Return of the comic book superheroes

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The Flash, the Green Lantern and Wonder Woman will get another outing on the big screen, Iron Man and Captain America will go head-to-head and Spider-Man is to weave his box-office magic once again. The major Hollywood studios are planning to release at least 30 films based on comic-book superheroes in the next five years.

Time Warner said this week that its Warner Brothers studio division would make ten movies based on characters from DC Comics between 2016 and 2020, in an attempt to match the box-office success of its rival comic-book publisher Marvel. It will begin with Batman v Superman, starring Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck, in 2016.

Marvel, which was bought by Disney for $4 billion in 2009, is not retiring its stars. Next year it will release the sequel to The Avengers, which featured an all-star cast playing a team of superheroes including Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and Thor. The first instalment, released in 2012, grossed $1.5 billion worldwide — the third-highest return recorded, behind Avatar and Titanic, according to Box Office Mojo.

Other forthcoming releases based on Marvel comics include the sixth instalment in the X-Men franchise, the third in the Captain America series, Hugh Jackman’s return as Wolverine, Ant-Man, starring Michael Douglas, and a sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy.

Also in the pipeline is the British-made Kingsman: The Secret Service, based on the comic books by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar. They are published by Icon Comics, an imprint of Marvel. The film is directed by Michael Vaughan and the cast includes Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong and Michael Caine.

The rash of superhero movies could be a boost to the film industry in Britain, where Hollywood studios are increasingly shooting and doing the special effects for their blockbusters. Warner Brothers has built a huge production facility at Leavesden, north of London. Marvel shot much of Guardians of the Galaxy at Shepperton Studios in Surrey.

In a business where hits are difficult to predict, studios increasingly throw their production and marketing budgets behind a handful of flashy, expensive blockbusters in the belief that those movies have a better chance of making their money back than a wider slate of smaller bets. To minimise the risk of losses, studio executives are more inclined to bet on formulas that have already proven to appeal to audiences, such as sequels, remakes and adaptations of comic books and video games.

The superhero movies have become especially popular because they appeal to young audiences that flock in large numbers to multiplex cinemas, lend themselves to spin-offs and translate easily to international markets such as China, where demand for Hollywood movies is soaring. To date, movies based on the comic book characters owned by DC or Marvel have grossed more than $10 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. Five of the ten most popular movies this year have featured superheroes.

However, filmmakers including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who pioneered the modern blockbuster, have warned that Hollywood’s reliance on huge franchises has made it increasingly difficult to make creative, personal, risky films that do not depend on special effects. Many leading directors, writers and actors have turned to television instead.