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"The super-heroes, world and cinema’s saviors? " by Olivier Le Guay on The Huffington Post

$645 millions of revenue in  four weeks for the second movie of Captain America, the imminent release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, exhibitions, books and re-appropriations in ads by Evian and Oasis… If some find them quite cumbersome, the super-heroes do keep all their superpowers on consumers, and are likely to have a great future. Could this business be indestructible?


Article previously published in french on the

An economic and popular hybridization (or even mutation). Beyond comics and movies, these pure products of the American entertainment have seen their status changed while turning into (super) economic models: from pop icons, embodying the globalized mass culture, they turned into multi-support brands (on screens, paper and games), enhanced as a catalogue. “After all, the super-hero is the reflection of the society that created it: economy, culture, politics, we find all the characteristics of the western industrial, liberal and democratic model exposed in its adventures, sometimes in a metaphorical way, by authors who are only unconsciously reporting the values and norms of the global society” Martin Winckler analyzes in his book The society of super-heroes, economy, sociology, politics (Ellipses Marketing, 2012).

Super budgets and super revenues: the super-heroes have taken by storm the first places of the 100 biggest successes of all times in the world box-office, among which three in the 10 first since 2012: Avengers ranks 3rd with more than $1.5 billion of revenue; Iron Man 3 ranks 5th ($1.2 billion) and The Dark Knight Rises ranks 9th ($1.08 billion), with a $220 million, $200 million and $250 million budget respectively. This is only the emerging part of a gigantic business based on three money-making cornerstones: video-games, toys and all-out licenses.

A window-dressing economy. Cinema the goad of a media-centered and business conquest, whose unique purpose is to turn each character into a brand, in order to turn them into teams for great bankable adventures, boosting, with a leverage effect, their commercial enhancement in the form of juicy license contracts. For example, Marvel Entertainment (Iron-Man, Spider-Man…) signed with Hasbro, the first world’s toys producer, for the exclusive exploitation of its derived rights.

Some all-out itemizations orchestrated by two heavyweight companies (Marvel/Walt Disney Company vs. DC Comics/Time Warner): the launch of three TV series, the opening of an online publishing service for comics, Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, a Spider-Man musical on Broadway since 2010… The enthusiasm crossed the ocean and reached France, where comics stand alongside with manga; their sales in bookstores increased by 14.5% in 2013. Some exhibitions in Paris achieve great success in the media: Super-heroes, the art of Alex Ross at the Mona Bismarck American Center (until June 15, 2014) and The art of Marvel super-heroes at the Musée Art Ludique (until August 31, 2014). Not forgetting the Star Wars exhibition at the Cité du Cinéma (until June 30, 2014), another Disney’s license.  

A release schedule planned until 2018. With more than 5000 characters – plus the Lucas Film catalogue – Marvel/Disney has an endless character stock available. “Beyond the true business war that opposes the super-heroes of both families, the relationship between Marvel and DC Comics seems to be characterized by a more positive aspect: there is a one-way inspiration and stimulation process” Kevin Picciau noticed in his report Marvel, entertainment super-heroes? (INA Global, 2010). This allows to have  a long-term vision in an extremely well established distribution and marketing machine: Avengers 2 in April 2015, Fantastic Four in June 2015, Ant-Man in July 2015, Captain America 3, X-Men: Apocalypse, The Amazing Spider-Man 3, Doctor Strange and Magneto in 2016 are already forecast… in a schedule designed until 2018. This is a real industrial gamble that only depends on the recurrent success of each release. A $200 million-flop could threaten this great mechanism. Economic slump also exists for super-heroes as proven by the 1980s period.

How far will super-heroes go? Regarding consumers’ impatience, the enthusiasm seems to be boundless. “Super-heroes movies go beyond the naïve and childish imagination of American pop-culture, Olivier Delcroix writes in his book Super-heroes in movies (Hoebeke, 2012): they are a crucial element of United-States’ psyche, values, beliefs, doubts and patriotism which were seriously weaken since September 11”. This trauma is also analyzed by the philosopher Simon Merle in his book Super-heroes and philo (Bréal, 2012): “The super-heroes, despite their super powers, are vulnerable and are the hardly altered reflection of humankind. With their double identity, they embody both human, with their weaknesses, and a physical and moral perfection that is close to superhuman. They are a magnifying mirror in which we can gaze at our condition and question ourselves (…) Using fiction is sometimes necessary to drop the mask and face the problems that concern us in reality. Thus, through the super-hero’s exemplary nature, it is humankind that we are trying to understand and our world over which we fly”. The affliction will thus remain expansive as long as our contemporaries feel like transferring their worries on super-icons…