As much fun as it may be to trash a movie when it flops, isn’t it that much more fun when it’s a superhero flick? Along with the usual sadistic joy you can feel when a movie is so obviously a stinker, you get the added benefit of seeing stars in silly outfits. If a superhero movie is a hit, then the stars can afford to look silly. But if it tanks, those tights add a delicious amount of insult to injury. Think about it. If you see a guy on the street trip and fall, you may forget it within minutes. If you see a guy on the street in a chicken suit trip and fall? There is no one at your job, in your family, or connected to your social circle who will not hear that story.
Many of the following movies are the worst of superhero cinema; superhero movies famous for being so awful you can hardly believe they were legal. But they’re not all the worst of the worst. Some of them were small, independent films that were never expected to be seen outside an art house, and some suffered from behind-the-scenes turmoil.
Most of them, though? Yeah. Most of them are horrible. Most of them are so bad that if you read their titles out loud three times in front of a mirror, Zack Snyder will appear and ruin your life. Regardless of the reason, here are superhero movies that bombed the hardest at the box office.
Selina Kyle — the Catwoman of the comics — would likely admit that when it comes to robbing the rich of Gotham City, she does it more for the thrill than for the money. Which is good, considering that the stinker of a movie bearing her alias lost $20 million.
Catwoman deserves its honored spot on any sensible "worst superhero movie" list you could find, and even the people who made it agree. Berry herself called it a "piece of s***, godawful movie" and in February 2018 John Rogers — one of Catwoman‘s screenwriters — said it was a "s*** movie" that had "zero cultural relevance."
With a lead character named Patience Phillips instead of Selina Kyle, a setting that was nowhere near Gotham City, a traditionally non-powered hero imbued with magical cat powers, and without a single whiff of Batman, 2004’s Catwoman was based on the comics in the same way the Wreck-It Ralph franchise is based on the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The army of critics who would rather clean out litter boxes with their own toothbrushes than watch Catwoman again cite Pitof‘s horrible direction, a confused screenplay, and of course Berry’s ridiculous outfit that looks like either it was lingerie for the wife from Coneheads or simply that Halle Berry lost a bet.
Berry’s disaster of a costume was designed by Angus Strathie, who earned an Academy Award for his work on Moulin Rouge! a few years previous. Maybe he was tired?
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
When Superman goes to the UN and informs the gathered representatives that he plans to destroy all nuclear weapons, rather than the entire world uniting against him (which is what would actually happen), the reps give him a standing ovation. But Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) isn’t quite done with Superman. With a strand of Kal-el’s hair attached to a nuclear missile that is launched into the sun, Lex creates Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow), a villain who looks like he was kicked out of the hair metal band Ratt, designed to give Superman radiation sickness with his gold press-on nails.
Superman IV‘s budget was $17 million; domestically it made less than $16 million. By comparison, 1978’s Superman made over $130 million domestically, Superman II made $108 million, and even Superman III‘s domestic gross was nearly $60 million.
Jon Cryer, who played Lex’s nephew Lenny, said Superman IV suffered from a budget whittled to nothing. Reeve said the same thing in his 1999 autobiography Still Me. We trust Reeve and Cryer, but wonder if a richer budget simply would’ve made Superman IV a bigger pile of what it ultimately proved to be.
Zoom stars Tim Allen as Captain Zoom, a washed out superhero bitter about the loss of his powers to ally-turned-villain Concussion (Kevin Zegers). When Dr. Grant (Chevy Chase) discovers Concussion is returning to threaten the world, he recruits the former Captain Zoom to train a new batch of pubescent recruits. The fledgling team includes Kate Mara as Summer Jones, a young hero with telekinetic and empathic abilities. Almost a decade later, Mara would play Sue Storm in the utterly doomed Fantastic Four. We’re not suggesting Kate Mara’s presence curses superhero movies; we’re just also not suggesting she doesn’t curse superhero movies.
Based on the 2005 children’s book Amazing Adventures from Zoom’s Academy by Jason Lethcoe, Zoom tried to ride the coattails of the budding success of superhero action flicks. More specifically, it was likely trying to share the spoils of the previous year’s Sky High, which featured teenage superheroes in a school just for young super-people — basically Hogwart’s with spandex instead of all those scarves. Unlike Sky High, Zoom forgot to make money. Zoom‘s $75 million budget returned a $12.5 million lifetime gross, and according to most of the people who saw it; it deserved its huge loss. The critical scuttlebutt for Zoom is that is was boring, bland, lazy, and unoriginal. As Jeannette Catsoulis wrote for the New York Times, "Too infantile for tweens and too stagnant for tots, Zoom bleeds boredom from every frame."
When you start looking into superhero movies that bombed, you learn one of the toughest needles to thread is the superhero comedy. It’s a lesson Damon Wayans learned with 1994’s Blankman.
