A Narrow Niche Market
I can't believe that there are groups of fanboys still out there screaming about the "travesty" that was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's box office performance (a mere $47 million worldwide on a $60 million production budget). Sure, Scott Pilgrim was a fun film featuring a great cast, a witty script, and wonderfully stylized directorial vision by fanboy-favorite Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead). However, I've already admitted to myself what a lot of other fanboys and girls were unwilling (or able) to admit to themselves during Scott Pilgrim's development: That this property was always going to have limited appeal as a movie.
The success of films like X-Men and Spider-Man in the early 2000s gave Hollywood the impression that comic books and superheroes where a lane of profit just waiting to be tapped, and since then it seems that every studio has scrambled to the same well of comic book stories and characters. Again, Hollywood being fixated on certain trends that have worked isn't anything new (see the recent obsession with "re-imagined fairy tales" for a good example), but there are certainly degrees of appeal when it comes to comic book properties.
Spider-Man and Batman and Superman will always sell tickets, because those heroes have all transcended their respective comic book beginnings to become mainstream icons. Before I ever picked up a Spider-Man comic book, I already had a plethora of Spidey merchandise - underwear, bed sheets, lunch box, Halloween costume - and truth be told, the thing about Batman and Superman that people probably know the least about is what is going on in their respective comic books at the moment. A popular mainstream superhero is a much different thing than a popular comic book superhero, and as movies like Scott Pilgrim, Watchmen and Kick-Ass have all proven (at least when it comes to U.S. box office totals), lesser-known comic book properties have limited appeal for the larger moviegoing public, and the fanboy community - for all their passion - has very little box office clout when it comes to $upporting 'their films.'
There's a reason why "comic book geek" is still a low rung in the high school lunchroom social ladder. The soap opera-ish, sci-fi-heavy nature of comic books really only hold appeal for those with fantastic imaginations, or those trying to find escape from the pressures of the real world. Unless a movie features one of those superheroes who has transcended their comic book origins to become icons (Batman), or places much more emphasis on its cinematic identity rather than its comic book roots (Red), then making a movie like Watchmen - which practically recreated the panels of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' groundbreaking comic book shot for shot - is an extremely risky endeavor.
Of course, the box office success of 300 - an obscure comic book turned into a Rated-R movie - is the root of this specious notion that obscure comic book properties can be translated into hit films without compromising the source material. But again, how many people had read - or even knew about - Frank Miller's comic book before they saw that film? Not as many as fanboys may want to believe. What did get people in to see 300, then? Well, good old fashioned violence, stylized (read: "cool") movie making, and handsome, well-toned leading men - cinematic merits that have long appealed to your general movie goer.
The same can be said about last year's action flick, Red: take away the headlining cast of aging stars kicking butt, and do you really think that film would've done nearly as well ($90 million domestically on a $58 million budget) had it come with the sole logline of "Based on the comic book by Warren Ellis"? Yeah, I don't think so either...