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Hollywood Saved by Men in Tights

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Superhero movies are box-office gold.

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In the 1950s, media watchdog Frederick Wertham -- sort of a Cold-War cross between Charles Keating and Tipper Gore -- attempted to ban comic books on the grounds that they were "a strain on the eyes and nervous system," a "hypodermic injection of sex and murder" and the source of "a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one."

A hypodermic injection of sex and violence? Maybe that's why they've become Hollywood's safety net.

Indeed, superheroes have had a stranglehold on Hollywood for nearly a decade now. After the extraordinary success of Fox's (NWS) X-Men, in 2000 ($57 million opening weekend, $158 million domestic gross), Hollywood began churning out comic-book movies by the dozen.

Including Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight -- which made $155 million for Warner Brothers (TWX) in its opening weekend -- 5 superhero flicks opened this summer alone: Batman; Iron Man, from Paramount (VIA); and Wanted, The Incredible Hulk and Hellboy II, all from Universal (GE).

Comic book releases could account for up to $2 billion this year - 20% of all box office receipts.

Exhibitor Relations, a box-office tracking firm, "every studio now wants to have their hands in the comic-book business."

It's easy to see why: The movie industry currently relies on the money-making power of the franchise -- 17 out of the top 20 most profitable films of all time are either sequels or prequels -- and serialized comics are ready-made for that purpose. Why create your own franchise, when you can exploit one that already exists?

Comic books aren't only instant franchises; they also come with a slavishly faithful audience already built in. Comic Con, once the exclusive province of fanboys dressed as Sailor Moon, is now a Sundance-style industry event, with major Hollywood players competing to generate viral buzz among over 100,000 conventioneers.

Thanks to such devotion, The Dark Knight (which opened on more screens than any film in history) still needed to play around the clock to meet audience demand.

Even if they attended only to sneer at how wickedly unfaithful the film is to the original (and to blog about it later), comic fans still display a rabid loyalty usually seen only in heroin addicts and celebrity stalkers. They'll camp out overnight to see their heroes onscreen - even if it's in the godawful Daredevil, with Ben Affleck wearing a red leather codpiece that no amount of frantic showering can erase from memory.

Click through to see our list of the 10 worst comic book movies of all time.
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