Power Struggle

The Baltimore Sun

Superman. Batman. Spider-Man. X-Men. And now Iron Man.

Big-time movie franchises all, major-league moneymakers that have their fans lining up around the block for more.

But what about Wonder Woman? The Flash? Thor? Captain America? What's keeping them off the big screen?

"Mainly, it's because we can only do so many at one time," offers 20th-century mythmaker supreme Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man and a bunch of other superhero franchises-in-waiting.

Maybe. But the truth is more complicated than that, having to do with a host of factors ranging from popularity to casting, from special effects to scriptwriting, from fulfilling fans' expectations to striking while the superhero iron is hot.

At the moment, superhero movies are being churned out like widgets on an assembly line. And almost every one - even those without some form of "Man" in the title, such as Fantastic Four - is minting money. The most recent entry, Iron Man, has grossed $276.2 million in the U.S. alone. The trend looks to continue this weekend, with the premiere of Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk (the second time around for the big green-skinned brute), and later this summer, with Batman hitting the screen for the sixth time since 1989, in The Dark Knight.

In fact, superhero movies have proven reliable box-office draws for three decades, ever since Christopher Reeve donned the red-and-blue tights for 1978's Superman. There have been box-office underachievers such as Daredevil, Catwoman, Spawn and the first Hulk, but they've been the exceptions, not the rule.

Still, not all superheroes have been able to bask in their colleagues' reflected glory. Take Wonder Woman, for example. The amazing Amazon, a goddess originally sent to Earth to try to keep men from killing one another, has been a fixture of the comics pages since 1942. From 1975 to 1979, Lynda Carter made her a hit on the small screen and a role model for young girls.

But a big-screen version of Wonder Woman has been aborning in Hollywood for more than a decade. Just about every actress under 50 has been considered for the role, from Sandra Bullock and Kate Beckinsale to Kate Hudson and Jessica Biel. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon once signed on to write and direct but soon abandoned the project. And still, Diana Prince and her Amazonian alter ego wait.

Maybe Carter's the problem. Matching the right actor to the right superhero is always tricky, and once the right combination has been discovered, fans tend to stay loyal. After Michael Keaton left Batman, for instance, neither Val Kilmer nor George Clooney, accomplished actors both, had any success in the role. More than one Internet fan site has suggested that Carter made such an indelible Wonder Woman, everyone else rates a poor second. The 56-year-old actress scoffs at that notion.

"I don't think that's true," she says. "There's no reason why she shouldn't be played by a lot of people. Although maybe, the effort not to be compared to the Wonder Woman that I played takes the focus off of where it needs to be."

That focus, Carter insists, should be on staying true to the character, not to her embodiment of it.

"She was a little bit of a fish out of water, and that was wonderful," Carter says. "She didn't think she was all that, but the people all around her thought she was all that. There's a vulnerability around her that was really wonderful."

While no other superhero has followed as tortuous a path to the big screen, plenty of others have been patiently waiting their turn. Each has faced his or her own peculiar challenges.

There's Thor, for instance, the Norse god of thunder, he of the bulging muscles, flowing blond locks and all-powerful hammer. He's been around since 1962 but has never made it to either the big or small screen, except as a cartoon. Like just about every Marvel Comics superhero, he's got a film in development, slated for a release in 2010 or thereabouts. But why the long wait?

Maybe the hammer's been the problem, figuring out some way to have an actor constantly swinging an overgrown carpenter's tool over his head without looking silly.

Or maybe the problem has been the character's physical appearance. When the perfect casting choice is Fabio, that can't be a good sign.

Both Green Lantern, an intergalactic emissary who gets his power from a magic ring, and The Flash, the fastest man alive, have so far resisted efforts to film movies around them. (The Flash was the subject of a 1990 telemovie starring John Wesley Shipp and Rockville's own Paula Marshall, and a short-lived series, but the less said about them, the better).

Those characters suffered from the twin scourges of being not-quite-popular-enough and having powers that would be too dependent on special effects. It's no accident that the first two successful superhero movie franchises, Superman and Batman, focused on characters who could be brought to life without a lot of movie magic; Superman just had to fly, while Batman was as much a triumph of set design as special effects. (Green Lantern does amazingly cool stuff with his ring, while The Flash moves at something approaching the speed of light.)

But now that Iron Man has paved the way to box-office success for comicdom's second tier of superheroes, talk of movies featuring both The Flash and Green Lantern is heating up. Advancements in computer-generated imagery, or CGI, have left no special effect beyond the realm of possibility.

"Nothing can be harder than The Hulk to put on the big screen," says Lee, who teamed with artist Jack Kirby and some nasty gamma-ray radiation to create the oversized dark side of mild-mannered physicist Bruce Banner back in 1962. "With the state of the art of special effects now, there's nothing that can't be done. I don't care how fantastic the character is, or the situation, or the locales. They can put it on the screen."

That apparently includes one of Lee's more unlikely superheroes, the milliliter-sized Ant Man, whose adventures are slated to hit the big screen sometime in the next few years.

One of the toughest superheroes to adapt off the comics page has been Captain America, a super-soldier created by a U.S. Army experiment who's been protecting the Allies since World War II. Despite starring in a 1944 movie serial and two TV movies, Captain America has never made much of an impression outside his comic book.

Even Lee, who got his start writing for Captain America in the 1940s and insists that every superhero is a potential movie star, admits that Captain America, regardless of the political climate, could present some challenges.

"He's more difficult," Lee admits. "If you think about it, he doesn't have any great visual superpowers. He can throw his shield, and that's fun. But he poses a bit of a challenge, when you want to show a lot of special effects, because that's what the audience likes to see."

Not surprisingly, Hollywood is set to give Captain America another try, with Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook, Alpha Dog) signed on to write and direct.

Still, there are some superheroes who may never be coming to a theater near you. There's Devil Dinosaur and his trusty companion, Moon-Boy, who deserve every moment of obscurity they can get. There's Herbie Popnecker, the Fat Fury, a relic of the 1960s whose powers derived from eating magic lollipops.

And there's various and sundry members of the Legion of Superheroes, including Bouncing Boy, Matter-Eater Lad (who once hollowed-out an asteroid, so he and his fellow legionnaires could travel across the galaxy) and Stone Boy, whose powers are ludicrous even by comics standards.

Not everyone agrees.

"I honestly think you can make anything interesting, if you work on it enough," says Lee, who once jokingly suggested he could make a superhero out of the most boring man on Earth, and that fans would follow his adventures, just to see how boring he could be.

"You have such a head start with these superheroes," he says, "because each and every one has some unique and unusual quality that is very colorful. Or else they wouldn't be superheroes."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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