Howdy all. This week we’re going to jump into a discussion on some recent superhero films and their box office impact (the numbers) and the thoroughly awesome but mostly unseen in theaters Dredd (the 3D optional inspiration).
The Numbers – Recent Superhero Blockbusters
There’s no denying that we comic book geeks are living in a theatrical utopia when it comes to the current landscape of superhero films. In the past few years we’ve borne witness to things we never thought we’d see onscreen – mostly reverent interpretations of Marvel characters like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America; the ambition of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight franchise; reinvigorations of previously popular X-Men characters either through flashback pieces (First Class) or simply by taking another stab at solo works (this upcoming weekend’s The Wolverine); Krypton’s son reborn (for better or worse) in Man of Steel; and of course, Avengers assembling.
For the most part, these films have worked on a fan (and sometimes even critical) level, although you will always find folks on the ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ side of that particular argument. A lot of these movies have also reaped in a bunch of cash; while Man of Steel was not the mega hit that Warner Bros. was hoping for it has still taken in $625M in domestic and foreign ticket sales, prompting the announcement of a sequel at this past weekend’s San Diego Comic-Con (more on that in a few). Iron Man 3 has taken in $1.2 billion; no matter how much you like or hate the way The Mandarin is portrayed, that’s a lot of scratch. Avengers took in a cool $1.5 billion worldwide. When you stack Marvel versus DC film properties, it certainly becomes obvious that Marvel is winning the ticket sales war recently; Nolan’s Batman trilogy has earned approximately $2.5 billion worldwide, which Avengers + IM3 have covered. While I have neither the time nor the inclination to start lumping in DC efforts like The Green Lantern, its $220M worldwide take only brings DC about even when it comes to the take of Avengers + IM3, so the overall comparison of Marvel vs. DC at the box office using the bigger tent poles proves useful and apt for my illustrative purposes.
Like ‘em or hate ‘em, you have to admit that it’s pretty cool to see all of these heroes from the comic book pages of your youth/early adulthood/fanboy adulthood onscreen. I remember quite clearly wishing for some of these films to be committed to celluloid as a kid, and now that we’ve got them, no matter how much praise or negativity I or anyone else throw at them, I am still grateful for their presence. Because when it’s done well, a comic book movie can be like no other. Whether it’s the dark, brooding realism of The Dark Knight or the fun, colorful romp of The Avengers, we are lucky to have them. Some are cash grabs, some are inspired pieces of geeky filmic brilliance, and there’s usually something good to take away from any of them. Comic books are, to those of us that appreciate them, a form of art. Just as their source material, so too are comic book movies. And, as one of my Renegade colleagues stated in a site wide discussion on Man of Steel, one of the byproducts, perhaps purposes, of art is inspiring debate.
And debate certainly was occurring all over the world and the world wide web this weekend when Zack Snyder and company broke the news that not only would a Man of Steel sequel be happening, but that the next chapter set for release in 2015 would also feature Batman. Let that sink in for a minute. For decades a lot of us have been touting The Dark Knight Returns as one of the best Batman comic tales of all time, and lines were read from TDKR at the Hall H panel at Comic-Con to announce the presence of the Caped Crusader in the next film. That doesn’t mean we’re going to see a literal TDKR adaptation, but it does spark a whole lot of tumultuous discussion: will Superman and Batman be friends, or foes? My money’s on the latter, at least to start, which means there’s gonna be a rumble, which is in turn causing a rumble among our geek brothers and sisters. But consider for a minute the possibility that Snyder and the rest of the gang can successfully and coherently pull off this team-up. As you may have heard, there are already a lot of people bemoaning Snyder’s Man of Steel. Seems like a lot of these detractors are already dooming the Bats/Supes film before it is even committed to storyboards. To them I say: take a deep breath, take a moment to appreciate the fact that Bats + Supes is, you know, actually happening, and let the chips fall where they may. Purists would tell you that if it isn’t done their way then there’s no use in making this happen, but given all of the interpretations of Batman and Superman (together and apart) in comic book history, which story is the correct one to tell? For every superfan that cries “That’s not canon!” at a superhero film there’s another right around the corner to tell them that, in fact, it is canon since it was derived from some existing story, that was told somewhere. I would dare to say that there is no canon anymore, and maybe there shouldn’t be. Doesn’t the past teach us anything? Isn’t a solid story, great action and the chance to see something not yet done onscreen enough for any fan? If it ends up stinking, then complain. I just think it’s hard to proactively bemoan something that so far has only a logo.
