With the announcement by Warner Bros. yesterday of ten upcoming DC Comics adaptations, we should note that seven of them were stand-alone “non-sequel” titles, specifically Wonder Woman, Shazam, Suicide Squad, Green Lantern, Cyborg, and The Flash. The DC Comics film library isn’t exactly littered with original superhero pictures, as Warner has tended to rely on Batman and Superman films. Looking over the list, the hurdles to end up at the top or near the top of this list aren’t terribly high to climb by current worldwide box office standards. So, for the sake of comparison and to look at what reasonable expectations might be, here are the top-9 biggest-grossing DC Comics adaptations that are not explicitly sequels. All of these films made at least $100 million worldwide. Obviously I’m avoiding sequels at the moment so that that entire list isn’t a bunch of Batman and Superman films. All but one of these were Warner Bros. (Time Warner Inc.) productions. They are not adjusted for inflation or any 3D or IMAX bump. To wit…
Man of Steel (2013)
$668 million worldwide
Last year’s re-launch of both the Superman franchise and the current DC Cinematic Universe set a record for the biggest DC Comics film that (A) wasn’t a sequel and (B) wasn’t about Batman. Aside from inflation and the whole 3D/IMAX bump, the Zack Snyder film benefited from a marketing campaign that played up the participation of Chris Nolan, director of the Dark Knight trilogy. It earned $128 million over its opening weekend, including $21 million in Thursday previews alone, which was good for the second-biggest debut of all-time for a non-sequel behind The Hunger Games ($152 million). However, word of mouth was mixed and competition from World War Z, Monsters University, and Despicable Me 2 was fierce, and the film failed to top $300m domestic. $668m is nothing to sneeze at, but the choice to insert Batman into the sequel was surely driven by the less-than-super worldwide totals.
$411 million worldwide
The film that changed Hollywood and created a new kind of blockbuster, the massively hyped and feverishly anticipated Tim Burton adaptation earned months of free publicity from its controversial casting of Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader while an unprecedented merchandising flood paved the way for the modern-day saturation-level marketing campaign. The film earned $42 million over its opening weekend, a record at the time, and eventually went on to earn $251 million in America (the fifth-biggest US total ever at the time) and spawn three sequels. Oddly, despite its utter domination in America, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was actually the top-grossing film of 1989 worldwide, with $474 million worldwide. For better and worse, Batman changed everything.
Batman Begins (2005):
$374 million worldwide
The first chapter in Chris Nolan’s rebooted Batman saga didn’t quite set fire to the box office, opening with $72 million over its first five days, a strong figure but not exactly in same league as X-Men and Spider-Man. The film didn’t have flashy villains played by superstars, and it had to overcome the bitter aftertaste of Batman Robin eight years prior. But the critically-acclaimed revamp, which set its Dark Knight origin in a relatively real-world Gotham City and emphasized character drama over action, proved popular with fans and general audiences, leading to the kind of slow-burn box office take not often seen for big blockbusters. It crawled to $200 million domestic and was a big hit on DVD and the emerging HD-DVD/Blu-Formats.
Superman: The Movie (1978):
$300 million worldwide
The one that started it all, Richard Donner’s mega-budget adaptation of (basically) the first American comic book superhero created groundbreaking special effects techniques and established the cinematic tools for crafting a serious and believable comic book adventure. Christopher Reeve is still Superman to most audiences, and John William’s Oscar-winning score is still recognized and hummed by audiences everywhere 36 years later. A $300 million worldwide box office champion when such a total put you in the top ten all-time grossers list, the $55 million production (including $3 million for a Marlon Brando cameo) was among the most expensive of all-time and still holds up even by today’s standards of special effects work. It was the first of its kind, and it’s still among the best.
$230 million worldwide
This Keanu Reeves star vehicle changed quite a bit about the title character from the cult Hellblazer comic book, such as hair color (blonde), country of origin (the UK), and sexuality (Reeves’s take isn’t overtly hetero, but nor is it apparent that he plays the character as bi-sexual as written in the comics). But while hardcore fans carped, general audiences just saw a visually dazzling religious-themed action fantasy and flocked accordingly. The film, directed by Francis Lawrence (now helmer of the ongoing Hunger Games series) is a genuine hard-boiled detective story, with very little overt action. The picture, Reeves’s first big movie after The Matrix Reloaded, opened to $29 million and earned $230 million on a $100 million budget, making it a solid hit for Warner Bros.
Green Lantern (2011):
$219 million worldwide
That this unmitigated box office flop is among the “top” non-sequel DC Comics adaptations shows frankly how few have been attempted as Warner has relied mostly on Batman and Superman. Martin Campbell did a lot right in the “scenes with people talking to each other” category and most of the action is weighted and coherent as always for the man who revived 007 twice. But the film failed to find the right balance between overly fantastical world-building and hero’s journey, ending up a painfully generic superhero film that had little to say and felt oddly lightweight and small-scale for a $200 million FX-extravaganza. Ryan Reynolds is somewhat miscast, as they cast for Green Lantern instead of Hal Jordan. The film still scored a $52 million debut weekend, but it crashed-and-burned in record time, earning just $116 million domestic and $219 million worldwide. My son was born this weekend, so I suppose if he wants he can spend the weekend of his ninth birthday seeing the next variation on Green Lantern at the nearest IMAX theater.
$199 million worldwide
This is the rare DC Comics adaptation not distributed by Warner Bros. and not based in a superhero world. The “retired spies get back into action” caper was sold as a Bruce Willis and friends (Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Mary Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, etc.) adventure that just happened to be based on a comic book. The Summit Entertainment (now owned by Lions Gate Corp.) release opened to $22 million but had uncommonly long legs thanks to older audiences discovering it at their leisure that stretched to $90 million domestic on a $55 million budget. Sadly once was enough for audiences, and Red 2 earned just $148 million worldwide on an $85 million budget.
$185 million worldwide
On one hand, a 2.75 hour R-rated, ultra-violent comic book adaptation based on a cult title that only hardcore fans were terribly familiar with opening to $55 million in February of 2007 speaks to the strength of Warner’s marketing and the strength of director Zack Snyder’s name post-300. On the other hand, the film crashed to Earth with one of the worst “weekend-to-final domestic gross” multipliers in history, earning just $109 million domestic (less than double its debut weekend) and earned just $185 million worldwide on a $150 million budget. It can be argued that Snyder’s version of Watchmen is as good a feature adaptation of the Alan Moore comic book as we could have gotten, but if ever there was a property more suited to an HBO mini-series…
V For Vendetta (2006):
$132 million worldwide
Another R-rated Alan Moore adaption, but this one cost just $54 million to produce. The film’s director was James McTeigue, but it was sold on the strength of its producers, the Wachowskis who had just come off of The Matrix and were two years out from Speed Racer. The film was unfortunately topical, as the 1980’s comic book which was a parable for Margaret Thatcher’s UK became a film that read to many as a worst-case scenario parable for the George W. Bush presidency. With just enough violent action to put in the trailers and an iconic marketable character in “V,” the film opened to a solid $25 million and eventually earned $70 million in the states. It’s not a home run, but considering how unusual it is in terms of comic book adaptations, it qualifies as a solid hit.
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