Wayans played Darryl Walker, a technical genius who seems completely oblivious to and naive about the inner city neighborhood he’s grown up in. When mobsters murder Darryl’s grandmother, he uses his technical expertise to become the laughable hero Blankman. In spite of his skill at making useful gadgets, Blankman is less adept at crafting a uniform, using a bedsheet as a cape and what appears to be either a headband or a legwarmer as a mask. Eventually, his brother Kevin (David Alan Grier) joins him as sidekick Other Guy.
Wayans was probably hoping to bank on the success of his much more offensive superhero spoof character, the disabled Handi-Man from In Living Color, but few bothered to show up for Blankman. Its opening weekend gross was a disappointing $3.7 million, which represented almost half of what the movie would ever make on the screen — its lifetime gross was less than $8 million. Critics took full advantage of the movie’s title, like San Francisco Chronicle‘s Mick LaSalle, who opened his 1995 review of Blankman‘s home release with, "The title Blankman should be warning enough: There’s nothing there."
The Spirit (2008)
You might think that if it was feasible for a comic book creator to make the leap from comics to movies, Frank Miller would be the guy to do it. So much of Miller’s comic book work has been used to successfully make hit movies. The Sin City films and 300 were based on his work, and his classic graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was adapted to animation, as was Batman: Year One. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was heavily influenced by Miller’s work and Netflix’s Daredevil would be absolutely nowhere without it.
But when Miller took the director’s chair to adapt The Spirit, based on the comics by Miller’s inspiration and friend Will Eisner about a cop who rises from the grave to fight injustice, everyone seemed to agree Miller should’ve stuck to the funnybooks. Variety estimated that The Spirit‘s poor showing at the Box Office represented tens of millions of dollars in losses.
The Spirit enjoys a horrible rating on Rotten Tomatoes and most critics seem to think while the film’s visuals were impressive, that’s about all it had going for it. They describe it as poorly-written, pleasureless, and tone-deaf. Not one to shy from a zinger if the lack of quality justifies it, Roger Ebert wrote of The Spirit‘s characterization, "To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material."
Fantastic Four (2015)
Fantastic Four was so bad that really, being bad is what it’s most famous for. The 2015 reboot of the franchise actually made money once it went overseas, but did horribly in the states. With a $120 million budget, Fantastic Four raked in a little over $25.5 million on opening weekend and scraped together a total of $56 million before U.S. theaters had enough and stopped torturing audiences with it.
Critics agreed director Josh Trank had the tools he needed, but didn’t use them properly. Rather than a fully developed superhero action film with an engaging story, Fantastic Four was, as The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy put it, "a 100-minute trailer for a movie that never happens." Likewise, Alonso Duralde of TheWrap wrote that Trank "assembled a quartet of engaging, charismatic performers and stranded them in a miasma of exposition and set-up."
After one horrible review after another rolled in, Trank tweeted that his version of the film had been altered by Fox. But sources from the film’s production told THR that Trank gave the studio little choice but to step in. The unnamed sources called Trank "erratic" and "isolated," saying that at times he appeared to be "in hiding." Fantastic Four producers Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker took the reins at the eleventh hour, three months before opening, to make sure there was something to put on the screen.
So, you want to make a movie about a C-List Superman spin-off? Well, just because the superhero isn’t a household name yet doesn’t mean you can’t change that. Just make sure you cast the right actor… and you hired Shaquille O’Neal.
When Superman kind of died in the pages of 1992’s Superman #75, John Henry Irons built an Iron-Man-esque suit to help try to fill the void Superman left behind. The noble character was unfortunately adapted into 1997’s Steel. Writer/director Kenneth Johnson told Vice he was against the idea of Shaq as the lead from day one, but that the studio "wouldn’t budge a dime to place an actual movie star in the role." Still, Johnson said the story of Steel’s background appealed to him, as did the fact that the film would bring the world one of the first African-American superheroes on the big screen. Speaking of which – Spawn‘s Michael Jai White would beat O’Neal to be the first African-American actor to portray a major comic book superhero in a film by fourteen days — Steel was released on August 15, 1997, while Spawn hit theaters on August 1st.
It’s just as well that Steel was edged out of that landmark by Spawn, because as Johnson predicted, Shaq was no Man of Steel. Critics hated Steel and audiences would have hated it if they’d bothered to see it. With a relatively small budget of $16 million, Steel didn’t quite hit $2 million. Sometimes you have to spend it to make it, guys.
The Specials (2000)
We’re not sure what the production budget was for 2000’s The Specials, but considering that domestically it was only released in two theaters and made a lifetime gross of just over $13,000, we’re going to go ahead and say it probably didn’t make a profit.
