The Internet has been buzzing about the underperformance of "Sucker Punch" at the box office this weekend, which came in second to the second "Wimpy Kid" movie. Everyone seems intent on tearing director Zack Snyder apart for the film's content, but I have not yet see the movie, so any sort of dissection of its merits from me is going to have to wait. Instead, I'm going to go the more meta route today and look at what the poor performances of "Sucker Punch" and the recent alien buddy comedy "Paul" mean for the future of fanboy cinema.
Roughly six months ago, when the highly anticipated "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" took a dive, I posited that the broader mainstream culture wasn't yet receptive to the tastes of the video-game loving, anime-watching, twenty-something Comic-Con nerd crowd. There would be other chances in the future, though, for this kind of movie to connect. The studios were still gamely trying to court the fanboy audience, and there were several high profile projects still waiting on the horizon. But then "Tron Legacy" only did so-so, "The Green Hornet" did even worse, "Paul" barely registered on anyone's radar, and now "Sucker Punch" is being excoriated for the worst excesses associated with its target audience. Does this mean that the studios will stop making films aimed at fanboys?
I don't think so. Looking back over the recent films primarily targeted at the young male audience, there haven't been many real financial disasters. "Kick Ass" and "Tron" both made their budgets back. "The Green Hornet" was a bigger hit overseas, and "Paul" was made for so little money, it's already broken even. Only "Scott Pilgrim" and "Sucker Punch" can rightly be called bombs, and they both had comparatively modest budgets, so the losses weren't that steep. "Sucker Punch" only had a price tag of $82 million, though the shock-and-awe marketing price probably pushes that figure up some. Many similar effects-heavy action films have budgets well north of $100 million.
The real issue here is that there hasn't been a big blockbuster that's been primarily driven by the comic book crowd lately. Sure, "The Expendables" and the various superhero films appeal to the fanboy crowd and enjoy solid attendance by the young male quadrant, but a significant portion of their audiences are female, or older, or younger, or generally more mainstream. Everyone is excited for "The Dark Knight Rises," not just the fanboy crowd. What we haven't seen is film aimed solely at that specific fanboy demographic that has become a moneymaker on the same level as something like "Twilight," which also plays to a similar audience - teenage girls.
Four years ago, the surprise success of "300" sent everyone scrambling to find the next big comic book hit, but as time has worn on and those hits failed to materialize, the craze has just about run its course. Perhaps the fanboys are more discerning or more difficult to predict, but the message that is coming across loud and clear right now is that they are not as dependable as they were once perceived to be. If the fanboys can't be sold on something like "Sucker Punch," which is stuffed to the gills with everything that could possibly appeal to the young male psyche, then the studios have no financial interest in making more movies like it.
This is not the end of fanboy cinema, but I suspect that future efforts will be scaled back in size and scope. We're not going to see another risky "Watchmen" level production any time soon, and only rarely a "Sucker Punch" or a "Scott Pilgrim." Kiss those dreams of a big-budget R-rated "Preacher" goodbye. We'll also no longer see marketing campaigns that solely pander to fanboy sensibilities. I can't help wondering if "Scott Pilgrim" would have attracted a bigger audience if it had pushed its more tender romantic elements at female viewers, instead of spending all the ad money trying to razzle-dazzle the gamer crowd. Oh, and Zack Snyder will keep working, but he's not going to be given carte blanche with the "Superman" reboot. I doubt anyone would give him final cut over a shoe commercial for the foreseeable future.
But is this a bad thing? I liked "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," and I appreciated the influx of original projects that the fanboy genre brought in, but it's been difficult to ignore some of the excesses. I have to say it's been nice to see the fanboy crowd's usual puffed-up sense of entitlement get deflated a bit lately. You can not argue that "Sucker Punch" has any kind of broad appeal when it enjoyed such a massive marketing blitz and still got KO'd by a no-frills kids' movie with a tiny $20 million budget. The truth is that fanboys are a niche audience, and the genre movies that they prize, full of sex and violence and mayhem, are niche films that should really be treated as such.