Hollywood banks on profitable superhero universes

Studios with colliding worlds brace themselves for the ultimate showdown in 2015

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Photo illustration by Levi Nicholson

Photo illustration by Levi Nicholson

Lately, every summer at the movies feels like an extended trip to the comic-book store: Batman to the left, Wolverine to the right. The past 12 months delivered a veritable Justice League’s worth of superhero films, from Iron Man 3 to Man of Steel. If you thought that was overkill, then 2014 will be a Thunderdome battle to the death, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy.

These movies are made for a reason: 2013’s slate generated about $1.05 billion in North America. (For a bit of perspective, one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films, Before Midnight, earned just $8 million.) And in the year ahead—despite Steven Spielberg’s grand proclamation that the era of the blockbuster is over—Hollywood will not only double down on a future of heroes, but also place its faith in the deep and rich world of “universe-building.” By taking the television industry’s old spinoff trick and applying it to movies, studios are gambling on a future where fans are invested not only in heroes like Batman and Superman, but in entire cinematic worlds, where no character—from icons like Peter Parker to marginal writeoffs like Groot, the talking tree—will be left unexploited.

It all starts with Disney, which, in 2009, paid $4 billion for Marvel Entertainment, acquiring most of the publisher’s characters and inheriting Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, who is responsible for the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” (as it’s known in-house), a bold strategy that is revolutionizing the industry. Instead of centring a series on a single character who needs to be constantly rebooted after stars get too expensive or too old, Feige focused on the slow and deliberate development of an entire roster of franchise-ready figures, starting with Iron Man, then introducing the Hulk, Nick Fury, Captain America and Thor into the mix. Post-credits sequences in each stand-alone film contained scenes that bridged one movie to the other and, by the time the heroes joined forces in The Avengers, audiences had built up not only a love of the individual characters, but of their entire worlds.

“Marvel figured things out by looking at their own comics; not every character has to be a franchise unto himself,” says Devin Faraci, the editor of entertainment website Badass Digest. “Instead, the Marvel brand, the Marvel universe itself, is the franchise. Each movie is feeding the other, making every story richer—and drawing in more and more audiences.” The success of highly serialized television—with Lost and The Wire embracing multi-character, long-game story arcs—also proved audiences weren’t nearly as dumb as Hollywood thought. “The idea that you can go to a movie and know it’s part of a larger story—people love that, they always have,” adds Faraci. “It’s just that no one thought to try it before.”

Feige called The Avengers the culmination of “Phase 1” of Disney’s universe-building plan. With March’s Captain America sequel and August’s Guardians of the Galaxy—the latter of which stars such lesser-known heroes as the aforementioned Groot—“Phase 2” is moving along nicely.

In the next year, the rest of Hollywood will play catch-up. Twentieth Century Fox is betting its summer on X-Men: Days of Future Past, an attempt to rebuild a franchise that’s been so muddied by poor continuity and reboots that the only fix was a time-travel narrative that essentially erases the studio’s past mistakes. In addition to aping Marvel/Disney’s post-credits trick (it tacked on a scene to 2013’s The Wolverine), Fox hired comic writer Mark Millar (Kick-Ass) this fall to oversee its own “X-Men universe” and is already planning a sequel, the ambitious X-Men: Apocalypse, for 2016. Columbia Pictures, too, is imitating Feige’s plan. The studio announced that 2014’s Spider-Man sequel is actually part of a four-picture franchise, with promises of more spinoffs to come. “We do very much have the ambition about creating a bigger universe around Spider-Man,” Michael Lynton, chief of Sony Pictures Entertainment, said last month before announcing standalone films for Spidey enemies Venom and the Sinister Six.

The model is even crossing over into non-superhero movies. Paramount’s upcoming Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is using Kevin Costner’s Nick Fury-like character to tie together a new line of Tom Clancy films, while Universal is hoping its large and diverse Fast & Furious 7 cast will keep the series spinning for years.

Yet there is a deep irony lurking beneath these grand superhero plans, as Faraci points out. “The great question behind Marvel’s success is almost Talmudic: Which studios own which Marvel characters?” While Disney has rights to the Avengers and such B-level titles as Daredevil and Blade, the rest of the empire is split between Fox (X-Men, Fantastic Four) and Sony (Spider-Man). Each studio’s “Marvel universe” will be, in some way, incomplete.

Still, there’s no question that superhero films are an enormous, multi-billion-dollar gamble—and 2014 is just a warm-up. “2015 is where we’ll see the really perfect storm of comic-book films and spinoffs,” says Paul Dergarabedian, the senior box-office analyst for media-tracking firm Rentrak, noting that 2015 will deliver Marvel’s Ant-Man, The Avengers 2, a Fantastic Four reboot and Batman vs. Superman, not to mention non-comic extensions of Jurassic Park, Terminator, Mission: Impossible and Star Wars. “It’s either going to be a bloodbath or the greatest year at the box office ever—or both.”