All of the top superheroes have had their shot at big-screen success. DC Comics' Batman has six blockbusters under his utility belt. Superman has five. Spider-Man survived three. And Marvel Comics' X-Men have collectively appeared in five. The most recent, X-Men First Class, is part of this summer's unprecedented invasion of super-powered films, which also included Thor, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger.
So which comic book champions of justice are left for Hollywood to exploit? The answer: Plenty. And they're already being developed in these four categories:
Big-screen Superhero Category No. 1: The Reboot
Just as comic book characters are routinely killed off and brought back to life, Tinsel Town's current strategy follows suit. Since the target demographic for big-budget action films skews young, there's always a fresh audience to discover a newer version of the same timeless characters. Consequently, studios simply resurrect the comic-book-based characters they've already developed until they become stale. Then, they reinvent them.
This strategy of revitalizing superhero franchises began in 2005 with the release of Batman Begins and was solidified with its follow-up, The Dark Knight (and Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance as the Joker). The massive success of these films proved, for better or worse, the cash value of the reboot. Both were dark, driven, disturbing and unlike any superhero movie before them. Yet, they were familiar and drew huge numbers to the box office.
The Dark Knight Rises, the third in the Batman series directed by Christopher Nolan, comes out next summer -- and it promises to raise the bar once again.
Spider-Man and Superman are also scheduled to get reimagined. The Amazing Spider-Man, which rewinds Peter Parker back to high school, is scheduled for release next summer, just five years after the Spider-Man 3 debacle. And Man of Steel is due out in late 2012, six years after the scuttled reboot, Superman Returns.
Big-screen Superhero Category No. 2: Super Friends
Rather than reimagining a single character, two upcoming films will respectively cram as many crime-fighters as possible into a single blockbuster.
Marvel Studios started laying the groundwork for such a mega-franchise early, sticking a Samuel Jackson cameo into a post-credit sequence in 2000's Iron Man. Jackson played Nick Fury, the director of a fictional government agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., who then served a major role in Iron Man 2, a film that included an epilogue connecting it to Thor, the company's newest superhero movie. With each movie, Fury comes closer to assembling a team of supers, called The Avengers.
Planned for a 2012 release, The Avengers will feature The Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor -- all of whom have been the subject of at least one feature film. It will show up as the pinnacle of one of the most complex, long-term marketing strategies the industry has ever seen.
Warner Bros., owner of DC Comics, is hatching a similar scheme with Justice League. Though still in development, it collects the biggest names in DC Comics' stable -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman -- as well as lesser-known characters, from B-listers like Green Lantern to obscure characters only a dedicated fan would recognize.
Though the project is barely up and running, it could be the Warner Bros. equivalent of the X-Men movies, with sequels and potential spinoffs that would keep the franchise kicking for years.
Big-screen Superhero Category No. 3: The One
No matter how these new projects and would-be franchises perform, there's still one major release that could redefine the genre once again: The Dark Knight Rises, the third installment in the Batman series directed by Nolan.
What happens in this saga's third and, according to Nolan, final film could raise the bar once again for the genre. Marvel's movies have been confections, tumbled together into a years-long pig-out that culminates with the Avengers' smorgasbord of fan service and corporate synergy. Nolan's Batman movies have been strange and near-gourmet.
If the final course is as unrelenting as fans are hoping (Spoiler Alert: Based on the confirmed villains, there's a strong chance Batman will have his back broken) a new kind of superhero movie could emerge. And only Nolan knows what that could be.
Small-screen Superhero Category: The Other Guys
Just because the biggest announcements in the world of superheroes are team-oriented in nature and basically recycling old names and faces, that doesn't mean there won't be any new blood on the horizon. However, it won't be on the big screen, but rather the small one.
Take Ant-Man, for instance. Based on the Marvel Comics character, Ant-Man is a scientist who can shrink way past ant territory and into the difficult-to-illustrate atomic scale. Although the character has been through The Avengers' revolving door in the comic books, he won't be part of the team in the upcoming movie. Instead, Ant-Man, a character with zero cultural cache or name recognition, will get his own star turn in 2014 on television.
Unlike the big-screen projects, "Ant-Man" is relatively free of expectations or established storyline baggage. So it can be as bizarre and surprising as pop mythology should be, and maybe even inspire new obscure adaptations or original characters.
Erik Sofge is one big geek. A true fan of superhero comics and graphic novels, he has been writing about science and technology for over a decade. Based out of the Boston area, Sofge is a frequent contributor to MSN Autos, Popular Mechanics and Slate.com, among other publications.
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