Open Thread: Have Superhero Movies Gone Cold?

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The Green Lantern, the third of this summer’s four huge potential-tentpole superhero comic book adaptations, opened over the weekend with a total box office take of $52.6 million — a sum that pretty much every movie site that comments on such things has deemed “disappointing.” Of course, only in 2011 Hollywood can generating over $50 million in three days be deemed a downer, but there ya go. However, hard on the heels of X-Men: First Class’s similarly “disappointing” $55 million opening two weeks back, it begs the question: are moviegoers, at long last, growing tired of superhero movies?

The comic book/superhero flick has been a veritable cash cow for over three decades now, but its popularity tends to go in cycles, given an extra push every few years by a monster smash hit: Superman in 1978, Batman in 1989, Spider-Man in 2002. The latter was a big enough hit to kick off the current epoch, which saw two Spider-Man sequels, a Batman “reboot” and sequel, a Superman reboot, two Iron Mans, a Hulk (and a reboot!), and a total of four X-Men. Of course, the last two installments of that series were just terrible, which might have something to do with the underwhelming opening of X-Men: First Class — which was basically a reboot itself (the superhero genre has the charming ability to crank out bad films without concern, because they can always just “reboot” the series without everyone asking why they were putting out so much subpar entertainment to begin with). But when movie blogs and box office analysts puzzled over why X-Men: First Class didn’t perform to expectations, no one said, “Hey, maybe it’s because X3 and Wolverine were putrid, festering piles of dog shit.” They blamed it on the altogether reasonable decision not to make (or convert) the movie to 3-D, because everything doesn’t have to be in 3-D.

Now that the 3-D Green Lantern has opened to even lower numbers than the 2-D X-Men, that argument goes out the window. And Green Lantern’s weak box office wasn’t because of the scathing critical notices; the superhero genre is basically critic-proof. Would you like evidence? Ghost Rider did $115 million. Then again, maybe that’s the problem: that in the wake of Spider-Man and X-Men, audiences were so hungry for caped crusaders that they were willing to shell out their movie-going dollars for the likes of Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and the Fantastic Four — not even good popcorn movies. But the multiplexes have become flooded with superhero movies, and lesser-known, second-tier characters like Thor and the Green Lantern don’t have the drawing power of Batman or Spider-Man. As The Onion hilariously pointed out last week, the average moviegoer doesn’t even know who the hell the Green Lantern is — a factor not helped by the film’s inevitable confusion with last January’s The Green Hornet.

So are superhero movies over? Of course not — next summer’s The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man (a “reboot,” of course, after the unfortunate emo-dance-fest of Spider-Man 3) will surely do bang-up business, and The Avengers probably will too, if as nothing else than another Iron Man movie. But audiences may have been burned too often by B-list heroes, and a long run in the funny books may no longer translate to an automatic green light from movie studios.

What do you think? Has the superhero movie finally run its course? Or have moviegoers just become more selective?