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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Who’s the richest superhero? Billionaire Bruce Wayne is an obvious choice. Tony Stark would be a good bet too. Green Arrow, Booster Gold, and Mr. Fantastic are all 1%-ers as well. Before comic books, almost all superheroes were wealthy: the Shadow, Doc Savage, Zorro, Scarlet Pimpernel, Spring-Heeled Jack. Money is the original superpower. It sunk its radioactive teeth into you from birth. But who’s the uber-richest of them all?

How about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?

Look back at his 1962 issues and Peter Parker has to scrounge just to pay his recently widowed aunt’s rent. His first masked appearance was in a wrestling ring so he could take home some pocket money. When Tobey Maguire started playing the part in 2002, he just wanted to cash in, not listen to his Uncle Ben about responsibility and all that.

And cash in he did. The Spider-Man movie trilogy grossed just over a billion dollars. That’s about $371 million per film, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th biggest superhero money makers of all time.

Of course Bruce Wayne has some pockets of his own. The two Christopher Nolan films averaged $369 million, so just a couple of shakes of the piggy bank behind Tobey. Unless you average all six of the Batman films, including the 1997 franchise ending Batman and Robin. Then poor Bruce plummets to a $240 million average, way below Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man who ka-chings in at $315.

Fourth place goes to Superman Returns, the lonely solo reboot that still managed to gross $200.  Thor’s not far behind, debuting last year at $181. Though we may have to wait for Thor 2 to know the Asgardian’s real market value. And with Man of Steel in production, the Kryptonian is a wild card too. He could even redeem the collapse of his 80’s franchise when Superman III and IV pulled in a mild-mannered $60 and $16 million each.

Batman, however, has no flops in his bat closet. The 4 film franchise Tim Burton kicked off in 1989 averages $176 million, even with Schumacher’s Batman and Robin scrounging only $107. Ignore that low ball, and Batman flaps over Thor to perch under the 2006 Superman at $199.

Of course all this math is about to change.

July is rematch month for Hollywood’s billion dollar superheroes. The franchise-rebooting Amazing Spider-Man opens this week, and the reboot-capping Dark Knight Rises opens the 20th.

Despite Peter’s higher gross average, Bruce is the top seed. Dark Knight alone pulled in $533, more than doubling Batman Begins.  Until The Avengers plowed through box offices in May, Dark Knight was the third biggest money maker of all time, just under Avatar and Titanic (yes, uberdirector James Cameron hogs both first and second place). Adjust for inflation though and The Avengers plunges to 32nd, making Dark Knight s 28th the financial high bar for superhero films. (Gone With the Wind , the inflation-adjusted champion, opened way back in 1939, the same year the first 6-page “Bat-Man” premiered in Detective Comics.)

Peter Parker followed the more standard sequel trajectory, with Spider-Man 2 making a bit less than the Spider-Man, and 3 making a bit less than 2. Spider-Man 4 might have continued down that (still highly lucrative) slope, but post-trilogy contract negotiations were a supervillain Columbia Pictures could not defeat. Thus Andrew Garfield as the new Tobey Maguire.

Can Garfield really take on Christian Bale? Mark Zuckerberg pinned him in the first round of Social Network when Garfield played Zuckerberg’s less than savvy business partner. But Bale’s current Batman costume is so constricting, he almost passed out while filming.  Garfield also played a love-struck clone in Never Let Me Go, so Bale might have to face multiple spider copies. Of course Bale is also a two-time homicidal maniac from Shaft and American Psycho, so he could chainsaw all the Garfields Columbia throw at him.

Whatever the outcome, the fight won’t end here. Warner Brothers already has plans to re-reboot the Batman franchise after the Bale-and-Nolan tag team retires. And if Columbia doesn’t like Garfield’s performance, he could go the way of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney. There are always more clones warming up in the locker room. And superhero fans ready to drop more cash into Bruce’s and Peter’s billionaire pockets.

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