How Hit Movies Become Flops

How Hit Movies Become Flops
How Hit Movies Become Flops

It’s one of the core components of modern online film culture: in the run-up to a new installment of a long-running franchise, you consider what’s come before. When there’s a new “Star Trek,” you rank all the previous ones. When there’s a new James Bond, you pay tribute to your favorite interpretations of the character. When there’s a new Superman movie, you write about the underrated Superman movies that fans don’t properly appreciate. This week, as audiences prepare for “Man of Steel,” a lot of writers are defending 2006’s “Superman Returns.” At Deadspin, Tim Grierson goes to bat for “The Little Superhero Movie That Couldn’t.” Little might be a stretch — the movie cost at least $200 million to make (Box Office Mojo lists the budget at $270 million) — but who cares. The movie, Grierson says, has its merits:

“With hindsight, we can see that ‘Superman Returns’ is something of a precursor to the approach that J.J. Abrams has taken with his ‘Star Trek’ reboots. Those movies function both as a nostalgic reminder of the franchise’s past glories and as a self-aware twist on a story we think we know. Except ‘Superman Returns’ isn’t nearly as cute and self-satisfied. Yes, the movie riffs on two of Superman’s most well-known catchphrases (‘Truth, justice and the American way’ and ‘It’s a bird, it’s a plane…’), but especially rewatching the movie you notice how incredibly innocent the whole thing is.”

At Cinema Blend, Sean O’Connell has his own 3-point defense of “Superman Returns,” which includes an appreciation of the way the movie looks away from its hero long enough to consider his impact on his (and our) society:

“And what would happen to us in his absence. Beyond Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) winning a Pulitzer Prize, Superman’s 5-year journey to Krypton’s remains and back dropped the world into turmoil. Kal-El’s presence alone should have a deep impact on our planet and its society. When you have an all-powerful force of justice policing the planet, who’s going to commit a crime? There are deeper themes at play in the Superman mythology that [director Bryan] Singer tried to explore. At times, he went off the deep end into religious symbolism. But there have been suggestions in Snyder’s marketing materials that say he and screenwriter David Goyer will explore the hope Superman brings to our nation… and I think that was touched on in ‘Superman Returns.'”

Playing off Lois Lane’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article in the movie, Film School Rejects‘ Bitter Script Reader has his own essay on the subject entitled “Why the World Needs ‘Superman Returns.'”

“It may not be a perfect film, but how often does one find such a film? ‘Superman Returns’ doesn’t get enough credit for everything it does right, and for its ambitions to tell a different kind of Superman story. You can’t judge the value of a film by how many sequels it spawned or how many careers it launched. Does the fact that Henry Thomas had few notable roles after ‘E.T.’ diminish the power of his performance there? Or the legacy of the film? Is ‘Batman Begins’ a great film only because it beget ‘The Dark Knight,’ or can we assess its creative success on its own merits? I won’t dispute that there are metrics to measure the business success of a film but it would wrong to consider only those figures while giving the film a superficial reading.”

The Script Reader’s comments echo a tweet that floated through my feed earlier this week, with the following brief summation of the strange twists of fate that have befallen “Superman Returns” since its 2006 premiere:

“Weird fact: SUPERMAN RETURNS got good reviews when it was released, and made more money than BATMAN BEGINS. Now it’s considered a flop.”

True. When “Superman Returns” opened in 2006, it earned $391 million worldwide, slightly better than “Batman Begins’ $374 million. At Rotten Tomatoes, “Superman Returns” still has a 76% approval rating from critics; only slightly worse than “Batman Begins”‘ 85%. But one movie spawned two sequels that were even more critically and commercially successful, and the other didn’t. 

When “Superman Returns” opened, I remember having long conversations about the movie’s beautiful visuals, its impressive special effects (particularly in the spectacular mid-air shuttle rescue), its glorious John Williams score, and Kevin Spacey’s deliciously campy turn as Lex Luthor. Now if someone brings up “Superman Returns” in casual conversation it’s mostly as an example of what not to do in a superhero movie; to make fun of Routh’s Christopher Reeve imitation or Singer’s obsession with Richard Donner’s “Superman” movies, or the fact that (SPOILER ALERT) Routh’s Superman is, in the words of others, a “deadbeat dad.”

