Great X-pectations for Marvel

Is Magneto magnetic to film audiences? Can Storm create the perfect storm at the multiplex? We're about to find out. The first two installments in the X-Men film series have served Marvel (NYSE: MVL  ) -- and News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS  ) Twentieth Century Fox studio -- quite well, and Marvel is banking on a similar strong opening for its X-Men: The Last Stand property over this holiday weekend.

The third X-Men film should perform admirably. It is likely to clash only with The Da Vinci Code for the top spot at the box office and is likely to vanquish the Tom Hanks thriller easily. Reviews for The Last Stand have been relatively favorable so far --, a site News Corp. owns, oddly enough, shows that 58% of the critics recommend the superhero flick. That may not seem all that spectacular, but keep in mind that just 22% of those same reviewers gave a thumbs-up to Sony's (NYSE: SNE  ) The Da Vinci Code, yet the controversial film was huge last week.

One can argue that the new action movie isn't critical to Marvel's future, since it is supposedly -- yes, supposedly -- the "last" film in the series. I don't buy that it's the last at all. For starters, if the film is a success, do you really think that Marvel and Fox will be content to let this fade into the retail shelves as a mere trilogy? At the very least, you can be sure that character spinoffs will eventually start popping up at a cinema near you.

Then you have the telltale nature of this film's performance on the state of superhero films in the future. X-Men and Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) return to the Superman franchise next month will speak volumes about our appetite for comic book adaptations.

That appetite is obviously critical, since Marvel has plenty riding on the genre. The company is coming off a lackluster quarter, and its move into bankrolling some of its upcoming releases will make Marvel more than just a licensing company. There are greater rewards if things pan out, but also greater risks.

Marvel needs superhero films to matter. It's not just about the theatrical runs and the eventual DVD sales. Hits often translate into hefty merchandising opportunities in ways that go beyond mere action figure toys.

Take-Two Interactive (NYSE: TTWO  ) , Activision (Nasdaq: ATVI  ) , and Konami (NYSE: KNM  ) are all rolling out video games over the next few months based on Marvel characters. We can agree that the quality of the games, just as the quality of the movies, is a great factor in separating hits from misses, but the mainstream audiences need to be excited about the characters, too.

That's why this weekend is huge for Marvel. Roughly 3,700 screens. Millions of rears glued to their multiplex seats. You smell popcorn? I smell the moment of truth.

Marvel has been a huge winner for ourMotley Fool Stock Advisornewsletter service. Since David Gardner recommended the shares four summers ago, Marvel's stock has soared 477% higher. Activision is another market-crusher in the same newsletter, soaring 163% higher in three years.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz enjoyed the Spider-Man and X-Men sequels even more than the originals, but he hasn't been exactly won over by Marvel's other theatrical incarnations. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.

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