The free market is not always the best judge of quality. Nothing against capitalism, but sometimes the masses don’t flock to great movies; maybe a film gets clobbered in a competitive release date, or the marketing was lackluster, or it is simply ahead of its time, as they say. Some of these films were supposed to launch franchises with numerous sequels, and some were just one-off ideas which, while attaining varying degrees of critical acclaim, simply went above the heads of general audiences.
If there’s a silver lining to the sad fate of many of these movies, its that they went on to become beloved cult classics. Maybe you’ll find an entry in this list which you have yet to see, and then go on to help shine some light on a forgotten favorite. Here are 15 Box Office Bombs Which Deserved Better.
15. Speed Racer
Movies like Jupiter Ascending and The Matrix sequels make us forget, but The Wachowskis are, in fact, geniuses. The Matrix is a piece of generation-defining science fiction, and Cloud Atlas is an epic tale with no peers with which it can be compared. Still, our favorite film by The Wachowskis has to be their incredible remake of the classic 1960s anime series, Speed Racer.
Released in the wake of 2008’s surprise smash hit, Iron Man, Speed Racer never had a chance at competing with that behemoth, and its worldwide box office take came up way short of its reported $120 million dollar budget. Money isn’t everything, however, which is, fittingly enough, one of the main themes of the film.
Speed and his family’s racing business is up against the evil Royalton Industries, who are armed with every advantage money can buy, including ninja assassins. It’s a great David vs Goliath story, full of heart and soul. It’s a children’s movie, but one which never talks down to its target audience, a move which allows it to play well to children of all ages. The CGI is transcendent and the film has a completely stunning and unprecedented look. Had it come out after Avatar changed the visual effects landscape forever, things might have been different for what is truly a revolutionary and masterful piece of visual and emotional storytelling. As it is, Speed Racer was sadly “too much too soon” for general audiences… There’s a bit too much Spritle (child actor Paulie Litt), but it’s a minor complaint for an exceptional film.
No, we’re not talking about the Sylvester Stallone/Rob Schneider misfire, and we apologize for even bringing it up. We’re talking about 2012’s hardcore actioner, starring Karl Urban as the title character, Judge Dredd, a futuristic cop with power of judge, jury, and executioner over the criminals of Mega City One.
Despite being set almost entirely in a single, admittedly massive, building, Dredd manages to build a believable world. The future is bleak, with millions of people crammed into gigantic apartment blocks, and the anarchic gangs can only be stopped by the fascistic police force, the Judges. Fortunately, Dredd is simply too badass to be unlikable, and it’s easy to root for the faceless chin with the big gun.
Dredd wowed audiences with its gorgeous visuals and old-timey western narrative within a grimy sci-fi shell. Unfortunately, it was unable to find enough audiences to wow, and failed to recoup its budget of $45 million. It was immediately regarded as a cult hit, and sequel talk persisted for several years, but we fear the film may never get the true follow-up it deserves.
13. The Lone Ranger
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski, and star Johnny Depp made Pirates of the Caribbean one of Disney’s most adored and profitable franchises, so it was only natural that Disney would try to replicate that magic with another property. In this case, they tackled The Lone Ranger, based on the 1933 radio series and its numerous subsequent adaptations.
Despite having all the pieces seemingly in place, it just wasn’t in the cards for Pirates of the Caribbean in the Wild West. Perhaps it was the fact that the Western is a notoriously tough genre to break out with (see: Jonah Hex and Cowboys & Aliens for other high-concept westerns which similarly bombed). Maybe it was the unproven lead, Armie Hammer. We love Armie and think he’s a great actor, but he’s box-office poison in a leading role. Perhaps it was even the slight backlash received by Johnny Depp as Tonto, a white actor in an ethnic role. That sort of thing doesn’t go over too well these days, and for good reason. Most viewers who saw the film praised Depp’s imaginative take on the character, but the whitewashed casting is nonetheless a black mark on the film’s record.
At the very least, while the film has yet to reach true “cult” status, its budding fanbase received an unexpected shot in the arm when none other than Quentin Tarantino named The Lone Ranger one of his favorite films of 2013. We’re all but certain there will never be a sequel, but sometimes, it’s enough just to have one cool movie we never expected to actually be produced and released.
12. Only God Forgives
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2011, and expectations were high for the director’s follow-up. Reuniting with Drive star Ryan Gosling, 2013’s Only God Forgives is one of the great “love it or hate it” films of recent memory. It’s viciously and unattractively violent, and many of its characters are repulsive gangsters, but the story being told is so raw and personal, that the film sucks the viewer into its twisted world of neon noir, where the brutality of the villains is second only to that of the soft-spoken, sword-wielding, and righteous hero.
