The summer of 2011 was an unexpectedly crucial period for comic book movies. Four films were debuting with less-than-well-known characters that would define their respective studios and franchises to come. The end result was that Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger established Marvel as a major player beyond the Iron Man series, X-Men: First Class suggested there was life beyond fan-favorite Wolverine, and Green Lantern cemented that Warner Bros. had no idea what to do with their properties. A year later, Sony restarted The Amazing Spider-Man and Disney changed the game with The Avengers, the biggest dominoes to fall in these studios' ever-evolving superhero franchise plans.
2014 looks like a similar summer, cementing this as a crucial period for the evolution of these movies as consistent studio moneymakers. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 continues Sony's efforts to distance themselves from the Raimi films, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is the first step in Fox's next stage of X-films, and Marvel is moving outside the box with Guardians Of The Galaxy. The coming years have a full 10 (!) more superhero films scheduled for release, with countless others to follow, just waiting for a schedule space to clear up. But what happens if these films don't work? What happens if the fans don't want to see certain characters again and again?
Here's a look at the six major onscreen superhero universes and what's at stake for each.
Superman and BatmanFranchise History: This current series of interconnected DC Comics films has but one film: Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel, which grossed $668 million last year. But there may be some audience identification with the very-recent Dark Knight films, which have no bearing on this mythology. That trilogy pulled in a little less than $2.5 billion.
Last Time Out: Man Of Steel batted back some lukewarm reviews and audience notices to register a tally higher than any film featuring either the X-Men, the Fantastic Four or even Thor.
Current Entry: Warner Bros. doesn't have the advantage shared by the Marvel movies: they can really only put out one film at a time, and lately with only their two core heroes. Which is why they're banking heavily on a Man Of Steel follow-up for 2016, not only for keeping Superman in circulation as a major hero, but also introducing Ben Affleck as a new Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. It seems clear that the picture will be introducing several heroes new to audiences, possibly in cameo form. Regardless, it re-establishes the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader as major tentpole characters, ones who will exist on the periphery of franchises populated by lesser-loved characters.
Even if Warner Bros. has been struggling with their DC brand, none of the other studios have a concept that can compete with a clash between Batman and Superman. Those are still the two most popular characters in the comic book canon, and the duo fans and non-fans would most like to see together onscreen. It's a tremendous trump card to have, and it's likely the WB sees this as a bonafide billion dollar hit. A failure would sadly, and finally, place both heroes and the DC Universe at large back into hibernation: it's what they feared when they ditched Wolfgang Petersen's Superman Vs. Batman pitch in the early aughts Unfortunately, they've got a massive hurdle to climb: they'll be opening up against Captain America 3.
Long-Term Prognosis: This isn't just the opportunity for a hit: this is also the WB's chance to launch a series replacing the billion dollars-a-year reaped by the Harry Potter movies. The still-untitled Batman/Superman could not only give the WB a chance to relaunch their immensely successful Batman series, but also give Wonder Woman her own showcase, integrate The Flash into this world, and even try Green Lantern again. It's a lot of pressure, strong enough that it made the studio push their planned release date a full year ahead from '15 to '16.
Trending Down: Man Of Steel is one of the few mega-huge superhero films treated indifferently by critics, with a 55 score on Metacritic and and 56% on Rotten Tomatoes: hardly the most reliable sources, but when we're talking blockbusters, that's a sharp divide with the box office (IMDb has a ranking of 7.4 for the film, also not great). Now the new DC universe is using this film as a base element, but fans who hear that Ben Affleck is Batman can only think of Daredevil. Fans will no doubt turn out for a combination of the two heroes, but Warner Bros. really needs a legit billion dollar hit to save face after years of false starts. And "must earn a billion dollars" is never a great pressure to place on a film.