Comic-book heroes big earners for film studios
It is no secret that so-called "action figure tent-poles" - big-budget super-hero films that hold up a studio's yearly schedule - have become Hollywood's bread basket.
But rival studios Marvel and DC Comics are planning to stretch the spandex to breaking point in the next six years, with an astonishing 30 super-hero films scheduled for release.
Disney-owned Marvel and Warner Bros-owned DC Comics have spent the past two months announcing, and updating, incrementally longer release slates - arguably the longest game of chicken in cinema history.
Both studios have now announced slates that stretch to 2020.
Marvel's slate is larger than rival DC Comics, as before its acquisition by Disney, Marvel had licensed some of its comic book characters to other studios, such as 20th Century Fox (Fantastic Four, X-Men) and Sony (Spiderman).
Latest release: The Guardians of the Galaxy gave some of Marvel's lesser-known characters an outing.
DC Comics' films are all released through one studio, its parent company, Warner Bros.
Marvel's slate includes about 20 films, eight of which are still "untitled", although speculation suggests at least one will feature Doctor Strange and there have been persistent rumours another Marvel character, Submariner, is being groomed for revival.
Doctor Strange is not one of Marvel's highest profile super-heroes, but plans for a film adaptation featuring the character date back to the early 1990s. According to rumour, actor Joaquin Phoenix is in line for the lead role.
Under production: Ben Affleck on set as Batman in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Marvel's other releases range from Avengers, Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy sequels for its parent studio Disney, to X-Men and Wolverine sequels for Fox, and several films set in the expanded Spider-Man "universe" for Sony.
In a curious footnote to the published Marvel release schedule, company president Kevin Feige recently confirmed he has a tentative schedule in his office that extends as far as 2028.
DC Comics' slate covers only 10 films, but kicks off with one of the most anticipated super-hero films of all time, 2016's Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.
To the rescue: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is part of a popular franchise.
The other nine films from DC Comics are still officially untitled. However, a confidential list of planned releases was leaked earlier this year.
That list mentioned by name a raft of films, including - in this order - Shazam, Sandman, a Justice League film, Wonder Woman, a film in which the Flash and Green Lantern are partnered and a sequel to the Superman reboot, Man of Steel.
One of the most intriguing films on the slate is a planned Batman feature titled The Batman, planned for 2019. That film is expected to be a "reboot" of the Batman franchise.
Significantly, the slate confirms Warner Bros is planning to take a more aggressive stance against the increasing dominance of Marvel's comic-book properties at the box office.
In particular, Warner Bros is using the Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice film - the clue is in the subtitle - as a platform to spin its super-hero roster into a multi-super-hero franchise film series, such as Marvel's The Avengers, and then each character into a franchise of its own.
At least two other DC Comics super-heroes are slated to appear in Dawn of Justice: Wonder Woman and Aquaman. Both of those characters would then follow that film with a role in an ensemble Justice League film, teamed with other iconic DC Comics heroes.
According to media reports, the contract for actress Gal Gadot, who is playing Wonder Woman in Batman vs Superman, also includes provision for a Justice League film and a solo film for Wonder Woman.
Similarly, there has been intense speculation actor Jason Momoa has been signed to play Aquaman in Batman vs Superman, again with a provision in his contract that would include a Justice League film and, if one is developed, a solo Aquaman movie.
Although the composition of the "Justice League of America" has changed over the years, both in the comic books and in TV adaptations, the definitive version of the group is Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter.
Other characters, such as Green Arrow, Black Canary, Hawkman, Firestorm and Robin, have also appeared with the group in various comic-book iterations.
To some extent, the rollout of DC Comics titles comes as the most comprehensive response Warner Bros has had to the emergence of Marvel as a dominant player in super-hero cinema in the past decade, a realm historically dominated by DC Comics during the 1980s and 1990s, off the back of the first modern cinema treatments of Superman (1978) and Batman (1989).
Significantly, Marvel has leveraged a "shared universe" for most of its characters - at least the ones owned by the Disney studio, such as Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America - by featuring them in solo films and together, as the Avengers.
Warner Bros has, historically, refrained from creating a single continuity for its DC Comics properties, instead allowing the Superman and Batman film franchises, and the studio's super-hero-themed TV series (Smallville, Arrow, The Flash and the upcoming series Gotham) to create unique continuities.
Unlike Marvel, DC more frequently "rebooted" its franchises, particularly Superman and Batman, with new actors, and new directors, such as Christopher Nolan (the most recent Batman reboot) and Zack Snyder (the most recent Superman reboot).
The lack of a single, central continuity is, arguably, the biggest weakness in DC Comics' cinema strategy, as evidenced by the almost unprecedented extent to which the Marvel properties leverage off each other, and use "group" films to launch individual character franchises.
In particular, Marvel's latest film release, Guardians of the Galaxy, did something rare: it turned a group of the studio's least-known super-heroes - Drax, Gamora, Groot, Rocket and Star-Lord - into a hit film franchise that is on the way to equalling the studio's A-list super-hero roster.
Since the mid-1990s, the top-grossing super-hero films have been worth about $US2 billion ($2.16 billion) to Warner Bros, a load carried by two iconic characters, Superman and Batman. That does not include revenue from ancillary industries, such as toys and consumer products.
In a powerful demonstration of the impact Marvel has had in the past decade alone, its comic-book-to-film assets, largely off the back of Spiderman, Iron-Man, Thor, X-Men, Wolverine and Captain America, have generated about $US4.5 billion in box office.
Not all of it goes into one pocket, however. Marvel's box office spoils have been divided among Sony (Spiderman), Disney (Iron-Man, Thor and Captain America) and 20th Century Fox (X-Men and Wolverine).
PLANNED DC COMICS FILMS
Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice: March 25, 2016.
Untitled film, possibly Shazam (Warner Bros): August 5, 2016.
Untitled film, possibly Sandman (Warner Bros): June 23, 2017.
Untitled film, possibly a Justice League film (Warner Bros): November 17, 2017.
Untitled film, possibly Wonder Woman (Warner Bros): March 23, 2018.
Untitled film, possibly a Flash/Green Lantern pairing (Warner Bros): July 27, 2018.
Untitled film, possibly Man of Steel 2 (Warner Bros): April 5, 2019.
Untitled film, possibly The Batman (Warner Bros): June 14, 2019.
Untitled film: April 3, 2020.
Untitled film: June 19, 2020.
PLANNED MARVEL COMICS FILMS
Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney): May 1, 2015.
Fantastic Four (Fox): June 19, 2015.
Ant-Man (Disney): July 17, 2015.
Captain America 3 (Disney): May 6, 2016.
X-Men: Age of Apocalypse (Fox): May 27, 2016.
Untitled movie, possibly Dr Strange (Disney): July 8, 2016.
The Sinister Six (Sony): November 11, 2016.
Untitled movie, "female" Spider-Man spin-off (Sony): undated, 2017.
Venom Carnage (Sony): undated, 2017.
The Wolverine 2 (Fox) : March 3, 2017.
Untitled movie (Disney): May 5, 2017.
Fantastic Four 2 (Fox): July 14, 2017.
Amazing Spider-Man 3 (Sony): undated, 2018.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (Disney): July 28, 2017.
Untitled movie (Disney): November 3, 2017.
Untitled movie (Disney): May 4, 2018.
Untitled movie (Disney): July 6, 2018.
Untitled movie (Fox): July 13, 2018.
Untitled movie (Disney): November 2, 2018.
Untitled movie (Disney): May 3, 2019.
Sydney Morning Herald