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."
And Days of Future Past involves time travel, which means one thing — continuity will be rebooted, J.J. Abrams-style. Bryan Singer has hinted plenty of times that he's not crazy about the third X-Men film, and here's his chance to retcon some of the stuff that happened in it. That's probably a good thing for anyone who shares Singer's feelings, but it also means that we'll have to keep track of two separate timelines, if we want to understand how The Last Stand fits in.
The good news is, the X-Men and FF universes, by themselves, are pretty wide and deep — you could spin a lot of franchises out of just those two universes. But first, Fox has to prove it can have a hit movie without leaning on Wolverine.
Assets: Batman! Superman! And the entire DC Universe. Warner Bros. has not, as far as I know, licensed any of its comic-book properties to any other studios at this time, so it's the only movie studio with an entire comic-book universe to play with. (Unless someone licenses the Ultraverse.) And last year's Man of Steel did really well, putting Superman back on the map and trading on lingering goodwill for Christopher Nolan's Batman films.
Plans: A sequel to Man of Steel, tentatively called Batman Vs. Superman, comes out in May 2016. It introduces Ben Affleck as Batman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, and probably a bunch of other heroes. And according to the New York Times, Warner Bros. plans to announce a whole series of other movie releases soon, that is expected to include a Justice League team-up film, DC's answer to the Avengers.
It all depends on: Well, a lot depends on Batman Vs. Superman's performance. But you have to imagine that everybody on Earth will want to get a look at Ben Affleck's Batman in action for the first time. So it's more like everything depends on how well the first movie after Batman Vs. Superman performs — you can't build a huge universe on just Batman and Superman, after all. For this to work, Warners eventually has to make a Flash movie or a Wonder Woman movie that's a box office hit.
Danger signs: WB already tried to create its own universe once, with Green Lantern, and it crashed and burned. There's also the trail of wreckage from such films as Jonah Hex, Catwoman and Batman and Robin. It's interesting that Warners has been gunshy about announcing the rest of its movies and release dates, even as Sony and Fox have announced their whole slates through 2018.
Further thoughts: Warners has chosen the most high-stakes strategy of all, introducing a ton of characters in a big crossover movie — and then presumably following up within a few years with an even bigger crossover movie, Justice League. The real question is whether characters like Wonder Woman will make enough of an impression on moviegoers, as supporting characters in Batman/Superman films, to launch their own solo series later.
Also, how much will we care about this version of Batman, when we see him for the first time as part of a huge superhero universe rather than as the hero of a self-contained Gotham City? A big part of the appeal of Christopher Nolan's Batman was how realistic and grounded his world felt, and how entwined Batman's life was with the crumbling infrastructure of Gotham. Will we still watch a Batman solo film that's spun off from big crossovers?
And speaking of the grounded, realistic tone — Man of Steel worked really hard to present a "realistic" take on what it would be like if Superman appeared in our world. We wouldn't just welcome him as our savior, we would be suspicious and freaked out. As the first building block in a new universe, it's not a bad idea. But a big question is how well the movies will keep that tone and that realism once you start throwing in speedsters and Amazons and ring-slingers, trying to introduce them all as quickly as possible.
The other question, I guess, is whether you want a giant cohesive superhero universe that hews to the cod-Christopher Nolan aesthetic, in which everything is muted colors and shades of gray, and dark forboding alternates with squinty-eyed wonder. If all of DC's films succeed in copying the tone of Man of Steel, then it will be a very gray world.
Plus, of course, that's been the real strength of the Marvel films — the ability to nail a lot of different tones and styles, with light comedies and intense political thrillers taking place in the same world. Until one of these other studios manages to create that range of tones, then it's going to be an uphill battle.
Assets: Universal doesn't have any superheroes (except for Namor), but as MuseZack points out, they're trying to create a shared universe with all their monster properties.
Plans: They aim to start with a Van Helsing movie (starring Tom Cruise, last we heard), plus a Mummy movie. They would join Dracula, the Wolf-Man, Frankenstein's Monster, the Invisible Man and the Gill-Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Mummy has an April 2016 release date. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are masterminding this plan, and Orci talks about it here.
It all depends on: Whether audiences are really excited about 1950s monster movies, I guess. The Van Helsing film starring Hugh Jackman actually did quite well, and so did the Brendan Fraser Mummy films.
Danger signs: The Wolf-Man movie didn't do great. Creature from the Black Lagoon has been in development Hell for a long time. There are already a lot of Dracula and Frankenstein films coming out, so Universal can't really lay claim to them.
Further thoughts: This sort of seems like a regular franchise, not a "mega-franchise." You can probably get half a dozen successful films out of Universal monsters, before you reach saturation.
Assets: Some of the most successful film characters of all time, and a long-awaited trilogy of sequels to Return of the Jedi. As DestinationMoon points out, we really ought to have mentioned Star Wars in this article originally, but I was too narrowly focused on superheroes. In any case, this is the series that helped to invent the summer blockbuster.
Plans: Star Wars: Episode VII comes out in December 2015, after which they plan to alternate new "Episodes" of the main storyline with spin-off films featuring characters like Boba Fett and Han Solo. This will mean a new Star Wars movie every year.
It all depends on: The new trilogy is probably about as close to a sure thing as you can get, in the movie business. The only question is whether the spin-off films will do as well, and whether you'll exhaust the demand for more Star Wars after a few years of annual films. And whether the quality can remain high.
Danger signs: Well, I guess the second and third prequels didn't score quite as high as Phantom Menace at the box office. Plus you could consider the slight delays to Episode VII and the changeover in scriptwriters a minor danger sign, I guess. But basically, this is Lucasfilm's game to lose.
Further thoughts: I'm not sure if this is quite the same sort of thing as the other studios are trying to do — this is basically a series of films with spinoffs. There isn't really an existing "Han Solo franchise" or "Boba Fett franchise" that's being crossed over into a shared universe. Spin-offs have existed forever, and are a different sort of animal than crossovers. What's new here is the conveyer belt of sequels and spin-offs coming out every single year, like clockwork. And the only mystery is whether the spin-offs will do Phantom Menace box office, or something more modest.