The pull of superheroes at the box office has never been stronger. The trend kicked off way back in 2000 with the then-impressive debut of Twenty-First Century Fox's (NASDAQ:FOXA) X-Men comic-to-film adaptation and was kicked into full gear by Sony's (NYSE:SNE) incredibly successful Spider-Man. Leadership in the superhero space shifted once again as Time Warner reinvented Batman and delivered a landmark sequel with 2008's The Dark Knight.
Now, it's clear that Marvel and Disney (NYSE:DIS) are the players to beat in the superhero game, with its 2012 ensemble actioner The Avengers currently standing as the third highest grossing film of all time. Even more impressive, Disney has endowed each member of its super-team with explosive box-office potential and brought incredible value to its expanse of Marvel properties. Will the impressive draw of Captain America: The Winter Soldier dampen the performance of Sony's Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Fox's X-Men Days of Future Past?
Captain America is no longer a second-tier hero
Not long ago, the idea of a Captain America movie surpassing $800 million in global box office take would have been laughed at by industry prognosticators. Now, it's looking like Captain America: The Winter Soldier will do just that. The movie's incredible success could also threaten big projects from rival studios. The coming weeks look to test the filmgoing public's voracious appetite for superheroes. The box office performance of the newest X-Men and Spider-Man films should provide an insight into the threshold for superhero saturation.
Sony and Fox look to get more out of their comics assets
With the exception of Avatar, "X-Men" is Fox's most valuable action property. "Spider-Man" edges out the "Bond" series for the status of Sony's most valuable film holding. Both studios are hoping that their new superhero movies will help create the type of interconnected universe that Marvel and Disney have built. Fox has stated that it is looking into developing solo films built around X-Men characters Gambit and Mystique, while Sony has spin-offs built around Venom and The Sinister Six (from the Spider-Man universe) in the works.
So many heros, so little time?
In terms of blockbuster superhero movies, there has never been a more stacked two-month window than the one we're seeing this year. Winter Soldier gave its opening bow on April 4, Amazing Spider-Man 2 will hit American theaters on May 2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past launches on May 23. Prior to Captain America's big screen return, the last major superhero movie released was Disney's Thor: The Dark World, which opened Nov. 8, 2013. The Winter Soldier likely benefited from a brief lull in superhero releases, a condition that Spider-Man and X-Men won't enjoy.
Close proximity to Captain America's explosive return could definitely hurt Sony's Spider-Man ambitions. The "Amazing" series was already off to a bit of a rough start, bringing in the lowest numbers of Sony's four modern Spider-Man films and establishing a questionable foundation for an expanded universe.
Reception to the first "Amazing" may have been mixed, but the second looked to have a good shot of delivering growth for the rebooted series. Comic book diehards and fans of action films will still pack the theaters for the latest Spider-film, but more casual fans of superhero movies may be sated by Cap's most recent outing and choose not to show up for the webhead.
X-Men will have to weather the storm
If superhero saturation kicks in, X-Men: Days of Future Past looks to release in an undesirable position. The film will likely go on to become the best grossing release in the series and substantially improve on recent entry The Wolverine's approximately $415 million global take. A return to a more ensemble-oriented structure and the film's incredible cast should drive the film to impressive returns. Still, even with the talents of Jennifer Lawrence, Ian McKellan, Michael Fassbender, Ellen Page, and Hugh Jackman behind the film, Days of Future Past is looking weaker than it did a month ago.
Big releases in the "Captain America" and "Amazing Spider-Man" series could take away from the specialness of Fox's massively scoped X-Men picture. The time-traveling actioner relies in part on the appeal of returning characters not seen since 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand. The flashy heroics of more recently visible characters could distract from what might have otherwise been an "event" film.
Days of Future Past's box office fate is also threatened by an unfolding scandal that sees director Bryan Singer accused of long-running sexual abuse. These factors won't stop the upcoming movie from generating a solid profit for Fox, but they could hamper the series as it arrives at a pivotal moment.
Film execs will be watching...
The respective performances of Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past will shape future release windows. The Winter Soldier has already shattered expectations, and it remains to be seen what effect its close release proximity will have on tent-pole movies from Sony and Fox.
The public appetite for superhero films has appeared nearly insatiable. The next month will put that theory to the test.
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Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.