Marvel's studio will bring more heroes to screen

We've seen the X-Men. We've seen the Fantastic Four. We've seen, most lucratively, three (soon to be four) instalments of the Spider-Man saga.

All are film adaptations of comic books from the Marvel stable, the company that immortalised Stan Lee and his team of writers and draftsmen with their penchant for superheroes with distinctly human weaknesses. Now, though, Marvel wants more.

It has established its own Hollywood studio to generate films, and take a correspondingly bigger slice of the profits. The first film to be released under the Marvel Studios banner, Iron Man, is due out in the United States on 2 May. A second, a new version of The Incredible Hulk, is coming out in June.

This has significance well beyond the comic-book fan base. Marvel Studios is the first new Hollywood studio to come along since DreamWorks, the now-dissolved collaboration between Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Like DreamWorks, it has raised private capital – most notably, a $525m (£260m) credit line from the investment bank Merrill Lynch – to give the big media conglomerates who own Hollywood a bit of a run for their money. Like DreamWorks, too, it is focused exclusively on development and production. It is outsourcing distribution of the movies to Paramount Studios.

This is an unusual, not to say rough, time to be launching such a venture. The entertainment industry has just been crippled by one strike, by film and television screenwriters, and faces the threat of another, by the industry's unionised actors. One of the most successful of the smaller studios, New Line, which brought The Lord of the Rings to the silver screen, has just been forced to fold and hand its assets over to Warner Brothers.

DreamWorks itself is broken up and essentially dead. The animation division lives on, thanks to the enduring success of the Shrek franchise, but the live-action division has ground to a halt, operating only as a production company under the Paramount banner.

Marvel, though, is a bit of a special case. It is drawing exclusively on its own back-catalogue of superhero comics, with no interest in generating material from elsewhere.

The Merrill Lynch money is intended for the very specific purpose of generating two films a year for the next five years, each of them with a budget of somewhere between $100m and $160m. And Marvel is still hedging its bets, since the big studios that started pumping out its product – starting with X-Men eight years ago – are continuing in the same vein. Sony is developing the fourth Spider-Man movie, having been responsible for the previous three. Fox is pounding away at the X-Men franchise, with a Wolverine film set to be released next year and a Magneto movie planned after that.

The whole enterprise has been as close to a sure bet as the film industry ever gets. Not every superhero film has succeeded. Batman and Robin, the 1997 film starring George Clooney, is regarded as awful and interrupted what had been up to that point a lucrative Batman empire (unconnected to Marvel).

Iron Man has the sort of cast usually associated with Oscar-type productions: Robert Downey Jnr, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow. Everyone, clearly, knows a good thing when they see it.

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