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Can Seth Rogen’s Invincible break Marvel and DC’s superhero stranglehold?

Marvel and DC have often been a little prickly when it comes to others infringing on terrain they consider their own. A New York Daily News report estimated in 2013 that the two publishers had sued at least 35 people over the previous decade, just for using the term “superhero”. What’s perhaps more surprising is that, despite the current boom in comic-book movies, the big two haven’t really needed to call in the lawyers to ensure their virtual duopoly at the multiplex. Of the top 20 highest-grossing superhero movies of all time, all but one are based on a property that originally appeared in comics published by either Marvel or DC. And the exception – 2004 Pixar animation The Incredibles – is in any case now owned by Marvel parent company Disney.

This could all be about to change if Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg get their way, following the news that the dynamic duo behind Preacher and This Is the End is to adapt The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman’s Invincible series for the big screen. Centred on a teenaged costumed crimefighter whose father Omni-Man is a Superman-like defender of Earth, the graphic novel shares much in common with The Incredibles and Watchmen in its depiction of a world in which superheroes are real. Might Invincible be the movie to finally break the Marvel/DC duopoly? If so, it would be about time.

Over the past three decades, we’ve seen the occasional interloper from outside the big two. 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd has hit the multiplex twice, most recently in the lantern-jawed form of Karl Urban in Alex Garland’s brutally thrilling Dredd. There have been two Kick-Ass movies, based on Mark Millar’s graphic novel trilogy for Image Comics, a Marvel-owned publisher that nevertheless allows the titles themselves to remain creator-owned. And Millar has also seen his Top Cow-published supervillain epic Wanted loosely adapted into a movie starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. Independent studio Mirage contributed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, most recently hitting cinemas under the watchful eye of producer Michael Bay. And Caliber Comics’ The Crow was adapted for Alex Proyas’ 1994 gothic fantasy starring the late Brandon Lee, who died on set.

Yet none of the above has scaled the heights of Marvel and DC’s offerings. Dredd was a notorious box-office bomb, while The Crow has attained a cult status largely due to the unfortunate circumstances of Lee’s demise – its three sequels were of ever-diminishing quality, and a planned reboot with Jason Momoa attached appears to be mired in production purgatory. Last year’s Teenage Mutant Ninjas Turtles 2: Out of the Shadows made half the amount its predecessor pulled in at the global box office, with the series now looking likely to slink back into the stinky sewers from whence it came. Kick-Ass is dead in the water after its sequel failed to convince audiences that a second stint in the company of the DIY superhero was worth the bother in 2013.

So why might Invincible stand the best chance so far of breaking the Marvel/DC stranglehold? Well, for a start, Rogen and Goldberg have already shown themselves to be fearless stewards of another comic-book property, the unmissable Preacher, on the small screen. Meanwhile, Kirkman is best known for creating The Walking Dead graphic novel, whose sister show is currently one of the highest rated on US TV. With a bold creative team and ready-made fanbase in place, there is no reason Invincible cannot go interstellar.

Kirkman’s series borrows themes and tropes wholesale from both Marvel and DC. Invincible’s alien heritage is reminiscent of both Superman and Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, while the saga’s missions into deep space and notion of an intergalactic police force (Allen the one-eyed alien’s Coalition of Planets) are borrowed from the Green Lantern comics. The short-lived initial members of the Guardians of the Globe, a superhero team featured in the comics, were largely based on counterparts in DC’s Justice League of America, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Flash.

But Invincible rarely takes itself as seriously as the titles it draws from, regularly satirising superhero motifs in a manner that should feed nicely into Goldberg and Rogen’s comic sensibilities. There are dark moments throughout the series, but Kirkman is clearly having so much fun immersing himself in bombastic silver-age silliness that it’s rare for the doom and gloom to permeate too long.

Whether Invincible fits into the current trend for shared movie universes is open to question. Other Kirkman creations such as Tech Jacket and The Astounding Wolf-Man have found themselves joining up with Earth’s costumed defender from time to time, while Invincible characters such as Atom Eve and Guardians of the Globe have spun off into solo adventures. But given how heavily the series plays on archetypes established by DC and Marvel, you have to wonder if audiences will simply plump for the originals rather than delving into an entirely new cinematic universe.

On the other hand, Invincible’s sense of impish, self-reflexive playfulness has much in common with recent animated smash The Lego Batman Movie, while the saga’s relatively obscure nature should mean Rogen and Goldberg have plenty of time to really craft their movie, rather than being in thrall to marketing execs desperate to hit toy sales deadlines. After a disappointing start to Warner Bros’s DC Expanded Universe, could a third superhero universe that’s never heard of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man or The Incredible Hulk be just what Hollywood needs to get the comic-book movie genre soaring once again?