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Has Jonah Hex Killed the Comic Book B-Movie?

The reviews for Jonah Hex are not good. The box office for Jonah Hex is equally not good. I think it’s safe to say that there won’t be a sequel. But are the implications deeper than that? I’ve certainly read some suggestions that this might not just be a bad result for the bad ass, facially-scarred cowboy, but for fans of minor comic book characters in general:

Remember all those ambitious plans DC and Marvel’s film crews had to use their massive character libraries as movie R&D? After sub par returns for Kick-Ass, The Losers (two movies that deserved better box-office) and with Jonah Hex a near-certain bomb, fans may want to dial down those dreams of an Ant-Man or Booster Gold movie.

When the bell finally tolls in Hollywood for films based on B-list comic book characters – and you can bet Quasimodo is warming up in the bell tower — you might be able to blame Jonah Hex for being the tipping point.

So, has Jonah Hex killed any chance for lesser known characters on the big screen?

Has Jonah put a Hex on less popular comic book characters?

I don’t know. Part of me is more fascinated to see if the movie has killed Megan Fox’s career. Remember when she was the “it-girl” of the moment? And then her first leading film, Jennifer’s Body, bombed critically and commercially? And then how her war of words managed to get her dropped from the sure-fire box office hit that is Transformers III? I wonder if a strong supporting billing in this particular mess is going to hurt her more than her co-stars. She doesn’t exactly have the same sort of base that Josh Brolin and John Malkovich have, what with long careers behind them. I’m sure Fox will endure for the moment, but I bet she’s ruing the day she crossed Michael Bay.

Anyway, back to the point. Let’s be honest. Not all superheroes are created equal. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Hulk – they’re all hugely well-known and recognisable characters. Maybe even iconic ones. Then there’s the ones that are less well known to the general public – the Punisher, Ant-Man, the Martian Manhunter. It’s just the way things work. Some are more popular than others.

And the popular notion is – and, to be honest, it’s mostly correct – that the big names make big money. You’d have to try really hard to make a Batman film bomb at the box office, for example (though it takes considerably less effort to make it suck). These big franchises give the studios the excuse to print and money, and thus lead to big franchises. In the past thirty years, we’ve had six Batman films, five Superman films, three X-Men films and a Wolverine film (with a fourth X-Men film, a second Wolverine film and a rake of spin-offs planned), three Spider-Man films (and a coming reboot) and two Fantastic Four films (with another reboot on the way). These films make box office gold, so the studios pump them out like nobody’s business.

However, what about the smaller heroes? What about those of us who are pining for Ant-Man to be brought to life by Pixar or even by Edgar Wright? Or those of us who want a Metamorpho movie? In fairness, the studios have often tried to give us lower-key films featuring more cult properties. There have been three Punisher films, none of which set the box office alight. Daredevil got not only his own film, but a spin-off for a supporting character.  Hell, even Watchmen (which, hot as it might be on the geek radar, is not really ‘mainstream’) got a big budget adaptation. Though I wouldn’t dare call any of these adaptations ‘inspired’, which seems to be implicit when one discusses smaller properties – many of them were just failed attempts to ape more successful franchises, rather than reflecting what makes the property so beloved among its core group of fans.

Now, no point fighting over who sunk your franchise...

The track record with these smaller films hasn’t always been so solid. Jonah Hex is just the most recent example (as are, arguably, the Losers and Kick-Ass), but Watchmen wasn’t exactly box office dynamite either. These are recessionary times, so it’s logical to jump to the conclusion that these smaller quirkier films are at risk. I’m not entirely convinced.

The first observation to make is that the studios will always believe that there’s another Iron Man out there. As much as his longterm fans may protest, it was Jon Favreau’s movie which truly ingrained the character in modern pop culture. Sure, some of us would have recognised the name, but not with anything approaching the same familiarity as the more popular heroes. No, Iron Man came out of nowhere and just smashed through audience expectations. I don’t think anybody expected it to have the impact it did, firmly boosting its property up into the mainstream and effectively making something from nothing. Studios love that sort of property, and they believe that there’s another diamond hidden in the rough out there, waiting to make them money.

The second reason I doubt this is the end is because every studio wants to make Spider-Man III or The Dark Knight. They treat these blockbusters as a blueprint to help them build their own money-printing apparatus. However, you can’t buy the rights to make a new Spider-Man film while Sony have the rights, as much as you may want to make a new Spider-Man film. So, what do you do? You buy the rights to a less popular character who looks a little bit like Spider-Man, and make a conscious effort to make your movie feel like it is Spider-Man. Tell me that isn’t how Fox made Daredevil, right down to the slow-motion acrobatics. I know this isn’t comfort to anybody looking for a decent adaptation of their cult hero, but that’s the way the studios view these properties.

