets out to bring about justice, with a crack-addicted prostitute (Kat Dennings) as his equally troubled sidekick.
Defendor is one strange superhero film. While primarily a comedy, there are some pretty dark moments, and it is not a feel-good, traditional comic book movie in any sense. But that’s also what makes it special, and fairly obscure. So if you’re up for a superhero film that bucks familiar formulas, definitely give Defendor some love.
9. Super (2010)
Fast food employee Frank Darrbo (Rainn Wilson) is in a rough patch. His alcoholic wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) has left him for a drug dealer played by Kevin Bacon. Unable to win her back, he snaps, becoming the delusional costumed hero named The Crimson Bolt after watching a religious program. But his methods are…extreme. His weapon of choice is a pipe wrench and his vigilante antics make him a target for the cops. And his comic book store employee sidekick (Ellen Page) isn’t too mentally sound either. Needless to say, when Frank sets out to rescue Sarah, things don’t go as planned.
Super makes a nice companion piece with Defendor, even if Darrbo is a much less sympathetic character. It’s also a black comedy that has dramatic dark moments. Given this unusual tone, it’s not surprising it wasn’t a smash hit. Although Super was a big flop, its infamous reputation eventually paid off for director James Gunn, who went on to direct Guardians of the Galaxy.
8. The Shadow (1994)
An iconic figure of 1930s radio, pulp fiction and comics, Lamont Cranston was a wealthy bachelor by day and The Shadow by night; a vigilante able to “cloud men’s minds,” and stealthily sneak up on bad guys in the dark. The character was one of the original inspirations for Batman. So a film adaptation that followed up the success of Burton’s Batman films felt appropriate.
Alec Baldwin does justice to the title character, in one of his last major leading man roles, and Highlander director Russell Mulcahy keeps things lively with nifty optical effects. But the film’s simple charms got squashed when it faced off against The Lion King and The Mask upon its release in 1994. While it’s certainly corny (with The Shadow facing off against a beyond campy John Lone as a descendant of Genghis Khan), it’s also delightfully bonkers. One scene involves Cranston posing as a Chinese drug lord while dodging a flying, screaming dagger. What’s not to love?
7. Mystery Men (1999)
This superhero comedy film, based off of Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot comics, features a dysfunctional group of heroes who set out to rescue the arrogantly smug Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) from the evil Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush). But the odds are stacked against them, namely because they have some underwhelming abilities: toxic farts, bowling prowess, cutlery skills, and the ability to just get really mad, to name a few.
With a cast that also includes Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens, Eddie Izzard, Tom Waits and William H. Macey, with plenty of goofy sight gags and dead pan humor, Mystery Men had all the promise of a breakout hit. But anemic reviews and audience indifference did it no favors. It’s their loss, because Mystery Men is one of the best superhero comedies out there, and a great showcase for a talented comedic cast. And how can you not root for a hero named Mr. Furious?
6. Superman Returns (2006)
This pseudo-sequel to Superman II had an interesting take on the Man of Steel. After years away from Earth, he returns to reconnect with Lois Lane, but must contend with the fact that she is involved with another man…and has a child. Making his homecoming more conflicted is Lex Luthor, who wants to be rid of the Last Son of Krypton once and for all.
X-Men director Bryan Singer ditched his mutant franchise for Superman Returns, due to his reverence for Richard Donner’s 1978 classic starring Christopher Reeve. And his nostalgia for Donner’s vision shines throughout thanks to John Williams iconic score. But not everyone was onboard: many complained about a lack of action (minus the impressive airplane sequence in the first act) and the Superman offspring subplot.
But Returns shouldn’t be totally dismissed: Routh was a solid Superman (arguably a stronger presence than Henry Cavill), and the film’s exploration of mythology and Superman’s outsider status has resonance. It’s also visually stunning.
5. The Phantom (1996)
Based on the ’30s era superhero (the first to ever wear tights and a mask), this big screen adaptation is appropriately a period piece, with Billy Zane playing the title character. His mission: to stop a criminal using mystical skulls with destructive powers. The Phantom’s real name is Kit Walker, one in a long line of descendants to don the costume in the name of fighting crime, and the film gives a reverent folkloric respect to the proceedings, as well as some engaging set-pieces that hearken back to golden age Hollywood adventures.
The Phantom unashamedly plays it very straight, so don’t expect any deconstruction or attempts to mock Walker’s ramrod do-gooder demeanor. There are no sly winks to the audience. This is adventure big and large, perfect for adults and for kids. Why this sugar rush of a film wasn’t a box office hit, we’ll never know. It’s one of the most pure and joyous superhero movies ever made.
