Why ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ Flopped, and What We Can Learn From It

Josh Brolin as Dwight in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Credit: The Weinstein Company.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For took a bullet over the weekend, earning just $6.5 million at U.S. cineplexes while Guardians of the Galaxy ($17.6 million for the no. 1 spot) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ($16.8 million and no. 2) continued to cash in, according to studio estimates compiled by Rentrak.

All three are comic book adaptations. Yet two are winning and one flopped. Why? And what, as investors, can we learn from it?

What audiences want from a comic book movie
Forget for a moment that Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is an R-rated movie defined by extreme violence amid a gritty, comic-book-like cinematography. The sequel to 2005's Sin City is still a comic book adaptation, and we in the audience have a feel for what that should be like.

Mostly, we expect a Marvel movie.

And when I say, "we," I mean everyday moviegoers. Any comic book fan who's been in the hobby for a few years knows that some of the best material exists outside the domain of Marvel and DC, among the ranks of lesser-known titles from small publishers. In 1993-94, writer-artist Frank Miller's Sin City series of anthologies were that kind of indie, published by Dark Horse Comics.

In 2005, the first adaptation of that material -- Sin City -- earned $158.8 million in worldwide grosses, an impressive haul for a film that cost an estimated $40 million to produce and another $37 million to market and distribute. Nine years and $6.9 billion in box office grosses later, Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) and Marvel have redefined what it means to make a comic book adaptation. Nearly every hit has been:

  • Timely.

  • Family friendly.

  • Supported by an existing fan base.

  • Part of something bigger.

Look at Guardians of the Galaxy, which taps into renewed enthusiasm for Star Wars (timely), embraces goofy humor at key times in the movie (family friendly), stars popular actors and is supported by a hot-selling comic book (fan base), and exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (is part of something bigger). No wonder this is the top summer movie at the U.S. box office.

Chris Pratt's performance as Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy is closer to what we've come to expect from a modern comic book adaptation. Credit: Marvel Entertainment.

No forgiveness for this 'Sin'
By contrast, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is an adult drama suffering mixed reviews for its degrading depictions of women characters. You can imagine how well this goes over in the wake of the #YesAllWomen movement on Twitter.

Female fans have also become more active in supporting genre entertainment. According to research from Eventbrite, women comprise 50% of under-30 fans who attend events such as San Diego Comic-Con. They're also spending more, which means catering to this segment of the fan population has never been more important. (Check out the "Future of Geek" panel at Comic Con, where industry colleagues and I discussed this in greater detail.)

"If you like gritty noir, problem drinking, car chases, awesome action, heavy bloodshed, and movies that look like comic books come to beautiful life, and you can handle some stereotypes and watching women get treated poorly -- this movie is for you. If not, forget it," writes Angela Watercutter over at Wired.

So far, most are forgetting it. With a B- CinemaScore -- think of it as a collective "meh" from audiences that saw it -- Sin City: A Dame to Kill For comes off as out of touch, and it's showing in the box office results.

Foolish takeaway
While some of the more profitable comic book adaptations trace their roots to indie comic book  properties -- 1994's The Mask, for example, or The Walking Dead on television -- at the cinema, the business has changed since 2008, when Iron Man set a stylistic tone that has become the norm for the genre.  

Every film to come after is measured by how well it executes the Marvel Studios formula. Unfair, you say? Of course it is. But that's the way the business is now, and why Sin City: A Dame to Kill For doesn't measure up.

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Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 5:21 PM, rtichy wrote:

    Tim, do we know what this one cost to make? The first Sin City was pretty much made solely by Rodriguez and the costs were very contained. This movie might be profitable at much much lower revenue than a Marvel movie, although I agree with you it looks like it is flopping. Maybe it'll do better in late night "on Demand" rentals!

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2014, at 5:49 PM, hamburgs wrote:

    I've read other columns that point to the Marvel comic movie formula as getting tired - 3 Iron Man, 2 Thor, 2 Captain America, Avengers. Can the average movie goer even count how many X-Men and Spiderman movies have been made in the last 15 years?

    There might just be space for a different spin on comic movies or maybe - just maybe - other types of movies to break their domination. There's a level of unpredictability to the movie business. Even in the current environment, there's still space for films like Gravity or The Blind Side to make a few hundred million dollars.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2014, at 12:25 PM, bdiddy123 wrote:

    Helloooooooooooooooooooo!! It's a movie!!!

    Yes, there may be stereotyping, and - god forbid - violence, and also DRINKING!

    This movie is clearly not for those hyper-sensitive idiots, who find these kind of things offensive - even in a MOVIE!!

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2014, at 2:10 AM, ekdikeo wrote:

    Was at the opening 3D show at the local theatre. Great movie ,but it's pacing is completely different from the first one. It's a solid 7/10 whereas the first one was at least a 9/10, if not more.

    There were only a handful of other people there. Three options: marketing completely failed to announce to people that it's finally out for real this time (as opposed to prior release dates, my Google Calendar informed me it was out already twice in the last year and a half), no one cares, or Guardians and TMNT repeat viewers blew it out of the water.

    Guardians is the only movie I've ever seen twice in theaters. I've never ever wanted to see a movie twice in theaters, not even this one, but I didn't hate the idea when the lady suggested it. I've rarely ever wanted to even see a movie a second time, because as soon as I see a few minutes of it, I remember the entire thing, and it becomes a bore to watch it.

    If Guardians was so good, and TMNT so drawing (I can't imagine that this new TMNT is actually good, the trailers look like p00p), it's entirely possible that no one wanted to spend many hours in theaters.

    On the other hand, I really think marketing failed to hit the people they needed to hit. The original Sin City was not a huge theater hit, but was a massive cult hit in the video market. This movie really deserves better.

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2014, at 6:50 PM, kramertini wrote:

    The women in this movie are hardly portrayed as victims. Yes, bad things happen to them (as well as to the men!) but they as often as not hold the upper hand in their conflicts with men...

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Tim Beyers

Tim Beyers first began writing for the Fool in 2003. Today, he's an analyst for Motley Fool Rule Breakers and Motley Fool Supernova. At, he covers disruptive ideas in technology and entertainment, though you'll most often find him writing and talking about the business of comics. Find him online at or send email to For more insights, follow Tim on Google+ and Twitter.

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