The Scorned Successes
Critics hate ‘em, studios love ‘em – how do they make all that money?
As Suicide Squad heads into its second weekend since its abysmal ratings began circulation, studios and obnoxiously diehard comic fans wait with bated breath to see if it becomes an imploding Warcraft or a trainwreck so interesting that its draw remains high. It’s not uncommon for terribly rated blockbusters to make bank, though with ballooning budgets and marketing costs, it’s becoming more difficult for them to break even. But will anyone remember how much money they made? Or is their quality their legacy?
To answer this, let’s look at five examples of hugely profitable movies that were all trounced by critics (let’s call that below 35% on Rotten Tomatoes) and see what kind of influence, writing, and studio decisions they’ve inspired since their time in the theater. What kind of movies are they and how do we think and talk about them now that we’ve had a little distance?
The Da Vinci Code
- Budget: $125 million
- Haul: $758.2 million
- RT: 25%
Based on the extraordinarily popular Dan Brown novel (it was only beaten in sales by that year’s Harry Potter), The Da Vinci Code bloats and flattens all of the mystery’s imaginative elements and the earthy broad strokes of its characters. It had such feverish Catholic controversy that you couldn’t help be intrigued by its blasphemy. Only then would you discover that the film’s most controversial choice was Tom Hanks’s hair.
Despite laughter and catcalls at Cannes, the film was the best domestic opening for both Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard. It had the third biggest opening weekend for that year and (at the time) the second biggest worldwide opening weekend ever. But why?
What we learned
People love controversy and movies based on their favorite middlebrow books. Subverting Christianity, in however milquetoast a way, raises a lot of eyebrows and that gets people out on the weekend. The sustained protests and coverage probably didn’t hurt, all while critics railed against it. So they adapted more (including Inferno, out in October 2016).
The Da Vinci Code’s sequel, despite its dampened stance on riling up middle America, was a better-made film and made another huge chunk of change. In fact, Angels & Demons was the highest-grossing film of 2009 until it was surpassed by…
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
- Budget: $200 million
- Haul: $836.3 million
- RT: 19%
This troubled Michael Bay sequel made a boatload and was conspicuously and admittedly racist. It puts the “ham” into “double whammy”. Coming off the heels of the smash hit (and decently reviewed) Transformers, the film had a head-on Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots collision with the 2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike. That meant Bay finished the script after his cadre of three screenwriters suffered through one final whipping before they could be free.
Bay’s admitted that he made “crap” while writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have acknowledged the racist caricatures of Mudflap and Skids while shirking all responsibility for the aggressively unpleasant film. Someone around here is responsible, they all seem to say, but (enjoying being employed) they’ve all done a fine job of misdirecting blame.
Moviefone’s poll saw the film voted worst of 2009, while Empire named the film the 25th worst movie ever made. While the film was nominated for an Oscar (one of the sound ones that nobody really understands), it couldn’t even win a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award, losing to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.
What we learned
Don’t be racist. Hire real writers.
Or keep making big, vapid garbage that’s linked to a property and make sure some of it is set in China (see the Chinese co-production Transformers: Age of Extinction, which is rated even lower yet made far more money that Revenge of the Fallen). Honestly, it worked for…
The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor
- Budget: $145 million
- Haul: $401.1 million
- RT: 12%
The third and final entry in The Mummy trilogy (remember when Brendan Fraiser had an action franchise?) realizes that things also died in China, where American-made action movies are extremely profitable. Mindlessness, while a detriment to most films, seems to boost the accessibility of action fare for a foreign audience. It certainly helps keep down any complex translation and subtitling.
The film earned almost triple its domestic total overseas ($102,491,776 compared to $298,636,863), beating The Dark Knight for first place in its opening weekend in 26 of its 28 released markets. Its $59.5 million international opening more than doubled that of the previous film, proving that marketing and setting (which in many way is narrative marketing) matters.
What we learned
China is still a hit and an excellent home for dumb action fare, which we’ve seen in 2016 with the huge discrepancy between Chinese and American box office returns for Warcraft.
So why’s it been such a long time since our last mummy adventure? Universal loves franchises – so much so that they want to put all the monsters they own into a terrible self-serious The Monster Squad.
They had a sequel planned that Universal Pictures cancelled, deciding on a reboot. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (remember them from Transformers?) would produce. Well now Kurtzman is scheduled to direct it. These guys make a lot of money off of their dumb CGI, so Universal is doubling down on their investment.
- Budget $60 million
- Haul: $159.3 million
- RT: 9%
This is a joke movie that Eddie Murphy used to show America the kind of trash it’s willing to pay for. Its racism, woman-bashing, and fat jokes are meant to be a mirror to our egocentric political and economic policy. At least, I hope so, because there’s no other excuse for Murphy to go yellowface as a character named Mr. Hangten Wong.
Hell, it was even nominated for an Oscar (ok, so it was for Best Makeup and Hairstyling – what can you do? Rick Baker’s a pro even when asked for racism). So what do we make of Eddie Murphy’s 14th #1 box office opener? It’s cruel, panned by black activists and film critics alike, and harshly unfunny.
But wait. CinemaScore gave the film a B grade (which is already extremely low), but those under eighteen, about a third surveyed, gave it a B+. Murphy was also still in the box office with Dreamgirls, reminding people of both his name and that his name once had some talent and respectability attached to it. It helps that Norbit wasn’t screened for critics, according to Jim Emerson, skipping over that kept gate and onto the screens of unsuspecting teens.
What we learned
Murphy’s Oscar chances may have been affected by this offensive omnibus, but he was also going through a divorce and a paternity case in those three years he continued to be in director Brian Robbins’s far less successful (though just as widely panned) follow-up films, Meet Dave and A Thousand Words. So, we mostly learned not to be a movie star with money problems.
Just ask Nic Cage about that.
- Budget $60 million
- Haul: $253.6 million
- RT: 14%
So here’s something to bring you down: Wild Hogs was one of the biggest comedy hits of 2007. Sorry Apatow, but people prefer homophobic dad actors to your stoner bros, even if you have something to say.
It hit #1 at the box office while rubbing out fellow opener Zodiac with the heel of its banal biker boot. The star power of John Travolta, Tim Allen, William H. Macy, and Martin Lawrence combined all the things that middle-aged Americans love: nostalgia, conservatism, and minor crises. Old guys just want to feel the wind in their hair with their friends that they CERTAINLY don’t want to sleep with.
And hang on, this movie was produced by Brian Robbins, director of Norbit. This guy really has his finger on the pulse of people that don’t read film critics (this wasn’t screened for critics either). Thankfully, he hasn’t directed anything since 2012, probably because people wised up, and has been relegated to producing YouTube star vehicles.
What we learned
Disney was going to make a movie called Wild Hogs 2: Bachelor Ride, which is a terrible subtitle, but after Old Dogs (directed by the Wild Hogs guy whose name isn’t worth looking up) flopped, they tabled all future Travolta projects.
Disney realized you couldn’t just throw aging actors at bad comedies to make a quick buck.
You have to throw them at a China-set action movie.