The easy answer to what went wrong with the box office for The Expendables 3 is that everyone had already seen it. A copy of the movie was leaked online weeks ago, and unlike with most pirated new movies out there, this was a very high quality bootleg. So, the first piece of advice to the makers of this franchise regarding The Expendables 4 is obviously “don’t let it leak.”
However, while I do think the piracy had an effect on not just the dismal US gross of $16m but also the international take so far in significant spots like Russia, I believe there’s more to it. X-Men Origins: Wolverine didn’t have such a terrible drop in interest compared to the rest of its series just because it was online before it opened in theaters. Not all potential fans of the Expendables movies are people who’d illegally download them. Maybe they’re just bored of the casting gimmick being the only thing given thought during their production.
Or maybe another aspect of the casting turned moviegoers off. I’m not talking about the fact that Stallone let Bruce Willis slip away. Perhaps Mel Gibson is just too poisonous to be in a movie where audiences are expected to relish his performance, even if he’s playing the main villain. He is a lot of fun in The Expendables 3, but the role seems too much of a reward in connection with Gibson’s scandals and current reputation. These movies lean on the contexts of their stars, and his isn’t one that viewers want to be reminded of.
Or maybe there were other factors at play in why the movie flopped. Although I’m possibly in a minority that enjoyed the latest installment more than the other two, I can think of a handful of things that could have made it better. Assuming Lionsgate doesn’t tell Stallone and producer Avi Lerner to throw it all in and cancel the plans in place for a fourth effort, here are some ways they can make it great enough to save the franchise.
1. Give It an Actual Story, Maybe the Most Progressive One Possible
So far the Expendables movies have had plots, but they’ve been very simple. If I can even remember the one for The Expendables 3, it was basically just: go after a war criminal. That has been okay in theory, as the plots are insignificant foundations onto which to throw these gimmicky actors/characters, but after three movies we could use a new direction so they don’t all just bleed together. The old movies meant to be recalled with this franchise may have been dumb action flicks, but many of them had stories we could at least sort of care about. How about they forget about most of the actual Expendables team and do a spin-off focused on the branched-off coupling of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jet Li, whom director Patrick Hughes pretty much confirmed in an interview are in a gay relationship as well as a mercenary team-up.
2. Change-Up (or Mash-Up) the Genre
Yeah, these are action movies paying homage to action movies, but why not throw a monkey wrench into the series for the fourth movie? The main components of the Expendables movies are action stars who occasionally also made sci-fi blockbusters and big high-concept comedies. I’m not necessarily saying that the next sequel should see all the Expendables trapped in the jungle attempting to survive against a chameleonic alien or collectively put in the care of an elementary school. But why not have them cryogenically frozen so they all come back in some fresh futuristic setting – where it turns out that men are now the ones who become pregnant, and they all find this out simultaneously by becoming knocked up themselves? Seriously, though, how about this: Stallone can take the plot of “Hunter,” which he has the rights to (initially for a Rambo installment) and which deals with an only sorta sci-fi element in the form of a genetically modified soldier/beast.
3. Cast The Rock as a Super Villain
Yes, super villain. These movies are already very meta, so it’s time for them to recognize what happened to the action genre as we knew it in the ’80s and ’90s. After slowly dying out through the latter decade, when moviegoers were more interested in invasions of aliens and dinosaurs and meteors as well as other disasters and special effects-driven blockbusters, the superheroes took over. I assume these old guys would like to carry out their revenge on that genre by having a super-powered villain they can pummel and eventually defeat. Casting gimmick-wise, the role should probably be filled by someone like Tobey Maguire, especially him since he’s no longer attached to such a part. But we know Dwayne Johnson is already a lucky charm for franchises, and he’s also a perfect foil for the Expendables in being considered this generation’s wannabe Schwarzenegger. He also might finally be confirmed for the Shazam movie in time for the superhero element to make him doubly fit for the part.
4. Pay Whatever It Takes to Get Sean Connery Out of Retirement
I don’t want to keep with the casting stunts, because that’s already proving to be not enough for audiences. But if there’s one person they could get to draw people back in, it’s not Jackie Chan or Carl Weathers or anyone else being suggested for The Expendables 4 save for Sean Connery. Unfortunately he’s been retired from appearing in movies for more than a decade (though he has done some voice work). As the first James Bond actor, he is pretty much the first action hero of the modern era – and probably the earliest action movie star still alive. If the franchise threw all the money at Connery, there’s no question people would flock to theaters to see his first on screen role since 2003. He doesn’t even need a huge role. I don’t think I’d want him to be a villain. Maybe just a quick in-and-out bit like Chuck Norris had in The Expendables 2. Not as Harrison Ford’s dad, though. That’d be too many levels of meta.
5. Make It R-Rated
Simply put, if there is any action franchise right now that should be R-rated rather than PG-13, it’s this one. It’s already all violence, which shouldn’t be considered good for the kids anyway. I can’t even imagine these movies being for a very young audience. How many teens care about the cast and what they’re doing? (Of course, throw in some boobs and graphic bloody kills, and then they will want to see it, so there lies the paradox.) R-rated comedies are making a big comeback, and this year’s 22 Jump Street is already pretty close to falling into the top 10 highest-grossing R-rated movies of all time. That and last year’s successful The Heat are actually action comedies, so we’re already halfway there. Meanwhile, this summer’s Lucy is one of the biggest R-rated straight actioners of the past 10 years. Let’s just not worry about the fact that the last few R-rated movies starring Stallone and Schwarzenegger weren’t big at the box office. This is a whole different thing.