5 Phenomenal Box Office Bombs That Deserved Better


Just a few weeks ago The Phenomenal 5 list looked at bad movies that were huge box office hits. This time we are doing it a little different. I thought it would be fun to look at box office bombs that are actually much better films than their theater earnings indicate. These are movies that deserved the audiences that films like “Avatar”, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, and “Transformers” brought in. I tried to focus on films that have still never gotten over the box office drumming they took. The number of good movies brutalized by poor theater showings is pretty astonishing therefore I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there is no denying that these five box office bombs truly deserved better.

#5 – “Serenity”


It may surprise some but Joss Whedon was indeed directing movies prior to “The Avengers”. One such film was “Serenity” based on his science-fiction television series “Firefly”. The film follows the events of the series and brought back the entire cast led by Nathan Fillion. Actually I had not watched the series so I wasn’t expecting much from the film. I was wrong. This is fun, engaging, quip-filled sci-fi but it never caught much of an audience. It barely made back its budget and any possibly followups were quickly tossed out. What a shame.

#4 – “Waterworld”


To this day “Waterworld” is remembered for its cost controversy and its failures to cover its budget at the box office. At the time it was the most expensive movie ever made and the news focused more on that than the film itself. The movie deserved a lot better. There are some rough patches but overall the  dystopian vision of a flooded earth is very compelling. The movie does several interesting things within the setting and there are several scenes that still stick with me. Not a perfect film but one that doesn’t deserve the pounding it has taken over the years.

#3 – “John Carter”


Yet another science-fiction movie with a mammoth-sized budget that fell well short of box office expectations. Disney went all-in with “John Carter”, a move that proved very costly. The film needed to make $600 million globally to break even. It didn’t even manage $290 million. Did Disney overspend? Absolutely. Is “John Carter” a bad movie? Absolutely not. It’s too long. It has a fairly stiff lead performance. It sometimes gets a bit too cheesy. But I think “John Carter” is a lot of fun. It’s filled with some amazing effects, jaw-dropping set pieces, and it lays the foundation for what could have been a strong sequel. That certainly isn’t happening now.

#2 – “Once Upon a Time in America”


There is a frustrating and shameful story behind the American release of Sergio Leone’s fabulous gangster epic “Once Upon a Time in America”. This was the final movie in Leone’s brilliant filmmaking career. It was set to release with a running time of 229 minutes. It did so in Europe. Panicking over some early screening reactions, it was decided to not only cut the American version down to 139 minutes, but also to rearrange numerous scenes. This was all done without Leone’s consent and the results were disastrous. The film bombed and to this day the brilliant original 229 minute version doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves.

#1 – “Hugo”


Movie fans often talk about Martin Scorsese movies. In those conversations you rarely hear any mention of “Hugo”. The 2011 film based on the Brian Selznick novel was generally applauded by critics and well represented at the Academy Award ceremony. But it is generally known as a box office flop and as a result it has been forgotten. Overall the film is believed to have lost around $100 million mostly due to the stiff competition it faced in the theaters (“Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1” and “The Muppets”). In reality it is a charming, stimulating, and poignant story told through the lens of a true filmmaking great. The fact that “Hugo” has been forgotten by many is discouraging. It was one of my favorite films of 2011 and it holds up remarkably well today.

So there are five good movies (in some cases great movies) that performed poorly at the box office and have never fully recovered. Each deserved a much better fate. Agree or disagree? Please let me know in the comments section below.

46 thoughts on “5 Phenomenal Box Office Bombs That Deserved Better

  1. I loved Hugo. I thought it an engaging and heartwarming story; certainly agree with you there! Tis a shame about Once Upon a Time in America, too. I would like to see it put back together correctly. I think of great films that flopped at the box office that managed to turn out alright–“It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Wizard of Oz” and “Citizen Kane” — I suspect television played a role in that–the yearly showing managed to bolster respect until they became iconic! Great post.

    • Thanks Cindy! Yep all three of those did poorly. But as I mentioned I wanted to focus on films that never fully recovered from their box office pounding. None of these have gotten over it. Really a shame especially for a film like “Hugo”. Really glad to hear from someone who loves it too.

      • I’m with you. I thought it was magical. It is so strong as an emotional father/son drama, as a love letter to cinema history, and as a picture of great contemporary filmmaking. It truly frustrates me that it is so rarely talked about.

        I was encouraged when I heard one critic say that he felt Hugo would be held in higher regard as time goes by. I hope that’s true.

  2. I agree on Hugo, a lovely little film. I saw Waterworld when it came out and hated it then, was so bored with it but havent seen it since.

    • I can see Waterworld falling short for some folks. I found myself really enamored with the world and the survival aspect of it. I also found Costner to be a lot of fun. Hopper kind of wore thin after a while though.

  3. John Carter was a terrific film and it’s failure means that we will get more comic book films and less science fiction fantasy. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the Johnny Depp version of the Lone Ranger as well.

    • You don’t know how strongly I agree with you on John Carter. It was a ton of fun and I love its ambition. And it lays such a good franchise foundation. Unfortunately that won’t happen now.