Of course, film is a business and there are the potential numbers behind the Superman/Batman team up to consider. This thing is gonna break a billion dollars easily, whether you like it or not. Enough people will go see it to guarantee that on a worldwide scale. But given Man of Steel’s slightly disappointing box office, and the eventual ramp up to The Justice League, do you think Zack and Uncle Christopher don’t know what’s at stake, and how to improve upon their freshman outing with the big red and blue?
The Inspiration – Dredd
And then there are comic book adaptations that should’ve made bank but didn’t for whatever reason, like Dredd. Every time your fellow comic book fans bemoan some of the properties discussed above or others that don’t meet their definition of proper adaptations, point them to this gem of a film that only really found life in the home DVD/Blu market.
Dredd has everything fans could want in a filmed interpretation of a comic book property. A good, solid standalone story. No need to reinvent the wheel and spend half the film’s running time on the character’s origin. They noped right out of that line of thinking and jumped directly into a day in the life of a Judge in Mega-City One. Good sets, decent effects and a kick ass industrial soundtrack set the mood quite nicely. And you’ve got an actor who took the property seriously and didn’t, not even once, take off Dredd’s iconic helmet so his face could be seen (happens a lot; see: Maguire, Tobey, Spider-Man). Lead actor Karl Urban understood that the helmet makes the Judge in the comics and didn’t have any sense of vanity overtake his desire to properly represent the iconic character. Better yet, his acting is superb with the proper tone of menace, instances of wry dark humor, and violent physicality all perfectly conveyed though only the use of his mount and jawline. For goodness sakes Jim, you couldn’t even see his eyes!
Were there problems with Dredd? Besides no one going to see the damned thing in the theaters, yes, there were a few. Mega-City One was probably not as fully realized as comic fans would have liked, and reducing the scope of the gigantic Eastern seaboard den of urban iniquity to the towering façade and interior of Peach Trees may have disappointed some. I’ve also read some complaints online about Dredd’s Lawmaster not being up to snuff, but reading some background info on the film, the cycle used in the film was fully operable, ridden by Urban himself (he did all of his own stunts), so looks were sacrificed for functionality (and some budget savings). Other than that, I can’t think of many more. The supporting actors (especially Olivia Thirby as Rookie Anderson and Lena Headey as Ma-Ma) were also exceptional, throwing themselves fully into the roles. The primary driving force of crime, the Slo-Mo drug, had associated health risks shown in beautifully executed sequences. Did I mention that killer soundtrack?
That’s why it’s so frustrating that Dredd was produced for a paltry (by most superhero movie standards) $50M and only made $35.6M worldwide. Yes, that’s worldwide. And hang your heads in shame, American moviegoers, because it only made $13.4M stateside, with the balance coming from overseas ticket sales. The most vociferous of all fan bases failed the Judge, and by extension all Dredd and good-to-great comic book movie fans. Big time.
The real heartbreaker? When Dredd premiered at Comic-Con 2012, producer Alex Garland told those in attendance that all the movie needed to do to guarantee sequels was break $50M at the U.S. box office. In fact, he and director Pete Travis had plans for a trilogy, with some characters like Judge Death and his Dark Judges planned to appear. Well, since the U.S. take was over $26M shy of that…it’s enough to make someone (me) want to scream.
And then, like a break in the clouds, a sunbeam appeared in the form of home DVD and Blu-Ray sales. 650,000 units of Dredd moved in North America upon release. A spike in UK home unit sales when rumors started circulating that the home media market could prove to be the only home for a sequel. Said rumors die when director comes forth to deny any plausibility, while actor Karl Urban repeatedly holds out hope in interviews. Now it’s more than hope, as Urban told folks at Comic-Con that he has been talking with producer Garland once again about a sequel, and that they are, in fact, “actively exploring possibilities” because of the continued longevity in people’s post-theater consciousnesses. However, Urban stressed that fans’ voices still need to be heard to make a second installment a reality.
So this is where this column becomes something more than (hopefully) entertaining and (sometimes) informative. It becomes a plea from yours truly for all of you who haven’t seen Dredd to seek it out and watch it. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Even better, go buy a DVD or Blu copy. It’s probably on sale for a pretty good deal by now, but units moved will likely matter more than dollars at this point. And anyone out there who sees it, or has seen it, and likes it enough to use your voice, spread the word. I honestly believe that if the chatter gets loud enough, if the sales are sustained enough, we could actually have an influence and help birth what could be an incredible sequence of comic book films made and meant for folks like us. So, what are you going to do? You can continue pondering the Superman versus Batman thing, or applaud/rage about the Age of Ultron, of course. But can you also find the time to throw some good words and a few dollars at the possibility of a Karl Urban-led Dredd franchise?