Only God Forgives is an aesthetically striking film, from its comic-book-style use of drenching each frame in maximum amounts of a minimal number of colors, as well as its reliance on music and imagery to tell the story, rather than long stretches of dialogue. It’s emotional, rather than intellectual, and was always going to be too esoteric to find a wide audience. Still, that it could only secure a release into 81 theaters had to come as a disappointing surprise to producers who were hoping for at least a fraction of Drive’s success. Ultimately, Only God Forgives barely made $10 million worldwide, a far cry from Drive’s respectable haul of $76 million. It was doomed, or perhaps designed, to be a cult classic to be debated by polarized cinephiles for years to come.
Mike Judge is one of the greatest and most honest voices of Americana in modern pop-culture. From Beavis and Butthead to Office Space and King of the Hill, he taps into various subcultures and simultaneously pokes fun at their quirks which championing their humanity and everyday struggles. He’s great at showing his characters to be, despite their societal labels, people, first and foremost.
One of his most enduring works has to be the zany comedy, Idiocracy. While more than a step beyond his typical workplace comedy/suburban family fare, Idiocracy goes for a much larger target: the systematic dumbing-down of American values and shameless consumerism run amok. Luke Wilson’s character is frozen, Futurama-style, and awakens 500 years later, only to find America a dystopian wasteland where everybody is stupid and named after corporate products. Just ask President Dwayne Mountain Dew Camacho, played by a pitch-perfect Terry Crewes at his funniest.
The legend goes that 20th Century Fox sabotaged the film by repeatedly slashing its budget, delaying its release for many months, and then dumping it out to no more than 130 theaters with virtually non-existent marketing. Idiocracy crashed and burned at the box office, though has since become a cult classic comedy right alongside the best of Mike Judge’s work.
Director Joe Wright’s Pan was easily 2015’s biggest bomb, and is said to have cost Warner Brothers up to $150 million in losses. Ouch. It’s a shame, too, because this admittedly ill-advised Peter Pan origin story turned out to be so much better than it had any right to be. Hugh Jackman’s hammy villain Blackbeard devilishly co-opts anti-authority punk rock anthems like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Ramones’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” as twisted sea shanties, the music of servitude. It’s nothing short of a stroke of genius, and the movie stays imaginative and visually innovative, even if the script, while tight, stops just short of taking important risks, falling back on stock “he is the chosen one” tropes.
Young Peter’s journey to Neverland alongside a swashbuckling James Hook (played by Garret Hedlund, equal parts charismatic, adorkable, and charmingly romantic) has all the trappings of a Star Wars-styled adventure. Perhaps if an actual Star Wars movie hadn’t been set to release in just a coupe of months, Pan might have been able to find a stronger foothold on audience attention.
Its September release date surely did the film no favors, as did its “origin story” marketing (a strategy which hindered The Amazing Spider-Man back in 2012), and accusations of whitewashing the key supporting role of Tiger Lily, who is played by the decidedly un-Native American Rooney Mara. That being said, the tribe of “natives” are a lot less racist than they were in previous versions of the story, so we’ll call this one a draw in that respect.
9. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
It’s hard to get more “ahead of its time” than Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Squaresoft (now SquareEnix) took a big gamble with their all-CGI sci-fi drama, and it didn’t pay off. The film, produced on a budget of $137 million, could barely crack $85 million worldwide, and its massive failure led to the closing of Square Pictures, whose only other product would be The Final Flight of the Osiris, a short film which ties into The Matrix Reloaded and was eventually released as part of The Animatrix.
The Spirits Within was an early attempt at photo-realistic CGI animation, and, while some scenes hold up better than others, there’s no denying that the movie gets hit hard by the Uncanny Valley, with facial animations sometimes being downright creepy in closeups. On the other hand, the voice acting holds up quite well, with an A-List cast which includes Donald Sutherland, James Woods, Steve Buscemi, and Ming-Na Wen as the lead character, scientist Aki Ross.
Don’t weep for Square Pictures, though. Eventually, SquareEnix went on to produce more films, including the Final Fantasy VII sequel, Advent Children (we recommend getting the Blu Ray director’s cut, Advent Children Complete), and the upcoming Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV.
8. The Raid 2
2011’s The Raid is an Indonesian action film from the Welsh director, Gareth Evans (not to be confused with Gareth Edwards, director of Monsters, Godzilla, and the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). Spoken entirely in Indonesian, The Raid blew audiences away with its unparalleled action sequences, which were like a brutally violent videogame combined with the unbelievable stuntwork of a Jackie Chan movie.
Seeing as how it caught audiences off-guard when it first released but grew a significant following on home video, expectations were relatively high for the 2014 sequel. The Raid 2 expands the scope of the first movie into a sprawling crime epic, like if Scorsese made a martial arts film. Unfortunately, despite playing on more screens than the first movie, The Raid 2 was only able to make about half as much money in the United States as its predecessor.
