Media Index
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics

How to Make a Profitable Superhero Movie

Big budget superhero movies have proliferated in the last two decades starting with the X-Men in 2000, and Spider-Man in 2002. They have been generally successful, but there have been some failures. These failures can generally be avoided if a few rules are followed. Here are the rules.

Old Rule-Avoid Women Superheros

This rule was a very good one when this page was originally written. However, Wonder Woman has now broken the curse.

Even before Wonder Woman, women superheroes worked fine if they were part of a team, and of course, women can be girlfriends, wives, etc. What had not worked so well is when they are the headline character, like Catwoman and Electra. Both of these films lost a lot of money.

Feminists may complain that this trend showed sexism on the part of the audience, but paradoxically it is close to the opposite. When the audience sees that a woman is the title character in a superhero movie they suspect that they will be sold soft core porn. The advertising for both Catwoman and Electra probably encouraged this view.

I have been told by a cynic that sex sells. There is no doubt that it is popular. But a general rule of business is, produce a good product at a low cost, preferably at a lower cost than the competition. If the low-cost producer can maintain the quality they will generally thrive at the expense of the competition. Making a film that reveals a lot of female skin, cheesecake to use the old Hollywood term, is cheap. You do not have to spend tens of millions of dollars. If you make a product for a hundred times as much money as your competition you are likely to lose money. Spending a hundred million on superhero cheesecake is an example of spending an excessive amount on your product.

Superhero movies are action, adventure, fantasy films. Scantly clad actresses can spice them up, but it should be clear to the audience that scantly clad women are an added spice, not the main course.

Captain Marvel-Disney/Marvel Attempt to Reverse the Trend

Disney/Marvel will be challenging this old rule with their upcoming superhero film Captain Marvel. But they seem to be aware of the issue. In the publicity pictures for the film Captain Marvel wears a uniform that covers her from the neck down, including the legs. Captain Marvel also is frequently flying on her own power, perhaps even in space. This emphasizes that she is a powerful superhero, not just cheesecake. Captain Marvel is a very powerful superhero with alien based powers, unlike Electra and Catwoman who are talented and highly trained people. Finally, they are calling her Captain Marvel, not Marvel Woman. Almost everything is calculated to discourage the idea that this will be soft core porn and encourage the idea that it will be a superhero fantasy movie with lots of action and special effects.

I wish Disney/Marvel luck. They broke the rules and won with Guardians of the Galaxy. I wouldn't want to bet against them.

Wonder Woman's Success in Breaking the Curse

Wonder Woman is clearly a financial as well as a critical success. It avoided the problems of earlier movies with women superheroes in much the same way as Captain Marvel, but they were more subtle.

Gal Gadot the current Wonder Woman, and Linda Carter the 70s TV Wonder Woman were both beauty pageant winners. But Linda Carter had bigger breasts and her Wonder Woman costume showed a lot of cleavage. The current Wonder Woman's costume covers her cleavage.

Also, like Captain Marvel, but unlike Catwoman and Electra, Wonder Woman is a powerful superhero, not just a very talented and highly trained human being.

Finally, the trailers and movie posters emphasize her sword and shield. This emphasizes that Wonder Woman is a warrior and the movie is not just about cheesecake.

New Rule-Female Heroes are Marketed as Heroes, not Cheesecake

I have made my point, nothing needs to be added. Let's go to the next topic.

Avoid the Weird, Go With Standard Superheros

The two Hulk movies and the Daredevil movie were marginal. Hulk is not exactly a superhero. Rather he is sort of a monster whom you hope defeats or destroys the bad guys and leaves the good people alive.

Daredevil is blind. He has a superpower that does not exist in nature. Daredevil has the power to sort of see things even though he is blind. So he is sort of blind, but his super power is he is sort of not blind. He is also talented and highly trained at fighting without firearms. Of course, he regularly takes on criminals with firearms and perhaps machine guns. Stan Lee said that when he came up with Daredevil he was thinking, if the readers will accept this they will accept anything. At any rate both of these heroes are not standard superheroes and both have proven to be marginal at the box office.

Strange quirky superheroes, like Hulk and Daredevil, frequently work in the comics. Comics fans often read a lot of comics and really appreciate stories that go in a new and interesting direction. The problem is that each year you might have upwards of a thousand superhero comic books published, and only about three to five big budget superhero movies. The fans of superhero movies have not seen enough that they really want those weird twists. Furthermore, to justify that huge budget, you need a huge audience. So the quirky does not work well.

Hollywood has tried to take these quirky ideas and make much cheaper movies that would not require the huge audience. This worked with the original Kick Ass movie but has generally not been successful. There are several reasons. First, the audience for even a cheap movie has to be massive compared to the readership of a quirky comic book.

Furthermore, movies are relatively expensive and inconvenient compared to most popular entertainment. Movies with the exception of date movies need to provide the audience with something they can not get from cheaper forms of entertainment. Cheap movies, in genres where the production budget is normally large, often fail.