The other reason I suspect these movies will still be around is because… well, the big boys don’t always bring home the bacon. Despite the Hulk’s iconic status, we’ve had two movies in the past decade made focusing on the character that have failed to really impress financially. The Fantastic Four films didn’t set the box on fire either. These give the studios producing the films a very small reason to believe that the popularity fo a property isn’t a 100% certain guarantee of success. There’s more than just the popularity of the hero to be factored in. With the right marketing team and director, Krypto the Wonder Dog could probably make a tonne of money.

So I don’t believe the lower-tier comic book movies are dead, anymore than mindless and disappointing sequels are dead. Hollywood lumbers along so slow that it’s nearly impossible for a single disappointing summer to kill anything. Besides, Marvel’s low budget plans and the rumours of Warner greenlighting Green Lantern 2 before Green Lantern is even released give me hope.

13 Responses

  1. I think Jonah Hill only killed off its sequel plans.

    Movie adaptations of Ant-man, or Dr. Strange will still get made with devotion to character (the reason Dark Knight and Iron Man did well).

  2. Have to admit that Jonah Hex was a BIG disappointment. In my opinion it barely qualifies as a “B” movie. Josh Brolin was not that great, Megan Fox proved that she can’t act, and John M. reminded me of the miscast Gene Hackman as Lex L. in Superman. Even the cinematography was a bit lame. Not familiar with the comic book, but as a movie it was all thumbs down if you ask me.

  3. I hope they don’t axe Ant-Man. Edgar Wright would kick its ass.

  4. @ Simon/Ripley: Is that for real about Wright directing Ant Man? That would be the bomb.

    Honestly, I don’t think Jonah Hex did anything either way. Didn’t like six people see it? Didn’t seem like anyone cared to before it sucked or after, hopefully this has the effect of putting out better comic book B-movies since it’s plain as day that no one wants to see this shit.

    • Wright is/was rumoured. I think Stan Lee twittered about meeting him last month and he met with Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers) the month before that. I think the plan was to do something similar to the vastly underrated “Irredeemable Ant-Man”, in which a fairly pathetic slacker gets his hands on the shrinking suit and uses it for… less than heroic purposes.

  5. I don’t think Jonah Hex did anything either. I think it only proves that people do not care about third-tier comic book characters. The fact that there isn’t any BIG names in it (No, don’t tell me any of Josh Brolin, Megan Fox, or John Malkovich are big names, they are C-list or lower) surely doesn’t help it reach wider audience.

    The fact that WB slashed the budget from $80 million to $40 million was telling and they knew they had a stinker well before this was even released.

    • That’s true, though I still think the industry considers Fox a strong B-list celebrity, despite the trainwreck her career has become.

  6. I think it’s interesting that within two months of each other, two B-grade comic book movies on opposite ends of the quality and success spectrums hit theaters, with Kick-Ass presenting a good example of how that kind of movie can work well and Hex…well, being Hex. I’m not really sure what the Newsarama article is playing at; Kick-Ass did just under a hundred million worldwide after being funded almost entirely out of Matthew Vaughn’s pocket. All things taken into account, it should be considered a moderate success. (And it hasn’t even hit DVD yet. This is a movie that should do pretty well in the ancillary market.)

    I guess that what I’m saying is that Hex probably isn’t going to impact whether or not movie adaptations of lesser-known superhero titles will be made. If nothing else, Hex’s inevitable bomb status balances out with the small victory of Kick-Ass. Of course, Hex’s failure COULD effect future Weird, Weird West movies like Aliens Vs. Cowboys, since that’s a much more fringe genre compared to comic book movies.

    • With Favreau and Craig attached I doubt Cowboys and Aliens suffers the same fate.

    • I think you’re right there about the “weird” Western movies. And I think that Marvel have just proved me wrong – apparently they’ve greenlit a low-budget Dr. Strange movie.

  7. Meh, every genre has its fair share of stinkers, so it really is unfair to expect every superhero movie to be critically acclaimed and bring in tons of money. People are just weary to the idea of giving comic book movies an equal chance that they give other movies. I mean, how narrow-minded would it be for me to see that True Grit is coming out later in the year and go, “Uh, ANOHTER western? There’s already 100 billion of those!”

    • Yep, but I think that’s counterbalanced by the inevitable “Academy Award-winning Coen Brothers and Academy Award-winning Jeff Bridges in a retelling* of the beloved Western”.

      * because with that pedigree, it’s not a “remake”, it’s a “retelling”. 🙂

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