What's Next for Superhero Movies?

With Batman finished for now, the future belongs to Marvel.

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When The Dark Knight Rises leaves theaters (probably sometime after the sun has gone out), it will mark the end of arguably the most commercially and critically successful comic-book movie franchise of all time. Save for Marvel's loosely connected Avengers films, no series will have grossed more money at the box office, been subjected to more acute critical analysis, or garnered such devotion from both genre aficionados and outsiders.

This is all great for comic-book movies, which have now proven themselves not only to be a source of revenue but of genuine artistic worth. But what happens now? Has the genre peaked? In the wake of The Dark Knight Rises, it's time to look at the future of comic book movies and see where they might go from here:

The DC/Warner Bros. partnership is screwed

Warner Brothers, which owns DC Comics, is in no danger of folding, but their stake in the comic-book movie market is about to shrink dramatically. Looking at the somewhat surprising success of Columbia Pictures' Spider-Man's "unnecessary" reboot ($500 million so far worldwide) a mere five years after its last installment, it may be tempting for Warner Bros. to get Batman back in theaters as fast as possible. But The Amazing Spider-Man had the benefit of following the commercially successful but critically reviled Spider-Man 3 (it wasn't exactly like most fans felt director Sam Raimi's legacy would be spoiled by the reboot). Considering the success and inevitable enshrinement of the Dark Knight trilogy, Warner Bros. would be wise to put as much distance as they can between Christopher Nolan's final Batman film and the Caped Crusader's next adventure.

Warner Bros. execs' best hope for the future is next year's Superman reboot, Man of Steel, but they'll be relying on an iconic brand to overcome the deficiencies of its director, Zack Snyder, whose stock took a major hit in 2011 after the misogynistic boyhood fantasy flick Sucker Punch. Snyder hasn't directed a hit movie since 300 in 2007 and has seen his box-office numbers decline with each of his following three films (Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians, and Sucker Punch took in $107, $55, and $36 million, respectively). Considering that the haul for 2006's Superman Returns fell $70 million short of its production budget, there's little reason to be optimistic, even if Nolan is taking on a producer role for Man of Steel.

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Outside of the Superman/Batman duo, DC/Warner Bros. is sorely in need of marketable heroes. Box-office data reveals a sharp drop off from the A-List to the B-List when it comes to comic-book adaptations. In the DC universe, Green Lantern represents only slight step down from the top tier (let's call him A-/B+ List), and there was almost zero interest in the last summer's Ryan Reynolds-starring Green Lantern, even before people heard how bad it was. The studio's most notable albatross, Jonah Hex, managed a meager $10 million worldwide. Comic-book movies may have attracted the attention and adoration of comic-book outsiders, but the uninitiated still seem to prefer heroes they've at least heard of.

DC's best hope for the future is a Justice League movie that's still in its incubation stage. The success of The Avengers might make the ensemble superhero film seem like a sure bet, but that movie benefited immensely from years of successful films like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and to a lesser extent, The Hulk. A Justice League movie may need more to stand on than just a single Superman installment.

Marvel owns the future

No matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars The Dark Knight Rises brings in, the future of comic-book movies belongs to Marvel.

Marvel has had its share of terrible films (Elektra, the Punisher series, Daredevil, and the infamous Howard the Duck), but in recent years the studio has enjoyed an almost unprecedented level of consistency at the box office with the Spider-Man franchise (including this summer's reboot) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That universe contains The Avengers and the five films that lead into it—both Iron Man flicks, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Thor—the least successful of which (The Incredible Hulk) still grossed $263 million worldwide. The six films have earned Marvel Entertainment close to $4 billion dollars, making it the fourth-highest-grossing film franchise of all time. Over the next three years, we will see sequels to Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, as well as a new entry based on Guardians of the Galaxy. It's hard to imagine Marvel not making a ton of money from those films. But more than that, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is bringing the traditional print comic-book format on screen, building an insular world that can hold any number of heroes and story arcs.

Comic-book movies could replace comics

In terms of exposure, print comic books have benefited tremendously from the success of their film adaptations. Beyond the books themselves, outsiders have taken an interest in the history of the industry and the struggles of innovators like Jack Kirby. But the prominence of comic books in the mainstream belies the fact that the industry is largely stagnant. Licensing, in the form of toys, merchandise, and movies, is now the primary source of revenue. The Avengers alone made more money for Marvel than the total sale of print comic books, industry-wide, over the last two years. Alex Klein at the Daily Beast argues that many of DC's recent headline-grabbing moves, like Green Lantern's coming-out and the re-boot of their entire universe, are less creative decisions than they are (largely unsuccessful) attempts to revive the interest of a waning fan base that has turned its attention to smaller and more adventurous independent publishers.

Could comic-book movies survive without the medium that inspired them? It's highly unlikely that print comic books will disappear anytime soon, but they could easily become mere token formalities, especially for Marvel and DC. While you couldn't sell toys and t-shirts without some kind of supporting mythology, movies will allow for the creation of an independent storyverse.

What about TV?

If DC feels like it's losing at the movie game, TV may be the next best bet. AMC's The Walking Dead, based on the series of the same name, is the highest-rated basic cable drama of all time. ABC is developing a series on The Hulk, and FX is producing a show based on the Image Comics series Powers.

The Walking Dead and other genre adaptations like Smallville and Game of Thrones have demonstrated that TV may be a better place than film to adapt the expansive, ongoing, interweaving narratives that make up comic-book worlds. Two hours may be enough time to tell a more-straightforward superhero story, but TV allows for virtually unlimited space in which to unfold more complicated plotlines. Arrow, a CW adaptation of the DC character Green Arrow, could prove (or disprove) the viability of the superhero show in television's golden age.