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The Lazy Narrative of the Comic Book Movie ‘Flop’


It may come as a surprise to you that “Kick-Ass,” the film version of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s popular Icon comic book, was a pretty big hit. Indeed, the Matthew Vaughn film earned nearly 100 million dollars in cinemas worldwide, with final home video, digital download and television sales yet to be tallied. But why, then, is “Kick-Ass” part of a depressing media narrative about comic book movies equating to box office poison?

In a piece published over the weekend, New York Times writer Brooks Barnes says it’s a consequence of the “race-to-judge” phenomenon, whereby the success or failure of new films is prognosticated sometimes months in advance by an unorganized cabal of of bloggers and box office websites all trying desperately to justify their existences.
Despite all the attention on opening weekends, releases can quietly chug away in theaters and end up in the black. And despite the slump in DVD sales, home entertainment still represents an enormous source of revenue in a movie’s money-making life.

There are other recent examples of movies that were quickly deemed misses but turned into hits. “Date Night,” the 20th Century Fox comedy starring
Steve Carell and Tina Fey, was branded a disappointment when it opened to $25 million. Yet it finally captured over $152 million. “The Last Song” had a $16 million opening in March – lower than expected – but went on to sell $89 million at the global box office for Walt Disney Studios.

Barnes also notes that negative box office publicity can wreak havoc with the stock prices of smaller studios, such as the case with DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon,” a supposed flop that was said to endanger the animation studio’s future, but has gone on to earn nearly 500 million worldwide, prompting the development of a sequel.

So, when is a flop actually a flop? If you listen to the Internet, when it’s a comic book movie. Or so goes a special subplot in the doom narrative that is the weekend box office saga that gets applied to both deserving and undeserving films. “Kick-Ass” was a movie that people seemed to enjoy, and it did very well, but possibly not as well as expected in the first 36 hours of its release, so let’s call it a flop. “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” is a very good movie and a superlative demonstration of a faithful comic book adaptation, but is also by any standard a financial disaster whose web funeral pyre burned so brightly it could be seen from space. And of course, there’s “Jonah Hex,” by all accounts a very, very bad movie whose financial failure — 47 million-dollar budget, 10.5 million in tickets — is easily explained.

Of course, these three comic book films have little common beyond the specific physical nature of their source material, but writers need something to write about, and the demise of the “comic book movie trend” is as pretty a balloon as any no matter how many times it’s floated for readers. But it is lazy. It’s easier to paint these disparate films with the same brush and write about numbers and what they mean for other films related only by the thinnest stretch of logic than it is to tell the truth about one thing and then find something else to cover. To do so would defy our — the media’s — tendency for narrative, to find some greater meaning in every facet of a subject’s existence. But as evidenced by Lionsgate’s publicity problem with “Kick-Ass,” we indulge that tendency to the peril of the work we’re paid to cover.

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