  4. I don’t know why I though Hugo did better than it did. But it certainly is gem in the modern Scorsese era filmography. Certainly agree on Serenity. People are still begging for the show to return but no one went to the movie. Waterworld and John Carter are movies that while fun I never felt had enough staying power, being too long will do that. OUATIA, I need to give that a 2nd shot because I think once people got used to Leone and westerns, it may have tuned folks off.

    • Good comments and I LOVE hearing more praise for Hugo. Interesting connection between OUATIA and Leone’s spaghetti western icon status. But I do think the butchered American theater version was god-awful. I can’t believe that did that to a legend’s final film.

  5. I think HUGO is merely decent and I hated WATERWORLD (regardless of its troubled production). JOHN CARTER is a special case. While I did like it, I’m not against its box office results. You see, it was based on a book that had inspired other movies (STAR WARS, AVATAR, PLANET OF THE APES, etc.). It felt like they made it too late. The same thing happened with THE GIVER and INTO THE WOODS, although the latter did better at the box office.

    • Obviously I thought Hugo was tremendous both as an emotional piece and as an ode to classic cinema picture. I thought John Carter was a blast. It did indeed come from a book that inspired many other films, but I felt it was a very unique bit of big budget sci-fi.

  6. I definitely agree with Serenity. That movie and Firefly in general are severely underrated. I liked Waterworld as a kid, but when I watched it again as an adult I wasn’t crazy about it. Haven’t seen the rest. Nice idea for a post!

  7. Once Upon a Time in America would be my #1 because the 229 minute version is one of the best movies ever made, in my opinion. Then again, it might not be on my list at all because it has overcome that stigma to become a highly regarded film.

    Others I’d consider:
    Cloud Atlas
    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

    • I would say Once Upon A Time is highly regarded by certain segments of movie fans. But I don’t think it’s talked about nearly as much as it should be. Take a movie like Goodfellas. It is still heralded all the time. I wish OUATIA had that level of enthusiasm.

      Grindhouse is one I still need to see. Kurt Russell, right? I really disliked Cloud Atlas but I know it had supporters as well.

  8. I’ve owned a copy of Once Upon a Time in America for several years but haven’t been able to find time to watch it in a four hour sitting. And I was certainly disappointed that Hugo didn’t do too well at the box office, that was a great movie for sure.

    • “Once Upon A Time” is a time eater for sure. And wasn’t Hugo great? There is so much craft behind that film. And you see a lot of the passion Scorsese has for film and film history.

    • Isn’t it a great movie? But some brilliant person decided it was a good idea to butcher it and rearrange it for the American release. The version sucked and people wanted nothing to do with it. Fully we still have the original cut.

  9. I’ve got the restored version of Once Upon a Time in America on DVD, but I haven’t found time to watch it, yet. I really hope it lives up to your billing!

  10. Thought-provoking post. My opinion is that both ‘Hugo’ and ‘John Carter’ are not bad in themselves, but, unfortunately, have been made at the wrong time. Despite ‘Hugo’ being a family film ,designed to appeal to younger audience, it actually appeals more to the older generation, because of the nostalgia for the times when films only started to appear. Hence, difficulty in general popularity. ‘John Carter’ is just not enough to capture the imagination anymore, although undoubtedly made 20 years ago, it would have been an overnight success.

    • I would say part of the magic of Hugo was its ability to resonate with young and old. I remember going to see it in the theaters with my son and both of us loved it. Obviously he didn’t catch the many classic film references but he loved it nonetheless. And I don’t know, I thought John Carter had a ton of imagination.

      • Yes, my point was exactly that – to be fully appreciated and remembered historical references + deeper cinematic appreciation may be needed re Hugo, but no doubt kids love it too. John Carter has imagination, but, as you pointed out before, some movies just cannot withstand the competition nowadays.

      • Valid points. It’s just a shame when movies like Hugo don’t resonate. It’s such a brilliant movie with a ton of incredible technique behind it.

    • And Serenity is ripe for a franchise. It’s just sad that a film with that much solid creativity behind it doesn’t have a chance to expand its story further.

  11. Time has made me somewhat conflicted about Serenity. Back then, on its release on the big screen, I was a Firefly fan. Die hard Joss Whedon fan. Even before the film had been out I’d already seen it at least 5 times at multiple pre-screenings. BUT … I watched it again last year, and I can see where some of the criticism about it comes from. Sure, it’s a great fun sci-fi adventure, but think there’s a lot that’s gone on with the characters that totally flies over the head of anyone who’s not been invested in the series. Like the relationship with Book, Wash’s death doesn’t really have as much of an impact on someone who’s just seeing the film, heck even the relationship between Simon and River. But yeah, it should have done better at the box office. Perhaps if it was released now, it’d have more luck.

    • Maybe it would. Who knows. This things are hard to predict and even harder to figure out sometimes. You make some good points. I was one who had not seen the series and I could tell there were moments where things had more meaning than I was picking up on. But I did still really enjoy it as a piece of science fiction. But maybe there are more people out there who haven’t seen the series and word-of-mouth got around that they needed to first.

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