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Opinion: Hollywood’s superheroes not feeling so super

No one is calling on Polka Dot Man, and hopefully Hollywood is taking notice.
Margot Robbie in, 'Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.' (DC Entertainment/TNS)

Hollywood’s got a superhero problem.

Hollywood’s got a lot of problems, but superheroes are a big one. It seems they’ve been called on a few too many times. And now when it’s time to save the day, the big guys aren’t answering, and lesser heroes are struggling to get the job done.

Like Polka Dot Man.

What’s that, you haven’t heard of Polka Dot Man? Well what about Shang-Chi? Kingo? Not ringing any bells?

These are the superheroes that are now and are soon to be hitting screens. If they seem like results from the fifth page of a Google search of “superheroes,” that’s because they’re a far way away from Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and the other top-tier superheroes on which Hollywood’s current comic book business model was built. And the outlook isn’t sunny.

There was much hand-wringing earlier this month when “The Suicide Squad” opened below projections with $26.2 million its first weekend. That was off more than $100 million from the $133.6 million opening of the previous “Suicide Squad” in 2016.

A lot of factors played into this, chiefly the box office-crushing pandemic that is still ravaging Hollywood. There’s also the fact that due to that pandemic, “The Suicide Squad” is streaming at home on HBO Max, which cuts further into box office receipts.

There are other points of consideration, including its rating (the first movie was rated PG-13, the new one is R), the overall poor reception of the first film, and the fact that the new one doesn’t star Will Smith.

But then there are the characters themselves. The first movie featured the Joker, the most recognizable villain in the superhero/comic book universe. Everyone knows the Joker. The Joker sells tickets.

Polka Dot Man? Not so much.

Polka Dot Man is one of the characters in “The Suicide Squad,” and he’s played by David Dastmalchian. (Hello, is this thing on?) He’s a guy with serious mommy issues whose superpower is he throws polka dots at people, which is so lame it’s made fun of in the movie. The other superheroes in “The Suicide Squad” are Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena) and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), not exactly household names, and not exactly box office draws playing them. (Sylvester Stallone, the cast’s biggest name, voices a CGI creature known as King Shark.)

The cast is rounded out by Margot Robbie playing Harley Quinn for a third time, and last year’s “Birds of Prey” proved that without the Joker at her side, she isn’t a ticket-selling powerhouse.

Those things said, it’s not surprising the movie — which catered directly to fanboys rather than casual moviegoers — didn’t put up bigger numbers at the box office. But the bigger story speaks to superhero fatigue, intellectual property overload, and how far down the superhero ladder we’ve come looking for new big screen stories and properties. Is there a superhero who can fight Hollywood desperation?

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is next up on the Marvel docket, and it opens in theaters Sept. 3. Shang-Chi (in the movie he’s played by Simu Liu) might be known by comics fans but he isn’t known at all by casual moviegoers, so it will be an uphill battle — especially given ongoing pandemic conditions — for it not to wind up becoming the lowest-grossing title in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a distinction currently held by 2008’s Edward Norton-starring “The Incredible Hulk.” And people know the Hulk.

Then comes “The Eternals,” which opens in November and stars Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani and more. But they’re not playing characters that non-superfans will recognize: Jolie plays Thena, Hayek plays Ajak and Nanjiani plays Kingo, and they’re all part of the Eternals, “an immortal alien race created by the Celestials who have secretly lived on Earth for over 7,000 years” (thanks, Wiki), so it’s not exactly Captain America in terms of brand recognition. (Captain America, by the way, is in the process of a reboot of sorts, as Anthony Mackie will now play the role in the upcoming fourth “Captain America” film, it was reported last week.)

Help arrives in December with the latest Spider-Man adventure, “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which should right the course. The first “Spider-Man” movie helped kick-start the modern superhero phenomenon back in 2002, and the character — no matter who plays him — is still a top-tier draw. People know Spidey, people like Spidey, and if they could, people would call on Spidey.

No one is calling on Polka Dot Man, and hopefully Hollywood is taking notice.

— Adam Graham, The Detroit News

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