I've learned to take solace from even minor pieces of news that suggest that there is, after all, a floor beneath which the stupidity and bad taste of the American public might not sink. So I take satisfaction to learn that Speed Racer, the nine-figure budgeted monstrosity adapted from the ancient anime of the 1960s by the Matrix makers, has crashed and burned in the first turn on the track. Estimates posted Sunday projected that the movie earned no more than 21 million dollars in its opening weekend, which might amount to as little as one-tenth of its production and promotion costs.
There's also cause for pessimism amid the rubble, because the Speed Racer saga proves again that Hollywood never learns from past mistakes. How many times has some mastermind produced one or two hits, only to be given a blank check to realize whatever fantasy's been sitting in storage for years. The Matrix films begat Speed Racer the same way The Deer Hunter begat Heaven's Gate. Some fool with money presumes that anything the latest genius imagines must become a hit. In part, that's because Hollywood has fully bought into the auteur theory that makes directorial genius and personal vision the necessary primary ingredient in any great film. In part also, it's because studios behave like gamblers on a lucky streak. If you get one big success with one director, you decide to let it ride. You put faith in the genius of the moment, but the odds are always against you. But you can't swear off it; you're hooked on the idea of the big score. Consider: Marvel Studios has a big hit on their hands in Iron Man (it was better than I expected, too). Now the studio announces that the film is, in effect, the first in a series of at least five films, all with release dates already announced, culminating in The Avengers in 2011. That's a lot of time for a lot to go wrong, and it probably will.
Some people will take a different sort of solace from Speed Racer's failure. They'll take it as proof that "the market" works as idealized by its idolaters, and not as demonized by its detractors. If the market worked like you say, someone might suggest, the public should have been utterly brainwashed by the marketing of Speed Racer and marched out to see it like drones reporting for duty. That they didn't proves that consumers have autonomy and are not the malleable puppets of marketers. This is a straw-man argument that I've also seen in a political context (e.g., "Look at how many times the richest candidate has lost an election. That proves that money doesn't control politics.") In the present context, the correct response is to insist that the problem isn't that movies like Speed Racer automatically succeed -- since they don't. The problem is that movies like that get made in the first place.