This is a curious phenomenon. The movie hasn’t changed in the slightest — it is, frame for frame, the same motion picture it was when it was released seven years ago. This isn’t like going back to “The Adventures of Superman” from the 1950s and discovering that George Reeves didn’t fly so much as he jumped around on springboards; “Superman Returns”‘ effects haven’t significantly dated yet. And it’s not as if superheroes have gone out of fashion in the intervening time and we now scoff at the naive, foolish moviegoers of yesteryear with their curious and inexplicable tastes. 

So how does a movie go from a hit to a flop in less than a decade? I think the culprit is something I’ve written about before on this blog: a movie industry that values hype over quality.

Today’s blockbusters are designed to open as big and as wide as possible. Maximizing box office in a movie’s first three days is not about quality — it’s about hype. Quality isn’t what packs people into a multiplex on opening night; hype does that. Quality is what keeps them coming back for weeks or months on end, a business model that is increasingly irrelevant in modern Hollywood.

Big hype translates to big opening weekends. But hype can be dangerous as well. As I wrote a few months ago in a piece about the lukewarm reaction to the heavily hyped “You’re Next” at South by Southwest, we become so fixated on the hypothetical movie in our minds that we’re almost inevitably letdown by the actual movie on the screen. Eventually “the pleasure of assumption trumps the pleasure of discovery… as soon as [a movie] becomes tangible, we nitpick it to death, explain what it should have been instead (based on our extensive, authoritative analysis of the hype), and move on to the next obscure object of our desire.”

Researching this blog post, I found an interesting article on Rotten Tomatoes from 2006 about the reaction to the first negative review of “Superman Returns,” which was written by Movie City News‘ David Poland. His original piece doesn’t appear to be online anymore, but Rotten Tomatoes’ article quotes from it. Here are some of his comments:

“It’s terribly cast, poorly conceived, extremely light on action, features a romance that is not remotely romantic, doesn’t feature a single memorable, ‘gosh, that was great’ repeat-to-your-friends moment in a positive way (the blunder bits start early and often).

It’s not a hideous piece of crap. It really is about a step behind ‘X-Men: The Last Stand,’ equally poorly directed, equally missing complexity, equally not up to the standards of the first two films, but with less interesting characters and absolutely zero sense of humor about itself.”

Today, “Superman Returns” is considered a flop and a failure, so no one would bat an eye at Poland’s comments. But guess what happened when he wrote them back in 2006?

He was vilified like a bald genius industrialist trying to create a new land mass in the Atlantic Ocean. 

In a post on his blog, Poland republished a few of the emails he received after panning “Superman Returns:”

“I’ve seen the movie and I’d like to congratulate you on the sale of your soul. I hope you got a good price.

go fuck yourself! you suck as a movie critic. Get a new job. Your work place should hire me

nobody gives a shit about your stupid review of superman so shove it prick.”

That right there is hype run amok. 

It’s interesting to note that “Superman Returns” wasn’t just well-reviewed; in the early going, it was uniformly praised. Even after Poland’s pan, the movie still had a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. One wonders if the overwhelmingly positive early reviews actually contributed to the eventual backlash by hyping the movie even further, and increasing the potential for disappointment.

It’s too bad these emails to Poland are unsigned and anonymous; it’d be great to see whether these people have left the same or similar comments on negative “Man of Steel” reviews praising the movie (sight unseen) for returning the character to his roots in action and away from Bryan Singer’s more touchy-feely interpretation. And even if these folks like “Man of Steel” now, how will they feel in seven years? Will they still like it? Or will the wind have changed again? 

It all depends on the hype. For “Superman Returns,” hype was both the life-giving rays of the yellow sun and the deadly radiation of Kryptonite. 

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