Disney (DIS 1.42%) hasn't been shy about pushing forward with its Marvel Comics properties on the big screen. Releasing two films per year in its Marvel Cinematic Universe, over the next two years alone the company will release Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man (and at least three films in the company's "Phase 3" rollout are already slated after that, one of which might be the long-rumored introduction Sorcerer Supreme of the Marvel Universe, Doctor Strange.)
Hoping to avoid being left behind, Time Warner's (TWX) Warner Bros. studio is trying to mimic some of Disney's success by expanding the sequel to this summer's Superman blockbuster Man of Steel into the launching point of a major DC Comics-based franchise that will lead into a "Justice League" film in 2017.
These aren't the only companies betting big on superheroes, either. Both Sony (SONY 1.48%) and Twenty-First Century Fox have major interests in big-name heroes as well and are both in the middle of major ad campaigns for upcoming movies. Some have worried that the glut of superheroes on film might lead to genre fatigue, but so far the trend shows little sign of slowing down.
Not every hero's a hit
While movies like The Avengers show that superhero films can be major blockbusters, the superhero genre has had its share of flops. Some of these films, like Fox's Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, set the franchise up for a reboot (which Fox is currently working on). Others have resulted in the abandonment of the franchise entirely, as with Sony allowing the "Ghost Rider" film rights to lapse back to Marvel after the disappointing release of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.
Likewise, Warner Bros. has had a few problems building franchises based off of Time Warner's DC Comics properties. Neither 2006's Superman Returns or 2011's Green Lantern were met with a strong fan following despite earning $391 million and $219.9 million worldwide, respectively.
Try, try again
There are a few superheroes that have taken multiple attempts to get right on the big screen. Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk performed relatively poorly, failing to earn back its production costs in domestic sales; the 2008 Marvel Studios reboot didn't fare much better, topping the 2003 film's domestic gross by only $2 million. The character was a fan favorite in The Avengers, however, leading to calls for a new "Hulk" film in Marvel's slate.
Similar stories can be seen at the other studios with major superhero films in development. After the fan backlash surrounding Spider-Man 3, Sony opted to cancel its plans for a fourth "Spider-Man" film with Sam Raimi and instead rebooted the franchise to more closely follow the Ultimate Comics take on the character; reactions to The Amazing Spider-Man were mixed, but the film did well enough to warrant both a sequel and plans for at least two spin-off films (though it remains to be seen how these spin-offs will fit into the larger world of the franchise).
Just because Marvel Studios has had fewer flops on the big screen doesn't mean that it's dominating every venue. Its feature-length animation releases have been lackluster, especially compared to Warner Bros.' animated DC Comics Blu-ray and DVD offerings. The DC animated features typically have better writing, more well-known voice actors, and draw directly from popular comic miniseries for inspiration.
Perhaps in recognition of this, Marvel has cut back on its feature-length animated offerings and is instead pushing out child-focused animated series on Disney XD. In addition to "Ultimate Spider-Man," "Avengers Assemble," and "Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.," rumor has it that a "Guardians of the Galaxy" series will be added to the network to help capitalize on the upcoming Marvel Studios film.
Look to the small screen
Both Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. have small-screen offerings competing for eyes as well. Warner is currently enjoying the growing popularity of "Arrow," featuring a version of the Green Arrow character. It is also spinning off a new series following the Flash, allowing the company to show both non-powered enemies (on "Arrow") and super-powered enemies (on the Flash spinoff) without having to worry about differences in power sets.
Marvel, on the other hand, currently has its Avengers spinoff "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." airing on ABC. With ratings dropping, however, it remains to be seen whether the show will survive its first season. Even if it does get canceled, though, there will be more Marvel heroes on the small screen. Marvel is supposedly moving forward with a new period series based on its Agent Carter short film and will also have four original Marvel Studios series and a miniseries debuting on Netflix starting in 2015.
Who has the most must-see heroes?
The next few years will see a number of offerings from Marvel Studios, Fox, Sony, and Warner Bros., giving comic book fans a lot to look forward to. Disney seems to have the strongest lineup with its Marvel Studios slate, while Warner currently seems to be struggling to build a successful franchise out of Man of Steel. Fox seems poised for third place with both the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises supposedly sharing a cinematic universe, though to date there are no plans to cross them over in a single film.