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Grab the popcorn for attack of superheroes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Of the more than 250 movies that have reaped domestic earnings of more than $100 million, only a dozen dramatize the victories and travails of comic-book superheroes. But all that is about to change, as a new wave of men and women in crazy costumes surges into action in big-budget films.

It will be a battle of the titans, as the older generation of men in tights, and a scattering of super women, suit up to compete against the younger fighters against evil. The struggle will pit DC Comics, owner of the all-powerful Superman and Batman franchises, against Marvel Comics, which has suddenly thrust itself into the top ranks of movie moneymakers, as compiled by MovieTimes at UGO.com.

At the moment, Marvel rules the multiplexes. With The Hulk, directed by the brilliant and eclectic Ang Lee and starring Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly, now in its opening weekend, Marvel has launched three major comic-book pictures this year. Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck as the blind lawyer-by-day / crime-fighter-by-night, climbed to just over $100 million after its release in February. X2: X-Men United has passed the $200 million mark and will continue to climb. A third X-Men saga is a certainty, and Daredevil will get a second chance, too, as will his love interest Elektra Natchios, with Jennifer Garner getting a movie of her own.

There will also be another Spider-Man, of course, as this is the fifth-highest-grossing movie of all time, with earnings in this country of $404 million. But Marvel Studios, which collaborates with various studios on the adaptations, has a plethora of other superhero pictures in various stages of development.

The stars of some of them are already known, with Wesley Snipes repeating his grisly doings as a demi-vampiric fighter of vampires in Blade 3. Nicolas Cage, an early candidate for a new Superman, will play the demon-haunted biker Johnny Blaze in Ghost Rider, also featuring Jon Voight. Also well advanced is The Punisher, which will pit Thomas Jane's enraged Frank Castle against John Travolta's Howard Saint. Ray Park, the Scottish stuntman-actor seen as Darth Maul in Star Wars and Toad in X-Men, will no doubt display his athleticism as Danny Rand in Iron Fist.

Among the other Marvel properties in the works are Deathlok, Man-Thing, Dr. Strange, Iron Man and Fantastic Four. The latter title pre-dated the creation of Spider-Man by Stan Lee for Marvel and in some ways resembles X-Men, with each member of the quartet having a quirky power. Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the Four -- Reed ("Mr. Fantastic") Richards, Sue ("Invisible Girl") Richards, Johnny ("Human Torch") Storm and Ben ("The Thing") Grimm -- in November 1961.

The first superhero

This new generation of superheroes, many with bizarre obsessions or neuroses, often mutants, came into being more than two decades after the birth of the genre, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both 17, invented a defining, and essentially unrivaled figure, Superman. The Man of Steel, invincible except when exposed to green fragments of his native planet Krypton, flew into National Periodical Publications' Action Comics No. 1 in June 1938.

Superman and Bob Kane's Batman (introduced in Detective Comics No. 27, May 1939) became the leading stars in the superhero galaxy and remain so to this day as the most important properties of DC Comics, now a subsidiary of AOL Time-Warner.

Six movies based on the two heroes have taken in more than $100 million each, with Tim Burton's 1989 Batman in the top 25 with $251 million in domestic earnings. Subsequent Batman films that topped the $100 million mark are Batman Returns (1990), Batman Forever (1993) and Batman & Robin (1997).

But it was Richard Donner's 1980 Superman starring Christopher Reeve, perhaps the most perfectly cast of all superheroes, that launched the new era, earning $134 million in its U.S. release, followed by Superman II with $108 million.

It is thus not too surprising that both Superman and Batman are making comebacks at a time when special effects dominate the industry, and the public seems to have an insatiable appetite for superheroes. Christopher Nolan, director of Memento, is set to helm Batman 5, as it is tentatively titled.

Darren Aronofsky, who made Pi, has been at work on Batman: Year One, an even darker film based on Frank Miller's 1987 graphic novel of the same name, but this project seems to be superceded by Batman 5.

Also in the development stage is Batman vs. Superman and a new Superman, directed by Brett Ratner. A Batman spinoff, Catwoman, appears to be closer to fruition, with Halle Berry set to take the role played by Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns.