Though he didn’t direct The Specials, James Gunn wrote the film, and what little we know about the behind-the-scenes mess comes from the DVD’s commentary track. Gunn spews his displeasure with director Craig Mazin for not understanding his vision and Rob Lowe for trashing the film. He also apparently got into a fistfight with Jamie Kennedy outside an Astro Burger.
While The Specials was a superhero movie; there was no action, no adventure, and no stunning special effects. The film was supposed to be something of a faux documentary following one of the world’s least popular superhero teams on their day off. What few reviews surfaced weren’t glowing. Nikki Tranter of PopMatters said what the film actually gives you is a long "Saturday Night Live sketch, with most of the actors completely overdoing every scene."
The AV Club‘s Nathan Rabin had a more generous view of The Specials. Writing in 2005, Rabin said The Specials was released too early and that the "spectacular comeback" of superhero flicks would have rendered the film more relevant. Considering that by 2005 the first Iron Man had yet to be released, it’s tempting to consider whether or not The Specials could find broader audiences today.
Mystery Men (1999)
In 1999, there was every reason to think the superhero comedy Mystery Men would be a hit. Ben Stiller starred as Mr. Furious — team leader with questionable "super" credentials — and he still had fans repeating lines from the previous year’s comedy smash There’s Something About Mary. Hank Azaria — appearing as the cutlery-wielding Blue Raja — was a regular fixture on The Simpsons and the popular sitcom Mad About You. Greg Kinnear made a brief but memorable appearance as Captain Amazing, and he was still riding a high from 1997’s As Good as It Gets. And Geoffrey Rush — still fresh on everyone’s mind from the previous year’s Shakespeare in Love — played the perfectly-named supervillain Casanova Frankenstein. Throw in Paul Reubens as a hero who fights with flatulence and the support of Smash Mouth’s infectious "All Star" and what could go wrong?
Apparently, plenty could go wrong. Mystery Men cost close to $70 million to make, and its lifetime gross was $33.5 million, not even halfway to breaking even. In spite of its comedic star power, Mystery Men‘s greatest crime was its inconsistency. It had moments of comedy brilliance, but you needed to sit through far too much ho-hum to get there. Roger Ebert called it "a long, shapeless, undisciplined mess" that occasionally "generates a big laugh." Even reviewers who gave positive reviews, like Entertainment Weekly‘s Lisa Schwarzbaum, tempered their praise with warnings like, "Call Mystery Men a sketchbook in search of a movie, it’s still a super idea."
While James Gunn wrote The Specials, it was 2010’s Super that marked his first shot at directing a superhero movie, and it was much less conventional than either of his Guardians of the Galaxy films. The Office‘s Rainn Wilson stars as Frank Darbo, a lonely short order cook whose sanity takes a hard left turn when his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for criminal and strip club owner Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Inspired in part by a Christian TV personality who dresses like a superhero (played by Nathan Fillion) and a bizarre hentai-induced hallucination, Frank becomes the Crimson Bolt, a guy who will beat you half to death if you’re a child molester or if you cut in line at a theater.
Critics didn’t hate Super, but they sure didn’t love it. Most felt that Super didn’t really know what kind of movie it wanted to be. In particular, the film’s often surprising brutality confused its comic tone. Roger Ebert wrote of the death scene for Frank’s sidekick Libby (Ellen Page), "Maybe writer-director James Gunn intended it as a joke, but after the camera lingers on [Libby] with a third of her face blown off, it’s hard to laugh."
Super was an independent film that was never meant to set the world on fire and never expected to. But it didn’t even manage to earn back its meager $2.5 million budget. Its lifetime gross was just over $300,000.
Max Steel (2016)
Sometimes, something as innocuous as an action figure can inspire creativity with impact that’s felt for decades. And then there’s Max Steel.
Max Steel is a 2016 film based on the Mattel action figure line and long-running TV series of the same name. Starring Ben Winchell as teenage hero Max McGrath, Max Steel is about a boy who stumbles upon an alien robot who can bond with him and give them both extraordinary abilities. It’s kind of like Venom, but instead of a sentient oil slick, Max’s alien half is more like that annoying drone Peter Dinklage used to voice in Destiny.
Unlike Venom, which helped to prove a film can get spat upon by every critic in the universe and still be a box office hit, Max Steel‘s zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes was reflected in the film’s tiny lifetime gross of $6 million.
One critic felt Max Steel was more than just a bad movie; it was a desperate cry for social action. While most of the film’s cast are relative unknowns, THR‘s Frank Scheck pointed out the bizarre crime that Max Steel managed to rope in Andy Garcia as the villain and Maria Bello as the hero’s mother. Writing that he understood the need for actors to pay their bills like anyone else, Scheck suggested that "a fund could be started to spare talented thespians this sort of career embarrassment."