4. Dick Tracy (1990)
Following on the heels of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, this adaptation of the iconic comic strip detective was expected to be the next breakout comic book movie, even borrowing Batman composer Danny Elfman. The cast was impressive too, including Warren Beatty in the title role (he also directed the film), Madonna, Dustin Hoffman, Glenne Headly, Al Pacino and James Caan.
But despite a killer cast and soundtrack, it did only so-so at the box office and with critics. Maybe because it wasn’t a slam-bang action fest: Beatty explores a love triangle between Madonna and Headly just as much as he indulges in the cops and robbers action, and its slower pacing may have thrown audiences.
But here’s why you should watch: Dick Tracy is one of the most gorgeous comic book movies ever made. Shot entirely in primary colors, there is a visual purity that still sparkles, and the prosthetic makeup effects are also highly impressive. In that respect, it may be the most comic book-y comic book movie ever made. And it’s aged considerably well because of it.
3. Dredd (2012)
Longtime Judge Dredd fans were undoubtedly let down by Sylvester Stallone’s disastrous 1995 live-action adaptation. So anticipation was muted when there was word of a 2012 3D reboot starring Karl Urban as the titular brooding defender of City-One. But thanks to the directorial and scripting gifts of Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Ex Machina), Dredd was a minor triumph.
Urban captured the gravitas and deadpan humor of the title character (most importantly: he never took off the helmet!) and the Cape Town, South Africa location gave a sense of dystopian grit to the proceedings. While the main plot (Dredd facing off against an armada of armed drug dealers in a tenement, led by Lena Headey’s villainous drug lord Ma-Ma ) was clearly lifted from The Raid, it works in incredibly well, augmented by dynamic cinematography and brutal action sequences.
Unfortunately, despite sparkling reviews, the film merely made back its budget, stalling hopes of a sequel. But the potential is there.
2. The Rocketeer (1991)
Yet another WWII-based superhero movie, The Rocketeer is a fresh-faced popcorn flick starring Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord, a hotshot pilot smitten with Hollywood starlet Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly). After he discovers a mysterious jet pack, he becomes a high-flying hero who must stop a Nazi plot involving a menacing actor (played by Timothy Dalton) who not only wants Secord’s device, but puts Blake’s life in danger.
Based off Dave Steven’s comic character, Disney had high hopes for starting a superhero franchise. And for good reason: the film is full of pleasant eye-popping visuals, an uplifting swashbuckling tone straight out of Indiana Jones, and a great cast. But audiences and critics didn’t bite. Some claimed Disney’s attachment to the property drove away adult audiences, who assumed the film was made for kids; a fun bit of irony, given that Disney’s acquisition of Marvel has made them modern superhero movie titans.
It wasn’t all bad news: Rocketeer director Joe Johnston would later get his big comic book movie success when he was hired to make another WWII patriotic superhero movie: Captain America The First Avenger. Over time The Rocketeer has gained acclaim as a cult classic, with Disney even planning a reboot. But it will be hard to top the heartwarming original.
It should be noted that along with The Shadow, Dick Tracy and The Phantom, The Rocketeer marks the fourth failed attempt to launch a 1930s-era hero into the 1990s. Why was this a trend, and why didn’t it catch on? Perhaps we’ll never know.
1. Batman: Mask of The Phantasm (1993)
Spurred on by the success of Batman The Animated Series, Phantasm is a full-length 1993 animated feature film produced and directed by BTAS creator Bruce Timm. In this neo-noir mystery, The Dark Knight is on the trail of a mysterious costumed assassin hunting down Gotham’s most wanted criminals. Things get more precarious when Batman is blamed for the killings. His life as Bruce Wayne isn’t any less complicated, as he rekindles a romance with Andrea Beaumont, a woman who broke his heart years ago.
This moral conflict leads to a suspenseful conclusion and a major twist. It’s a masterful film, though it sadly bombed at the box office. But many critics and hardcore Batman fans consider Phantasm as one of The Caped Crusader’s best filmic adaptations outside of the Nolan trilogy. It shows Bruce Timm at his peak, with an increased budget adding seriously impressive upscale animation. Batman Mask of The Phantasm is also notable for focusing keenly on Batman’s detective skills, something that often gets overlooked in his live-action filmography.
Well that wraps up our lists of superhero movie flops that deserve your attention. What other films would you add to the list? Be sure and tell us in the comments.