If you're in the theatre watching The Avengers on opening night Friday, you might feel your Spidey sense tingling. After all, you've been here before.
To fans of comic-book, fantasy and science-fiction culture, it's the holiest day on the nerd calendar: Star Wars day. "May the Fourth be with you," geeks will say in celebration of George Lucas's epic space opera. And a day later, as always on the first Saturday in May for the past decade, comic-book stores across North America will lure fans old and new with Free Comic Book Day.
"In the comics culture, it is a major holiday now," says Doug Simpson, general manager of Paradise Comics, in Toronto.
Once fringe events, both days have become prime vehicles for marketing summer movie blockbusters, and this year is no different. "As you can imagine, the big one Marvel's pushing to give away for the free comic is The Avengers," Simpson says.
Consider the number of comic-book films that have opened the first Friday in May: Spider-Man, X2, Spider-Man 3, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Thor and now The Avengers. Add next year's Iron Man 3, slated for release on May 3, 2013, and the total comes to 10.
Notice anything about these titles? All are movies based on characters from Marvel Comics, the publishing giant that has been producing superhero comics since 1939. It's main rival, DC Comics – home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – has only seen one movie based on one of its characters open in May, The Return of Swamp Thing, and that was in 1989. Instead, movies based on DC characters have staked a claim to mid- to late June. Eleven movies based on DC characters have come out that month, almost as many as the rest of the year combined. The next most popular month, July, has seen only four movies released, including this year's The Dark Knight Rises.
When Marvel characters have encroached on DC's turf, it's because they've had little choice. Of the five movies featuring Marvel characters released in June, four were pushed to that month because bigger Marvel titles – X2, Spider-Man 3, Iron Man, X-Men: First Class – were already slotted in May. The one other Marvel flick, Spider-Man 2, which came out in 2004, only had Catwoman to compete with that summer, and it came out in July, which left June wide open. Otherwise, the battle lines have been starkly drawn.
Why is there largely a truce over the calendar, with Marvel owning May and DC getting title to June? Superheroes may never shy away from a fight, but in real life, studios with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line are very averse to competition. Why go into battle when everyone can win?
"All you'd be doing is screwing yourself out of a ton of money," a studio source says. "People, no matter how much they want to go to something, they're not necessarily always going to go see two movies that close together."
A month is usually a safe cushion for massive blockbusters such as The Avengers or The Dark Knight, according to the studio source. For other movies, two weeks is a safe distance, especially considering up to 40 per cent of a movie's total box office is now earned on opening weekend. Of course, the more distance you can put between your movie and challengers, the better.
With the money invested in summer blockbusters – The Avengers has an estimated budget of $220-million (U.S.) – studios want to do everything in their power to guarantee success. Which is why they now routinely announce the release dates of tent-pole movies more than a year in advance.
"As soon as you know you're green-lighting a movie of that magnitude, you grab those release dates early as hell," the studio source says.
Andrew Ainslie, a professor of marketing at UCLA who has studied release-date scheduling, says studios "will basically send out a warning shot to the entire industry by preannouncing their intent to release on a big weekend."
It's especially important to stake a claim to an opening date when a movie is showing in 3D or IMAX, where the competition for screens can be fierce. The release date for The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy that hits theatres in July, was announced more than 18 months in advance.
In the early days of superhero movies, release dates were all over the calendar. The campy big-screen adaption of the Adam West Batman television show hit theatres in July of 1966. Richard Donner's Superman, which ushered in the genre's modern era, was released in December, 1978. By the time the sequel was ready three years later, Warner Bros. had wised up to the fact that Krypton's favourite son was summer fodder. The third film in the sequel would also get a June release, although Supergirl would be pushed to November.
Still, with few exceptions, late June has been the go-to time for Warner Bros. to release superhero flicks. Following the success of Tim Burton's Batman, which has grossed more than $250-million in Canada and the U.S. since its release on June 23, 1989, Warner Bros. has seized on that time of year as the prime launching ground for caped crusaders.