More from DC

Among other films featuring DC characters is Wonder Woman, which has been under consideration for years and has now interested both Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lopez, according to Greg Dean Schmitz of Upcomingmovies.com.

The indefatigable Schmitz also reports that Keanu Reeves, who stands to become incalculably rich because of the comic book-like Matrix trilogy, will take on the title role in another DC-inspired film, Constantine, based on John Constantine: Hellblazer. Among the other properties in development are Preacher, with James Marsden (Cyclops of X-Men), and Death: The High Cost of Living.

Shazam!, chronicling the adventures of Captain Marvel, the red-clad arch-rival and legal victim of Superman, is another DC project. And, best of all, the Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons graphic novel Watchmen, a noirish tale of aging superheroes of both sexes, has come back. Terry Gilliam (Brazil) was hot on this great project more than a decade ago and talked eagerly of it when promoting The Adven-tures of Baron Munchausen, but was finally unable to put together a cast or to get studio backing.

Watchmen, a series of 12 comics first published in 1987, chronicles much of the 20th century through the lives of its collective of superheroes: Rohr-shach, the Comedian, Ozyman-dias, Nite Owl, Mothman, Dollar Bill, Capt. Metropolis, Silk Spectre and Silhouette. It ranges in time mostly from the late '30s, with the rise of Nazism and the start of World War II, to the mid-'80s, and it is haunted by the fears of the nuclear age. Its writer, Moore, also wrote The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, adapted into a forthcoming film starring Sean Connery, and Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.

The new vision of Superman was one of a number of reinterpretations of superheroes, which include The Death of Superman and The Return of Superman, both published in 1993. Perhaps the most influential of the writers who have pointed the way to dark-edged films such as Burton's Batman is Frank Miller, whose works include the 1987 The Dark Knight Returns as well as Batman: Year One and a series of Daredevil books.

Riding his cape-tails

The shadow of Batman, or the eerie Bat signal, perhaps looms largest over the world of comic-book superheroes. But in many ways, Superman has extended his grip more widely, first through the '40s radio show starring Bud Collyer, and more recently through his television manifestations in the popular Lois and Clark and Smallville. And unquestionably it was the flawed but often vivid 1978 Superman that opened up the future for Batman, the X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil and the Hulk on film.

The first Superman, which also starred Marlon Brando as Jor-El, the father who launched his son into space, proved a masterstroke for its producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind. The father-and-son team, who had also overseen the big-budget The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, were real operators who surrounded Reeve, then unknown, with such names as Glenn Ford, Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane.

In the jokey It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman, the original superhero had previously leaped to the Broadway stage for a brief flight in 1966. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote the songs, with a book by David Newman and Robert Benton, two former Esquire wits who later collaborated with Mario Puzo of The Godfather fame on the Superman screenplay.

The odd combination of creative instincts probably contributed to the unevenness of the finished film. But there was no doubt that Superman had to be seen.

Previous superhero movies had been made on the cheap, with second-rate players and the cardboard, bargain-basement production values that made early serials so drolly cheesy. The 1966 Batman, spun from the pop-art television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward with amusingly cast villains, was also fairly junky in style. But with Reeve muscled up to fill the red-white-blue-and-yellow uniform and cape, Superman leaped over tall buildings with a single bound more breathtakingly than in any Superman film since the Max Fleischer cartoons of the early 1940s.

Today, largely driven by the digital-graphics revolution, superheroes are big-budget, big-business affairs. They even throw in topical politics, as the X-Men battle a right-wing general's mutant registration team, and Spider-Man fights the military-industrial complex.

And occasionally, amid all the flash -- the sticky web-slinging from Tobey Maguire's sweet Spidey, the blasts of heavy weather from Halle Berry's ferocious Storm -- they are also fun.

But not as much fun as curling up in a hiding place in the '40s, away from censorious parents, with a well-worn copy of Sub-Mariner or Plastic Man. Hey, what about movies about those weirdos?

Malcolm Johnson is a film critic for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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