1. The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension (1984)
Much like the recent Russian film Night Watch, Buckaroo Banzai came to theaters less as a film than as a prepackaged, planned cult phenomenon, complete with merchandising, a Marvel comic-book adaptation, a computer-game version, and a closing credit commanding viewers to watch out for the upcoming sequel, Buckaroo Banzai Vs. The World Crime League. Unfortunately, the movie bombed, its production company went bankrupt, and the sequel rights were blocked in litigation, for reasons that are still a source of lively Internet debate. In theory, the sequel would have followed up on scenes cut from the theatrical version of the film and restored on the DVD version, in which supervillain Hanoi Xan, head of the World Crime League, killed the parents of weird science hero Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller). As it is, that film-end promise of a sequel mostly stands as just another bit of weird texture in an already very weirdly textured cult hit. (The makers of Free Enterprise picked up on this by ending their film with a title card asking viewers to watch for William Shatner Versus The World Crime League.)
2. Doctor Detroit (1983)
After the success of Night Shift and Risky Business, the "ordinary guy who becomes a pimp" genre was flying high. Then came this lackluster comedy starring Dan Aykroyd as a henpecked professor whom Howard Hesseman (a pimp so smooth that his name is actually "Smooth Walker") cons into managing a stable of prostitutes while Hesseman skips town. Faced with a hostile takeover by a mob boss known only as "Mom," Aykroyd dons a fright wig, green pants, and a steel glove (the ultimate "pimp hand") and adopts a bizarre, Carol Channing-esque voice to transform himself into "Doctor Detroit," the city's most feared pimp. In spite of a James Brown cameo and a rousing Devo theme song, Detroit is essentially a mediocre skit stretched to feature length, and Aykroyd's character is so unbearably forced that 90 minutes with him is already far too many. It's no wonder that the sequel proposed in the credits—Doctor Detroit II: The Wrath Of Mom—never happened.
3. The Rocketeer (1991)
Adapted from Dave Stevens' comic book, this adventure film about a boy and his rocket pack brims with 1930s atmosphere, from its hero's gee-whiz enthusiasm for do-goodery to the art-deco sets to the classic film references to Jennifer Connelly's throwback pin-up looks. Director Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk The Kids) gives it a sense of high-spirited adventure that's simultaneously affectionate toward old-time serials and determined to top them. Sound familiar? While it's foolish to compare The Rocketeer to the similarly inspired Indiana Jones and Star Wars films, it's smart and funny enough to make it one of the more unfortunate dead-ends on this list. Johnston proves himself a sure hand with the comic action setpieces, but just as capable at capturing the full corruption of bad guy Timothy Dalton (playing a Nazi-sympathizing version of Errol Flynn). The final scene sets up a sequel that short-of-expectations box-office returns insured would never happen.
4. Daredevil (2003)
Better minds could have turned Marvel's Daredevil comic into a long-running series. The character—a blind lawyer turned nighttime vigilante—has bottomless potential, and over the years, creators like Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis have created a considerable archive of classic stories and characters that could be used as source material. And Ben Affleck wasn't a bad choice for the lead, either. (Honestly!) Too bad irritatingly flashy director Mark Steven Johnson tried to squeeze too much into one movie, turning his hero into a mean-spirited, bloodthirsty jerk in the process.
5. Dick Tracy (1990)
In retrospect, an ancient comic strip centered on a bland, strait-laced, middle-aged hero—and well before the current comics-to-movies craze—wasn't likely to produce a box-office hit. Still, Disney poured massive resources into Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy in the hope that Chester Gould's comic would yield a candy-colored franchise rooted in strong themes of honor, moral turpitude, and law and order. Beatty-as-actor can probably shoulder much of the blame for the film's disappointing performance, though a square-jawed do-gooder like Dick Tracy doesn't leave much room for interpretation. But Beatty-as-director, with peerless assists by production designer Richard Sylbert and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, succeeded in creating a singularly beautiful gangland in bold primary colors. It's a rare case in which the backdrop is so captivating that it animates the foreground, too, inflating a plainly uninspired story with emotion and life.
6. Godzilla (1998)
When Godzilla was released just before Memorial Day in 1998, there was no reason to believe it wouldn't be a record-breaking smash: The producer-director team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich were hot off the runaway hit Independence Day, and they were reviving the biggest movie monster this side of King Kong, with built-in sequels that could pit the beast against Mothra, Mechagodzilla, and even the Smog Monster if they wanted to go the environmental route. They paid for their hubris. Promoted by ads that brazenly declared "Size does matter," the film was a classic case where a script that wasn't worth two cents got inflated into a $100-million-plus mega-production. Devlin and Emmerich seemed braced for bad reviews—in a petty gambit worthy of General Kael in Willow, they preemptively dissed the critics by pairing the villainous Mayor Ebert with his assistant Gene—but the backlash turned out to be much broader. Even Ain't It Cool News' Harry Knowles, shamed by his posting of an unabashed rave after an exclusive preview screening of the film, issued a self-flagellating retraction. Godzilla was a Taco Bell commemorative cup first and a movie a distant second.
7. Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2003)
The awkward title shoves together two of Patrick O'Brian's addictive seafaring adventure stories of the Napoleonic war, but it also teases viewers with the possibility that there might be more entries in the Master And Commander series. Peter Weir's initial glorious escapade concludes with Captain Jack Aubrey (played with pudgy enthusiasm by Russell Crowe) realizing that he's been foiled by a dastardly French trick, and heeling his ship around to chase his evasive target. By ending the story there, Weir seemed to be pledging that Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin (played by Paul Bettany) were still out there climbing the yards and running out the guns, and that he'd eventually rejoin the chase in progress. As late as fall 2005, Crowe confirmed that he frequently fields fan requests for a sequel to The Far Side Of The World, but he wasn't contracted for a return—unlike Bettany, whose contract pledged him to two additional movies. Perhaps the Horatio Hornblower zeitgeist has passed, but this surely stands as one of the most exciting opening salvos in nonexistent-series history, and the Aubrey-Maturin novels remain untapped cinematic ground. Fox should green-light an adaptation of the second novel, Post Captain, solely for the sequence where Russell Crowe sneaks across the Spanish border in a bear costume. That, and the unprecedented triple-ranked potential title Master And Commander: Post Captain.
8. Wing Commander(1999)
The first entries in film series are often chockfull of clumsy exposition that only pays off in later installments. But what happens when those later installments never arrive? That was the case with 1999's ill-fated Wing Commander, an exposition-heavy adaptation of a popular video-game series that feels both like the sequel to a film not worth seeing, and a prequel to sequels that never arrived. Then again, considering Freddie Prinze Jr's wooden lead performance and the film's hopelessly convoluted screenplay, it's probably best that the Wing Commander franchise never limped past its aborted would-be film-series launch.
9. Sahara (2005)
According to the tagline on the Sahara poster, "Adventure Has A New Name." But not only did the movie fail to turn Clive Cussler's pulpy explorer-hero Dirk Pitt into the next franchise movie character, it also prompted Cussler to sue the producers, claiming a loss of future income because they botched Sahara so badly. Cussler particularly blamed the casting of zonked-out sun-worshipper Matthew McConaughey as his man-of-action Pitt. The producers' defense? Cussler's books aren't as popular as he claimed they were, so they were the ones who were defrauded. If Sahara ever does get a sequel, maybe it'll be a documentary about this case.
10. The Phantom (1996)
Lee Falk's costumed cartoon hero pre-dates Superman, and still has a home on many daily comics pages, but audiences in 1996 didn't go for the purple-clad "Ghost Who Walks," perhaps because The Phantom's '30s setting and bloodless serial-style dust-ups seemed too self-consciously retro. The same fate befell the movie version of The Shadow two years earlier. Both movies had strong leads (Billy Zane in the former, Alec Baldwin in the latter) and crisp, clean storytelling, but in an action world, mere adventure rarely sells.
11. The Avengers (1998)
Even though the original British TV version of The Avengers trafficked in absurdity and pop surrealism, it still maintained a sense of subtlety completely lacking from this 1998 big-screen abomination. Outside of casting Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman to play the stylish, droll secret-agent heroes, little apparent effort was made to match the original's natty spirit. Instead, just as with The Saint a year earlier, a TV classic of an earlier era was ground up in the American blockbuster machine—residual explosions and all.
12. The Mod Squad (1999)
This misbegotten, "quick, our option is expiring" 1999 adaptation of the '60s cult TV series takes the updating-for-a-new-generation idea to its ridiculous extreme by allowing Giovanni Ribisi, Claire Danes, and Omar Epps to slack it up as cops too cool to actually do anything. While the cast acts as surly and strange as they want, some villain or another periodically wanders into the frame and explains the plot to them, occasionally even goading them into action. At the end of the film, the three principals gather on a pier to decide whether to continue as undercover cops. They all shrug. "Yeah," Epps says, "I guess so." Predictably, America shrugged right back.
13. Wild Wild West (1999)
While Will Smith was busy boasting to any showbiz reporter in earshot about how he "owned" the summer, his Men In Black collaborator Barry Sonnenfeld was struggling to figure out how he could turn a stubbornly oddball science-fiction Western into a tentpole franchise. Wild Wild West's problem is that its clumsy, cloddish blockbuster side—embodied by the cocky-to-a-fault Smith—gets in the way of its funky, fanciful side. But those flashes of imagination and wit—largely embodied by Kevin Kline, playing a wide-eyed inventor—are enough to make any fan of the eccentric curse the demands of big-budget filmmaking, which often clobber good ideas to a premature death.