Last year, 2016, there have been big exceptions to this. One was Deadpool. Deadpool's success may suggest that the audience has seen so many regular superheroes that it is now time to be more quirky. On the other hand, Deadpool used a lot of humor and from Spider-Man and Iron Man on that has been a good strategy. Also Deadpool is a massively popular character among comic book fans. The owner of our local comic shop says that he is the most popular.

The success of Suicide Squad further confirms that quirky combined with funny works. The big draw in Suicide Squad was Harley Quinn. My local comic shop owner said the only close competitor to Deadpool is Harley Quinn. Harley Quinn, who is Joker's girlfriend, is also very funny. So it is not clear that the audience wants quirky, they may just want funny.

Not All Ideas Require a Big Budget Movie

Finally, there is little reason to give the audience a live action version of quirky comic book ideas. Ideas frequently work just fine in a book, a comic, or an animated cartoon. The audience feels no need to see a live action version. The big budget blockbuster fantasy is frequently based on taking the fantasy worlds of cheaper media and making them real on the screen. You want to start with fantasies that a lot of people have spent a lot of time with, then spend enough money to make them real and alive on the screen.

Therefore, you generally want to keep with mainstream heroes like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc.

Marvel and DC Heroes Are Successful

Similarly, successful superhero movies are usually based on Marvel and DC superheroes, not the superheroes of more obscure companies or superheroes created for the movies. Even superheroes that were put out by Marvel and DC but are not part of their standard universe are not successful. The Watchmen was originally published by DC, but is not part of the DC universe of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Arrow, etc. The Watchmen lost a lot of money.

Even a brief look at the box office reveals the stark contrast between superhero movies featuring the heroes of the standard Marvel and DC universes and other superhero movies. The sixteen most successful live action superhero movies at the domestic (American and Canadian) box office featured Marvel and DC superheroes. Only two of the top forty-one live action superhero movies did not feature Marvel and DC superheroes.

Avoid Those Sophisticated Alternative Heroes

One reason why movies that do not use the standard heroes of the standard superhero universes is related to what was said above about quirky versus standard heroes. Hollywood has frequently lost money by betting on sophisticated heroes from new universes created by distinguished comic book writers and artists. These comics have some interesting ideas, but the audience does not really need a live action version of sophisticated, interesting ideas.

Take The Watchmen for example. The Watchmen comic book explores some interesting ideas. One of these involves the most powerful of the Watchmen superheroes, Doctor Manhattan. The United States and the West become dependent on Doctor Manhattan, and allowed their militaries to atrophy. When he gets upset and leaves earth, this creates a dangerous crisis. An interesting idea. Would humanity become too dependent on superheroes? Would superheroes do more than save the day? Would they be integrated into our economic production and defense? It is an interesting thing for superhero fans to think about. But does anyone need an expensive live action version, just to think about an interesting idea? Are there enough people interested to sell all the tickets necessary to pay for the big production budget? The answer was no. The Watchmen lost a lot of money.

Why Superheroes are Popular

But this is only part of the answer. For the rest of the answer, we need to look more deeply into what makes superheroes tick. If you read about a tragedy in the newspaper, or see it on the news, it makes an immediate connection. The story may only take a few minutes but you care because it is real. Fiction takes longer to make a connection because it is not real.

Realistic fiction, however, can make a connection relatively quickly compared to fantasy, once again because it is grounded in reality. Superheroes are fantasy so they take longer still to make a connection with the audience.

Usually a story needs to be grounded in reality or tradition. In some cases the distinction can be a bit unclear. For the atheist a story about angels or genies can be grounded in tradition. For the Christian the story about angels can be grounded in reality, but the story about genies can be grounded in tradition. For the Muslim both the story about angels and genies can be grounded in reality. So what is reality, and what is tradition depends on your metaphysics, your religion or lack thereof.

But returning to our central topic, Superheroes are fantasy, and fantasy is grounded in tradition. Decade after decade we have movies about vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, zombies, dragons, witches, and wizards. Fantasy is conservative because it is heavily dependent on tradition as opposed to reality. It takes time to get an audience to care about a new category of fanciful being. You can speed up by your story telling by using traditional monsters, and other supernatural beings. This maybe one of the reasons vampires, dragons, and wizards are seen so often.

No one owns vampires, wizards, and other elements of traditional fantasy. Superheroes are different, they are under copyright. This makes them very valuable for movies. If you want to produce a movie with a realistic plot, you can start with a writer and blank paper. You can do the same with many older fantasy traditions that are in the public domain. You can even invent your own superhero, but that frequently results in failure and a lot of red ink. By way of contrast, people already care about Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and other major superheroes from the Marvel and DC superhero universes. This allows the audience to more quickly connect with the movie.

