‘Jonah Hex’ Bombed, Can Anything be Learned Other Than the Obvious?

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After reading Borys Kit’s piece at The Hollywood Reporter headlined “What Hollywood can learn from ‘Jonah Hex’” I couldn’t help but think Kit wasn’t bringing anything new to a conversation that may not even have a legitimate answer.

Kit’s editorial explores the reasons Warner Bros.’ box-office disappointment, Jonah Hex, failed to meet even the smallest of expectations in its opening weekend and how studios can use it to make sure future comic-based properties don’t suffer a similar fate. This included the following pointed breakdown:

  1. Fanboys might not make or break a film, but they need to feel respected.
  2. Pick a release date carefully, and never underestimate Pixar.
  3. Not every comic needs to be movie.
  4. Executives would be wise to not overreact and think nonmarquee comic book titles can’t be worthy of adaptations.

I’m sorry, but how that list suggests much of anything or relates to the failure of Jonah Hex is beyond me. On top of that, points three and four are mildly contradictory. Not every comic needs to be a movie? Yes, not every movie needs to be made into a comic book, but to use that in conjunction with “Jonah Hex” doesn’t make sense to me. “Hex” could have been a great movie. What Kit should have written, is “Not every bad script needs to be a movie,” though Hex‘s problems seem to go well beyond the script, which in its original stages may have been much better…

Kit nailed the reason for Hex‘s woes right away and it has nothing to do with being a comic book, had any film gone through this kind of production it would have likely been just as miserable. Warner Bros. hired Crank filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor to write and direct Jonah Hex. However, while their script remained, they were replaced by Horton Hears a Who co-director Jimmy Hayward who was then side-stepped after delivering his cut of the film. Warner was apparently unhappy with Hayward’s cut and brought in Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) to oversee reshoots. While the amount of reshoots is unknown, for those that have seen Jonah Hex, here’s Kit’s breakdown examining how the two different versions came together:

The dream sequence involving Brolin and bad guy John Malkovich, which pops up at least twice in the film, actually is part of Heyward’s original climax. The plot about stealing high-tech cannonballs, along with a glowing ball detonator, were added during Lawrence’s reshoots, as were scenes involving Hex’s backstory, President Grant (Aidan Quinn) and Hex talking to the dead. (The first cut kept his link to the dead more ambiguous.) Scenes with Michael Shannon and Will Arnett were trimmed to mere seconds.

The problems are evident and the budget bloomed to a reported $50-60 million at minimum as things only got worse. Anyone that saw Jonah Hex (and probably most of the people that didn’t) know it should have been rated R, and I would assume many would also think glowing orbs of destruction don’t make for an interesting climax in a ludicrous comic western.

However, sometimes the line between a successful film and a failure is not always a matter of quality. But when quality doesn’t necessarily play a part, it’s not easy to nail down the reason. Certainly, you have the obvious entertaining films such as Avatar and The Dark Knight. Family friendly films such as The Karate Kid succeed for obvious reasons, and I think that one scored a double whammy almost accidentally by also having added appeal for Black and Asian audiences (something I think box-office prognosticators overlooked). Top tier animated films are certain to do well, so Kit’s theory not to underestimate Pixar is like saying don’t stand in the rain unless you want to get wet.

However, while it’s obvious why Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was successful at the box-office, how did it become that successful? What about Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans, 2012, G.I. Joe and Paul Blart? Most of these films were critically panned and their IMDb user rankings start as low as Paul Blart‘s 5.3 and only get as high as Alice‘s 6.8. So obviously, based on general consensus, even quality sometimes doesn’t matter.

Bringing it back to Jonah Hex, it wasn’t always a doomed project, which is the reason Kit’s points have little relevance. Had Warner Bros. not decided to tone down the hard-edged killer, Hex may have been a better film. As a result it would have been easier to sell, would have had greater audience appeal and would have made more money even though it was up against a Pixar feature. Had it been rated R, it would have been the ultimate in counter-programming. Instead it turns out even the kid inside the most forgiving of PG-13 audience members chose Buzz and Woody over Jonah and Lilah.

I don’t think Hex‘s failure had anything to do with fanboys being disrespected either. I would even wager the most ardent of fanboys were the ones that made for much of Hex‘s $5.3 million opening weekend. After all, it’s not like we’re talking about all that many tickets. Fanboys supported the first two Fantastic Four movies to $154 and $131 million. Ghost Rider made $115 million and Daredevil made $102 million.

This isn’t a fanboy thing. From my perspective it seems fanboys are probably the #1 audience willing to give a film a chance, even if they don’t think much of those chances. In short, fanboys really shouldn’t be listened to that much if at all. Let them rant and rave, but do the best to tell the best story regardless of their complaints. Fan input isn’t informed enough before a film goes into production to give it any real weight, so just let them vent and let the film stand on its own two feet.

The strangest thing about Kit’s examination is nowhere in there is it said, “Make a better movie.” But what’s even more important than making a better movie, is that if you have a script you don’t have confidence in, don’t make the movie at all. You’ve gotta know when to hold ’em… It would seem Kit’s focus is figuring out leverage and how to get a buck where one otherwise may not have been made with a film that probably deserved to be shelved.

The Dark Knight isn’t consistently brought up in conversation because it picked a release date carefully, respected the fanboys or avoided Pixar (WALL•E came out three weeks earlier). Those factors may have helped it along the way, but it was quite simply a great movie that happened to be based on a comic book. To a slightly lesser degree, the same goes for Iron Man.

The point is to tell a good story, not the most generic story that will put the most asses in the seats. That works on occasion, but I would never bet on it. Hex seemed like a film that made such a gamble even though it should have been made on the cheap for about $35 million. Once glowing orbs and secret Gatling guns were introduced things got a bit messy. Had it stuck with a script suitable for a vengeful bounty hunter with a deformed face, kept the same cast and didn’t necessarily respect fanboys, but respected audiences and the money they would pay to see the film, then perhaps we’d be talking about, at the very least, a modest hit rather than a flop a mere six days after its debut.