Someday soon, American-made superheroes might not play in Pretoria

Today is a day for the fidgets: Hollywood studio execs are waiting to see whether a cluster of comic book and action heroes, led by Iron Man today, can make the summer sizzle and thereby power the entire year's boxoffice grosses. (Right now, the tally is 3% behind last year's total.)

Will women warm to Robert Downey Jr. as a conflicted middle-aged do-gooder? Will boomer fathers drag their sons en masse to "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"? Will the violence in "Wanted" be a turn-on or a turn-off for Angelina Jolie fans?

Beyond the reams of data to answer these narrowly focussed questions, though, loom other concerns. In talking about their release-date jitters, several execs this past week brought up factors rarely mentioned: Gas prices could keep some families at home, and "Grand Theft Auto IV" might distract young men from going to the multiplex. In Europe, where folks typically regard leisure as more important than lucre, the squeezed middle class is cutting back on trips to the multiplex.

There's also a third though still-fuzzy factor that could be worrisome to Tinseltown: Are hyperactive, steroid-stimulated, self-righteous superheroes — so quintessentially American — automatically going to get the thumbs up from viewers around the world?

I ask because there's a shift in the balance of power in the real world that eventually could make such movie protagonists very uncool. It might not happen this summer, but it could occur sooner than we think.

This just in: The U.S. doesn't occupy the world's pre-eminent pole position but rather skittishly shares it with China and Europe. And a handful of secondary powers — Brazil, India, Russia, Korea — are flexing their muscles and playing the big guys off one another.

So what does that have to do with Hollywood and its summer movies? As yet, not that much visibly, though the money used to make these movies increasingly is coming from Hong Kong, Dubai or London. And from money eventually comes influence.

Here's how a new book on the subject, Parag Khanna's "The Second World," put it:

"The rise of China in the Far East and of the European Union within the West has fundamentally altered a globe that recently appeared to have only an American gravity — pro or anti. As Europe's and China's spirits rise with every move into new domains of influence, America's spirit is weakened. Even as America stumbles back toward multilateralism, others are walking away from the American game and playing by their own rules."

If this analysis eventually holds up in political, economic and moral terms, it can't help but have repercussions in cultural and entertainment terms.

Just-released annual figures from the MPA confirm that the grip of American pop culture on the world remains strong despite the widespread dislike of U.S. government policies and a growing disillusionment with American lifestyles. The latter disaffection might not be as easily redressed simply by a change of party or personality in the White House.

Up until now, few have had to worry about these trends because Hollywood has been amazingly adept at luring or subsuming foreign talent to enrich its own storytelling. The latest example: Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, who made the "Night Watch" and "Day Watch" sci-fi films, has been entrusted with Universal's upcoming "Wanted" and presumably has been allowed to apply his own brand of fantasy to the action genre.

The unnerving question is how to stay atop the heap if other regions of the world become increasingly turned off by American content, or manage to jump-start their own local or intra-regional creative industries, at America's expense.

Elizabeth Guider can be reached at elizabeth.guider@THR.com.