Are comic book movies slowly running out of box office steam?

As Green Lantern opens to a similar amount to X-Men: First Class, is audience enthusiasm for the comic book movie ever so slightly on the wane?

So far, most would have to concede that the quality of the blockbusters that have come our way this year has been better than expected. Fast & Furious 5 and Thor both opened the season to good reviews, and in the case of the former, very strong box office. Then, against most odds, X-Men: First Class turned out to be something really rather special, too. Even Kung Fu Panda returned with a sequel that was actually better than the original.

What’s interesting, and perhaps a little disconcerting, however, is that the box office appears, more than in recent times, to be rewarding the wrong films.

This past weekend in the US, Green Lantern brought in a solid, if hardly spectacular, $52.6m. Given that the movie will cost Warner Bros in the region of $300m when all is said and done, that’s not the total it would have hoped for. Yet, given the reviews that Green Lantern was getting in many quarters, it might now feel that it got off a little lightly.

What Green Lantern‘s opening demonstrates, though, is perhaps some sign of imposing limits of the comic book movie. Its take, with poor reviews, was just $3m behind the opening numbers for X-Men: First Class, which picked up far stronger notices. Thor, boosted as Green Lantern was by 3D ticket sale premiums, arrived at $65.7m, a number perhaps also skewed by it being the first big blockbuster of the year.

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So, why is all of this a problem? Well, to a point, it isn’t. The fact that three big comic book movies, two of which are the first entries in their respective franchises, can haul in a $50m plus US opening weekend isn’t shabby. Yet, the three also had blanket marketing and a massive push beyond the negative cost. And all three are performing a little below expectations.

You can put part of the problem with Green Lantern down to the reviews. Yet, word of mouth should have had a solid impact on Thor and X-Men: First Class, and there aren’t massive signs that that is the case. In the case of Thor, it’s taken $176m in the US, adding $259m elsewhere. Marvel will still be pleased with that, certainly, and rightly so. X-Men: First Class? Well, it’s still playing in some numbers, but the US total of $119m is comfortably the lowest of any X-Men movie to date, and there are signs that it won’t surpass the $157m that the very first movie brought in (even accounting for much higher ticket prices).

It might be too early to call comic book movie fatigue at the box office, but it’s certainly asking questions for Captain America, a film that’s looked like a sure-fire hit for Marvel from the moment it was greenlit. Also, the return of Batman, Superman and Spider-Man to cinemas next year, the most lucrative comic book franchises, along with The Avengers, will ensure that the genre dominates 2012’s box office. But outside of those four? Well, things might just be getting tricky.

What’s thriving, while comic book movies are just slightly under expectations, are more mainstream franchises, and you can’t help but wonder whether studios might look at these more favourably over the likes of expensive superhero films. Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was cheaper than the last Pirates movie to make, yet its worldwide take of $952m and counting (despite underperforming in the US) proves, surely, that a movie star and a crappy sequel beats a comic book movie. And not just by a small distance. By a scale of two to one.

Then there’s The Hangover Part II, a sequel that pretty much retreads the first film. It proved, for Warner Bros, to be a smart plan, too. There’s $488m and counting in the bank for a film that cost $80m to make. That’s not a total that the far more expensive Green Lantern will bring home for the studio, and, quite possibly, no comic book movie this summer will.

Warner Bros won’t cry too much, as Harry Potter is still to come. But I can’t help but wonder if the more conventional, cheaper franchises enjoying the lion’s share of success will, at the very least, shape the summer of 2013. That’s what the studios are plotting for at the moment, and with the big comic book characters all out to play in 2012, it currently leaves Iron Man 3 and probably Thor 2 in 2013, and not too much else.

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The comic book movie is still in good health, certainly, and there’s no sign of the death bell being rung. But there are the first signs that the genre is just starting to fray, and just starting to run out of box office steam. We might have to wait until 2013 to see if that’s really the case. As things stand, though, The Hangover Part II and Pirates Of The Caribbean 4, a pair of films with arguably the worst reviews of the season, are comfortably leading the box office charge. And that must be, at the very least, making some meetings happen in Hollywood…