Next summer to let up on super films

Writers strike largely to blame for 2009 slate

Hollywood is sidelining most of its superheroes next summer. Make that for a while.

This year features the return of Batman, the Incredible Hulk, the Punisher and Hellboy, as well as the introduction of Iron Man, Hancock and the Spirit. For now, 2009 only has two traditional superhero films on the sked — Warner Bros.’ “Watchmen” and Fox’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

The same is pretty much true for 2010, when only three such pics are on the docket: an “Iron Man” sequel, “Thor” and Sony’s launch of “Green Hornet.”

The reason is largely being blamed on the writers strike that kept studios from developing new properties.

For example, after successfully launching its first two self-financed pics, “Iron Man” and “Hulk,” Marvel Studios is forced to sit out all of next year because the walkout kept it from developing a slate of new pics with scribes.

The strike is also partly to blame for stalling Warner Bros.’ highly anticipated take on “Justice League,” which would team DC Comics’ Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Flash characters.

Audiences this summer have proven ravenous for comicbook-based do-gooders, with “Iron Man” the top earner of the year so far (a $314 million domestic haul) and “The Dark Knight” (a followup to “Batman Begins”) selling out screenings far in advance of its July 18 bow.

But the lack of superheroes next summer should help other tentpoles like “Transformers 2,” “Star Trek,” “G.I. Joe,” “Terminator Salvation,” “Prince of Persia” and “Land of the Lost.”

That’s not to say Hollywood is losing its fervor for projects based on graphic novels or comicbooks.

Studios have been feverishly picking up popular titles, with each major and genre label boasting several books in the development pipeline.

More acquisitions are expected to be announced leading up to Comic-Con’s July 24-27 run in San Diego, where fanboys will have to rely on comicbooks instead of studio presentations for their super tales, because other than “Watchmen,” no superhero presentations are planned this year.

Development of nontraditional projects is expected to kick into high gear after the success of Universal’s “Wanted” and WB’s “300” before that. New installments of those two films already are in the works.

Releasing fewer comicbook pics over the next two years could keep auds from getting burned out on such fare, and start building anticipation for the wave, studio execs say.

“They’re fun movies, they make a lot of money, but there may be a point where moviegoers say, ‘I’ve had enough,’ if too many come out,” one marketing maven says.

Studios certainly want to avoid a backlash against superhero pics. They’re not only costly to produce, but a successful franchise can help a company’s bottom line across the board, driving everything from the box office to DVD to merchandise sales, for years to come.

That’s why studios are being careful — make that pressured — to get the first installments right.

Some studios may have been too cautious.

While Marvel is on a roll, producing projects on its own and overseeing its licensed characters at other studios, Warners and DC have taken their time getting the comicbook biz’s biggest names to the bigscreen, frustrating not only fans but top execs who don’t have a heroic tentpole to release next summer.

The superheroes will return, however.

  • Marvel plans to release an “Iron Man” sequel in April 2010, and follow that up with “Thor” that June. In 2011, it will intro “Captain America” and “The Avengers,” which teams Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America and other Marvel heroes. It also has pics in development based on “Ant-Man” and “Luke Cage.”

  • Warner Bros. and DC want Superman to fly again, another Batman is a given, and individual pics for Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Arrow and Green Lantern are being scripted. “Shazam!” was in the works at New Line.

  • Sony has a fourth “Spider-Man” planned for 2011.

  • Universal has “Sub-Mariner,” based on the undersea character Namor.

  • Fox is readying sequels or spinoffs based on its successful “X-Men” franchise, including one on archvillain Magneto.

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