Captain America: The First Avenger was among solid performers, but none… (Paramount Pictures )
No spandex-clad characters truly soared during Hollywood's summer of superheroes, but that isn't stopping the studios from speeding ahead with plans for more.
The last three months have brought to theaters four superhero movies based on long-running comic books, more than have ever been released before in such a short time frame. Results were mixed: "Thor" and, based on early returns, "Captain America: The First Avenger" were solid performers; "X-Men: First Class" did decent business; and "Green Lantern" is a flop.
None has taken in more than $450 million at the worldwide box office, however, putting them far behind the biggest hits of the past decade: The "Iron Man" and "Spider-Man" series and 2008's $1-billion-grossing "The Dark Knight."
In a recent report, Susquehanna Financial Group media analyst Vasily Karasyov reached a dire conclusion. "After a decade of going through comic book character catalogs in search of franchise material, studios are finding it harder and harder to make superhero films work at the box office," he wrote. "We think this trend will continue growing risk … for studios with such films."
But studio executives disagree and are moving ahead with more superhero sequels and spin-offs.
Next summer, Warner Bros. will release the third and final film in Christopher Nolan's blockbuster Batman series, "The Dark Knight Rises," Sony will bring out "The Amazing Spider-Man" and Marvel Entertainment will roll out a team of superheroes with "Avengers."
"I don't believe there is superhero fatigue," said Jeff Robinov, film group president for Warner Bros., the studio behind "Green Lantern." "Every year there are half a dozen or more horror films and comedies. Superheroes have become a genre of their own and if you deliver, there's an audience."
Indeed, despite the weak box-office performance of "Lantern" in the U.S. and in a limited overseas launch, Warner Bros. has not scrapped the idea of a sequel. With an outline already in hand, studio executives are mulling over what changes would be needed to make a follow-up work. Robinov said he would like to see it be "a little darker and edgier with more emphasis on action."
"X-Men: First Class" had the lowest box-office returns of any of 20th Century Fox's five movies based on the mutant superheroes since the 2000 original (when the average ticket price in the U.S. was 31% lower). But the studio's production president, Emma Watts, said rebooting the series with a new cast of young actors had breathed fresh life into the franchise.
"I feel like we regained momentum and now there are so many directions we can go," she said.
The model for most studios playing in the superhero world has become Walt Disney Co.-owned Marvel. Both its "Iron Man" movies and "Thor" have been hits, and "Captain America" looks likely to join that list unless it flops internationally. Only "The Incredible Hulk" has been a disappointment among the movies it has made. Perhaps more important, by tightly integrating the films' story lines, Marvel has been able to keep audiences coming back.
The end of "Captain America" was made to flow right into next summer's "Avengers," which will be followed in 2013 by "Iron Man 3" and "Thor 2."
Warner Bros. has been explicit about its plans to further develop characters from its DC Comics unit, including Green Lantern, Superman, Flash and Wonder Woman, in a similar manner. Its Superman reboot, "Man of Steel," is scheduled for June 2013.
Meanwhile at Fox, a second "Wolverine" movie and a reboot of "Fantastic Four" are in the works.
The financial stakes are as big as they get in Hollywood. Studios frequently spend $300 million or more to produce and market superhero pictures, betting that worldwide ticket sales, licensed products such as toys, and multiple sequels will generate outsized profits.
But a miss can be a big one. If ticket sales for "Green Lantern" don't pick up as it expands in the foreign market, its loss could exceed $100 million, according to one person with knowledge of the studio's finances. Another person familiar with the matter said losses probably wouldn't be that high but would be substantial.