If you've been tuned in to the hype surrounding this year's summer blockbuster season, you could be forgiven for thinking the battle for box-office dollars has already been won between the rival publishers Marvel and DC. Even if watching The Mask is the closest you've got to a comic book, it's hard to avoid the buzz growing around DC's The Dark Knight Rises, which is expected to hit UAE screens on August 16. Every new poster and trailer is debated and dissected online, interviews with cast members are scrutinised for plot clues and tickets have already sold out in some cities for midnight screenings on the day of the film's release.
This excitement isn't just coming from fantasy buffs, either. The movie's predecessor, The Dark Knight, grossed over a billion dollars since it came out in 2008, making it the most lucrative comic-book adaptation of all time; and critics adored it, too. The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won two, including a posthumous Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger as the Joker. Like its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises is stuffed with acting royalty, and its writer-director, Christopher Nolan, says that the screenplay is inspired by Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and the silent film director Fritz Lang. With comics nerds, art-house lovers and just about everyone else on board, it's set to be the movie event of the summer.
In contrast, Marvel is kicking off 2012 with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (out February 16); a follow-up to 2007's universally panned Ghost Rider, which starred Nicolas Cage as an undead stunt rider whose head turns into a flaming skull after dark. A glance at the trailer shows Cage is back in the title role, and this time he's flipping cars with chains, spitting bullets and urinating fire, with flames still licking his cheekbones. The odds on Ghost Rider 2 being a Nolan-esque meditation on justice and inner torment, and not another jittery B-movie, aren't great.
Even so, there's plenty to look forward to from Marvel Studios in 2012; which is shaping up to be one of the greatest years for superhero movies yet, and not just from the DC camp. "Hollywood is finally doing them right," says Jim Littler, the founder and editor-in-chief of the website ComicBookMovie.com, which has been analysing the genre since 2003. He cites advancement in CGI and the increased willingness of studios to pour big money into superhero films as reasons behind their increased popularity and polish.
Marvel's Spider-Man, made in 2002, was one of the films that kicked off what Littler calls a new "golden age of comic book movies", after it smashed existing records for the genre, raking in more than US$800 million (Dh2.9b). Both sequels were hugely popular, and now the franchise is back with a reboot. The Amazing Spider-Man, with Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and Emma Stone as his love interest Gwen Stacy, hits screens in the UAE on July 5, and its director Marc Webb, best known for helming the indie romcom (500) Days of Summer, knows a thing or two about combining sweetness and angst.
In terms of box-office dollars, the Spider-Man franchise has been Marvel's only output that has got close to rivalling the success of DC's The Dark Knight, but that could change with the release of The Avengers, out here on May 3. Not only is the film written and directed by cult favourite Joss Whedon, best known for creating the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it involves four of Marvel's best-known characters - Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor, who have all starred in their own successful movies - teaming up to fight crime together.
If that wasn't enough to get fans salivating, Marvel has been leaving hints about the team-up in each of the previous films starring Avengers characters. Viewers who stayed in their seats after the credits rolled were treated to hidden scenes revealing clues about the forthcoming Avengers movie, with Iron Man coming across Thor's hammer at the end of Iron Man 2, for example, and making an appearance at the end of The Incredible Hulk.
Littler says that these scenes and other hints have got fans "quivering with excitement" and predicts the movie will be "huge", helping Marvel vault to a whole new level of popularity at the cinema and paving the way for even more spin-offs, sequels and team-ups. Marvel has already got new Spider-Man, Iron Man and Thor movies in the works, while DC is typically concentrating its efforts on one story: the Superman reboot Man of Steel, which is expected to see daylight in the summer of 2013.
DC may be the favourite to come out on top at the movies this summer, but Marvel certainly hasn't given up the fight, and the companies' rivalry should spur them on to create increasingly accomplished films. We haven't even reached the genre's zenith yet, according to Littler, who compares the current state of big-screen superheroes to the golden age of the Western, which spanned the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Right now, he says, "We've only scratched the surface."