Some believe American audiences are just stubbornly unwilling to watch a movie with subtitles, even if it is an action epic with car chases and some of the best fight scenes ever put on film, combined with a gripping story about organized crime and undercover cops. Evans is an incredibly gifted filmmaker, and we know its just a matter of time before general audiences finally wake up and recognize his talent by giving him the box office hit he rightfully deserves.
7. John Carter
Disney’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars will go down in history as one of the biggest box office bombs of all time. Its staggering budget of $250 million was obscenely high for a first-time live-action director (Andrew Stanton, of Wall-E and Finding Nemo fame), and the film lacked a major star around whom to anchor the film’s marketing. Taylor Kitsch, while lovely and talented, was unproven as a leading man, and the film’s title was named after his character. The story goes that Disney first forbade the use of the title of the first John Carter story, A Princess of Mars, opting instead for the more masculine title, John Carter of Mars. Then, after the massive misfire of Mars Needs Moms, Disney decided to blame that film’s failure on the usage of the word “Mars,” and settled on the boring title of, plain and simply, John Carter.
John Carter landed in theaters with a deafening thud, and quietly disappeared. The general consensus was that, while the film had some great special effects and motion capture work, the plot and characterization was little more than cookie-cutter drivel by today’s standards. After a whole century of pop culture borrowing ideas from Burroughs’s novels, audiences were cold to what they saw as derivative of movies like Star Wars, Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Indiana Jones.
After John Carter’s disastrous box office and critical thrashing, Taylor Kitsch (having also starred in the equally maligned Battleship) retreated to television, where he earned great reviews for his role in the second season of True Detective. Meanwhile, director Andrew Stanton returned to Pixar, where he is currently putting the finishing touches on the Finding Nemo sequel, Finding Dory. We don’t expect to see him directing a live-action movie again anytime soon.
6. Scott Pilgrim vs The World
Edgar Wright is such a beloved filmmaker, many of his fans forget that his movies tend to be dead on arrival at the box office. Shaun of the Dead was only worth $30 million worldwide, and Hot Fuzz, his biggest hit, could only muster a global haul of $80 million. Fortunately, the budgets for most of his films were kept low enough that they were still able to turn a tidy profit.
This was not the case for Scott Pilgrim vs The World, a $60 million production which failed to clear even $50 million worldwide. The adaptation of the cult comic book blends the traditional hero’s quest with videogame aesthetics and wildly diverse flavors of comedy. Michael Cera is uncharacteristically charismatic as Scott Pilgrim, a 20-something with a high-school girlfriend who finds himself on a quest to win the girl of his dreams by fighting her seven evil exes.
Scott Pilgrim is an endlessly rewatchable film, but it failed to find an audience during its initial theatrical release. If we had to guess, we’d place at least some of the blame on the target demographic’s tendency to illegally pirate movies instead of paying to watch them on the big screen. Scott Pilgrim was very successful on home video, however, so maybe most of its audience didn’t become aware of the film until then.
Ubisoft also published a videogame adaptation of the videogame-themed film which was met with rave reviews and great success, though it has since been delisted from the Xbox Live and Playstation Network stores. #BringBackScottPilgrim
5. The Last Castle
This military-themed prison drama cost a reported $72 million, but was only able to bring in $27 million worldwide. While not exactly an anti-military film, perhaps its critical analysis of military commanders was a bit too soon; the film came out in October 2001, just a month after the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The great Robert Redford plays a disgraced general who is sent to a military prison, where he immediately butts heads with its commandant. The late James Gandolfini plays against type as the warden, a stone-cold disciplinarian with an intellectual streak that would befuddle Tony Soprano. Together, Redford and Gandolfini have a unique chemistry and their verbal sparring sessions have as much impact as any epic battle scene (though there are plenty of those, as well). The supporting cast is rounded out by such scene-stealers as Clifton Collins Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.
The Last Castle didn’t get a fair shake in theaters, but never reached cult status, either. We recommend giving it a watch, for its palpable drama and exciting action scenes. It’s a unique take on the prison-drama genre, and one which deserves another shot at fame and respect.
Director Neil Blomkamp’s third film, CHAPPiE, proved to be a love-it-or-hate-it experience for critics and audiences, and only managed to pull in $30 million in the United States, or just a third of the take of his previous film, Elysium. Unlike Elysium and District 9, which were hard-edged science fiction stories grounded in the real world, CHAPPiE, while still presented as plausibly as can be reasonably expected, plays more like a sci-fi fairy tale.