Use the Tradition, Avoid the Science

I am saying here that superheroes are fantasy, but it should be noted that they often started as bad, or at least very soft, science fiction. Superman could leap tall buildings because he came from a larger planet with stronger gravity. So just as our astronauts could jump higher on the moon, and the fictional John Carter could leap great distances on Mars, Superman could jump farther on earth. But Superman was first published in 1938, many decades ago. Today his powers are justified by tradition not a weak reference to scientific principles. Just as the writer does not have to come up with a scientific explanation for vampires drinking blood, and turning into bats, or werewolves transforming from men into wolves on the night of the full moon, the writer does not have to scientifically justify Superman's powers. They are simply tradition.

Some movies tamper with these traditions to introduce an implausible scientific explanation for the superpowers. Therefore they substitute weak science fiction for a well-established tradition. It is often a bad trade. The producer of the movie may have had to pay Marvel or DC a lot to use their characters, or in the case of Disney, they paid four billion to buy Marvel. Given that you have spent a lot of money to buy the tradition you should normally use it. Frequently the audience will not think your cute science fiction excuse for the superpowers is nearly as clever as you do.

I believe the creators of movies often violate this rule because they think that only a small group of fanboys care about the tradition. True enough most of us do not care about these things the way the fanboys do. However, we do care enough about Superman, Batman, etc. that we can enjoy a superhero movie. When we watch you want us to just enjoy it. If you follow tradition then we are thinking, Superman flies sure that is the tradition. If you invent science fiction, then we are thinking about how lame your science fiction is, rather than enjoying the movie.

Old Out of Date Superheros Fail

Movies about old super or semi-super heroes have frequently failed. For example, the Phantom, the Shadow, the Spirit, the Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet, and John Carter of Mars. The Phantom made less than a fifth of what it need to break even, and all the rest bleed red ink big time. The idea has failed with impressive, and overwhelming consistency. You want heroes that parents and children connect to. Granddad's childhood heroes do not make it. Of course Batman and Superman are old superheroes, even Disney's Marvel superheroes go back to the sixties. But these heroes maintained their popularity in comics, and often in children's TV series. So a big rule is that out of date superheroes are not a good substitute for Marvel and DC.

TV Can Create Its Own Superheroes

Note TV is different from movies. The Six Million Dollar Man, and The Bionic Woman in the seventies, and the television show Heroes in the first decade of the 20th century were among the most successful Superhero TV series. Compare their success with the repeated failure to do the same thing in movies as mentioned above, the sixteen most successful superhero movies at the domestic box office all featured Marvel and DC heroes. A television series has more time to sell the audience on the characters and the setting than a movie has. This is why movies need Marvel and DC but television does not.

In fact the companies that own the right to make movies with Marvel and DC superheroes, Disney, Warner Brothers, Fox, and Columbia/Sony have good reason to be concerned with television. History suggests that it is difficult to impossible to launch a new superhero universe in comics. It has been tried and failed many times. Marvel and DC superheroes are far more popular in the movies. The most obvious way to launch a new superhero universe is a television show. The TV show Heroes is being brought back and they maybe trying to do just that. Given that Disney paid four billion dollars for Marvel, one billion more than the stock market value at the time of the sale, an attempt to create a third superhero universe from the Heroes program might concern Disney.

What all this means is that the wise company may want to milk their universe at the movies, and build up their universe on television. Warner Brothers, which owns D.C. seems to be doing this. They currently have Flash, Arrow, Supergirl and a group of superheroes, Legends of Tommorrow which includes Hawk Girl, Hawk Man, Atom, Firestorm and several others.

Movies Based on Individual Heroes and Groups

Successful movies have built around both individual heroes and groups, but one thing I would like to emphasize is that even movies that have one hero in the title, are often built around a group. In the second and third Iron Man movies, more than one person wears Tony's battle suits, and in the second Iron Man, we see the debut of Black Widow. The Thor movies always have several heroes from Asgard. The second Captain America movie was like a mini Avengers movie with Black Widow, and the debut of Falcon. Looking over the Marvel Cinematic Universe almost all of the movies are either origin stories or feature a team up of two or more heroes. I believe the only exception was The Incredible Hulk which was their only money loser.

Many of the movies with a single hero in the title have a group with powers built around a single theme. For example, the heroes in the Iron Man movies usually use Tony's tech, his Iron Man battle suits. The heroes in Thor movies movies have the powers of the Gods of Asgard. This is in contrast with the Avengers, where the heroes have powers from many sources.

So there are the rules for making a successful superhero movie. The difficulty is that if you do not own the rights it is generally not a good bet. The big profits are to be made by those who have the rights to a universe. Building a superhero universe from scratch is very hard. I would suggest using a TV series to start the process.

Not satisfied with the millions you made on superhero movies, here is another page on the rules for successful movies made with computer generated images, CGI.


Written July 2, 2016. Last Updated May 30, 2017

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