By Rollo Ross and Patrick Graham
LONDON (Reuters) - Launching his 20th blockbuster in a decade in London on Tuesday, studio exec Kevin Feige is dismissive of any suggestion that the superhero movie is near its sell-by date.
Feige is one of the main movers in the Disney-owned Marvel Studios operation that has grown steadily since emerging as competition for "Batman" just over a decade ago.
With franchises including "Spider-Man", the "X-Men", "Iron Man" and last year's "The Avengers" they have scored well above $10 billion at the box office since expanding from cartoons into live action film around the turn of the Millennium.
But is there no hint of creative fatigue creeping in?
"I don't know if there's an infinite amount of expansion that we can do," Feige told Reuters ahead of the premiere of "Thor: The Dark World" in London. "But if you look at the comics, they've been telling a story a month for 50 years or so, so there's a lot of stories we can tell.
"I'd like to think that as long as we keep surprising audiences, as long as we keep taking chances and evolving characters in our movies so that they can't quite pin us down or tell where we're going to go next, that we'll keep the audiences engaged and they'll keep coming to see it."
So far this year, the Superman reboot "Man of Steel" has cleared $662 million and "Iron Man 3" some $1.2 billion worldwide, double what the first two movies in that franchise pulled in individually, according to the ticket tracking website Boxofficemojo.com.
"There's a certain amount of spectacle and scale with superhero movies that makes people think its time to drive out and see them on a big screen," Feige said.
"Then its the characters. I think people like to see a flawed hero overcome their flaws to prevail."
For the second "Thor" movie, Feige and his director Alan Taylor have banked firmly on humor, often found in juxtaposing everyday life in the film's London setting with the hammerwielding Norse God of the title.
"It was watching other movies in the Marvel universe that made we realize that if you don't keep people laughing then you're in trouble," Taylor said.
Like its predecessor - which took $450 million worldwide - Thor is in essence a sci-fi movie with the catch that its hero and the more advanced technologically society he comes from, stems from Viking myth.
After "The Avengers", the film is the third outing for Thor and his brother Loki, a morally dubious character who straddles the line between good and evil.
"One answer (on why superhero movies are so popular) is that, in quite a divided world, they are unifying in a very joyful way," says British actor Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki. "Really superhero films are about a triumph of good over evil."
Having branched into television this year with the "Agents of Shield" series in the United States, Marvel are readying "Captain America" and "Avengers" sequels and are also set to introduce new, less well-known characters in "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Ant-Man" over the next two years.
For Australian-born Chris Hemsworth, riding a wave of critical praise for Formula 1 movie "Rush" and contracted to play Thor for years to come, there is no sign of fatigue.
"They seem to certainly be at the forefront of pop culture and what kids are talking about and what have you. Its great to be in amongst it, at its kind of height when there's this much enthusiasm," he said.
(Editing by Alison Williams)