With the majority of superhero films based on adaptations of US comic books, how well do these titles and franchises perform in territories not familiar with the original characters?

Tina Turner wailed, “We don’t need another hero,” and Hollywood is apt to agree with her. What we need, it says, is another superhero. In late April/early May that crusader was Thor, the son of Asgard’s chief deity and a pulp-comic staple since the early 1960s.

The god of thunder grossed $300m globally in two weeks for Paramount Pictures International (PPI). In June, the elder comic-book statesman The Green Lantern (who first appeared in 1940) will make his big-screen debut, while July will see the venerable Captain America reinvented on screen again, to be distributed by PPI and Universal Pictures International (UPI).

The appeal of these masked, caped and generally fashion-challenged men and women of iron and steel has never been greater. Both Marvel and DC — the chief US publishers of superhero comic books — have film divisions and every studio salivates at the prospect of securing rights to the diminishing stock of popular alter egos.

“It’s unquestionably the most popular genre today,” insists Jay Sands, senior vice-president of international operations at Sony Pictures Entertainment, which is releasing both Men In Black III and The Amazing Spider-Man next year. “The films work for fans and because they’re so visually dynamic you don’t have to be familiar with the characters to enjoy them. They play everywhere and they work everywhere.”

Sands notes the groundwork has to be done with the initial release of what executives hope will be an ongoing franchise. Batman, for instance, may be a character well known beyond its core fanbase but far fewer are aware Men In Black began in the pages of Aircel Comics. The emphasis is invariably to sell the film first and place secondary importance on possible niche appeal.

Heroic performances

A look at 19 recent superhero movies bears out their universal appeal. Collectively, these films have theatrical grosses of $3.96bn in the international market compared with $3.78bn from North American screens. When pictures do not perform to strength in major territories such as Germany (Iron Man) or Japan (The Incredible Hulk), they are anomalies rather than trends. Even in India where US blockbusters are often indifferently received, films such as Spider-Man and X-Men rank among the all-time highest-grossing releases.

‘Because they are so visually dynamic, you don’t have to be familiar with the characters to enjoy them’

Jay Sands, Sony Pictures Entertainment

“We anticipated Thor would be strongest in Europe because Norse mythology is part of so many of those cultures,” notes Marvel Studios president Louis D’Esposito.

PPI opened the film first in Australia, before previews in key European territories a week later, and its North American debut a week after those. What was perhaps more surprising was the spectacular box-office response in South America and Asia, particularly Thor’s $17m and counting box office in Brazil.

Diane Nelson, president of DC Enterprises, notes that while comic-book publishing is a global industry, the business remains centred in the US. “We’ve found there are unexpected pockets of interest in places like Brazil, Italy and the Philippines and the films are essential to expanding those markets and developing new ones.”

The Green Lantern, reveals Nelson, is the company’s top-selling print franchise since it was reintroduced and re-imagined in 2004. The feature version Warner Bros is opening globally on June 17 with Ryan Reynolds in the title role is part of the company’s ambitious plan to introduce two new DC characters annually. The Dark Knight Rises and a Christopher Nolan-produced Superman reboot are set for 2012 release. While Nelson sees opportunities to employ comic-book outlets in the marketing of the film with such things as free giveaways, the prime thrust of the campaign will be to position the character as the ultimate avenger and to emphasise the film’s spectacular visuals and set pieces.

Superpowers need big budgets

Superhero comics emerged in the US out of the Great Depression of the 1930s and solidified in popularity during the Second World War.

The film industry and theatrical audiences were slow to warm to them, with the initial transfers of Captain Marvel and Batman relegated to the cheap seats of weekly serials in the 1940s. Superman became a hit of early television and in the 1960s superheroes enjoyed a faddish popularity on the small screen via the likes of Batman, Wonder Woman, The Hulk and The Flash among others. The turning point came with the big-screen release of Superman in 1978.

“We had the budget and technical resources to do a classy movie, something the serials and television shows lacked,” recalls Richard Donner, the film’s director.

It would still be 11 years before Batman followed and it was not until the late 1990s the superhero became a staple movie event. In recent years a reconceived Batman and newcomers Iron Man and Spider-Man (soon to receive a makeover) have become box-office blockbusters.

However, these films are not bulletproof when it comes to profitability. Audiences dismissed Catwoman, and even reasonably hefty grossers such as Daredevil and Watchmen failed to live up to commercial expectations. With their reliance on special effects, these films routinely involve an investment of $200m-$300m in production and marketing costs and are heavily reliant on ancillary revenues to generate healthy returns. Since 2005, only The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 3 and the two Iron Man pictures have generated in excess of $500m in global theatrical revenues.