I hate to pick on Marvel (NYSE:MVL), but the disappointing box-office receipts for both Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer have to be troubling for a company that's about to start rolling out its own action flicks.

Disappointing? You think I'm insane, right? After all, Spider-Man 3 smashed the all-time opening weekend record for a theatrical release. The F4 sequel wasn't as highly anticipated, yet it managed to narrowly beat its predecessor in ticket sales during its first weekend at the multiplex.

And what about Ghost Rider? That's another Marvel property, and the Nicolas Cage movie was no slouch, eventually ringing up $115.8 million domestically at the box office.

Yes, I hear you. But my response is an even bigger Cage dud this year: Next. No, Marvel had nothing to do with Next. I'm simply nudging you to turn the page to see what happened next to all of these films after their blockbuster debuts.

With great responsibility comes great loss of power
Spider-Man 3 didn't prove as sticky as its web-slinging protagonist. Despite the stellar start, the third installment in the lucrative series pulled up lame. Every passing week found it stacking up lower and lower against historical releases.

Time Period

All-Time Rank

Opening Weekend


2nd Weekend


3rd Weekend


4th Weekend


5th Weekend


6th Weekend


Source: Box Office Mojo.

By the time the last of the stateside tickets are sold, Spider-Man 3 will have generated less box-office revenue than its two predecessors. When you factor in inflation, because theater chains inch admission prices higher every year, you will see that even fewer people saw the third film than the numbers appear to suggest.

Sorry, Spidey, but it's true. Yes, reviews were mixed. Many critics found the film inferior to the first two installments. The lack of legs as the weeks dragged on bear that thesis out. Word spread that it was a stinker, so it became a sinker. But let's see what Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm have to say on the matter.

According to Rotten Tomatoes, the F4 sequel is better than the original: 36% of the site's published movie critics liked the new film, while just 26% of them gave the nod to the first release.

True to form, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer had a slightly higher opening weekend -- $58.1 million versus $56.1 million -- than the 2005 franchise debut did. Nice, but what happened the following weekend? Well, the original went on to lap this month's follow-up. It's still too close to call, but it looks as if this will be another Marvel property that won't live up to the original.

Ghost Rider is the other Marvel-licensed release. It wasn't supposed to do as well as Marvel's one-two punch this summer, but the revved-up film appears to have done respectably well. As of right now, Marvel characters are taking up three of the top nine slots of this year's highest-grossing movies. Any licensing company would drool over the prospects of owning a third of Hollywood's biggest hits.

The problem? Oh, let's just say that Ghost Rider's box-office run clocked in lower than that of the disappointing Hulk flick four years ago.

The troublesome trend
We still don't know how well the Spider-Man toys are selling. Activision's (NASDAQ:ATVI) Spider-Man video games may be selling briskly, though it's probably telling that the company's upbeat outlook is based more on "Guitar Hero's rapid rise as a popular cultural phenomenon" than on its licensed celluloid games surrounding Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, or the upcoming Transformers.

Sure, consumer-driven companies love Marvel. Do consumers? Recent licensing deals with Crocs (NASDAQ:CROX) and Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK-A) Fruit of the Loom are encouraging. Throw in the $1 billion Marvel-licensed theme park in Dubai that will open in four years, and it's easy to dismiss my near-term concerns as silly.

Deep companies with deep pockets think that Marvel has legs. And some of those legs will be connected to feet wearing Crocs. Others will hot-foot it to Dubai come 2011. Even if Wall Street expects corporate earnings to dip at Marvel next year, there is a bullish argument to be made for the company as a long-term licensing winner.

That would be fine, if not for Marvel's decision to bankroll its own films, including upcoming releases for Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk. Marvel is tired of fat-cat movie studios making off with the lion's share of the profits of its licensed hits. Can it stomach the lion's share of the losses?

And can self-financed efforts that won't have the luxury of spending frivolously the way Sony (NYSE:SNE) has done with Spider-Man deliver blockbuster results? Color me concerned. A lot is riding on this gamble, and superheroes just aren't as reliable as they used to be.  

Marvel, Berkshire Hathaway, and Activision are Stock Advisor recommendations. Berkshire Hathaway is also a pick in the Inside Value research service. Read all of the original recommendation reports with a free 30-day trial subscription. With great power comes great opportunity.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of many of the Marvel franchises, though he wasn't much of a comic-book collector growing up. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.