Of the 16 live-action movies based on DC Comics characters that the studio has released, 10 have been released in the narrow window between June 16 and June 28.
Given its huge success, Christopher Nolan's sequels to Batman Begins have been granted a plum spot in July, where the billion-dollar franchise can stand apart from rivals. But next year's Superman reboot, Man of Steel? It's slated for release on June 14.
The pattern for Marvel movies was established a decade ago, when Spider-Man was released on May 3, 2002. Geekdom was hitting its stride in the new millennium, and helped make the movie the first to pass the $100-million mark in a single weekend. Since then, why mess with success?
"May 4 has become the traditional opening of summer, and comic-book movies naturally lend themselves to that big summer spectacle," says Jonah Weiland, executive producer of ComicBookResources.com.
But with blockbuster movies beginning to crowd the summer schedule, studios are being forced to experiment with other pages of the calendar to find safe havens from the competition. The third Iron Man film might have May 3 already locked up for next year, but the sequel to Thor has been pushed all the way to mid-November. The following year, Captain America 2 will arrive in theatres on April 4. Yes, Marvel Studios has already announced its 2014 release date. Mark your calendar.
Avengers, assemble! The Marvel comic-book superteam of heroes has featured a rotating cast since making its debut in The Avengers No. 1 in 1963. The group's big-screen debut features a smaller group that will be familiar to anyone who's been watching superhero movies over the past decade, where they have appeared in individual films. It can take super powers just to keep all of them straight.
Alter ego: Tony Stark, the billionaire industrialist, playboy and engineering genius.
Powers: A suit of armour that features a laundry list of weapons and gizmos, including the ability to fly.
Played by: Robert Downey Jr.
Alter ego: Steve Rogers, a pipsqueak with a fighting spirit keen to help the U.S. fight the Nazis in the Second World War.
Powers: The supersoldier serum Rogers took gave him off-the-charts strength, agility, speed and endurance. He also has an indestructible shield.
Played by: Chris Evans.
Alter ego: Dr. Robert Bruce Banner, a physicist.
Name: After exposure to gamma radiation, Dr. Banner when enraged transforms in to the Hulk, a green giant strong enough to lift more than 100 tonnes. He can also leap great distances.
Played by: Mark Ruffalo.
Alter ego: In comics he's Jake Olsen, an EMS technician, but in the movies he's only the Norse god Thor, son of Odin.
Powers: His hammer, Mjolnir, is indestructible, always returns to his hand, allows him to fly and can summon thunder, lightning, rain and wind.
Played by: Chris Hemsworth.
Alter ego: Clinton Francis Barton, an orphan who honed his skills at a carnival, where his archery skills made him a star.
Powers: Although he possesses no superpowers, Hawkeye is the world's greatest archer and has an arsenal of arrows with custom tips.
Played by: Jeremy Renner.
Alter ego: Natasha Alianovna Romanova, a former citizen of the USSR who defected to the U.S.
Powers: An Olympic-level athlete, she has bracelets that shoot electric bolts and a cable called the "widow's line."
Played by: Scarlett Johansson.
BATTLE OF THE (COMIC BOOKS)
Comic-book readers may have no trouble distinguishing Marvel from DC, the two biggest publishers of superhero fare. But if you don't know your Wonder Woman from Wolverine, then use this cheat sheet at the store this weekend on Free Comic Book Day.
Marvel: Timely Comics, 1939
DC: National Allied Publications, 1935
Marvel: Spider-Man, Captain America, Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Man
DC: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern
Marvel: X-Men, The Avengers
DC: The Justice League
Marvel: Often real places (especially New York).
DC: Frequently fictional (Gotham, Metropolis).
PRESENCE OF ALIENS
Marvel: Minor. Most characters are angsty heroes dealing with everyday problems (e.g. Peter Parker struggling to pay the rent).
DC: Strong. Many characters have some alien connection, whether it's Superman's origin or the Green Lantern Corps.