“The Green Hornet” heads into the holiday weekend with less-than-boffo reviews.
Does this paltry punch behind the first of a league of superhero movies featuring less-familiar crime fighters – this summer’s Thor, Captain America, and Green Lantern – mean dire news for the second-string colleagues of legendary crusaders Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man?
The stakes are huge. Superhero movies are rarely cheap, due to big special effects and pricey stars.
“Superhero movies are a very reliable franchise for the studios,” says Hollywood.com box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. Even with occasional flops, “this is a very durable genre, one that is often review-proo,” he says. When a franchise succeeds, he says, it can make up for many duds. "Spider-Man 3" took in $336 million in domestic box office alone, according to boxofficemojo.com.
This conventional wisdom is true up to a point, says comic book expert and aficionado Stephen Fishler of New York’s Metropolis Collectibles, one of the nation’s top comic book auction firms. There are mainstream reviews and then there is word-of-mouth, he says. “If a movie is bad, that word will get out, and it will not do well.” While fans of top-tier superheroes will often turn out for even a middling film, the failure of the 2006 "Superman" reboot proves that a bad vehicle can ground even the biggest guys.
So when it comes to the lesser-known figures that have a far smaller built-in fan base, says Mr. Fishler, “it’s more important than ever that the movie actually be good.” That means the same criteria any moviegoer might have: “good visuals, good storyline, and great characters.”
Heroes who have audiences wondering “who is this masked man?” have an uphill battle for name recognition in a crowded entertainment landscape. On the other hand, a minor character allows writers and directors more license for creativity.
“ 'Superman' is such an icon that his narrative actions tend to be somewhat limited (Truth, Justice, American Way),” e-mails Brad Ricca, SAGES fellow at Case Western Reserve University and author of the upcoming book, “Super Boys.” But the truly obscure figures often cover more interesting ground, he observes, such as drug addiction, homelessness, and race.
At the same time, Mr. Ricca notes, filmmakers can reach only so far down the action-figure food chain, and it comes down to just how good the character is. Even if there are multiple websites and fan clubs for some obscure '70s Marvel character like ROM Spaceknight, he says, “there's a reason those characters don't have comic books anymore.”
Still, never say never in Hollywood, says Ricca. Bizarre Marvel characters “like Omega the Unknown, Marvel Boy, and Rocket Raccoon have recently been rescued from limbo to appear in highly acclaimed books.”
The Walt Disney Studios has sunk $4 billion into acquiring the Marvel stable of more than 5,000 comic book characters. Despite the fact that the surprise success of the first "Iron Man" proved that a good film can elevate an obscure hero, Disney ought to keep an eye on the tepid response to “The Green Hornet,” says Wheeler Winston Dixon, editor of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
“Disney might be congratulating itself on delving deep into the Marvel back catalogue, but audience appetite for superhero films seems to have played out as a genre, both in straight versions and in parodies,” he says via e-mail. This current “Hornet,” despite director Michel Gondry's best efforts and the "wow" factor of 3-D, “seems like a tired retread rather than something that will launch a franchise, which is what Disney wants.”
The genre has reached its saturation point, Mr. Dixon believes. He suggests studios glean a larger lesson from this: “We can't keep mining the past to make movies for the future.” [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph incorrectly attributed this quote.]