The rules have changed for superhero movies. Any studio that's serious about being in the game is openly trying to copy Marvel's comic-book-esque strategy of a shared universe and an interlocking series of series, with crossovers. But which studio is most likely to succeed in grabbing at Marvel's crown?
This week's cover story in Entertainment Weekly about Amazing Spider-Man 2 is pretty revealing — it doesn't have that much new info about the Spidey sequel, but it does have a lot of stuff about Sony's hopes to put out a Spidey movie every year from now until the sun goes out.
The EW article is full of quotes from financial analysts and consultants, discussing the newest buzzword: "megafranchise." Every studio has to have a megafranchise, or die. (There's literally a quote from one Sony executive, saying that they have to create a megafranchise in order to live.)
A regular franchise is like Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies: it lasts three or four films (or eight, in the case of Harry Potter) and then ends. After a regular franchise ends, a studio's bottom line usually takes a hit and its stock price softens. But a megafranchise can go on and on for years and years, producing a film a year (or two or three per year) because it's not just one franchise — it's a franchise of franchises.
Look at the way that Marvel can put out Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers films every year. If you do it the way Marvel has, your properties all become more and more valuable — just as Thor 2 made way more money than Thor did — and each successive film builds momentum, rather than exhausting the demand. (Sidenote: There's an argument to be made that Marvel actually saved superhero movies in general, since audiences might have been getting burned out on cookie-cutter origin stories right about now otherwise.)
So which studio is best placed to create a megafranchise, as opposed to a regular franchise, as the financial analysts are all demanding? First open Box Office Mojo's (non-inflation-adjusted) chart of domestic superhero movie box office in another browser tab, and then let's get started.
Assets: Spider-Man. Basically, he's the Superman of Marvel Comics. The Sam Raimi trilogy remains three of the most successful superhero movies of all time. The first Marc Webb film did respectably, and was mostly critically lauded.
Plans: Sony is doing two more Amazing Spider-Man films, plus a Venom solo movie and a Sinister Six movie, between now and 2018.
It all depends on: How well this summer's Amazing Spider-Man 2 does, since it's being sold as setting the cohesive Spider-Man universe into motion.
Danger signs: Sony has been trying to make a Venom movie for several years. People may still remember Venom from the underwhelming Spider-Man 3. I've never read a Sinister Six comic where they had much to do besides trying to kill Spider-Man.
Further thoughts: I dunno. The Spider-Man universe, by itself, doesn't have the same breadth and depth as the regular Marvel Universe. Venom was a hugely popular character during the 1990s "kewl" comics era, but his solo comic book was selling around 20,000 copies in 2013 before it was cancelled. The Sinister Six are fun, as antagonists for Spidey, but I don't know how much I want to watch them standing around being sinister for two hours.
Just judging from the trailers for ASM2, I feel as though Sony has made a few basic mistakes in its attempt to build a bigger universe around basically one character.
They made everything the result of OsCorp being an evil corporation, which means a few movies down the line, we'll be fighting OsCorp itself — and that means the kind of "evil board meeting" scenes the Lego Movie spoofed. If you want a larger universe, having lots of different causes for your heroes and villains to get powers is actually better. It suggests that aliens and weird science and craziness are happening everywhere, not just in one building. Having all your uncanny stuff happen in just one building actually makes your universe seem smaller.
Also, the new movie is all about introducing as many villains as possible — instead of, say, introducing the Black Cat, who could easily carry a movie if they cast the right person. (Maybe she gets introduced in the Sinister Six movie, as EW has suggested.) Or bulking up the role of Flash Thompson. Or introducing other minor heroes from the Spider-verse who could get spun off.
And finally, the trailers make it look as though they're going all-in on the mystery of what Peter Parker's parents were up to when they disappeared — which could mean that they're going to try and spin out that mystery endlessly, over several movies. The more you make Peter Parker a guy with daddy issues, the less I care.
Assets: The X-Men! Especially Wolverine, who is sort of like the Batman of the Marvel Universe, purely in terms of popularity and ability to support a billion comics titles every month. Really, one of the most impressive things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that they did it without Spidey and Wolverine.
Plans: X-Men: Days of Future Past comes out this summer, bringing together the original cast with the cast of the prequel, X-Men First Class. A rebooted Fantastic Four comes out June 2015, with a Fantastic Four sequel coming 2017 — and they're in the same universe as these X-Men movies. Another X-Men movie, X-Men: Apocalypse, comes out May 2016. And a third Wolverine movie comes out in March 2017. Finally, an unspecified Marvel movie comes out in July 2018.
It all depends on: How well this summer's giant X-Men crossover does at the box office, and in recharging everyone's interest in these mutants. But also, a ton depends on how well next summer's Fantastic Four does, since it's Fox's only non-mutant property and they don't have a mega-franchise without it.
Danger signs: The last two X-Men films, First Class and The Wolverine, are the two worst performing entries in the series domestically, even once you adjust for inflation. The Fantastic Four already had two movies, neither of which was a megahit. Even the best-performing X-Men film isn't in the top 10 superhero films of all time, box-office-wise.
Further thoughts: Just consider how long-running the X-Men franchise already is — these films have been going since 2000, and they're all supposed to be one continuity. This would be like Sony trying to use Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films to launch its own version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When these films finish coming out, people who weren't born yet when Hugh Jackman started playing Wolverine will be old enough to vote.
And let's talk about continuity for a sec — the MCU has built excitement from film to film, partly based on the idea that they're all one cohesive storyline. That's something that hardcore fans care about more than most other people, but it's something regular moviegoers kind of care about as well. The notion that the events in The Avengers changed things, so that every movie after The Avengers has raised stakes, is something everybody can get on board with.
And the X-Men movies, basically, already have the most laughable continuity you could imagine. Try to reconcile the original trilogy with the Wolverine origins film and First Class — you can't. These films were made by people who see continuity as a shorthand for "Hugh Jackman always shows up."