Third Superhero Movies: A History of Badness

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Superman III. Batman Forever. Blade Trinity. X-Men 3. Spider-Man 3. What do these movies all have in common?

That’s right: they’re terrible.

Something seems to happen when a superhero movie series hits its third installment. Maybe they just run out of gas. Maybe that’s just when commercial concerns overtake artistic direction. Or maybe that’s when the Bad Movie Fairy drifts through the director’s bedroom window late at night and hits the left side of his brain with an aluminum baseball bat. Whatever the reason the trend is clear.

Younger comics fans who grew up in world where you have to take your shoes off at the airport and Conan O’Brien isn’t funny will have a hard time imagining this but there was an age where movie studios couldn’t be bothered with the 4-color carousel. In fact between the Republic serials of the 40’s and Warner Bros giving rise to the first proud age of tights-and-cape cinema around the 80’s there was nary a masked man to be seen. Superheroes were consigned to TV programming.

As in the beginning of comics it fell to the Man of Steel to take that first flying leap. Richard Donner’s brilliant 1978 movie Superman convinced millions of pre-CG audience goers that a man could fly. But Superman III reminded us that what goes up…anyway, here’s all the modern cinematic attempts to create a good third superhero movie, and why The Dark Knight Rises soars where they fall flat.

Note: Metacritic scores used unless unavailable, in which case RottenTomatoes scores are used

*****

Superman III (1983)

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Budget: $39,000,000 (estimated)

Gross: $60,000,000 (USA)

Change in Gross from Second Film: -55%

Metacritic: 42

Change in Metacritic Score: -52%

Sure, the decline of the Richard Donner Superman film series began as soon as Warner Bros dropped Richard Donner, but no one can say the franchise didn’t hold up until Richard Pryor warbled onto the scene. I understand there was a time for white people in this country when Pryor was the best thing since guitars, but take one look at Superman stonily carrying the agape comedian in his arms on the DVD cover and you know this is an epic mismatch. Nothing against Pryor, you understand, but when you’re best known for jaw-droppingly real sets about drug use and an SNL skit about competing racial slurs, a family movie is pretty much your Kryptonite.

Hey, at least it gave us some easy reference for the plot device in Office Space, as well as this classic gif:

 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)

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Budget $17,000,000 (estimated)

Gross $42,660,000 (USA)

Percentage Change in Gross: -46%

RT Score: 21%

Change in RT Score: -36%

Not technically cape-and-spandex material, but surely there’s no more infamous third film based on a comic book property than New Line Cinema’s legendarily botched TMNT sequel? Even if Leonardo and company themselves hadn’t turned into teenage mutant ninja spotted pufferfish, the story took a hard left from comic book pseudo-science into whacky magic time travel. And don’t even get me started on bringing Casey Jones back only to throw him into comedic time-outs with some time-displaced samurai. Were they hoping to spin this crew off into their own situational comedy or something??

 

Batman Forever (1995)

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Budget: $100,000,000 (estimated)

Gross: $184,031,112 (USA)

Percentage Change from Second Movie: +13%

RT Score: 41%

Change in RT Score: -49%

Truly the gold standard in third-film burnouts. The rubber nipples of the third-act Batsuits in Batman & Robin have become shorthand for Joel Schumacher’s joylessly camp Bat-aesthetic, but Batman Forever is when the bulb in Warner Bros’ Bat-signal first started flickering out. Sure, it improved the gross a little bit over Tim Burton’s uber-dark Batman Returns, but at the cost of Chris O’Donnell’s Backstreet Boy-ed Robin, gaudy faux-Grecian giants invading Anton Furst’s Gotham hellscape, and Kiss From A Rose.

 

Blade: Trinity (2004)

BLADE: TRINITY, Paul Michael Levesque (aka Triple H), 2004, (c) New Line

Budget: $65,000,000 (estimated)

Gross: $52,397,389 (USA) (20 February 2005)

Percentage Change: -36%

Metacritic Score: 38

Change in Metacritic Score: -27%

Blade II managed a slight improvement, both in gross and in critical reception, from its predecessor (although without the A+ villainy of Deacon Frost I don’t know how). But with Trinity it’s as if New Line Cinema was determined to take the lessons from Ninja Turtles III and prove they’d learned nothing.

Maybe it was letting series writer David S. Goyer direct. Maybe it was trying to turn the whole movie into a launching platform for a new Nightstalkers franchise led by Ryan Reynolds. Maybe it was insisting Jessica Biel could fight vampires without her stupid iPod ear buds falling out. Maybe it was killing Patton Oswalt. Whatever it was, this movie sucked the lifeblood right out of the franchise and left it to a fate worse than death – Spike TV.

 

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

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Budget: $210,000,000 (estimated)

Gross: $234,360,014 (USA) (22 September 2006)

Percentage Change in Gross from Second Movie: +9%

Metacritic: 58

Change in Metacritic Score: -15%

It’s been almost ten years since Brett Ratner snikt’d the X-Men series, and to date the franchise is still on Wolverine-provided life support. It’s especially sad when you consider Bryan Singer’s first two movies essentially jump-started the modern superhero film era. It was a perfect storm – Patrick Stewart facing off against Sir Ian Mckellan as fervently ideological mutant leaders with Hugh “Beefcake” Jackman going on a wild tear through their orderly war.

But Ratner overstuffed the cast, giving no character a chance for a substantial storyline. Worse, he handled the “minority” metaphor at the heart of the story with the thoughtfulness of a child playing Wolverine with real knives, and the result was that X-Men lost feeling in places it will never get back. Or hasn’t in ten years, anyway.

 

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

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Budget: $258,000,000 (estimated)

Gross: $336,530,303 (USA) (17 August 2007)

Percentage Change in Gross: -10%

Metacritic Score: 59

Change in Metacritic Score: -29%

If this is a story about a girl, someone tell Peter Parker that nothing turns off the ladies like pity-parties.

Despite the excellent casting of granite-faced Thomas Haden Church as the underrated Spidey villain Sandman, the movie fell apart in the central love triangle. Web-heads waited half a decade for Harry’s villainous turn, ever since Harry’s foreboding exit from his father’s funeral in Spider-Man (“Like walking into his destiny” according to Sam Raimi in the DVD commentary). But the “New Goblin” hits his head and loses his memory in record time. Moviegoers were left watching Tobey Maguire cry and dance his way into the superhero hall of infamy next to George Clooney while waiting for a Shakespearean vengeance that never happens. Instead, Eric from That 70’s Show gets a bug up his ass about Peter being a crappy coworker and becomes Venom. After he disappears, everyone sits down and has a good cry over the dying form of the Spider-Man movie franchise.

 

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

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Budget: $250,000,000 (estimated)

Gross: $448,130,642 (USA) (7 December 2012)

Percentage Change in Gross: -16%

Metacritic Score: 78

Change in Metacritic Score: -5%

So here it is. Sure, The Dark Knight Rises didn’t match the record-breaking gross of its predecessor or give us a legendary performance like Heath Ledger’s Joker. But It’s still really freakin’ good. Tom Hardy’s Bane is an entertaining successor to Ledger’s villainous mantle, and Rises found new ways to impress us such as with Bane’s daring mid-air kidnapping.

Most importantly, TDKR had the courage to be a final chapter. In most cases, the creative juice seems to have just run out on the perpetual second act of the superhero status quo. TDKR continued the series’ forward momentum, giving us a satisfying conclusion to the events started by Batman Begins. That is why TDKR deserves to be recognized as the first good third superhero movie ever.

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