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Hollywood's secret sauce: Why superhero movies always seem to work so well


The way good guys dominate the box office, Hollywood’s biggest problem is coming up with compelling villains. As is now the case every year, the biggest hits of the summer blockbuster season have been superheroes. Nothing demonstrates the apparent invulnerability of the formula better than the success of the critically underwhelming The Amazing Spider-Man 2 from Sony (SNE) and Disney’s (DIS) Captain America franchise.

The latest episode of the willfully cornball Captain has been the biggest hit of the year, pulling in an imponderable $700 million worldwide. Despite disapproving Chinese officials, Captain America: Winter Soldier has made more than $115 million in China.

The stakes grow even higher this weekend with the debut of the latest X-Men running headlong into the non-verbal but still decidedly super heroic Godzilla. The king of monsters brought in $93.2 million in the U.S. last weekend, second only to Captain America in terms of opening weekend gross.

In the attached clip Gitesh Pandya says Superhero mania is here to stay and, at least so far, that’s a good thing.

“Hollywood has a tendency to run something into the ground after it gets too successful. So far these movies, not just domestically but overseas, are doing gangbusters and there’s no sign of it stopping anytime soon. You have Marvel on top of it’s game. Almost everything they touch turns to gold.”

The Disney effect

As with so much of American cinematic entertainment, if you don’t like it you can blame Disney. As recently as a decade ago the Mouse House was ESPN, some theme parks and a tired line-up of Princess movies. Enter Bob Iger who first bought Pixar in 2006 then all but recreated the modern summer blockbuster by paying $4.2 billion for Marvel.

What was then a group of tired characters like Captain America, Ironman and Thor became the Avengers; a ready-made factory of franchise titles. Just by itself Captain America has generated more than $1 billion in worldwide box office. Suffice it to say the world wasn’t exactly clamoring for a 70 year old World War II film franchise when Iger bought Marvel.

The summer line-up

As for the rest of the year, after this week’s face-off between Godzilla and the X-Men Pandya says the real surprise will be the August release of the little-known Guardians of the Galaxy. “This is one of the lesser-known comic properties from Marvel. It’s going to a big test of that brand. I think it will be very successful in the latter part of the summer.”

Lesser known is being nice. Guardians had a brief run in the as a comic book in the late 60's followed by another failed shot in 2008. It almost doesn’t matter. The trailers look awesome and with the way Disney is spinning box office gold, the movie will probably do a couple hundred million and actually be “a pretty good box of popcorn” as my mom used to say of such filmfare.

As Pandya says, Hollywood is going to keep going to the well until the audience revolts. 2016 will see a Batman Superman mash-up followed by another Godzilla and more wildly unanticipated Spider Man sequels Sony keeps cranking out for fear they’ll lose the franchise rights to Disney.