CHAPPiE is the very first artificially intelligent robot (voiced by Sharlto Copley), and the film follows his growth with a variety of parental figures, from his scientist creator (Dev Patel), to the gangsters who kidnap him and try to use him as their muscle. The casting of South African rap duo Die Antwoord raised some eyebrows; they ostensibly play versions of themselves in the film, and their acting is often ham-handed and over-the-top. To some, it detracts from the realism, but to others, it adds to the fantasy.
CHAPPiE may be loved and loathed in equal measure, but at least it’s a film about which people can debate ad nauseam, endlessly bouncing back and forth between discussing its atypical creative decisions, its gripping themes, and its emotional characterization. CHAPPiE himself was one of 2015’s most compelling characters, so let’s give his movie a second life on Blu-ray and Netflix!
3. Punisher: War Zone
There have been three films starring Marvel’s most bloodthirsty vigilante, The Punisher. Dolph Lundgren first played the character in 1989’s The Punisher, a B-Minus-level actioner that was decent for a dose of late 80s testosterone. Then 2004’s The Punisher saw Thomas Jane play a more cerebral version of the vengeful character. Unfortunately, though it has its fans, we found the movie to be a wordy mess full of bad acting and overly-complicated revenge schemes by the title character.
The third time was the charm, however. 2008’s Punisher: War Zone saw Ray Stevenson take on the role, and he was perfect. Just look at him: Stevenson IS Frank Castle. The first act, borrowed from Garth Ennis’s In The Beginning, plays almost like a slasher film, but with the single-minded killing machine actually being the hero. Punisher crashes an elderly mobster’s party and slices his head off, then proceeds to snap the neck of his middle-aged wife before pulling out a pair of guns and laying waste to scores of mafia henchmen. It’s a breathtaking reintroduction to the character, and is one of the most memorable openings to any action movie in recent memory. It also helps that Ray Stevenson’s Punisher doesn’t speak a word for nearly a complete half-hour, and is generally a silent angel of righteous vengeance… But not like that one time in the comics when The Punisher was actually an angel. We don’t talk about that.
The rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to its unprecedented first act, but still features some incredible production design; New York City (as shot in Canada) is soaked in gothic neon lights and plumes of steam rise from every orifice on the street, design choices which were later adopted by Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix. As much as we love Jon Bernthal as the latest incarnation of Frank Castle, we must shed silent tears for Ray Stevenson’s version of the character, who deserved so much more than this sadly underappreciated box-office bomb.
2. Big Trouble in Little China
John Carpenter is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. This is generally not a disputed opinion. One of his greatest films was 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China, a movie which was unfortunately overlooked during its initial release. The movie only made back half of its $20 million budget, dashing Carpenter’s hopes for a franchise.
Jack Burton is the plucky comic relief who only thinks he’s the leading man. In Big Trouble in Little China, Kurt Russell’s Burton fails at nearly every occasion, often in hilarious and silly ways, but he never stops believing in himself, the protagonist of his own story. His earnest purity is in great contrast to one of his earlier John Carpenter roles, Snake Plissken in Escape From New York. Juxtaposing the two wildly different versions of the “hero” makes both versions of Kurt Russell even more endearing and fun to watch.
Big Trouble in Little China is a purposefully corny tribute to martial arts and mystical Chinese fantasy. John Carpenter’s productions are instantly recognizable as his own, and this is no different, with his trademark synthesizer score and imaginative special effects. Big Trouble is a great entry point to Carpenter’s catalogue, as it has a much lighter, family-friendly tone, though it still somehow manages to include the fetishistic image of a hogtied Kim Cattrall… If one is into that sort of thing. We have no comment.
1. The Iron Giant
Before he rose to great heights with The Incredibles and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and then stumbled with Tomorrowland, Brad Bird made his feature film debut with 1999’s The Iron Giant. Vin Diesel stars as the voice of the titular robotic titan, who crashes into an idyllic 1950’s suburbia and befriends a young boy. Heartwarming drama ensues.
The Iron Giant was a victim of non-existent marketing. For one reason or another, distributor Warner Brothers, despite investing a reported $70 million into the film, were hesitant to spend significant resources promoting the animated feature, believing that its retro setting and lack of talking animals would limit the film’s appeal with children. Studio executives have always had a reputation for being stupid, short-sighted idiots, and their gross mishandling of The Iron Giant’s release is proof that such a reputation is well-deserved.
The Iron Giant crashed and burned at the box office, but almost immediately became recognized as a modern classic, for its important messages about destiny and ownership of our own fate, as well as its stunning visual identity and excellent voice acting. Also, it’s one of those movies which makes everybody cry, every time.
“You are who you choose to be.”
What do you think? What are some of your favorite box office disasters which should have been more successful? Make your voice heard and sound off in the comments below!
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