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''Elektra'' tanks at the box office

”Elektra” tanks at the box office — Does Jennifer Garner’s dud opening doom superchick flicks?

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Dressed in a red silk corset and skintight red pants, Jennifer Garner is munching on a handful of gummy bears. It’s early July, day 50 of 55 on the Vancouver set of the Marvel Comics-derived Elektra, and the actress is prepping to sprint through an elaborate cedar hedge maze to hunt down bad guys. ”It’s that point in the movie,” she says, hopping excitedly in place. ”Sugar and caffeine.”

If only her candy-fueled energy had been enough to make Elektra a hit. A spin-off of 2003’s Daredevil in which Garner plays a merciless assassin, the movie opened last weekend in fifth place with a limp $14.8 million — about a third of Daredevil’s debut, and also less than Halle Berry’s much-ridiculed, DC Comics-based Catwoman. It’s not like 20th Century Fox skimped on the hype: In early December, F/X-heavy trailers started airing on TV around the clock, and ads emphasizing Garner’s racy costume popped up in print and on the Internet. Three weeks prior to release, the film still wasn’t finished, but that didn’t stop the studio from trumpeting it as ”the first big event movie of the year.”

Or non-event, given its dismal debut. (Fox declined to comment on the film’s opening.) At one point, Elektra certainly had hit potential. Daredevil exit polls showed that audiences enjoyed Garner’s sexy sai-wielder as much as Ben Affleck’s blind vigilante. Thanks to her role on ABC’s Alias (then in its second season), the actress’ celebrity was fast on the rise. When her first starring vehicle, last spring’s frothy 13 Going on 30, grossed a surprisingly solid $57 million, headlining her own potential action franchise seemed, as Garner told EW on the Vancouver set, ”a natural progression.” Best of all, Elektra‘s tale could be told for about half of Daredevil‘s $80 million budget.

So what went wrong? Audiences seem unwilling to pay to see Garner hai-ya! on the big screen when they can see it for free each week on the small screen. Then there’s the pioneer problem. While male-driven comic-book movies have a number of successful models to draw from — Richard Donner’s Superman, Tim Burton’s Batman, Bryan Singer’s X-Men — the heroines have, well, none. A live-action Wonder Woman has been languishing in development hell for years, and who even remembers 1984’s Helen Slater-fronted Supergirl? ”America is not ready for a female superhero,” says Catwoman producer Denise Di Novi. ”Men [don’t] want to see it — especially teenage boys — and it seems like women don’t want to, either.” Reasons Charlie’s Angels screenwriter John August: ”Studios think all teenage boys are horny, and therefore want to see a beautiful girl kicking ass. But teenage boys are also kind of terrified of women, so the sexuality drives them away.”

But that theory doesn’t explain why such non-comic-book flicks as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the Alien pictures have proved so successful. Is it simply that Hollywood hasn’t delivered a superheroine movie on par with Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man? ”It’s more challenging to make a female superhero,” Marvel CEO Avi Arad told EW last month, conceding that audiences generally seem more willing to accept men in action roles.

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